Progression of progression, level 2

Having laid the groundwork in the previous post, we can finally do some analysis. 


Remember the formula: Value = Challenge * Reward. We’ve covered Challenge and Reward, now it’s Value’s turn. Value is in the eye of the beholder – it depends entirely on the individual how challenging slaying the beholder was, or how much said individual wanted the beholder’s eyes. And as Value is subjective, game designers employ every trick they can think of to convince the players they’re getting the best possible Value by playing the game. This can mean making the game a great experience – no one sets out to make a bad game, after all; but it also means stuffing games full of progression systems.

They’d be crazy not to do so. Progression systems work, creating perception of Value out of thin air. And there’s nothing wrong with progression in principle, it’s just another tool of game design. But you may have noticed some of the Challenges and Rewards discussed in the first part were not as meaningful as others. While still challenging or rewarding in their own way, they lack substance. They have no connection to the game itself, no purpose for being there other than to be there. To use a dietary analogy, they’ve replaced nutritional content with spoonfuls of sugar. When both Rewards and Challenges in a game are nothing but sugar, the Value they create is addictively tasty, but not actually nuorishing. It’s a perversion of the very concept, leading to a cognitive dissonance. Our monkey brains tell us an achivement for killing a thousand orcs is an incredibly important thing. They also tell us it’s a meaningless tick mark you earn for hours of unenjoyable grinding.

Some have compared such games to a Skinner box: pull a lever, get a reward (xp, loot, unlocks, whatever), ad infinitum. While the comparison is apt, the games are actually much more insidious. It’s not just a piece of carrot that you’re getting, to be enjoyed today and forgotten tomorrow. You’re getting carrot #458/9999. You already have all the previous carrots you got. One day, if you pull the lever long enough, you’ll own them all. And even the trash-tier carrots you get have their use, you’ll disenchant them and get yourself the god-tier UberCarrot5000. You’re not just enjoying this one transient piece of reward. You’re progressing towards the End Game.

Having put hundreds of hours into a game, having earned all this progress, we’re held hostage by the sunk cost fallacy, another essential component of progression systems which can overpower the cognitive dissonance. Yes, the game has long since stopped being enjoyable, and yes, the “progress” is a load of rubbish. But if you stop now, you’re going to lose all this Valuable rubbbish. And you’re a smart person, you didn’t waste all this time. You invested it. Fun? What’s that?

Kinds of Fun

Ok, that wasn’t entirely fair, there are different ways to have fun, and even the most hollow games offer something to their players. Mark LeBlanc had identified 8 kinds of fun in his paper on the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics approach to game design. The list is not meant to be exhaustive:

  1. Sensation – game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy – game as make-believe
  3. Narrative – game as unfolding story
  4. Challenge – game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship – game as social framework
  6. Discovery – game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression – game as soap box
  8. Submission – game as mindless pastime

Any game features a mixture of several kinds of fun. Of these, Submission is an obvious fit for some of what we’ve been discussing: zone out, put up a Youtube video on the second monitor, and go kill some orcs. I would like, however, to expand this list with two more kinds of fun that are leveraged by progression systems. First one is Completion – game as a check list. Catch them all, collect all the moons, get all the achievements. For this kind of fun to be present, there needs to be a finite list of things to get. The second is Anticipation – game as a carrot on a stick. It’s a strange, deferred kind of fun. You will be amazing – one day. That day the game will end. Keep moving forward, keep levelling up, keep finding better loot. Your gun has reached its max level? Don’t actually use it, time to level another one. Or “prestige” it, and do it all over again.

Gamification of Gaming

Remember when gamification was going to change our mundane lives? Transforming everything from work to working out, from chores to learning by turning everything into a game. Reward the desired behavior with points, badges, levels; encourage competition and one-upmanship, where appropriate; watch people fall over themselves to do the things they hated. Basically, take the lessons learned from decades of game design and apply the same motivations to real world. The idea is no doubt still out there, though it seems to have lost some steam. Instead it doubled back, and, like a scorpion stinging itself, went back into the gaming industry.

Take the principles which make people like the activity they enjoy even more. Refine them on activities people hate. Reapply them to activites people enjoy. A good game is hard to make, gamification will make anything enjoyable. And if gamification requires compromising the game itself, that’s a sacrifice too many game developers are willing to make.

From energy and timers of mobile and facebook games, to daily quests of MMOs and now AAA titles, they all do the same thing. XP bars, levels, unlocks. Keep playing. Don’t miss out. Keep investing your time. Submit. You’re being rewarded. Login streak. Submit. Level up. Achivement unlocked. Submit. Fun is coming. Submit. Submit.

Ahem. Where were we?

Monetization of Gaming

Games may be art, but game publishing is a business. Artists pull the game in whatever direction their art takes them, while business tries to maximize profits. Every game exists somewhere between the two, a compromise resulting in a product players get to enjoy. Technical capabilites have shifted significantly over the years, and games have followed suit, drawn by business’ incentives.

It starts with arcade games. They are tough, but don’t rely on randomness to determine success – it’s possible to master them through trial and error (and lots of coins). There is no permanent progression as it is not technically possible. There is only progression of skill. Whether endless games you play for a high score, or more structured games you play to beat, they don’t sell you the game itself, but attempts at winning it.

Then computers and consoles come to homes without a coin teleportation technology. There is no longer an incentive to make games fiendishly difficult as there is no way for players to pay for extra attempts. The game itself becomes the product. Once the player bought it, they can do whatever they want with it – cheat codes are a popular “feature”.

Eventually, Internet and credit cards offer a way to pay the game publisher after a game is already bought. The ramifications would take a while to be fully felt. MUDs and later MMOs appear. They charge a subscription fee to cover the ongoing cost of running servers. And once you start charging a subscription fee, you want players to keep paying it. Drawn out progression systems become the norm. Time played is the product.

Meanwhile in the real world of tabletop games, Magic: the Gathering takes over, spawning numerous less successful immitators. These Collectibe Card Games sell randomized booster packs. Their contents is unknown. It’s probably rubbish. But it could be amazing. The thrill of opening a pack is as much a product as the cards themselves. Crucially, the cards are a physical object, capable of being exchanged or sold on the secondary market.

But back to computer games. A subscription forces the player to ask themselves each month: is it worth it? For that matter, the initial price of the game poses the same question. Free-to-play Facebook and mobile games appear. They offer even more drawn-out progression systems, as well as limit the ability to actually play the game – actions take energy to accomplish, which replenishes every so often, or skip this abstraction entirely and count down real time in hours or days. These are extraneous, artificial challenges hiding the shallow gameplay.

While “hardcore” gamers quickly see through it and are turned off, these games aren’t meant for them. They aren’t games you play, per se, and they purposefully target those who would not normally call themselves gamers. And how do these free timewaster non-games make money? Why, they sell you the ability to avoid playing them. Their gameplay consists of gradual progression. Microtransactions let you skip it. The Challenge is time… or money. That’s the paradox of microtransactions: not playing the game is the product.

This is the most evil, ingenious twist on the ingenious concept that is progression. It was as inevitable as it was catastrophic. And it is sold as consumer choice! You can play the game for 4528 hours to unlock everything, or you can pay $2100. Choice is good, right? The proposition is as insulting as it is effective.

And then there are lootboxes. Remember the CCGs? They’ve grown up. Everything is a collectible card game now, everything comes in packs. Collectible and random, cards are a perfect metaphor for any and all progression elements. Lootboxes, yet another layer of the progression progression. Specifically, Wilson Lootboxes. By randomizing progression itself, games further inflate the Value they offer. It’s yet another trick our monkey brains fall for: the chance to get the best possible Reward out of a lootbox feels almost as important as actually getting it. We rarely know the actual probabilities of getting specific rewards, and are bad at handling probabilities anyway. You’re always just one lucky drop away. And once you do get it, you won’t have to grind the damned lootboxes anymore. The product is the thrill of not playing the game.

Money are Weird

Once money are a part of the in-game challenges, everything gets profoundly weird. So far, we’ve dealt with perceived Value. Money only has a perceived value as well, but its value has a lot more reference points. We know how much money are worth to us much better than we know how much a shiny weapon is worth to us. Or do we? If a particular reward takes 10 hours of gameplay to earn, a player can evaluate how much they actually want it. But offer the same reward for a few dollars as well, and they suddenly have to consider if it’s worth a cup of coffee. Except that’s not quite how the comparison ends up working out.

Because money are not a part of the game, they introduce a different dimension to the Value chart rather than replacing the Challenge axis. Which means that by earning the reward through gameplay, we feel its Value is that much greater – we “saved” the money we could have spent, and we got the reward to enjoy, too! And by buying the reward with money, we feel we don’t just get the item itself, we also saved the hours of gameplay. Whatever we choose, the Value we get is increased. All by placing a price tag on it.

Progression of Progression, level 3?

So there you have it: a line stretching all the way from the very first D&D to the prevalence of lootboxes in modern gaming, the evolution of progression systems from a simple desire to keep playing the same characters to the monstrous, exploitative, omnipresent scheme we have nowadays. What next? Progressions systems are not going away because human nature (read: monkey brains) isn’t going to change. The only thing we can do is be more mindful of what we play. Pause and think: what is the Value of the game you’re playing made of? Is there something beneath the mind tricks and the sugar? Are you actually having fun?

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