Advancement is Addictive PDF Print E-mail
Written by Adam (Vergil)   
Monday, 20 August 2007

Why one of the key features of RPGs adds addictive gameplay across all genres.

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Why do nine million people play World of Warcraft anyway?  (Well we don’t know how Blizzard tracks that… after all some guy from the band Cannibal Corpse(Warning Strong language and alliance hating)  owns four accounts.  I’m not joking).  While there is no doubt some of it the social part, to quote one guild member, “Yeah how sad is it when you only play a game for the people anymore and not for the game itself?” 

To quote another WoW friend of mine, a priest I used to raid with, I complained to him that I dislike doing 5-man dungeons because I find them to be time sinks.  His response was more or less “yeah me too, but I’m so addicted to getting more powerful I’ll do it anyway.”  I think after the social parts, the most addictive factor of the game is what the gaming media often calls “Advancement.”

Advancement is a one-word description of the power-increase/reward systems often used in RPGs.  If a game makes use of advancement then you are playing as some sort of persistent character who grows in power as you take action.  In RPGs this has its roots in gaining “experience points” that lead to an increase in power, called a “level up.”  As characters level up they become more powerful, adding to their stats, skills, attack proficiencies and/or spells.   Another common form of advancement is increases in equipment that make the player that uses them progressively more powerful.  Traditional RPGs make use of a combination of the two, using level up as a way to give a character a predictable path of increase while equipment adds a bit of randomness and flavor based off what can be found.

How advancement appears in video games can be much more varied.  Some games, like WoW, use a fairly traditional approach where one does tasks/kills stuff to get experience to gain in level.  In addition, as they adventure they get equipment that can vastly expand or alter their powers.  In a game like Guild Wars however, level does play a part, as does equipment, but they are both secondary to proper use of skills, which are not automatically gained from either level or equipment.

Advancement also finds its way into non-RPG games in interesting ways.  Metroid games, for example, use a purely equipment form of advancement where as the character gains in power they are able to fight more powerful foes and access more of the game.  Some of this equipment may be required, but others, like energy tanks and max-missiles, serve to make Samus better equipped to face the enemies she fights, rewarding the player for their diligence in finding them.

With such a wide definition though, what kind of game lacks advancement?  Games that focus on the completion of a linear game where you are not more powerful level after level than you were the level before.  For example, in most first person shooters when you enter into a new level your hero is the same as he/she was in the level before.  Some FPS games (like Halo) don’t even let you keep your weapons from one mission to the next, giving you no encouragement to hold onto such a weapon for a later rainy day.   Another example would be most RTS games where you have to re-research tech advances for your army every mission.

So why is advancement so addictive?  Well we like it when we’re rewarded for our efforts.  That is a fundamental human truth.  If someone tells you from one end of a football field and back in one go, you’d probably be hesitant.  Then again, if someone told you that if you did this and you’d be more likely to make the football team (assuming you wanted to be on the football team), then you would start trying to make such a run.  The same effort applies here.  If one game has you slaying alien swarms with a space fighter, and another game also has you slaying alien swarms with a space fighter but lets you buy new weapons that makes blowing up those aliens easier while also letting you go find increasingly powerful aliens and take them down, is that not more encouraging?

We can look at examples where adding advancement to a game genre that didn’t have it adds to the experience.  One strong case is the Castlevania games.  These games spent their 8 and 16bit existence as fairly straightforward side-scroll action games. With Castlevania: Symphony of the Night the series gained an RPG style level up system and equipment system while gaining a metroid like exploration system.  The addition of these mechanics took a good game series and made it spectacular, and every Castlevania game since then has used such a system.

Then we can look at games whose gameplay inherently suck, but thanks to advancement, they can be a ton of fun.  I know that there will be those who disagree with me, but I think the gameplay to most Final Fantasy games stinks hardcore.  Sure there are some real interesting boss fights that actually test the limits of their gameplay design, but most of the fights are real simple mash-the-fight-button-a-lot and don't-forget-to-bring-a-healer fests.  It’s not these turn based combat sequences that are fun.  What IS fun is watching your party grow in power from these encounters, and seeing how you can go back and fight something that used to be difficult and cut it down with just one cut of your sword.  Many RPG video games fall into this problem, where the gameplay itself is pretty crappy and repetitive but the addictiveness of making your character more and more powerful drives you further and further.  How else could WoW convince you to spend hours upon hours on the computer doing basically the same thing over and over again on Vent/TS with fellows doing the same drudgery were it not for the fabulous promise of that awesome PvE/PvP armor piece?

That’s not to say there aren’t great examples of good gameplay being increased only further by a solid advancement system.  I still maintain that’s why PSO was so addictive for me.  Sure the locals, enemies, and quests got real old real fast, but the act of combat was fun in that game and so was the never-ending search for that next level up or some real cool piece of equipment.  Castlevania: SotN is also recognized for a great mix of the two, and you can see fun uses of advancement in games like Dawn of War: Dark Crusade where as you win battle your commander and his/her/it’s retinue get more and more powerful, allowing you to just steamroll through some of your enemy’s armies in ways you couldn’t in normal RTS play.

That’s not to say advancement automatically makes a game a hit, and not all games should have it. No doubt advancement adds a layer of complexity to any game that sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to deal with.   In fact advancement automatically puts a damper on competitive games since players will need to grind up to a power level in addition to getting over whatever learning curve a game has in order to be able to compete.  One of WoW’s big issues is that it is truly impossible to only pvp in the game – you still need to pve at least enough to get a max level character, and probably a bit more on top of that to get them geared.   Can you imagine if you had to do that in a game that already has a steep learning or skill curve like Unreal Tournament or Starcraft?!  Such systems would just hurt the ability of people to get right into what it is they bought the game for!  I mean sure Guild Wars has a compromise in the form of the pvp-only characters, but roleplaying-characters are still at an advantage in terms of skill variability and potentially equipment. 

Sometimes advancement can feel stupid and tacked on too, like it sometimes does in the castlevania games.  Sure the item-based power up system for exploring makes a ton of sense, but after awhile you just want to explore the damn castle, not worry about if you’ve killed enough zombies to be in the area you just unlocked.

Of course advancement works best when it is attached not just to a good gameplay system, but also to a vast and explorable world so the locations you “grind” don’t get old and that the new environs is a part of advancement’s reward.  A good storyline can give motivation to advancement too.  Lack of either of these can put a damper on advancement, making it feel stupid and out of place.

Still, as I sit here at work thinking about how I could be leveling up my Turtwig and trying to track down a water type for the next time I run across that Chimchar carrying rival of mine in Pokemon Diamond I can’t deny the power advancement has to increasing how addictive a game is.  It’s nice to know that even if I can only play a game long enough to beat a few monsters but not complete a task, my efforts will not still go towards my eventual goal, be that getting enough honor for a Grand Marshall’s blade or whatever.

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