Saturday, May 5

Character Progression Systems

You know, it's funny how video games change over time. In fact, it's great. We're very much so a developing art form and industry. Our ideas and perceptions of ourselves are constantly shifting, as our video games themselves. The gaming world moves at a swift pace. I often forget this fact, but gaming evolution and perceptions was brought to light today in 1up's review for Spider-Man 3. This is what editor Scott Sharkey had to say:
Spider-Man 3, however, is still an open-world game where there isn't a hell of a lot to do in that open world. It's an empty space to flip through on the way to the next cut-scene, brawl, or quick-time event. [. . .] You've got a very small number of collectable tokens on top of a couple of skyscrapers (they don't do anything, just in case you were expecting Crackdown here). It's not a bad-looking town, but it's lifeless and noninteractive.
You catch that? Spider-Man 3 is not like Crackdown. This tells us something. Sharkey believes that Crackdown has more rewarding and enjoyable character progression and exploration systems than Spider-Man 3. It's just more fun to jump around in Crackdown. And you know what? I have a feeling many other people feel the same way. But is Crackdown's system better? Or just different?
Crackdown. The world is your playground.

A summary, if you will. In Crackdown players can leap and scale buildings with super-human agility. The reward for doing so is finding little tokens that increase the character's agility skill. This allows the player to jump ever higher until more tokens are found and so on and so forth. Now in Spider-Man 3, players can also jump around the city, and swing and crawl. Tokens are also present atop buildings, but unlike Crackdown, they do not increase Spidey's agility, speed, or jump height. The tokens are more like milk caps that Spidey can add to his collection (does anyone remember Jump Start: 1st Grade. greatest game ever). Instead, Spider-Man gains experience points by fighting, and can use them to purchase upgrades in the above mentioned skills. Lets bring a third game, shall we? The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion features yet another character progression system. There are many skills in Oblivion, all of which are upgraded through natural usage of them. Stealth? Upgraded by sneaking up on enemies. Agility? Jump around alot and your skill will gradually build. Defense? Block enemy attacks to increase your ability.
This is your character after you've maxed out your skills. Oh! I'm refering to the corpse.

Are any one of these better than the other? Not necessarily, I don't think. However, what do you think compelled Mr. Sharkey to mention Crackdown in his review Spider-Man 3. Sharkey wanted to compare both games in order to point out the weakness of the latter. Crackdown makes exploration fun while at the same time serving a necessary purpose. By reaching the highest buildings they are able, players are rewarded with greater ability in the skill they've just exuded. Then, players are intrinsically, naturally challenged to reach the next highest buildings. This is the definition of fun. Challenege->Reward->Challenge.

Oblivion features a similarly rewarding character progression system. Player-characters practically become more skilled just by walking, and, in fact, do gain skill points by crouch-walking. Playing Oblivion is like getting living. Play the game, and your character naturally becomes better. It's even more fun once you figure out what exact behavior increases specific skill points, because then you can spend more time working to upgrade it.

Lastly, Spider-Man 3. Why is Spider-Man 3's version of character progression inferior to Crackdown's? As opposed to exploration, players are rewarded for combat in the form of experience points to buy skill upgrades. But doesn't that seem...counter-intuitive? Afterall, a big part of Spider-Man 3 (and the best part, from what I've read) is the exploration/platforming aspect. The combat, on the other hand, seems to pale in comparison. Why not reward players for swinging around New York City, instead of fighting thugs? The tokens themselves could work just like Crackdown. However, players have access to buildings of all heights from the get-go. Reaching the tokens is the challenge of Crackdown, whereas in Spider-Man the challenge is simply finding them. The system could alternatively work like Oblivion's. Spidey could naturally become more skilled simply by swinging and wall-crawling. But then the issue arises of how much reward of skill, how often.
I really like this screenshot. Crackdown sidescroller? Anyone? Anyone?

You know what, I think the system in place actually seems to work fine. The upgrades themselves are more like levels than skill points. And combat is an integral part of gameplay. In addition to story-line combat, players can also fight more frequently with side-missions, if they so please. The question isn't which game has the best character progression system, but which system works best for its game. I'll admit, though, I have a bias for Crackdown.

All images from Gamespy.

Which character progression system is your favorite?
Have you played Spider-Man 3? What do you think of other aspects of the game?

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