Monday, October 03, 2011

How to acheive a feeling of progression in a game... initial thoughts

A friend of mine was working on a game of his the other day, and said he's having problems with one aspect in particular - the game has no feeling of progression. So how do you provide a feeling of progression in a game?

I'm not sure I have a concrete answer for that yet, but here are some initial thoughts on the subject:

Increasing Scope
While I can't seem to find it in my blog at the moment, I've talked before about the "scope" of a game, and how I think that relates to an "epic" feel. I highly suspect that a feeling of "progression" in a game is closely related to this, if not exactly the same thing.

Consider Railroad Tycoon (and Age of Steam): In the early game your rail network and your engine size are both small, so your actions are limited to making specific short deliveries and building track. As the game progresses you will have increased your network by necessity (your short deliveries will dry up), and you will be forced to (and encouraged to via scoring incentives) upgrade your engine. At that point the number of delivery options available to you will have increased, as will the reward for delivering. And as you deliver more and more, your income ramps up giving you more money to build bigger, more expensive track with (crossing mountains for example). This ramping up of options increases the scope of the game, giving a tangible feeling of progression. I often find that at the beginning of the game I almost can't imagine making even a 3-link delivery, as I start with nothing, while at the end of the game I wonder how I was able to survive on those paltry 1-2 link deliveries as I scan the board looking for 5+ point delivery options.

I firmly believe that Railroad Tycoon does an excellent job of providing an "epic" feel and a real, tangible feeling of progression from the beginning of the game through the end, and I submit that it does so by expanding your ability over time.

Collecting Permanent Abilities
This may actually be more of the same thing, but many games offer a feeling of progression through a collection of permanent abilities.

Consider Puerto Rico: In the early game all players are at about the same position - 1 plantation and a couple of bucks. Over the course of the game players will purchase buildings which give them specific abilities, thereby weighting the value of some choices compared to others. When you have a Large and Small market, choosing Trader seems much more lucrative to you than it does to the guy with neither market and only Indigo and Sugar to sell. By collecting various permanent bonuses, you don't necessarily gain access to more abilities, but you do shift the value of options relative to each other, you do differentiate your position from that of your opponents, and you do thereby get a feeling of progression from the beginning of the game to the end.

Separation of Economy and Victory
In addition, Puerto Rico has another feature which offers a feeling of progression... a separation of economy and scoring. Money in the game is important because you use it to buy things that will score Victory Points for you. However, it's the Victory Points which make you win, not the money. In the early game it's important to set up an economic engine so that you can afford to do things that will generate Victory Points, but in the late game money becomes much less important, and VPs are really the focus of your game. It's this transition that gives the game a palpable sense of progression. This is a common dynamic in Economic Engine games, and I submit that it's created by the separation of economy and victory conditions.

These three things (and frankly, Collecting Permanent Abilities might just be an example of Increasing Scope) are all aspects which can provide a feeling of progression in a game. Are there others? Leave a comment if you can think of any!

I'll also note that my game Eminent Domain seems to provide a sense of progression, and I believe it stems from a combination of an increase in scope and a collection of permanent abilities. In the early game you are not well equipped to do big, powerful Roles because you only have 2 of any given card in your deck, and your deck is not focused toward any particular role. Later in the game, your deck composition will favor certain roles, and you will have collected some combination of symbols on planets in your Empire, making mid-late game plays feel a lot more impressive than in the early game. The tech requirements of multiple planets of the same type lend to this feeling as well - requiring you to have Surveyed for the appropriate planet types in order to get a particular ability out of the Tech stacks.


Paul Owen said...

I think you've pretty much hit on the key elements. As I try to think of games that give a good sense of progression - whether it's Settlers of Catan, Agricola, or Age of Renaissance, they all have the factors you describe - increasing scope, accumulation of permanent abilities, and resources as a means rather than an end.

It occurs to me that most wargames at the operational and tactical level, by contrast, are games of attrition and destruction, in which your assets at the end of the game are usually diminished from those with which you start. Sometimes you are striving to accumulate territory in exchange for force strength, but invariably you and your opponent reduce each other over the course of the game. There's nothing wrong with that, obviously, but wargames provide a kind of counter-example case in comparison to games of progression.

Seth Jaffee said...

Good point, Paul - not all games have to have player build up their assets. Sometimes you may find yourself trying to do as much with less resources...

Do you think that the attrition of forces in those war games provide a feeling of progression from the beginning to the end of the game?

Alastair John Jack said...

I think you're looking at wargames the wrong way, you get the feeling of "progression" (which is actually what fun is: the feeling of growing in power) from diminishing your enemies.

Seth Jaffee said...

Re-reading this, I'd like to clarify the ideas of increasing scope and collecting permanent abilities.

When I wrote this, I hit on a difference between collecting new abilities and changing the relative values of existing abilities.

In Puerto Rico, the buildings don't really give you new abilities, they just change the relative values of the abilities to you, and differentiate player postures by making actions better for some players than for others.

What I referred to as increasing scope is something that actually allows you to do something you could not do before. Delivering a Black cube from the Northeast in Railroad Tycoon is not possible until someone has built track to Raleigh and upgraded their train (or at least used a New City card). Until then that cube is undeliverable and might as well not even be there. Building track and upgrading your train actually gives you a new ability in that game.

In Eminent Domain for the most part you're just changing the relative values of each role - much like Puerto Rico. I think this is perhaps an element of a Role Selection game - the roles do not change over the course of the game, so to get a feeling of progression you need to make the role behave differently (as far as you're concerned), making one role better for you than another.