Games are about progress – I can state this with some confidence since it’s a natural outgrowth of games both as narrative works and games as systems which generate results from input. Even games that are technically endless are built on this idea of time passing and things changing and of dealing with whatever emerges afterwards. However, let’s disregard narrative progress for the moment – after all, moving the plot forward is in no way a concern unique to games, and most of the techniques used to do so were established elsewhere. Let’s also disregard the progression of player skill, since all the game designer can do to affect player skill progression is to give that player an interesting space in which to develop those skills, and tools to understand the necessary steps in doing so.
With those two safely out of mind for the moment, let’s talk about Power Progression: Leveling up, finding sweet loot, going to a skill trainer, whatever. There’s a lot of it in games now, much more so than there used to be: Early arcade games were mostly about player skill progression, though they did have a few levels and some nominal narrative which also were progressed. Still, the future that the player imagined when they played those games was not that of a thrilling conclusion or a cool super ability, but becoming better at the skill of playing the game. Power progression really started taking off, though, when it became possible to save a game in progress. Buying items and leveling up became a lot more appealing when those items and levels didn’t disappear whenever you took a break or had a power outage. Players loved it, because it gave them an extra reason to come back, a sense of having invested something into the game which they could recoup later. Designers loved it because it gave them a long-term design space to work with, where the way the system interacted evolved over time.
The Problem emerged when the suits started to love it. Capitalists love power progression because it makes games addictive, incentivizes players to drop extra money in, and incidentally serves to reinforce the propaganda of capitalism: Stick with the system, work hard for the system, and eventually you will be rewarded. It turns out that, like adding a nauseating amount of salt, almost any game can be cheaply made more compelling just by adding some sort of long-term progression on top of whatever game is already there. A sense of progress is an easy emotion to exploit, because it makes even activities that are soulless and unappealing feel worthwhile: Most of the tech sector is founded on selling a sense of progress, even though the objects that are supposedly emblematic of this progress are trinkets of questionable utility at best and Looney-Tunes-esque smart house paranoia fuel at worst.
So we add upgrades and levels and purchasable boosts to upgrades and levels and we add prestige and unlockable skins and so on and so forth, just to make the player feel that their time-wasters aren’t wasting their time. That this time is an investment.
With this all in mind, the sort of power progression you want to put in your game becomes quite a pressing question, one that interrogates both what experience you want to impart to the player and what is an ethically sound way of offering that experience. Even if not quite as dystopian as some of the free-to-play scenarios we’ve already seen play out, the tendency of RPGs to sub in progression of the player character for any meaningful player skill progression and, in the case of MMORPGs, any meaningful plot progression as well, also raises questions of how many of these empty calories can we feel okay about feeding to players.
This sort of player progression faked through creating a more powerful player avatar could be taken so much further, to an extent that’s creepy to think about. Like an inversion of the adaptive difficulty systems that were trendy in games a while back, you could design a game that quietly became easier and easier the more it was played be the same person, perfectly faking the experience of them improving. With thumbprint and facial recognition and constant internet connections, you could even make it so the game matches difficulty with its player across devices – you could make it profile the player’s play style to sense discrepancies in case you tried to spoof it. Imagine a version of Super Hexagon that slowly went slower and slower the more you played it, like Mrs. Twit in the Roald Dahl book The Twits, who is fooled by her husband into believing she is shrinking when he gradually elongates her cane and the legs of her chair with little slivers of wood. Once there’s one such game, there will be many such games, making the sense of progression we feel from experience points feel negligible in comparison. We’d be fooled into thinking we were giants. Everyone would be an expert, regardless of expertise.
The scariest thing about this future is in some capacity I feel it has already come to pass.