Gaming is afflicted with a terrible disease, a sort of two-sided cancer which has long-enriched our experiences, but is also burdening us and dampening our fun – often without us realizing. This dreaded condition is… progression.
“Oh, come on Ethereal! Not every leveling system is a skinner’s box.” You’re right. Not every leveling system is. However, there are other negative aspects to progression than simply that of shallow rewards and psychological manipulation. The specific aspect I’m concerned with here is that progression encourages you to play a game for a reason other than the merit of the game itself.
Let’s take two first person shooters, for example. They’re pretty similar, except that one allows you to level up, and the other doesn’t. The game that allows you to level up automatically has a leg up on the game that doesn’t simply because of the cheap pleasures of arbitrary accomplishment and showing off a number that’s larger than someone else’s. Should that game have that edge? It hasn’t done anything intelligent in terms of design, or provided anything unique in terms of experience, with this hypothetically average progression system.
Progression systems can bear a lot of value. For example, locking difficult-to-use content behind a certain rank allows developers to force players to familiarize themselves with the game before they attempt playing with advanced tools that require better knowledge than they possess, or to prevent new players from ruining the experience of other players. This was the idea behind the ranking system in Counter Strike: Global Offensive. You can’t play in the ranked queue until you achieve rank 3, which takes a few days of play.
When cosmetic or status-boosting content is locked behind a progression system, however, the content can encourage players to play the game more because of a desire to earn that content. It effectively turns the game into a job.
CS:GO has a badge that’s only available this year, and which requires you to reach rank 40 – the maximum – before the year ends. If you don’t reach rank 40 before then, it’s gone forever. Don’t be mistaken, the primary intent behind the existence of this badge is not to reward people who play a lot. It’s to get people to invest more time, and thus, make players more likely to invest extra money in the form of microtransactions. Valve executes a lot of tactics similar to this, but that’s a topic for another time – this is just an example of nasty player motivation.
Note that I’m not saying that developers should always avoid rewards that are temporarily available, but rather that such rewards should be granted for doing something cool instead of doing something a lot.
To summarize the problem with bad progression systems, they cause all but the players who truly do not care to worry, however slightly, about what they’re missing. The game becomes an obligation instead of a source of relaxation. Reach level 40 before the year ends for an ego badge. Beat all the challenges before the season ends for an ego skin. Grind more wins than the other guy before November for a key that will open a content box.
To play devil’s advocate, this sort of method is a decent vehicle for encouraging competition between players, but you have to have an environment that requires competition in order to win the shiny medal, instead of one that simply requires you to exist for an extended period of time.
There is also the argument that because a leveling system indicates how long someone has been playing for, that it’s valuable because it gives you an idea of who you’re allied with and what you’re up against. It’s undeniable that in a game like Planetside 2 that a level 100 player almost certainly has far more experience than a level 20 player. Of course, levels are not actually representative of skill, just experience. It’s often pointed out in multiplayer games across all genres that ultimately, the arbitrary number that represents someone’s experience is essentially meaningless, unless the game requires new players to play for some time in order to get ahold of the basic mechanics, mastery and knowledge that’s required to competently play the game.
So what’s a better solution? You could try measuring experience by actual player experience – that is, the number of multiplayer lobbies they have completed, or the number of hours they have been in battle. The only downside then is that players might lord their playtimes over each other, and express disrespect toward newer players simply because they haven’t played as much. However, this tidbit of information has proved useful in competitive arenas such as Team Fortress 2, where teams require potential recruits to have played a number of hours that would indicate that they have a good understanding of the game, and are more likely to have the necessary skill for competition against excellent players.
Ultimately, skill based games do not require any sort of leveling system. Instead of levels, use milestones achieved through skill and invested time to give players a way of measuring their competency. Or, if a game isn’t that complex, don’t involve progression at all. Let a player’s guns do the talking, like in Quake or Unreal Tournament 2004.