Everybody’s Getting’ in on the Action
Compared with real life, RPGs have been rather good at helping us define our progress. When we get better at something, the game lets us know almost instantly.
Bam! You won! Here’s your hard earned experience points! And what the heck, we’ll throw in an ice dagger too. Don’t ask us why that wild boar was carrying one. It’s a horrifying story.
Progression systems, in their simplest form, are anything that alerts the player to their progress. RPGs traditionally go with a couple staples: experience points and leveling, equipment, exploration tools, and storylines.
Experience points (EXP) and leveling: Every main activity (traditionally, combat) awards a number of points that, upon reaching a certain amount, increase the character’s ability to do something. In most RPGs, at a minimum, your health and attack power will increase in some way. On occasion you will gain a new ability. In any case, EXP represents the most basic and easy-to-understand method of progression.
Equipment: While leveling often follows a static pattern, equipment offers the player customization. In many JRPGs, every enemy will award the player some form of currency as well as EXP on defeat. Money can be used to buy equipment, but as with the above example, sometimes equipment is found in the wild. The random element as well as the ability to customize (deciding to equip a piece of armor that boosts defense or one that increases speed is a common choice) make equipment a fun way to advance.
Exploration tools: Jeez, Jōchō, you like your ‘e’s, huh. Most RPGs have a significant exploration element. Whether it’s exploring ancient temples or traveling across the world, there’s a way of getting from point A to B. As you get further in the game, moving typically becomes easier. Take a world map: In the beginning, you walk. Then you ride a giant bird to traverse the land faster. Then you get a small boat to travel over shallow water. Then a bigger boat to make the journey across the ocean. Finally, players are rewarded with an airship that lets them traverse the entire world, typically at a quick speed as well. Aside from world maps, other exploration tools may be things like abilities to get rid of objects blocking secret areas or abilities enabling you to travel unimpeded by enemies.
Storylines: At first glance, a storyline doesn’t seem like a system of progression, but in fact, it most certainly is. Moving forward gives the player an instant sense of progression, especially as later events become more exciting and explosive than previous events. Like progressing from a steel sword to a diamond sword, moving from a small village to the large city or from fighting a small group of thugs to fighting an army, storyline progression is integral to RPGs. Of course, nowadays, most games have thankfully gone down the story route. This is one element almost all games can integrate without losing the soul of the game.
Beyond this, there will be other markers of progression such as ability customization, pet capturing, and relationship building to name a few. The four above are pretty standard staples, in any case.
Counting storyline, any game with length needs a minimum of three progression systems; storyline, to measure game progress, and two parallel, overt systems to give the smaller rewards as well as customization opportunities. I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that more is always better (though I’m sure there’s a hard cap somewhere, like, 20 or something). Suikoden V, for instance, had leveling, equipment, exploration, storyline, skill growing, character gathering, castle building, alongside smaller upgrading systems such as helping your blacksmiths craft higher level equipment. Xenoblade had leveling, equipment, storyline, skill customization, relationship building, town rebuilding, map exploration, and town reputation. As long as games introduce them at a steady rate, an abundance of systems has few downsides.
Everybody’s Getting’ in on the Action
Progression systems have become so significant that every game and their sequel these days is trying to incorporate similar things. Games like Call of Duty and Gran Turismo have added experience points and leveling in order to keep players playing. “One more game and I’ll level up! Okay, we’ll go a little longer today.”
Some progression systems are arguably a bad thing. No matter how useful knives are for instance, they can be used inappropriately. On the overt side, the system might just be added to delay rewards and artificially lengthen the game, like in an MMO. More subtly, the game might reward players disproportionality for doing certain actions, guiding player behavior down a dark path. For instance, while players may be naturally averse to player-killing in an online game, if it earns the most experience or the best items, it’ll likely become standard practice. But that’s typically the result of a lack of imagination. Developers are still figuring out the best ways to reward players, and traditional RPG progression systems have become an indispensable tool for them, for better or for worse.
You might be wondering why I even bring all this up. The truth is, I had, like, three ideas for future blog posts, and I decided that I needed to write this one before I could get those ones out. My brain’s weird. Maybe I just felt like I needed to start off with this weaker post and then upgrade to something better tomorrow?
Hmm… Not sure if that makes sense.
For an interesting article on the progression of RPG progression systems, check this one out.