Hello one and all, and welcome to another installment of Acts of Terrorism. After two weeks of Star Wars, have no fear, for there will be no lightsabers this week. Instead, this week we’re back to more game design talk. Now I know I am a beacon of both truth and ingenuity, but even I am still a student and is still learning more and more. An article one of my colleagues worked on (and if you’re a Pokemon fan of any kind, you really should take a look at it), got me thinking. About what? Well, one of his main points was progression. This is one of the points that jumped out to me, and on thinking about it, three words/terms came to mind: Progress, building-up, and effort.
First of all, let’s define progression. It’s essentially moving from one stage to another, usually higher stage. In a video game, it can be moving from one lower game level to a higher, or maybe it’s getting higher level equipment for your character—you get the idea: it’s leveling up. This isn’t just a thing in video games though. Board games, like Monopoly for example, have you progress by taking resources from other players and building up yours until you win, basically. Card games, like Magic: the Gathering often have what’s called a resource system, which disallows you from doing certain things at various points of the game.
Now you know what progression is, but why is it important? Well, that should be fairly obvious. Without progression, the start state of a game is hardly different from the end state because there’s nothing between to separate them. I’m talking in vague concepts here, so allow me to give you an example: imagine you started The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim at Level 50 instead of Level 1. Suddenly, the play experience is really boring because you’re far and above everything in the game. This means that it isn’t the start or the end goal that players find to be engaging, but the middle: the progression. The progression engages a player as they figure out what the best way to advance the campaign/story/game to its conclusion, and progressing to the end creates a sense of accomplishment.
Imagine the disappointment you would feel if the moment you started a game, you immediately got a screen saying “You win” and that’s the end of the game. Pretty terrible feeling, huh? Luckily, most video game developers aren’t career-suicidal, so that will probably never happen to you. Now imagine you’re playing a card game: you do a dice roll or play rock-paper-scissors to see who goes first, and you find out you’re going second. Now you take out your deck, shuffle and draw your hand. Your opponent beats you on their first turn and you didn’t even get to play. Isn’t that frustrating? Luckily, most card games have a built-in resource system that keeps such a thing from happening.
Now you know what progression is and why it’s important, but how can you actually implement it? Well, I’ve mentioned resource systems at least twice in this article thus far, so let me actually explain what that is. A resource system, is any component that limits what you can and cannot do in a game. In a shooter, for example, a resource system might be the number of bullets you have. In a card game, like say Magic: The Gathering, the primary resource system is the mana system, which determines what spells you can cast. You have four lands that produce black mana? Then you can play a spell that costs four mana (or many spells that add up to four mana). What if the spell costs six mana? Well you wait until you get two more lands out.
Yu-Gi-Oh is a game that, on the surface, seems like it lacks a resource system because you can play any card at any time you wish. It wasn’t always so though. In the past game, and in the original manga and anime, the resource system was very much the Tribute Summon. That is, where you send a weaker monster/creature to your graveyard to summon a stronger monster, and the number of monsters you need to tribute varied depending on the strength of the monster you’re trying to summon. Over the years, Konami has designed around its Tribute mechanic, so you end up with a game where your opponent can have absolutely no resources on the field when you end your turn to suddenly filling up all the card zones during the course of their turn. Yu-Gi-Oh is a game where that earlier scenario I described where you can lose before you even start playing is common place, and this is only true because Konami doesn’t care about creating a healthy game.
But all of that’s just one type of way control progression. Indeed, where the resource system restricts what you can do at certain points of gameplay, there’s another resource system where you’re given all the tools you’ll need and the progression comes from more skillfully using those tools. Let’s look at Super Mario Bros. You know jumping’s pretty much the main mechanic of that game, so how does it do progression? By making the jumps you have to execute more and more difficult. Essentially, you’re given all the tools you need, and the advancement is getting better at using said tools.
This is not lost on card games. Take Magic: The Gathering, for example, where the more you play the game, the more you learn its rules. Now, the rules are always there, but when you were new, you probably didn’t realize that you could make use of the rules to execute unforeseen interactions between cards. That’s skill progression and is built into the game, as it often is in most competitively-viable games. Card games and other turn-based games tend to use mostly the resource system as their means of progression rather than skill progression, and skill progression is what you’ll find in most video games and actual physical games.
There’s honestly a lot more to talk about when it comes to skill progression, but it’s not something that I wish to delve too deeply into because you just don’t see it very much in card games, and as you’ve seen since the start of this column, they’re what seemingly most interest me. Seemingly. My rambling aside, now you know what progression is, why it’s important and the two main ways to go about it in your game. With this in mind, perhaps you should go read Tesla’s article again. Or wait until the next Acts of Terrorism where we’ll discuss restrictions, and see how it relates to progression. Whichever.