Today, we look at one of the most important elements a designer can build into almost any game system and make it more fun: Proof of Progress
For many games, a player is happier and more engaged throughout the game if they feel like they are making progress toward some goal.
“Just one more level”, “just one more checkbox on the quest tracker.” In life and in gaming, it feels so good to make progress.
The best way to make a player “feel” like they are making progress, is to prove it by showing them.
Some games do this well and some games leave a lot on the table by missing opportunities to use proof of progress.
Let’s consider some methods of showing proof of progress.
Leveling and/or Skill Points
Obviously, leveling up or gaining skill points is the most common form of progression in many of the games we play. They are two systems that are often combined, but not always.
Building systems to support the leveling experience is not trivial. It’s is serious work for designers to build and balance missions, enemies, items, player abilities and the experience curve required to support leveling within a game; but it’s obviously a powerful and ubiquitous progression motivator.
The details and polish surrounding proof of progress within the a leveling system are important. The prominence and behaviour of the experience bar is important. The wide horizontal bar display used in most MMOs is pretty much the minimum bar to meet these days (oh, the puns), with games using variations and improvements on that interface in an attempt to be more dramatic and compelling.
The sound and graphics associated with gaining experience can be built to be dramatic or subtle. Try working with the VFX, SFX and UI teams to add some dramatic touches into the experience bar mechanics and see how it reads; it could be a good way of the leveling experience even more fun.
Note that the shape of a leveling curve is something that’s been studied in-depth and deserves it’s own topic, but most designers generally agree on the philosophy that players should experience gaining several levels very early in the game and then proceed at a moderate rate of leveling. Regardless of the exact leveling speed, a player should be able to see the bar move as they complete encounters and missions, otherwise the proof of progress benefit is not as strong.
Proof of Progress Using Maps
Games can include a world map unlocking gradually, a blank map becoming more revealed, or some map elements changing visually as players progress through missions.
This technique can be visually dramatic and can be highly effective. Ideally, you want some kind of VFX and some modest SFX to play whenever a new element of the map unlocks, either immediately or when the player first opens the map after unlocking the new section.
Example: Destiny has new planets unlocking on a top-level solar system map and new mission locations unlocking on a planet-level map as a player progresses through the story.
Proof of Progress Using Items
Various games have items that can “level up” or evolve in some way, both cosmetically and through power increases.
Examples: In Marvel Heroes we designed a system for legendary items, including Excalibur, The Ultimate Nullifier and the Cosmic Control Rod. Legendary items gained experience and unlocked more powers as the items themselves increased in level. In addition, we created a Cybernetics pet system that vacuumed up lower-tier loot to unlock cybernetic pet upgrades. Both systems used the traditional horizontal progress bar within the item tooltips.
Proof of Progress Using Tattoos
Far Cry 3 included arm tattoos as one of its proof of progress elements. Each time you leveled up and acquired a new skill, a new tattoo was added to your arm. Eventually, you had a full tattoo on your forearm. It felt very cool and original. It was combined with a mechanic that added some decorative design elements snaking through the tattoo images if you collected all of the 50 relics located throughout the game world.
Proof of Progress Using Quests
Quest logs and quest tracking can be great tools for proof of progress. Really take advantage of these in your design by working with the UI team to ensure the quest interface is as compatible as possible with proof of progress elements.
It might mean you use various progress bars, completion percentages, check marks, and so on. The key is to communicate forward progress as easily as possible to the player. The player shouldn’t have to work to see their progress, it should be presented to them fairly aggressively. Just indicating a quest is complete or incomplete isn’t going to squeeze as much juice as you want from the system.
Note that any game genre can have a quest system, it doesn’t have to be an RPG.
Example: Hearthstone has a quest log that combines up to three quests and a proof of progress system displaying your progress in leveling up each of the
Proof of Progress Using Character Size
A few games show progress by making the protagonist grow physically larger. Neat!
Example: Katamari Damacy. As you roll over items that stick to you, you get bigger.
Proof of Progress Using a Base
Sometimes games use a “home base” or headquarters to show proof of progress.
This technique is more work than other methods because it often requires level design, environment art or modeling resources. Alternatively it could also be executed with relatively low-cost 2D graphic design layers that show illustrations of a base that have elements that improve as you progress.
Example: The Division has an excellent progression system tied to your headquarters (which is situated in New York city across from Madison Square Gardens). As you complete missions throughout the game world, you unlock and build new areas inside your base. All of the new sections add new objects and often NPCs in your base.
Many of the unlocked sections have interactive elements like new shops, refillable crafting nodes and small benefits to your player abilities. It’s probably the best example I’ve seen recently of proof of progress centered around a headquarters system.
Proof of Progress Through Achievements
Achievement systems are great vehicles for proof of progress, with the ability to use a master achievement progress bar and progress bars for each category of achievement.
If you allow achievement tracking, you can have the micro-level proof of progress as you defeat Quillboars to complete an achievement and then the higher level proof of progress as you complete the achievement categories, as well as the ultimate proof of progress of overall achievement points. Triple-layer progress.
- Look for the obvious ways to include proof of progress into your game and the less obvious, outside-the-box ideas. Don’t let Far Cry 3 have all the originality, what’s your version of Tattoos?
- It is possible to include too much or too little proof of progress within a game. If you’re going to err in one direction, I would err on the side of too much. Better to be a little annoying with too much proof of progress than the alternative.
- Don’t forget proof of progress elements for “post max” systems that awards players with something as they gain experience after max level. This is another opportunity to use a visible proof of progress meter of some type. I hope to discuss “post max” leveling and alternate advancement systems later this month. Example: In The Division, players continue to earn experience after max level and receive a randomized reward container for every 10-20 minutes of experience gain. This is affected by gear and talents that increase experience gain, making those items useful even at max level.
- A reminder to make a big deal about the completion of your proof of progress elements. Leveling up, completing achievements, unlocking something special – celebrate them, the time it takes to add some effects is well worth the payoff.
Think about the elements that support proof of progress within the game you are designing or have already built.
Can you add new proof of progress elements that don’t exist yet that will be fun and compelling for players?
Can you adjust the current proof of progress elements to be more impactful or dramatic?
Really consider all the little things you can do to take advantage of the psychology behind this and apply them to your designs. New games are still making breakthroughs in this area and are including more creative and more dramatic ways to make a player feel like progress is being made. There is no reason that you can’t be the designer to make even more progress and make games even more fun.