Is Traditional Game Progression Broken?

As I sit here, trying for the fourth time to perfect a wingsuit challenge in Just Cause 3 so I can get the last upgrade gear needed to get an ability I thought it was going to have from the start, I can’t help but think that maybe traditional game progression is broken.

Think of all the hours you spend doing digital busywork to get enough gears, points, orbs, feathers or other nonsense just to make a game more fun. Does it actually add anything to your experience? Would you really lose interest in a game if you were to start off with all the best abilities instead of having to earn them slowly over a dozen hours doing menial tasks? It’s all I can think playing Just Cause 3 now: how much I don’t want to play anymore specifically because I’m tired of having to earn the fun parts of the game. It feels like work instead of play and that’s not really what I was looking for when I bought it.

Just Cause 3 is the poster boy for how busted the traditional model of game progression has become. It’s a game where all you want to do when you first boot it up is tether a moving car to your helicopter, fly up as high as you can, then bail out, grapple to the plummeting car and hijack it, tossing the driver to an untimely death. You want to fly a plane low to the ground, get on top of it, and tether a passing motorcyclist to it to watch them both sail off a mountain while you wingsuit away, laughing. You want to tether three cows together to a propane tank, then shoot the propane tank to watch not one, but three cows go sky-high and jump over the moon. Yet instead, you’re forced to sit through endless cut scenes, tutorials and lackluster story missions before being told that, actually, you’re going to need to do dozens of incredibly lame side challenges over and over before your character has the abilities you want.

That’s not a problem unique to Just Cause 3 by any means. I dropped off of Saints Row IV for the same reason: all I wanted to do was mess around and have some good, ridiculous fun, yet instead the game presented me with arbitrary upgrade paths requiring me to collect — no joke — 1,255 “clusters” scattered around the city. During my first two days playing the game, I spent about six bitter hours collecting every cluster I could find just so I would never have to worry about it anymore. I still haven’t gone back to Saints Row after that because I know there are still hundreds of clusters awaiting me. Now the same thing is happening with Just Cause 3. The only way to get those upgrade gears is to do dozens of repetitive challenges with long load times and strict performance evaluations; frankly, I just don’t feel like wasting hours of my life on challenges I don’t want to do just to get the abilities and upgrades that make the game fun. As a result, I’ve been playing Just Cause 3 less and less over the last few weeks, and that bums me out. What I thought would become my favorite game of the year has become the one I find myself avoiding most.

Let’s backtrack for a second though because there are plenty of games that benefit from a slower progression ramp. Games following the Metroid formula, for instance, relish the chance to show you pathways you can’t access until you find a new weapon or ability. You know they’re there, waiting for you to come back with a new skill, and that gives you real incentive to push forward out of sheer curiosity: what’s behind that door, anyway? It’s gotta be good. When you do return and overcome that barrier, it’s an undeniable rush. You’ve bested that challenge and pushed through into uncharted territory. Similarly, The Legend of Zelda series has practically trademarked its formula of giving you a new tool, then making your usage and mastery over that tool an integral part of the design going forward. Puzzles are solved with it; bosses are defeated with it. You simply wouldn’t have the same brilliant experience if Link started every game with the Master Sword already in hand.

Plenty of games get real mileage from gating your progress and reserving upgrades for later, and I’m not trying to say there’s not a place for that. Fallout 4, for example, emphasized your character’s increased sense of agency in a world where he or she starts out with none. inFamous 2 and Mass Effect 2 both asked the player to become more powerful in preparation of an encroaching threat. Super Mario Maker eases you into its expansive toolset by drip-feeding each to you over time. There’s merit to a slower pace of progression when a game builds it into the design, either for story purposes to demonstrate character growth or as a gradual tutorial. But that’s not what games like Just Cause 3 and Saints Row IV are doing.

The audience for a game like Just Cause 3 or Saints Row IV are players looking for a casual power fantasy, not a slow, dramatic build. By the time you get all the powers you wanted from the start in games like those, you’ve already been playing for a dozen hours, the credits are closing in and you’re ready for it to be over. Some games try to alleviate this problem by building in a “new game plus” option, which starts you over from the beginning of the story but lets you retain all your upgraded powers and abilities from the end of your previous run. Your second playthrough becomes what you really wanted out of the first playthrough, but now that you’ve seen and done it all once before, you have much less reason to do it again.

It’s probably pretty easy to write all this off as laziness or entitlement, but I don’t think it’s that at all. Rico’s ability in Just Cause 3 to land directly from a wingsuit glide as opposed to needing to deploy the parachute first isn’t a tricky skill the player masters organically through hours of practice — it’s just an annoying limitation the developers designed to make you instead spend those hours trying to remove that limitation. It’s that feigned perception of “value” I see players coming back to again and again, the idea that more hours of gameplay is automatically better than fewer hours, regardless of quality. But there’s nothing “valuable” about the six hours I spent collecting literally hundreds of clusters in Saints Row IV just to unlock the ability to jump 25% higher. It’s arbitrary padding, nothing more.

By no means am I trying to argue that every game should start you fully upgraded; as I said earlier, plenty of games use that ramp to great effect. But we should absolutely question the merit of what we’re playing and just how important it is that our games place their carrots on increasingly long sticks. As you play a game like Just Cause 3, weigh your experience of unlocking new abilities slowly with the idea of getting everything upfront. Rather than little endorphin rushes over the course of many hours as you complete side challenges and gain new abilities, the joys of the game would come from your own personal increased mastery over those abilities. You’d no longer need to spend hours completing repetitive tasks just to earn the tools you want, and in turn the developer can design more complex and demanding scenarios to take advantage of your increased skills.

Think about how Demon’s Souls handled this problem. Rather than hold your hand, it thrust you into an unforgiving world where you start with all the tools you’ll need to beat the game. It’s up to you, the player — independent of your avatar — to learn the mechanics to get better; you can’t just grind your way into a more capable character. There’s something beautiful and pure about that kind of game design, and it makes me wish the same lessons could be applied to more games: for instance, imagine an Assassin’s Creed where you start with a limited toolset to take down your targets, and it’s up to you the player to learn how best to apply those tools in new and increasingly creative ways to succeed.

Imagine a version of Just Cause 3 where you don’t have to spend hours doing boring challenges with long load times just to increase the strength of your tethers so you can finally smash two helicopters together.