Looking back on this generation, it’s hard not to notice the surge of RPG content. Games that have risen to mainstream success, both in casual and core markets…but wearing a different skin. While there have been many traditional RPGs of both western and eastern varieties this past gen, they are easily dwarfed by the number of games that hybridize them or incorporate elements. The key one comes down to numeric progression, that ticking up of numbers to show the player their cuddly little avatar got just a bit better.
This can be done different ways, with numbers attached to levels, specific stat types, damage output, chance to dodge/miss, critical strike chance/damage, elemental damage/resistances, hp/mp amounts/recovery percentage, effects over time, effects that stack, effects that combo with others for more damage, buff/debuffs…basically a lot of different variants. Now like any element, it can be used to add depth and nuance to your experience, but I want to put forward that it has been mishandled this gen.
The root problem with numeric progression has really come from designers learning how to manipulate it on their audience. Numeric progression as a concept in games, is very handy in keeping players invested longer in an experience that is essentially repeating itself, by tying gameplay mechanics with rising values. Many developers now have adopted a format that more is better, intent to splay huge font numbers over the screen, and have them rise to the triple+ digits quickly.
See all the numbers! It means you’re doing better.
I can easily see the appeal, because players feel very empowered by large numbers that pump out quickly, but I find it only ends up cheapening the progression. After the short-term high of seeing lots of damage or high health, the numbers begin to bleed together as they get longer. Individual numbers lose significance, because there is little reason to even track them anymore. Usually what happens is that I end up just paying attention to the percentage bars on screen, because they better reflect what’s actually happening.
This was even clearer to me when I played XCOM: Enemy Unknown, because it breaks convention:
In this picture, you are presented a situation with one of your characters throwing a grenade into a group of two enemies. Your character’s health is clearly marked with only 7 slots, throwing a weapon capable of dealing 3 damage on impact to the group of two there. If your own character was hit with grenade, about half your health would be gone, and focused attacks often do more than that. 1 of the 3 enemies is in close range of you outside the radius of the grenade. No matter what, your character will be hit in this situation.
As you progress through the game, your character will probably double to triple that health and damage…and that’s it. What ended up happening is that each individual numeric gain I treasured, because it was a significant increase to my character’s abilities, opened new tactical opportunities for me to gauge with those numbers. The difficulty of the game also makes you pay attention to every point of health and damage, and when your individual troops get better...it feels like a legitimate reward for work driven by your own skill.
Unlike this game where I click the cookie to increase numbers, and get immediate “rewards”…the numbers in X-Com had weight, they had power…they had purpose.
What I often don’t find has purpose this past gen, is the progression of most competitive multiplayer shooters. Instead of being able to hop on with my limited free time, and mess around with all the goodies…I’m expected to grind EXP for hours and hours on the same content to unlock new weapons/perks. While I mentioned previous games that also lock content off until I progress, these particular experiences elongate that intentionally, and with gusto!
They want you sucked in, both for stopping you from reselling the game, and the new hotness…to be a service. Yes, being just a standalone thing isn't enough anymore, companies want to bring you into their multiplayer ecosystem, keep you playing just their experience, and of course for you to buy additional DLC. It all just starts to become work to me, as they milk every sliver of content, before they unwrap the next piece. Worse is that in between getting stuff like weapons and perk abilities that actually alter play, you get tons of cosmetic garbage.
How many paint jobs do I really need?
Above that you have all the small attachments to your fire-arms, some have a tangible effect, while others are as useful to me as +0.5% crit chance. When I see people angry about Diablo 3 game parsing down stat information, and not including skill points on level-ups...I sit there confused. I get how some people like the choice in placing points, and watching numbers go up...but too often it is just the slight notch up of crit chance, or incremental increase in damage. None of that crap matters to me anymore, because it doesn't truly alter the play experience. In Diablo 3, there progression was more meaningful, because on each level-up, you either gained a whole new ability, or a rune that augmented a previous ability. Either the ability would be changed in its use, have a no effect layered on top, or just a noticeable numeric buff. See, good progression has a noticeable impact, and changes the player experience.
Going back to multiplayer shooters though, you have games like CoD with killstreaks, where killing itself is a progression system. It was novel at first, but now I find that it's just not a fun experience, because it makes it even easier for skilled players to retain their advantage. Once they kill people, they unlock new and better equipment that faciliates even more kills...to then get better equipment. It creates a higher barrier to entry, by virtue of players being rewarded for time put in, and new players suffering through either weakness in power, weakness in playstyle choices, or both.
Manipulating players with constant number rewards for doing nothing skillful, locking off content behind grinding, and using numeric progression as padding for more progression…in my eyes it's done more harm than good this gen.
The irony of calling numeric progression a “Zero” is not lost on me, but I’m sticking with it.