Monday, June 6, 2011

Games of Advancement

Have you ever wondered why a massively multiplayer online role-playing game has a need for “role-playing servers”? Apparently on the regular servers there is no role-playing going on, in spite of this being a RPG. The reason for this is that “role-playing” can mean two very different things, either “acting in character”, or “stat-based character development”. And it is the latter meaning which is more and more often used. I’ve seen World of Tanks described as a role-playing game, and nobody would suggest that one is acting in character as a tank in that game.

In yesterday’s thread, Angry Gamer asked ”would you classify the WoT gameplay as PvP battle centric game of advancement?”. “Game of advancement” is probably a better description than role-playing game, but I guess we’re stuck with the RPG term. The important thing to notice is that you can attach this “game of advancement” part to pretty much every sort of gameplay. Classic MMORPGs with mostly PvE and hotkey-button based combat is far from being the only possibility. I’ll just mention some games I’ve been playing this year:

World of Tanks is a game of advancement with first- or third-person shooter PvP. Age of Empires Online, currently in beta, is a game of advancement with real-time strategy PvE and PvP. Shakes & Fidget is a browser game of advancement in which the player has no influence at all on combat, he just watches his character fight, levels him up, equips him, and sends him out to battle. The Settlers Online, also in beta, is a city-building browser game of advancement. The Sims Medieval is a The Sims game of advancement. Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is a puzzle-based game of advancement. And Glitch is a social online game of advancement.

Basically games of advancement are everywhere. Levels, experience, and stat gains have been added to pretty much every game, usually labeled on the box or in the reviews as “role-playing elements”. Even the simplest Facebook game has levels these days. And every company making games that don’t have stats and levels yet is thinking about how to add them.

The reason for this is simple: Gaining power in a game is seductive, some would call it addicting. It is certainly true that by the promise of advancement you can get players to play a game beyond the point where they got bored with the actual gameplay. If a game doesn’t have some advancement system, you only get better while learning how to play; that has obvious limits and diminishing returns. By adding an advancement system, players feel they are getting more powerful even after they have stopped getting more skillful.

The downside is that there have been games created in which the actual gameplay is just boring as hell, and which are only kept alive by the advancement system. But I believe that this is only a temporary distortion of the market: A game with less good gameplay and an addictive advancement system might sell better than another game with better gameplay and no advancement. But once all games have some of those “role-playing elements” advancement systems added, the game with the better gameplay still wins out. After all, the game of advancement can be reduced ad absurdum by making a game with no gameplay at all, only character advancement, as the nearly decade-old Progress Quest so brilliantly shows.

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