A Study of Progression Systems Featuring Ghost Recon Breakpoint

Ghost Recon Breakpoint made news relaunching the game with the new "ghost experience" and presents a lesson in the implementation of progression design, and why big changes aren't easy to do.

Ghost Recon Breakpoint is a game that I honestly forgot that it even existed after the E3 trailer for it, and looking at review scores and impressions of it at launch, so did a lot of people. To Ubisoft’s credit, the developers did something monumental and redesigned the game as a major update. Having played through it with the new “ghost experience” we have a tale of two designs with both not quite hitting the mark.

Ghost Recon Gear Rating:

Ghost Recon Breakpoint was released as essentially The Division: Island Adventure. As with the previous Ghost Recon game, players had a huge open world to explore while completing missions either alone or with their friends.

The major element that turned out to dissuade fans from the game came with the implementation of a gear rating system (or GR). The GR was seen in The Division 1 and 2 and was a way of adding an RPG layer to the gear and equipment in that series.

As you played through, you would find the same weapons and gear, but at different gear ratings; the higher the better. With the design of Breakpoint, parts of the world were essentially locked to the player by the gear rating of the player vs. those enemies. This is a complete betrayal of the squad/tactical focus of previous Ghost Recon games.

In Breakpoint, you could get the drop on an enemy, shoot them in the head, and if your gear rating wasn’t high enough, they would shrug it off. To compensate for this, the player could discover gear and upgrades all throughout the game space; with higher quality gear having special buffs. Having progress gated to gear rating left the progression feeling artificial, and was one of the main problems for people with it.

Instead of just washing their hands of it, Ubisoft decided to try and fix the game and the ghost experience was the result.


The ghost experience goes for a back to basics approach for Breakpoint and its design. You are free to turn on or off the various elements of Breakpoint’s original design—most importantly, you can disable the gear rating system. When you turn it off, every character in the game becomes very vulnerable and the “bullet sponge” effect is completely gone.

Now, when you go up against elite enemies who the game warns how dangerous they are, one to two shots in the head will drop them. There are no more stats attached to gear outside of the predefined values of the weapons, and equipment will not provide any protection for the player.

There are no abstracted restrictions to explore the archipelago, as every enemy will die the same way now. For players who want total immersion, you can disable the UI, turn off the minimap, even reduce the number of weapons you can have ready at one time.

In this mode, Breakpoint essentially becomes like an action game of yesteryear: gone are the major persistent systems and it’s all about moving from one story mission to the next with up to three other friends. While this may sound amazing, Breakpoint’s redesign creates as many problems as it tries to fix with its progression system.

An Open, Empty World

Ghost Recon Breakpoint was designed from minute one to have the abstracted progression be a major point of the core gameplay loop. You can see this with the layout of the world, rewards scattered throughout, and to elevate the basic gameplay.

The problem is that by removing it, Ubisoft has failed to replace it with anything else, and it shows. The open-world has no meaning to it without the RPG progression. Taking down an enemy base or completing a side quest offers no permanence to the world itself. Due to the lower health of all characters in the game, weapon upgrades are largely meaningless with exception to fighting drones.

Balancing a game around one form of progression and then removing it requires a complete redesign of how things work

While playing the game, it feels like a huge chunk of the game has been removed, and that’s because it was.

The ghost experience could work as a viable option, but only if the game was designed from the ground up for that kind of design.

To put it another way, imagine if a title like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or Horizon Zero Dawn had a mode that removes all open-world exploration and side content, and just let players do the story missions. You would feel that there was something missing from the experience or the game wasn’t designed to be played like that.

Fixing What’s Broken

Ghost Recon Breakpoint isn’t the only game I’ve played to go through a massive redesign, Warhammer 40K Martyr, and to a lesser extent Diablo 3, also had major system work done after release.

To put it bluntly, if a game requires this much work done to their systems after launch, then the game at 1.0 was a failure. Changing any aspect of your core gameplay loop is a huge deal, and should not be taken lightly. Even with Martyr and Diablo 3, while their changes did help, they did not fix the systemic issues present, but that discussion is for another piece.

In the end, I respect the team for willing to do all this work for their game, but I feel it’s a matter of “too much, too late.” We have seen games get second chances thanks to post-release work, but those were about adding and changing content, not removing game systems. And to that point, you need to be careful about changing a game too much after release and alienating the people who enjoyed the game in the first place.

Massive changes to a game months or years after release must be handled carefully, even if the changes could be a net positive. It can be a PR nightmare to put out changes to your game to find that your fanbase hates them and are now stuck with a game they no longer like. If the changes are that game-changing, consider having a “legacy mode” for players who prefer the old form

While I’m in favor of games getting second chances, it’s important to understand that if the issues are too systemic, no amount of work outside of creating a new game is going to fix it.

For you reading this: Can you think of games (outside of No Man’s Sky) to receive so much post-release support that it changed the game ultimately for the better?

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