Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: Hard or Soft Progression?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 3, 2013

RPGs have an inherent bias towards linearity, if only for their story and the fact that characters make (generally) move along a major axis of weak to strong. Even with a threadbare story, the dreaded Foozle or end-goal amulet is always behind some extreme challenges that you can’t just waltz in immediately and take to win the game. You have to progress through the content- be it storyline or dungeon levels – in something resembling a particular order to take a crack at the big finale.

There are four common mechanisms – plus variants – to enforce this orderly progression (or “unlocking of content”, to use more boring modern terminology):

#1 – Discovery-based: You can’t go to a place in the game until you either stumble across it manually via exploration, or perhaps learn about it from an in-game source in the process of a conversation or found map. The only real obstacle in this case is geography (or geography plus events). The advantage of discovery-based progression is that it rewards exploration (in all its forms), and makes the world feel much more open-ended. The disadvantage is that it can be frustrating to try and hunt for an entrance or exit, and that – depending upon how it is set up – it may allow parts of the game to be bypassed.

Examples: The dungeons in the Elder Scrolls games are perhaps the best examples of this. My favorite were the dungeons in Daggerfall – there were zillions of ’em, though very few were discovered by stumbling across them (for me, at least). Instead I was always finding them in treasure maps and by quest. But the later games seemed more of an equal mix of discovering locations via direct exploration as by other means.

#2 – Challenge-based: Theoretically the final battle or end goal is achievable fairly early in the game, but the difficulty is such that it is effectively impossible until the player’s character or party has grown enough to overcome the challenges. The biggest advantage of this technique is that it puts the pace of the game – and its difficulty level – in the hands of the player. It also removes what may feel like ‘artificial’ barriers to the endgame. However, it can be very frustrating if the player unknowingly goes to an overly difficult area (perhaps missing easier areas by accident). It can also encourage ‘grinding,’ pretty low-quality entertainment.

Examples: Most roguelikes. Though finding the stairway to the next level is discovery-based, there’s really nothing stopping you from just rushing down to the bottom of the dungeon and obtaining the final goal except the the fact that you’ll be slaughtered in all kinds of horrible ways long before you get there.  Many of the Might & Magic games were very much the same way – the entire world was out there, ready for you to visit from a fairly early stage, but you WILL get clobbered visiting the wrong areas at too low level.

#3 – Obstacle-based:  A part of the game is blocked by a barrier that cannot be removed by brute force, but rather by a not (strictly) story-driven mechanism, such as finding a magical key, learning a mantra / password, or obtaining a means of travel that allows passage. It does allow the player to progress at their own pace, while forcing them to explore other areas to obtain whatever is needed to clear the obstacle. These can also serve as a reward in and of themselves, as it’s kinda fun when a formerly impassible barrier suddenly ceases to be an obstacle. However, frustration can rise when it is unclear how to overcome the obstacle, or when the obstacle fails to make sense in the logic of the game – for example, when characters can destroy dragons with ease, but a simple wooden door acts as an impenetrable barrier.

Examples: The Silver Serpent in Ultima III blocked passage to the island of Exodus unless you used the magic word, “Evocare.” And about half of any Dungeon Master-style game, including the recent indie release Legend of Grimrock, where puzzles and locks make up much of the gameplay.

#4 – Plot-based: The player is moved around in the world – or parts of the world become available – based more directly by plot progression.  This makes it very easy for the developer to control content – for example, not allowing players to go back to a previous area and converse with people after a major event has occurred (thus not requiring tons of additional voiced scripts of dialog that have no direct bearing on the game). It is also easy for players – particularly inexperienced players – as there’s no need to hunt for the “next” place to be. However, it can also feel very constrained and contrived as a player.

Examples: Alpha Protocol‘s mission structure.  Pretty much every RPG by Bioware in the last six years.

I listed these in order of “hardness” – how strictly the game enforces the linearity of progression.  In a discovery-based system, if you know where to look for these places, you can go there almost immediately. Challenge-based progression will let you go there if you are very good or very lucky. Obstacle-based progression requires you to do a little hunting around to find what you need to overcome or bypass the obstacle (although in older games like the Ultimas with text-based passwords, you could cheat and obtain the words with out-of-game information).  And finally, plot-based progression is the ultimate in heavy-handedness: you just can’t go there until the game gets to a particular stage.

Most games use a mix of systems. Personally, I find games more interesting if they provide a mix of different ways to “open up” the game, and I feel it’s important for players to feel like there are many different ways of opening up new avenues to explore.  Exploring, talking to people, finding keys, solving puzzles, discovering maps, progressing the quest-lines, all of the above. I can bring up several Final Fantasy titles as examples – though FF7 is the best-remembered (because I played through it twice, and the first part maybe four times).  You start in a constrained area where you cannot really leave until the story reaches a certain point (plot-based). Then the world-map opens up, but you are constrained by the restrictions of overland travel – mountains and water provide impenetrable barriers. There’s a bit more freedom at this point, but the progression is often still relatively linear by the nature of geography, requiring you to pass through one to get access to the next (usually challenge or plot-based). But again, the further you go, the more the world tends to “open-up” for discovery-based exploration. Later in the game, you get access to new vehicles, like airships and submarines, which make formerly inaccessible areas fully accessible (obstacle-based). Then, now freed from the limitations of geography, there are optional areas of the game that you can find to take on side-quests or “secret” boss monsters – purely ‘discovery’ based areas.

Another interesting variant is Persona 3 and Persona 4, where dungeon areas and many opportunities unlock on a purely plot-based schedule. But then you have what might arguably be considered the ‘meat’ of the game which are based on discovery (being in the right place at the right time), main plot progression, and progression along multiple simultaneous sub-plots in terms of your relationships with characters, or your own personal progression. The fascinating part (for me) is how all of these little mini-progressions and choices interact and interrelate. The progression is forced – particularly with Persona 4 – so that the clock is always running and you have to balance your activities out with making progress on the main quest. But as with the Elder Scrolls games, it’s often more interesting to focus on the multitude of (somewhat) open-ended side quests.

Interestingly, older RPGs tended towards the softer progression systems, whereas more modern RPGs (with the Elder Scrolls & newer Fallout games being stand-out counter-examples) favor harder, more linear progression.

I don’t think this modern tendency is based on player demand so much as player tolerance and the laws of economics. Modern, AAA games depend more heavily on expensive, custom content. Every action must be animated, every word must be voiced by an actor (or actually several actors for fully localized titles).  Publishers simply cannot afford any ‘wasted space,’ or to have players easily bypass large swaths of expensively content. The Elder Scrolls and Fallout titles bypass this problem with a heavy reliance upon reusable, procedural content. This isn’t too far off from how older RPGs handled things, with tile-based game worlds.

My advice to indies is generally to avoid what the big guys (AAA, mainstream) are doing. If the tendency is for massive custom content and heavy-handed linear progression, indies can make themselves different by making a game that’s more open-ended and more dependent upon the softer progression designs. Thankfully (for gamers), that area is not completely devoid of mainstream involvement, but there’s a lot more room to comfortably differentiate your game.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Tesh said,

    It seems to me that Minecraft is perhaps the biggest, best example of how freedom can scratch the counter-mainstream itch. It’s not *exactly* an RPG, but it *might* be, that’s up to the player.

    I’m definitely a fan of more open systems. I’ve designed enough to know that there’s good reason to provide guidance, throttles or other pacing structures, but I do default to greater freedom… mostly because I think it is far more entertaining to play such games.

  • GhanBuriGhan said,

    I want to see someone try time based progression. That is, a number of events that play out on a preordained schedule, but will play out differently based on players involvement. This could also be more soft, e.g. timing or nature of events could take the actions of the player up to that point into account, or it could even be AI driven events (a little bit like what can be seen in Soldaks ARPG games). I am just getting tired of always being the only agent that causes ANYTHING to happen in these games.

  • Bob said,

    The original Fallout had a preordained event that effectively terminated the game; you either averted the condition in time or you lost. It was terribly frustrating to be making steady progress through the game, only to have it come to an end with only a cut scene to explain why. I’m not a fan of time-based progression, except on a limited basis (ex: a countdown timer).

    What I wouldn’t mind seeing is a sandbox game with a contagious model for faction-based reputation changes. That is, it always takes time for word of your deeds, or misdeeds, to spread across the game region. A model like that would give your setting a greater sense of things happening outside of your direct influence.

  • Tesh said,

    Star Control 2 had events that happened on certain stardates, some of which prevented certain species from being enlisted… and I think that it had a hard loss like Fallout. I loved SC2, but that time limit was annoying, as I had to curtail my Explorer tendencies. Yes, it lent a sense of urgency, but that also meant I had to play the game several times to learn how to catch everything (GameFAQs alleviates that somewhat these days). I guess that’s good for replay numbers, but it just got annoying in practice.

    Then again, if a game really embraces that and makes it perfectly clear that you’ll never see everything in a single playthrough, and if it’s sufficiently short, say, five hours at the most, embracing the flow of choices can be a good thing. Most RPGs just aren’t short enough to make Replay as Exploration a good option.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Have you tried the Persona games? Those have timed progression as well, but it’s paced pretty reasonably, and kinda drags you along with it. It’s generous enough that I never felt serious time pressure to get the dungeon “solved” – but there’s not quite enough time to do EVERYTHING you’d like to do, so you have to pick and choose. But overall it seemed to hit a pretty good balance with me… I didn’t feel too “under the gun” but there was some time pressure.

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