Johan Pilestedt
Progression in Games

Hey there,

It’s Friday and as usual I overshot the blog-of-the-week-day!

I was originally going to write about the design of showdown, and well – it sort of tangents that area, but this is going to be a bit more specific and also bring in some other games that is related to this topic. So, prepare for a wall of text!

Progression in games have in recent times become a frequent occurrence, and while it is true that progression can prolong the lifetime of a game and give the game an extended purpose – I have begun wondering if there isn’t a backside to this as well; does progression always add to the gaming experience?

The thinking goes, games used to be enjoyed purely based on the actual gameplay. Games like Counter Strike, Quake, and Starcraft have had active communities for well over a decade and are totally devoid of progression. These games are in their nature designed to be infinite.

So, what effects would a progression system have on these titles? Would it really ‘add’ something to the game or could it possibly, have made the games less successful?

To be able to look at this in further depth I say we’d need to look at the problems in designing a progression system. Of course you have the obvious parts of the design, the rate at which players unlock things, what the players value and how you make it last. All of these things can be handled by some basic understanding of human psychology and it’s something that Blizzard has nigh perfected. The most challenging problems comes from the end-game aspects of progression – many designers have chosen to adopt a “Prestige” option whereas the player can trade all of his progression for a single bragging right or similar token (Dawn of War 2’s Last Stand got you an extra item which made your high-score a percentage higher) which is an “ok” solution, but it is just that – a solution to a problem which have sprung from the original idea of a progression system.

When thinking about this problem something popped into my head: Could it be that games which are not meant to have a finite end, but have progression which requires the designers to solve the problems of players feeling that they’ve “completed the game”, are not very well suited to have a progression meta-game?

Everyone, not just gamers, try to figure out “What am I supposed to achieve?” whenever they are faced with a task. Generally, when there are no defined long-term goals to be found – players set their own goals or are content with just playing the game and through that feel an uplifting and undemanding entertainment.

This problem with players trying to reach some kind of goal is not only isolated to games, it is the same problem as with so many things in life: one forgets that the journey is the goal – and this became clear in games such as Counter Strike or Starcraft where players would play the game just because they enjoyed it – not to feel subliminally forced into completing what they thought was the goal of the game.

So with that said, there are of course games that benefit greatly from progression mechanics, games that would otherwise be dull such as RPGs and similar. I do however think that progression is most well suited for games that already have a defined end, as not to mislead and convey an image of a goal in a game that should have none.

But as a designer I do not believe in design situations that are “impossible to solve”. Competitive, infinite and skill-based games could and should have some kind of progression, the important part is what’s placed in the progression system, what do you unlock, how do you solve the end game aspect and so forth.

The most important thing a senior designer has at their disposal is their ability to question and examine every aspect of “truths” that are “well established” within the industry. One should not try to alter these just for the sake of it, but a well directed skepticism can revolutionize the way a certain part of game development is handled.

Stay tuned for more philosophical blog-posts!

Johan

Johan Pilestedt

About Johan Pilestedt

CEO and Game Director of Arrowhead.
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