In the last few years we’ve seen pretty much every game, especially the big budget multiplayer ones, released with some sort of progression system being a large part of it. In fact I’d probably say that many of them go even further and are more of a grind than a game. When this trend started out a while ago it was seen as a novel thing to insert ‘RPG elements’ into all sorts of other genres, but now the inclusion a basic levelling and XP system, along with continuous unlocks appears to be unavoidable.
In many cases this isn’t necessarily a bad feature to add to a game. With a levelling system that includes unlocking abilities and other new stuff in a single player game it can give you a good sense of accomplishment, and give you something to work towards along with the narrative. Unfortunately a large part of the problem is that there are some games that entirely rely upon a progression system that is nothing more than a crutch to support the game in the absence of any engaging gameplay or story. This sort of practice is usually paired with other elements of the gameplay that turn the whole experience into a grind such as missions or quests that result in nothing more than gaining XP or currency. In a good game the ways to accrue XP and money would involve other things to get you interested in the activity, such as in The Witcher 3 where every single little quest has its own story and details that tell you something new about the world. But in other games you end up doing side quests simply for the sake of the end reward, and you want to get the quest out of the way as quickly as possible, which is the case in literally every MMORPG and even some singleplayer games that use the same formula. My problem with this is that if the progression system is used as the sole incentive or reason for playing, then what are you grinding through meaningless quests for? You can keep levelling up and getting new gear as much as you like, but you still end up in the exact same position if there is a scaling difficulty of gameplay.
One of the reasons this trend has come about in my opinion is the apparent need for more ‘content’. A lot of gamers rate the worth of a game simply by the amount of hours it takes to complete, or how many new things there are to unlock as you play, while everything else plays second fiddle. So clearly this has led to the larger game companies to start padding out their games with meaningless content. Now that it has become the norm for games to have progression systems, anything without one won’t be considered by the average gamer as worthwhile unless it really excels in another area.
The best example of this from my own experience comes from multiplayer shooters, which tend to have a few other issues than singleplayer games in the case of progression systems. I used to play the Battlefield series of games quite a lot, but that has since come to an end with Battlefield 3. I got to the point in that game where I was basically done with the moment to moment gameplay, and probably would have stopped playing. Instead I continued for quite a long time because I wanted to unlock the next gun or attachment, and with all the XP and statistics being intricately detailed on the battlelog website they use to launch the games I was able to see when the next unlock or rank up was coming. Eventually I realised that I was no longer actually enjoying the gameplay, but was just grinding my way through, chasing some idea of the perfect loadout that would never come. A big problem with this sort of system being in a multiplayer game like this is that you end up with the more experienced players stacking deck in their favour continuously as they go, making the game needlessly unforgiving on a new player. It also encourages you to play the game in ways that are less fun, with less focus on teamwork or having a well rounded team composition, and instead going lone wolf and simply trying to get as many kills as possible with a weapon you may not want to use, but have to in order to unlock something new. Now I’ve never been into another Battlefield game as much as that since, but as far as I can tell the situation has only gotten worse, right up until the most recent game; Battlefield 1 has received complaints for there being a lack of things to grind for. I initially thought the game had too much of a focus on the amount of weapons for a WW1 game, and that they have completely squandered the opportunities a game set in WW1 could bring (something I go on about for a while here). Clearly the need for these progression systems in the eyes of both the player and the creator has harmed games in some way, and will continue to do so.
Since then I have moved onto other multiplayer shooters such as Red Orchestra 2 and Insurgency. Both of these games do have ranking systems which do little more that show how experienced a person is, and in the case of RO2 it adds very subtle improvements such as quicker reloading and aiming if you use a certain gun more often. The real progression in these games is getting better at the game yourself, learning the various maps and weapon characteristics, and even learning how to be a good leader and coordinate your team properly. Without an overbearing progression system these games have ended up with better team play and more interesting gameplay that remains compelling due to actual enjoyment of the moment, rather than constantly looking forward to your next milestone or unlock.
It is clear that progression systems being inserted into every game and being focussed on more has many reasons and bad effects, and not only is it to do with masking other poor aspects of a game. Like most things in the games industry it is all down to money, which is why the biggest publishers and developers are the worst offenders here. In something like an MMO with a monthly subscription it is preferable to pad out the game with a lot of low effort yet compelling and artificially rewarding content so that people continue to pay to play your game. If there is not subscription then there will be things like XP boosters and other shortcuts available to buy for real money that people will purchase just to try and get through the grind quicker. In other games you end up with people feeling as if they have enough value in their progress that they won’t abandon the game, giving you more people to sell further content to down the road.
Overall I think it’s just disappointing, and maybe a little bit scary that popular gaming is looking more and more like the money-making machines of mobile games. This sort of design philosophy has already infected some of my previous favourite series’ like Battlefield and Dragon Age, which I now can’t stand. Hopefully games that are actually fun to play prevail.