An Obsession with Progression

by Nick Dinicola

20 August 2010

No matter how bad a game is, if you can beat it without throwing your controller out a window in anger, then it’s not as bad as it could be.

Lately I’ve been playing a few mediocre games. While they have control issues and bad checkpointing and other flaws, these poor design choices aren’t unbearable in and of themselves. They hamper the experience but don’t destroy it. Rather, it’s when these poor design choices interfere with my progress through the game that it becomes so frustrating that I want to quit.
Progress is pleasing, no matter what game you’re playing, and the more methods of progression there are in a game the less frustrating any single one is likely to be. For example, in Assassin’s Creed 2 you can measure your progress through the game by how far you are in the story, how many special locations that you’ve discovered, how many Truth glyphs that you’ve found, how many Truth glyphs that you’ve solved, your reconstruction of Monteriggioni, the size of your bank account, your weapon collection, the number of Assassin seals that you’ve found, the number of feathers that you’ve collected, or the number of side quests that you’ve done. Completing any of these challenges results in a satisfying sense of progression and keeps you playing longer.

The popularity of level-based multiplayer hinges on this love of progression, and Modern Warfare 2 is still the seminal example due to its wealth of challenges. In addition to your overall rank, you can unlock accolades, callsigns, and there are several challenges for every gun. The game’s obsession with progression is clear when you rank up and are rewarded with more challenges. The whole multiplayer is balanced to make you feel like you’re always progressing in some way.

But Assassin’s Creed 2 and Modern Warfare 2 go to excessive lengths to keep players hooked through this sense of progression. Dozens of different collectibles aren’t necessary and can be overwhelming at times. The games that best exploit our love of progression are often the simplest.

Canabalt is a simple side-scrolling platformer that has you jumping across rooftops. Mess up once, and the game is over. Making progress is the entire point and draw of the game; you’re competing with yourself and others to see who can run the furthest.  Hippolyta, a game often praised by G. Christopher Williams, has a similar focus on progression. Trials HD may be brutally difficult, but a wealth of checkpoints always keep me focused on the newest challenge. As soon as I clear it, I can forget about it and focus on what’s next. The satisfaction of progressing ahead just a few feet offsets the frustration that any single obstacle can cause. Every time that I die in Demon’s Souls, I lose all the souls that I’ve collected, but as I journey back to my corpse to recollect those souls, I have the opportunity to collect more, so if I have time to make it back to my body, I’ll have more souls than I did when I died. Even when the game sets me back, it offers me a chance to move forwards.

These games may be hard, and you may find yourself replaying parts of a level over and over again, but these games also use subtle progression to alleviate any frustration. A bad game, on the other hand, just creates frustration due to a lack of progression. Naval Assault: The Killing Tide has very long missions and no checkpoints; failure sends you all the way back to the start with nothing to show for your last long hour of work. It feels antagonistic, as if the game is actively discouraging you to play.

It’s a tricky tightrope to walk. Some games are easy and expect you to progress to the end (Peggle or most games with a strong narrative). Others are insanely hard and expect progression will be enough of a reward on its own (Ninja Gaiden or Geometry Wars). It’s something that every developer should keep in mind: No matter how bad a game is, if you can beat it before throwing your controller out a window in anger, then it’s not as bad as it could be.

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