In Part I, game designer and artist Taekwan Kim explains how player investment and the feeling of game progression do not only rely on plot but can be created largely through skill development as well. In Part II, he presents examples of skill axis based progression and describes how their design is done right.
Examples of Skill Axis Based Progression
Recently, I’ve been burning a lot of hours playing King’s Bounty: Armored Princess (KB:AP). It’s a rather terribly written (or perhaps in this case poorly translated) game—so much so that its metascore would probably be several points higher were it not for how painful it is (again, no contest on the idea that bad writing can be damaging to the player experience). Even further, the game mechanics and events are entirely repetitive.
In other words, if KB:AP was considered only along the two axes of plot and time, it’s a game that could be called an utter failure. And yet the game has a highly compelling sense of progression. It’s an addictiveness which arises from the depth of skill involved and the manner in which the game continues to reward the development of skill by granting further agency along the full length of its skill development path.
Compare this with EA2D’s flash game Dragon Age: Journeys, whose gameplay is quite similar, but which fails to achieve the same level of player investment. The writing isn’t nearly as bad as KB:AP, and yet it’s tactical depth is weak enough to induce boredom in far less time. That is, player investment dries up quickly because the “skill axis” plateaus too fast and the amount of agency to be gained in the game is too shallow. Indeed, any investment which arises at all is really in unlocking those items for use in the “real” game, Dragon Age: Origins.
Perhaps a more useful example is taxi driving in GTA3. This example is basically exactly the same as the serial killer hypothetical situation: you pick up a customer, you drop them off, one after the other. The mechanics never change and there’s no plot whatsoever. What does change, though, is the expertise of the player in driving a car, the speed at which a player can reach the same handful of destinations, and the developing knowledge of the map which allows the player to reach these locations even faster. Not only is the player learning how to drive and navigate the map better (essential skills to the game), he’s getting paid to do it. And the more skilled the player is at the job, the more he gets paid.
Doing Skill Axis Based Progression Right
The important thing to take away from these examples, then, is that for the player to experience progress (at least, in games where plot is trivial), increasing player skill should have a direct, proportionate, and continuous correlate in increasing player agency with respect to an equally proportional challenge, and the amount of player skill which can be developed should not be trivial.
Which is to say, the examples Isigan describes of “pure action” failing to generate “climbing tension” have more to do with skill axis stagnation than plot axis stagnation. These are situations in which a player’s level of skill has little to no impact on his agency (“skill caps,” if you will) due to restrictions mandated by the developer (the primacy of items over skills in WoW or the obligatory time sink of skill learning in EVE Online come to mind). Such experiences often “[feel] fake or arbitrary or biased towards the business model,” but the feeling in these cases arises from "artificial" limitations on the player’s capacity to affect the game mechanics than from poor narrative design.
[This article originally appeared on Taekwan Kim's Gamasutra blog.]
Taekwan Kim is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, with a degree in Cinema Studies and a minor in Fine Arts. When not dutifully engaged in the study of gameplay, he spends his time crafting mods and drafting design documents, some of which can be found at his website: http://www.taekwankim.com/.