Progression of progression, level 2

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

Value?

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?

Progression of progression, level 1

This post will meander not just over tabletop RPGs you may have come to associate with this blog, but over computer and board games as well. This was always the intent behind it anyway – “ponderings on (all kinds of) games”. As this is an overview of the entirety of gaming, there’ll be plenty of generalizations. For every observation I make, you can no doubt find a counter example. Just assume appropriate caveats are applied. 

Sense of pride and accomplishment

The idea of earning your fun permeats some aspects of the gaming hobby. Some would say it’s the defining feature of computer games as a medium – you have to be good enough to even be allowed to access the entire game. You have to put the effort in, work hard as you play in order to deserve the rewards, and the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with them. This idea is an essential part of all progression systems, but is not limited to them. Where does it come from, how has it evolved over time, how does it work, and why does it seem like it’s been taken too far?

Progression operates on a separate layer from the actual game. There’s the game itself: an adventure, a dungeon, a match, a map. And as the result of playing it, you accumulate or unlock something, some reward, typically after the game is concluded. Gold or xp, in-world or out-of-world currency; new items; new characters; new maps. Progression is distinct from more organic changes to the game world as the result of choices made during the game, often present in RPGs, both tabletop and computer, though the line can get blurred. Opening a door with a key you found is an in-game accomplishment, a direct consequence of your actions. Killing a bunch of goblins so you can level up, put points into lockpicking, and open the door – out-of-game accomplishment, no causal in-game link. Grinding lockpicking in a system with direct skill progression to open the door – weeeell.

Most board and card games are self-contained, with one game having no bearing on the next. You play a match, someorene wins, you put the game away. Some card games, however, are meant to be played over a series of matches, tracking the score between them. These can be abstract points or actual money, e.g. bridge or poker. While superficially similar, I’d argue these do not feature “progression” as the individual matches or hands do not constitute the true game. They would not make for a satisfying experience on their own, partly due to the random nature of card draws meaning a single match is very dependent on luck, and only through a sequence of such matches an actual winner can be determined.

D&D is to blame, naturally

War games by the very nature of what they simulate would seem to be perfect for sequential games with some form of progression in between. A campaign, if you will. I was somewhat surprised to find (after a very superficial attempt at research) that the first book to formalize such a campaign, Wargaming Campaigns by Donald Featherstone, came out in 1970. Without a doubt campaigns were played before it, but we’re far outside the scope of the article as it is. Notably, Wargaming Campaigns dealt with such subjects as linked scenarios and attrition, and so likely didn’t have rewards for smart play, just an opportunity to lose fewer of your precious troops.

Chainmail, the progenitor of D&D, came out in 1971. While Gygax was likely aware of Wargaming Campaigns (an article by Gygax on fantasy battles had appeared in Featherstone’s Wargaming Newsletter in 1972), there were no progression rules in Chainmail. It was David Arneson’s modifications of Chainmail that introduced experience points and led to the creation of D&D.

The following quote from a Wired article gets to the heart of it: “There was another aspect of the game he wanted to tweak: the fact that it ended. Arneson’s group was having too much fun playing these specific roles to want to part with them after a single game. Outside of the individual games, Arneson created an experience system for characters. Your character would earn experience points based on their success from game to game. After a certain number of poins, a character would “level up.”

I’d argue, completely baselessly, that progression played a significant part in the popularity of D&D. It gave players a reason to play it again. Immersion in a magical world is great, playing out continued adventures of your very own characters is fantastic, but survive another adventure, and you’re likely to level up. That’s some dark magic right there, a lightning in a bottle. 40+ years later, the gaming industry has crawled into the bottle, having kicked the genie out of it. How’s that for a metaphor pileup?

It’s not just the numbers growing larger –  you could start the game at a higher level if you so wished, and it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. It’s the challenges you have to overcome to earn those numbers that give them value. The character sheet in your hands is not simply a cool character you made up, it’s the physical manifestation of weeks or even years of effort. To put it another way, Value = Challenge * Reward.

Challenge

“Challenge” in this equation is a very flexible term. It can be a test of skill: you’ve got to play well to progress. Can you beat the boss? Survive the dungeon? Finish the level? It can also involve risk, a threat to take the already earned progress away. Early RPGs were deadly, a single mistake could end your character’s life. Early computer games were deadly too, though that may have been driven by the desire of the arcade machines to suck coins out of players. Interestingly, games have mostly moved away from this type of challenge, respecting the players’ time (or afraid of scaring them off). Rogue-lite games are an obvious exception to this trend.

Challenge can also be tied to the time put in: the dreaded word, “grind”. Turns out, our monkey brains are bad at distinguishing between these types of challenges, they all contribute value to the rewards we earn. Game designers, bastards that they are, took notice. Note that creating a Challenge is not the only function that grinding serves, but it’s the function the article is focused on.

Grind, that is, repeated execution of a task, is an easy way to increase the perceived value of a reward and keep the players occupied. Grinding is all but impossible in tabletop RPGs due to their very nature: mindless repetition is not a desired state, so few GMs would entertain it, even if players were to try it. You can’t keep killing orcs in the same cave over and over, or jam the spacebar to advance your jump skill. Once transitioned to a computer bereft of common sense, though, a reward system such as xp can be hijacked by an enterprising player. Rules stay the same, but the way we interact with them changes.

Computer is happy to keep spawning orcs in a cave, or pokemon in tall grass (I think that’s how it works? Never actually played Pokemon). Players are happy to keep fighting them, as the rewards they get are, perversely, even more valuable to them. Game designers are happy to save on the effort it takes to provide unique and interesting challenges. Everyone wins. Right?

Meanwhile, consider idle games, e.g. one of the progenitors of the genre, Cookie Clicker, an inadvertent and rhetorically unsuccessful reductio ad absurdum of progression-driven gameplay. Most have barely any gameplay as such – the name of the genre should have been a hint. You earn currency to spend it on things that earn more currency, ad infinitum. There’s some optimization involved, choosing which upgrade to buy next, some shifts in capabilities which require changing up the strategy, but by and large, time spent playing is the main determinant of your success. And yet they can be incredibly addictive to a certain subset of gamers, a combination of low effort with the constant drip of rewards. The Challenge is days and weeks spent running the game, the stupidly large numbers you get are a meager Reward, yet their combination makes the perceived Value high enough to keep players coming back.

Reward

Access to the next level is a reward for beating the previous one. A powerful gun is a reward for finding it. A new ability is a reward for levelling up. All these enable the player to see something new, do something new or at least do the same thing better. Which means there’re limits to the amount of such Rewards. New content requires development time. New abilities are also limited by the design space of the game.

Fortunately for the game developers, Rewards can be just as flexible as Challenges. Vanity items are a reward: skins, titles, badges, anything you can show off, even in a single-player game. There are only so many hats you can possibly wear, yet players are compelled to collect them all. Which is another reward: collectibles. From Pokemon to pretty skins in any MMO to guns in Warframe, it’s not about the functionality of the item or even using it at all. Possession is its own reward, collecting them all is an achievement. That’s another dreaded word – “achievement”.

Do something challenging, get an achievement, feel good. Wikipedia says these can be traced back to 1982, when Activision would send out physical patches to those who got high scores in their games. Achievements can be seen as a dare: bet you can’t avoid killing anyone; bet you can’t beat the boss in two minutes; bet you can’t get both endings. These guide players to experience a game in a manner they may not have otherwise considered, offering more direction than just improving the score. They provide not only a Reward, but the Challenge needed to complete it as well. More rewards, more playtime, happier players.

Here, too, our monkey brains get fooled. Beating a boss in under two minutes is a challenge that tests player’s mastery of the game; getting an achievement for this feels rewarding. Killing 1000 orcs tests persistence at best, or simply happens after a while. Yet getting such an achievement also feels rewarding. And if you’ve already killed 950 orcs, it may be worth your while to go grind some more, to get a tick mark that does nothing the achievement. It’s another form of collectibles, completely divorced from both function and fiction of the game.

Achievements are not uniform: they can be rated by their difficulty, or even give you points. Relatively recently, these achievement points began to be used as a currency or a score, unlocking more rewards in the game, which gives them some substance.

Next time: Value and perversion thereof, kinds of fun, gamification and monetization of gaming.

Power vs Levels

Today’s post concerns itself with character level, a subject I’ve already pondered in the first incarnation of this blog, back when it wasn’t so 4e-centric. You can tell it’s been rattling in my head for a while. Lets start with definitions. ‘Level’ is the number on the character sheet. It determines access to powers, number of feats, etc. ‘Power’ is the character’s ability to affect the world around him or her. It can be subdivided into ‘power through personal strength’, i.e. the ability to change the world by killing things, and ‘power through politics and social standing’, which is remarkably absent from 4e as a system. We could potentially dig deeper here, but this should be enough for our discussion. Now for a shocker: in 4e, there is no causation between character’s level and power, only correlation. Barely even that.

Continue reading

Level up! Down?.. Sideways!

MMORPGs are fascinating.  They combine dazzling innovation with an almost religious reluctance to change.  The later is understandable: they cost so much to develop, any deviation from the once-discovered formula (grind-grind-grind-loot-level up-etc) is a huge financial risk. Fortunately, ramblings in a blog are cheap, so I’ll try and dissect some of the mainstays of the genre, and come up with alternative solutions.

I’m sure all this has been discussed to death. But the world simply needs to know my unique perspective. So there. Oh, one last thing before we begin. While I’ve been playing MMORPGs for several years now, I’ve somehow managed to dodge WoW, as well as many other undoubtedly worthy titles. It could very well be that whatever I come up with, has already been implemented and proven to not be fun. In that case, I’d be grateful if you pointed me in the direction of these games.

And now, without further ado… levels! They are everywhere nowadays. Up to and including a flash fish-watching aquarium “game”. Casual games got them from MMORPGs, who got them from CRPGs, who got them from RPGs. Levels are good for many things. Here’s a handy dot-list of what they provide in a game:

  • A clear short-term goal to strive for. Very important for a game that wants players to stay hooked for as long as possible.
  • A long-term goal to reach the highest level possible. Again, a great way to get players hooked.
  • A measure of how powerful a given character is, and what he or she should be capable of. Average stat values, damage output, hitpoints, etc. Helps with balancing content. Or does it? More on this (and other points) later.
  • A fantasy of character growth and development – you started out fighting goblins with a rusty sword, and you end up fighting dragons with a legendary +20 to all stats shiny sword of awesomeness. However, note that this fantasy does not universally apply to every genre. In fact, it only really applies to the “fantasy originating from D&D” genre!
  • A way to hand out new powers that doesn’t overwhelm the player. By the end of character’s career path, they’ll have about 20-30 abilities they can use (though most of the time they’ll be using a much smaller sub-set). Getting them one at a time helps the player learn to use them to their fullest. Though, this does have its pitfalls.
  • A structure, pre-defined path for all characters: this content is for levels 1-5, this – for level 55-60. This is actually more of a problem than a boon.

The first two points are strong, though there are alternatives to them. But let’s first discuss the later ones. Continue reading