[Note from the author: This is a strange way to begin an article, but I’m not entirely sure what my objective in writing this is. Best I can guess, it’s my attempt to understand something better by trying to explain it to someone else.]
Growing up with gaming, I noticed an interesting phenomena that I had trouble explaining. The pattern was pretty predictable: First, I’d start a new game, get the hang of it and start making progress. I’d enjoy it, and I’d play some more. At some point though, the game started getting more difficult, I’d fail a couple of times, and I’d put it down. The next day, I’d think about the game and find myself strangely unmotivated to keep playing it.
What happened? Why did I enjoy playing a game, but then lack the desire to keep playing it? One obvious guess is that I didn’t like the challenge, but there seems to be plenty of counter-examples. To name a few, I’ve finished (and greatly enjoyed) Ninja Gaiden, Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls 2, games known for their difficulty. I say this not to brag, but merely to demonstrate that challenge doesn’t always turn me off.
It took me a while to really develop a better theory, but recent trends have suggested a better explanation - some games are only fun while you’re making progress. Actually it’s more than that - making progress probably is why they were enjoyable to begin with.
I’m certainly not the first one to raise the idea that the way games are paid for influences their designs. What I want to focus on here is how the nature of winning and losing changes in sync. Back in the arcade days, victory was hard won and temporary in nature. Infamously, Pac-Man didn’t even have a proper ending - get far enough and the game just broke - demonstrating that actually completing the game wasn’t really important. Fast-forward to the console days, and slowly developers started to embrace the idea that beating the game wasn’t just an important consideration, it was something that most players should be capable of. Recently, it seems that the more important a story is, the more likely it will come in a game designed to be relatively easy to finish, to ensure that the experience the creators worked so hard to craft doesn’t go to waste. Victory became relatively easy to come by, leading to the games now dubbed “walking simulators”, where victory is now all but assured.
That was in the era of the paid console game though, and for a while the industry has been diverging from that, into the new era of games as a service, where the notion of victory has been changed again, in perhaps an even more substantial way.
In this Pac-Man, the only thing gained from beating a level is access to the next one, and a shot at a high-score.
In the new game markets there is no completion, only progression.
The defining characteristic of games as a service, as in the software as a service market, is the concept of small ongoing payments instead of (or as well as) a single large upfront payment. In accordance with this, the one thing no game developer working in this model really wants is for you to ‘finish’ their game - once you’re done playing, you’re also done paying. A simple response to this is to make your game unbeatable - endless runners being the obvious example here - and hence remove the very concept of finishing a game. Much like the old arcade games though, you would be starting from square one every time, which many players find unsatisfying. One result of just making the game unbeatable is that the player is also free to leave at any time. Nothing gained, nothing lost.
So the natural solution is to implement a progression system designed to last as long as possible - enabling players to perform roughly the same actions for a long time, but still feel like they’re moving forward, that they’re building something that they won’t want to leave behind. This is the new normal now. Take a look at the top-grossing charts on iTunes or Google Play and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single game that isn’t designed to cater to players who want to stick with one game for months, based primarily on such a progression system rather than through huge amounts of content.
The curious case of Destiny
But here’s where human psychology can throw a spanner in the works. Once players start engaging with such a system, it seems to be almost inevitable that they’ll start to prioritise it over the other, more intrinsic qualities of the game. In much the same way that most of us are always looking forward to our next payrise, no matter how much we might get paid or how much we enjoy our jobs, the desire for progress and the expectation of progress means that without it, things can feel less enjoyable/satisfying than they might otherwise be.
A great example of this is Destiny. Let’s take it as a given that Bungie are a tremendous developer of FPS games, and that the core gunplay of Destiny is world-class, as in their previous games. Yet soon after launch, they found that many players were standing outside of a cave, endlessly shooting at the entrance, rather than engaging with the content properly. Why on earth were they doing this? Because the cave would endlessly spawn enemies, which they could farm for more XP/items. Players had chosen to do something boring and repetitive because it appeared to guarantee them some level of reliable progression through the MMO-like leveling system of the game.
But it gets even worse than that. Once players reached a certain level in Destiny, further leveling would only happen through gear, which was primarily obtained randomly for completing certain objectives. Therefore, even with perfect play it couldn’t be guaranteed. To quote Ben Kuchera from Polygon, in an article about changes being made for the new expansion:
“You were completely reliant on random item drops to level up and, while there were certain things you could do to maximize your time, if you didn't pull any good items in your evening of playing, you were sunk. The time was all but meaningless.”
The end result of such a progression system then, is that he could play a section of shooter gameplay from one of the top developers in the world (and be victorious!) but because he hadn’t gained any permanent progression from it, it was “all but meaningless”.
Yet although this makes the idea of permanent progression seem like it can be unsatisfying, here’s a couple of articles from players who found Halo 5 to be less engaging, precisely because it didn’t have such a system!
The era of constant progression
As a developer, if you want to create a progression system, but not have the player ever feel like their time is wasted, it probably won’t take you long to stumble across a potential solution: what if the player is always progressing? What if, rather than the player’s actions determining whether they succeeded or failed, they merely determined the rate at which they progressed? Removing the possibility of failure may initially seem undesirable to many, who see overcoming challenges as being the whole point of a videogame. But as I’ve suggested above, humans have other desires, and it turns out that replacing a power fantasy with a progression fantasy can be very appealing indeed.
In casual games particularly, constant progression has slowly become the default. Farmville stands out as potentially the first big mass-market game where all you really had to do to keep advancing was keep playing. Since then the casual builder genre has taken off, comprising a decent chunk of the most successful games on facebook and mobile for years. The trend is much broader than that though. To see how it can change a classic game, take a look at Pac-Man 256. As well as replacing the designed levels of the original with a single, endless, randomly generated layout, the new mobile game introduces another concept - a long upgrade path, earned through repeated playing. An interesting juxtaposition occurs after each game, in that while the game is presented as a high-score chaser, the first item shown after a game ends isn’t your score, it’s your progress towards the next power-up. This progress is achieved simply by eating dots too, which means you really can’t play a game without making some amount of progress.
In this Pac-Man, there is no 'completion', but every game played gets you closer to the next unlock.
A new genre
And this trend can be taken even further, to its natural conclusion: games with little to no challenge at all, and where progress can happen without any interaction. These games, known as clickers or idle games, may have started as a parody, but have recently become a serious genre, at least judging by the number of titles available. In these games, not only do you always make forward progress while playing, you even make some amount when you’re not. As well as having accidentally created a genre, this seems to have accidentally create quite an ingenious retention mechanic: the longer you’ve gone since the last time you played a game, the more it will reward you for returning.
While it’s easy to mock these games for barely requiring any interaction or interesting decisions (I won’t deny having done so myself), it’s important to recognise that the same allegations were also lobbied at highly regarded narrative-based games like Dear Esther and Thirty Flights of Loving. As usual, the success of a new genre can teach us important things about the nature of gaming, and help us to understand several existing concepts in a new light.
The lens of progression
Here’s some quick examples of things which can be looked at differently if the player's objective is progression rather than victory:
One of the first popular IAP’s on mobile was the “coin doubler”, which doubled the amount of ingame currency a player earned while playing, thus making the upgrade path in the game take half as long to complete. This initially confused many people, who noted that they were paying for the privilege of playing the game less. But in a context where the goal of playing a game is to feel a sense of progression, this makes perfect sense, as that feeling is increased.
Over the past decade, RPG mechanics have become a part of almost every genre. It used to be normal in FPS games to have all the weapons unlocked immediately in multiplayer, whereas now a Call of Duty game will come with a weeks-long RPG-inspired system for unlocking weapons, perks, etc. These concepts seem to work just as well in a hardcore competitive multiplayer setting as they do in a casual single-player setting.
You may have noticed that every open world game (and several others) are now expected to contain a number of different collectable types, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. The act of getting these collectables however, is often reduced to just looking up the closest one on your map and walking to it. These are usually thought to be there to appeal to the completionists, but perhaps a completionist is just a progression lover in a game with a finite number of things to do?
Many modern mobile games seem to contain what appears to be a paradox: they sell IAPs (often very successfully) that help the player become more powerful, yet contain match-making systems based around having players face opponents of roughly equal power. Accusations of being ‘pay-to-win’ make little sense, it is argued, if all you can do is move yourself into a tier with better opponents. Perhaps, as in the coin-doubler example above, ‘pay-to-progress’ might be a more useful term.
One more concern
There is another subtle danger too, which is that we as game developers haven’t actually created that many unique ways of creating this sense of long-term progression. The reason this can be problematic is that after the novelty of the core mechanics has worn off, the progression systems designed to keep players coming back can seem very similar in otherwise dissimilar games. I realise that may sound confusing at first, so here’s an example based on three licensed Marvel games I’ve tried this year - Contest of Champions, Marvel Puzzle Quest and Spiderman Unlimited. One of these is a fighting game in the style of Mortal Kombat, another is a match-3 RPG and the last is an auto-runner, so you wouldn’t initially think there would be a lot of overlap between them. Yet give each of these games a few days and you’ll see that the progression system in each is based on collecting/managing/upgrading a team of characters. More so than your skills at fighting, tile-matching and auto-running, this team dynamic is actually what governs your advancement in these games, and since it’s largely independent of the core gameplay, there’s no reason it can’t be very similar in all of these games. In that sense, their progression systems are effectively in the same 'genre' and it is my hope that as long-term progression becomes more of a focus, we’ll develop a lot more genres of progression, to help provide more variety in this space.
Where to from here?
Progression is a tool, one I’m still trying to understand. It can be used to motivate player behaviour, but it can also backfire. It’s clear that many players expect it - see here for some rants that Diablo 3 felt unsatisfying after only a few hundred hours play - but there are also signs that some are noticing the effects it has on the intrinsic motivation of play - like this piece praising Soma for not having arbitrary achievements that might distract from the otherwise serious atmosphere. As is usually the case, the key is probably to determine how to best apply it to your particular game.