A lot of games feature some kind of advancement and pacing, even multiplayer games. There’s multiplayer co-op games, like the tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons or the console action-RPG Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance or the PC game Left 4 Dead. Even within multiplayer competitive games, some of them have the players progressing and getting more powerful during play: players get more lands and cast more powerful spells as a game of Magic: the Gathering progresses, while players field more powerful units in the late game of Starcraft. Then there are MMOs like World of Warcraft that clearly have progression built in as a core mechanic of the game, even on PvP servers. So in addition to single-player experiences like your typical Final Fantasy game, we’ll be talking about these other things too: basically, how do you balance progression mechanics?
Wait, What’s Balance Again?First, it’s worth a reminder of what “balance” even means in this context. In terms of progression, there are three things to consider:
- Is the difficulty level appropriate for the audience, or is the game overall too hard or too easy?
- As the player progresses through the game, we expect the game to get harder to compensate for the player’s increasing skill level because they are getting better; does the difficulty increase at a good rate, or does it get too hard too fast (which leads to frustration), or does it get harder too slowly (leading to boredom while the player waits for the game to get challenging again)?
- If your avatar increases in power, whether that be from finding new game objects like better weapons or tools or other toys, gaining new special abilities, or just getting a raw boost in stats like Hit Points or Damage, are you gaining these at a good rate relative to the increase in enemy power? Or do you gain too much power too fast (making the rest of the game trivial after a certain point), or do you gain power too slowly (requiring a lot of mindless grinding to compensate, which artificially lengthens the game at the cost of forcing the player to re-play content that they’ve already mastered)?
Why Progression Mechanics?Let's consider what is the purpose behind progression. What is it useful for?
Ending the game
In most cases, the purpose of progression is to bring the game to an end. For shorter games especially, the idea is that progression makes sure the game ends in a reasonable time frame. So whether you’re making a game that’s meant to last 3 minutes (like an early-80s arcade game) or 30-60 minutes (like a family board game) or 3 to 6 hours (like a strategic wargame) or 30 to 300 hours (like a console RPG), the idea is that some games have a desired game length, and if you know what that length is, forced progression keeps it moving along to guarantee that the game will actually end within the desired time range.
Reward and training for the elder game
In a few specialized cases, the game has no end (MMOs, Sims, tabletop RPGs, or progression-based Facebook games), so progression is used as a reward structure and a training simulator in the early game rather than a way to end the game. This has an obvious problem which can be seen with just about all of these games: at some point, more progression just isn’t meaningful. The player has seen all the content in the game that they need to, they’ve reached the level cap, they’ve unlocked all of their special abilities in their skill tree, they’ve maxed their stats, or whatever. In just about all cases, when the player reaches this point, they have to find something else to do, and there is a sharp transition into what’s sometimes called the “elder game” where the objective changes from progression to something else. For players who are used to progression as a goal, since that’s what the game has been training them for, this transition can be jarring. The people who enjoy the early-game progression may not enjoy the elder game activities as much since they’re so different (and likewise, some people who would love the elder game never reach it because they don’t have the patience to go through the progression treadmill).
What happens in the elder game?
In Sim games and FarmVille, the elder game is artistic expression: making your farm pretty or interesting for your friends to look at, or setting up custom stories or skits with your sims. In MMOs, the elder game is high-level raids that require careful coordination between a large group, or PvP areas where you’re fighting against other human players one-on-one or in teams, or exploring social aspects of the game like taking on a coordination or leadership role within a Guild.
In tabletop RPGs, the elder game is usually finding an elegant way to retire your characters and end the story in a way that’s sufficiently satisfying, which is interesting because in these games the “elder game” is actually a quest to end the game!
What happens with games that end?
In games where progression does end the game, there is also a problem: generally, if you’re gaining power throughout the game and this serves as a reward to the player, the game ends right when you’re reaching the peak of your power. This means you don’t really get to enjoy being on top of the world for very long. If you’re losing power throughout the game, which can happen in games like Chess, then at the end you just feel like you’ve been ground into the dirt for the entire experience, which isn’t much better.
Peter Molyneux has pointed out this flaw when talking about Fable 3, where he insists you’ll reach the peak of your power early on, succeed in ruling the world, and then have to spend the rest of the game making good on the promises you made to get there… which is a great tagline, but really all he’s saying is that he’s taking the standard Console RPG progression model, shortening it, and adding an elder game, which means that Fable 3 will either live or die on its ability to deliver a solid elder-game experience that still appeals to the same kinds of players who enjoyed reaching that point in the first place.
[This article was adapted from Ian Schreiber's course, Game Balance Concepts.]
Ian Schreiber has been in the game industry since the year 2000, first as a programmer and then as a game designer. Also an educator since 2006, Ian has taught game design and development courses at a variety of schools, and on his own without a school. He has co-authored two books, Challenges for Game Designers and Breaking Into the Game Industry.