Pointless RPG progression systems in games

Thanks to the current trend of RPG progression systems in modern games, we’re seeing games that aren’t getting harder as you progress through the game. In fact, they’re getting a lot easier.

Remember when you used to pop in a brand new game? The game would start off easy and slowly introduce all the mechanics in the first couple of levels and then the game would get progressively harder. There would be more enemies, harder obstacles and bigger bosses and then the final level would combine all the challenges you’ve faced so far through the game for one ultimate finale that put all your skills to the test.

While progression systems and upgrade trees work well in an RPG environment, many developers are trying to shoehorn these same progression systems into other genres as well, such as first person shooters and action games. Sometimes it seems this is done solely to add to the feature list on the back of the box, even if the progression system doesn’t add any real substance to the game.

Progression systems are used to get a player addicted to a game. It’s a simple psychology trick. Perhaps the success of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is to blame for these same progression systems that were once exclusive to MMO’s and RPG’s making their way into FPS and other action/adventure games.

While some games get the balance right for their progression systems, many games actually suffer due to them.

An extreme example of this can be seen in Assassins Creed. You’re supposed to play as an assassin that strikes from the shadows, eliminates the target and then disappears without a trace. At the start of the game you have a very small pool of health which often means it’s better to run from guards than try to fight them. Using stealth to sneak up on your targets seems to be the way the developers would like you to play the game.

As you progress through the game and unlock more armour your health bar expands tremendously. By the time you reach the end of the game your health bar is so large you can legitimately stand still while guards attack you, walk out the room, grab a Coke from the fridge and come back and kill them all without breaking a sweat. This completely contradicts the core theme of the game.

While you get more and more powerful the enemies remain mostly the same. Even tougher enemies that are introduced later aren’t scaled well and provide very little challenge compared to your character.

To make matters worse developers may include side missions, mini games or hidden items in the world which give you an even larger power boost. While playing the game you have the choice of skipping these optional quests to maintain the games challenge (of which is already non-existent), or completing the optional quests which makes the game feel far too easy.

In a game like Final Fantasy player progression is an important aspect of the game. You level up your character and gain more power, different powers, more health and better weapons. However, RPG’s and JRPG’s in particular usually do a good job of scaling the enemies as you progress through the game. These games can get away with bosses that have 16 Million HP because it fits the fantasy setting. While you could argue that players that grind may find themselves over leveled, players that play through the game at a moderate pace will usually find the game challenging right through to the end.

When you try to apply the same sort of progression system to other genres you get this weird problem where you’re giving the player more tools and upgrades which makes their experience easier but you can’t apply the same to the enemies. The AI isn’t smart enough to use all the new gadgets and you can’t allow enemies to survive through an AK47 magazine emptied on their face. The same sort of scaling just doesn’t fit the realistic theme of FPS and action games.

Far Cry 3 is an excellent game that feels hard to begin with but gets progressively easier as you upgrade your weapons. Since most of the environments you’re fighting in are vast, wide open spaces, sniper rifles and other long range weapons are your best tools. Once you reach the second island you unlock the .50 Cal sniper which is capable of killing even the most heavily armoured enemies in a single headshot, which is perfectly fine… Except you can also add a silencer which means you now have a gun that is capable of killing any enemy from a great distance in one shot whilst never giving away your position.

This sniper rifle was responsible for clearing the entire South Island of enemies during my play through of Far Cry 3.

This sniper rifle was responsible for clearing the entire south island of enemies during my play through of Far Cry 3.

I was able to liberate almost every outpost on the south island without setting off an alarm using only the .50 Cal. Too many of the weapons in Far Cry 3 allow silencers as an attachment which makes the game incredibly easy once you’ve unlocked them. Since stealth offers such a huge advantage to the player many developers attempt to limit the effectiveness of silencers by making weapons less powerful or reducing the range when equipped.

Another issue with progression systems is that you’re raising your characters stats instead of your skills. Rather than getting better aim or getting better at sneaking around you can now just run and gun through the game without a worry since you’ve unlocked the BFG and Mega Health Upgrade. Rather than your skill improving the game is adapting your character to match the difficulty of the game – often over compensating to a large degree.

Shadow Warrior is an example of an upgrade system that feels completely out of place. Shadow Warrior is an action packed FPS that doesn’t take itself seriously. The aim of the game is to run and gun your way through hordes of demons. The progression system doesn’t add any improvement to the game and I can’t imagine anyone would complain if it had been excluded. Pausing the game to choose your upgrades from a menu just breaks the flow of a game that is all about fast paced action and ruins the immersion.

Upgrades have zero business being in Shadow Warrior.

Upgrades have zero business being in Shadow Warrior. What does this add to the game?

You have pointless upgrades such as 10% extra damage to Lower Demons. You know what else would provide more damage without having to pick an upgrade from a menu? Picking up a bigger gun – Something that has been a core FPS feature since Wolfenstein 3D.

Of course, there are games that get upgrade systems right. The Last of Us had the work bench which allowed you to use scavenged parts to upgrade your weapons. Your upgrades were limited by your toolkit which got better towards the end of the game. In order to keep the player immersed you had to be at a work bench in order to upgrade your weapons, you couldn’t just pause the game to upgrade your pistol during a firefight.

Tomb Raider also did a decent job with weapon upgrades. The upgrades look like hand crafted mods made up of spare parts which fits the survivor theme, although the weapons became a little over powered when fully upgraded.

While I don’t outright condemn progression systems in games, I think developers need to limit their use. It’s tough to balance an upgrade system while keeping the game challenging through to the end. It’s ok to make a player feel more powerful as they progress through the game but it shouldn’t come at the cost of disconnected upgrade menus and easier game play.

Unless the progression system is going to make a substantial improvement to the game they shouldn’t be included. They certainly shouldn’t be used as a crutch to keep the player interested in the game – That’s just shitty game design.