What makes a great game? – Part 3: Progress
A quick aside before I start this piece: I’ve recently read that a new X-COM game is in the works by 2K Games (the people who made Bioshock). Well, it’s actually called XCOM (no hyphen) and it’s going to be a first-person shooter, so obviously the fans of the original were and are a bit steamed that they’re not getting a dedicated remake of the original. I’m hoping for something cool, but I’m worried I won’t be able to play it due to the motion sickness I tend to get from first-person shooter style games. You can check out their minimal site promoting the game here and the article I read regarding this is here.
Now, the thing that keeps me coming back to games on top of great music and heroism: a sense of progress.
Most games, if not all, give the player a sense that they’re making progress somehow. In a first-person shooter, your progress is typically measured by the number of levels or zones you’ve completed (or the fact that every area behind you is devoid of enemies) and sometimes by the development of a story. In a role-playing game, your progress is typically measured by the progression of the story, but also by the levels/skills/equipment gained by your character or party. In puzzle games, the puzzles get harder to complete. The list goes on. Without this sense of moving towards something, I know that I get very frustrated. Personally I find certain games to be very pointless, but allow me to explain this particular perspective.
When I perceive a game as “pointless” or “a waste of time”, I’m typically referring to the lack of a story or some sort of measurable progress. Solitaire is a great example of an entry into the “pointless” category. Likewise with a lot of casual/browser games like Bejeweled and so forth. Yeah, I supposed the game sometimes gets more difficult in a fashion or deeper in some way, but how does Bejeweled compare to say Mass Effect or Bioshock or Wing Commander? Well, partly, it doesn’t, but as an expenditure of time, I’d rather spend my time experiencing the full story of Mass Effect as opposed to wasting hours trying to beat my top score of 735 in Solitaire (yeah, I can’t seem to do it). I’m not saying I DON’T waste time playing Solitaire (it keeps me busy while I chat online or watch streaming television programs), but I’d rather spend my time in a more productive fashion (if playing a game can be called “productive”).
Making progress is an everyday thing that kind of occurred to me earlier today while pondering what else I could talk about in this segment. I mean, I measure the progress of reading a book by how much is left to read and how much I’ve already read. I measure the progress of eating food by how much food is left to eat and how full I feel. I measure the progress on this article by seeing if I feel like I’ve said all I want to say at that time (I reserve the right to bounce around and add and edit). So it’s only natural that a very obvious sense of progress is applied to our forms of entertainment.
I really do believe in the “to each their own” perspective with video games (among other things). By that, I mean that everyone has a different preference for gameplay and in styles of progress it’s no different. I prefer having a clearly defined personal progression (levels, experience, skills, so on) and I look forward to character development and storyline progression. I have friends that don’t care so much for the story as for the number of kills they can rack up before it’s time to quit. I have other friends that appreciate the leveling mechanic, but could take it or leave it because they just want to have a good time. However you play it, every game needs some sort of satisfying progression mechanic to make the player feel like he’s doing well or accomplishing something with his time (and money). I know that earlier today I felt great satisfaction reaching level 8 in D&D Online on my new favorite character and that I’m doing pretty well fending off the alien invaders in X-COM Apocalypse when I played on Saturday by how I’ve been aggressively intercepting UFOs before they have a chance to drop their troops in the city. We all want to be successful and an obvious marker of that is a sense of progress.
Of course, you get the occasional spanner in the works there. By that, I’m referring to Wing Commander. The creators put a winning story and a losing story into the game. If you lose a mission, it’s not the end of the world, but you’re put on a slightly different path for a bit. If you lose more than one mission, well, you’ll probably see some cutscenes I’ve never seen except as movie files on the net. This is a type of progress and some people intentionally fail these missions to see the movies for themselves. It’s something they implemented in all five of the primary Wing Commander games (don’t recall if they did it for the expansions, but they probably did). The issue with this winning track/losing track thing is that the game takes a lot of extra development and most developers would rather spend time on ONE story rather than on WINNING STORY vs. LOSING STORY. More’s the pity because that adds a level of complexity to the progression mechanic. In the end though, I can easily say that I get way more satisfaction stopping all the bioweapons in Locanda and being able to save Flint’s home than being forced to protect the evacuation of the system. For more on this story, I’d recommend looking up Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger. I also recommend visiting the game guides for the Wing Commander series because you can actually see the differences in the missions when you win versus lose. Oh, and for more Wing Commander goodness, I recommend my browser homepage.
A great game that displays all three of the components I’ve discussed thus far (Music, Heroism, Progress) is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. In this game you have the epic Star Wars music to back you up, you have incredible moments of heroism and places where you can be that guy or gal who saves the day, and several markers of progress in the levels of your characters, the number of locations you have left to clear out (or the number of places you have cleared), and the story where you can go light side or dark side. It’s a great example of a quality experience, at least according to my own metric that I’m building here. There are other games that have more varied reasons within my current structure (Final Fantasy Tactics, Unreal Tournament, Lunar: Silver Star Harmony, etc) but I’m not going to go through all of them right now. Besides, I think I might have another couple of things to add to my What makes a great game? series.
Until next time, keep moving forward (even if it’s the losing track)!