The importance of meaningful progression in video games

A few days ago, I put up some preliminary thoughts on the Elder Scrolls Online and ever since I’ve been thinking about progression in video games.

In Dark Souls II – a game that has obsessed me for the past month – players see tangible improvements in their character as progress is made through trial and error.

Increasing your Soul Level gives you better stats, but players also see a kind of natural progression in learning where traps and boundaries are through the pain of death. In overcoming inevitable defeat, players find catharsis, or the satisfaction of releasing their beginner’s anxiety. Progression is made and it feels so damn good.

However, there’s always a cost.

The time I spent playing Dark Souls II could have been used on writing other reviews, improving myself in real life, or working at the newspaper. Although there are other productive things to do, I still feel good about the time I put into improving my character.

Dark Souls is an intensive series that requires hours of your time and maybe even days to get better at it, but it only has two real costs: a single monetary investment and the strain on your bandwidth. There are no subscription fees to worry about or boundaries stopping you from having the full experience right from the very start. The game helps you grow without requiring more than your time and effort, and the same can be said for Elder Scrolls Online.

Elder Scrolls Online requires an initial investment, a 60 gigabyte download, and a subscription fee of $15/month. Combine that with gameplay fairly reminiscent of the other Elder Scrolls Games and no story to pull you through the experience, and you can see why progression here has a higher monetary cost.

However, players of massively multiplayer games like ESO find value in other aspects of the game outside of the traditional narratives, gameplay, and graphics categories – heralds of game reviewing standards around the world. They find value in the social interactions encountered and relationships built.

During my review-in-progress, I had a chance to speak with a few players about their experiences. From what I understand, most are happy with the quality of the game and a few of the interviewees asked if I wanted to join their groups after our chat. While a game like Dark Souls does offer these kinds of interactions with players, it’s far less sophisticated and certainly not the focus of the experience.

Elder Scrolls Online has yet to prove to me, a traditional single-player kind of person, that the social interactions are worth $15/month on top of the money already spent on the game. Certainly, Zenimax will include things like a “Free 90-day trial with every purchase”, so far they offer a game that’s like the series, but not really the same in spirit.

The question is: how much does monetary cost affect the overall quality of a game? Is $15/month enough to indict the game with a low score? How different is progression in ESO versus Dark Souls?

What the other Elder Scrolls games have traditionally offered to players is a prophecy to fulfill and a sprawling world to save from Daedric lords. Elder Scrolls Online‘s offerings are quite different and may strike new players as an odd departure from what people say is the best part of the series.

High expectations have been the bane of the Elder Scrolls Online. ESO was not made in the same tradition, but it has been marketed with the name and thus is held on the same level as the other entries in the series.

This is the Elder Scrolls where the games have literal books inside of them that you can read. This is Elder Scrolls where characters have dialogue trees longer than most Shakespearean plays. This is Elder Scrolls where story progression and exploration is everything.

Without a cohesive story, is Elder Scrolls Online even part of the series? Is it even fair to judge the game based on the other entries?

If Mass Effect Online was born and offered only a straight-forward path through a semi-story, would players be happy? Probably not. They would want to have choice, they would want to have options, they would want agency.

People can do this with almost any story-driven series and they will see how an online narrative-light massively mulitplayer iteration could be a bad idea. Would Grand Theft Auto be made better is there was no story and only the online aspects? Would Metal Gear Solid be better with no story and just CQC against other players?

ESO takes away narrative progression in the Elder Scrolls and supplants it with a social networking system designed around cooperation with your fellow citizens to tell the world’s story. Experience farming, coin, item, and ingredient gathering, and skill tree building all add to the game’s overall complexity and there are certainly systems at play in the world; however, with no story new players without experience in massively mutliplayer games might find him or herself out of their depth.

Dark Souls has made online interactions a big part of how you play the game, but the series’ focus has always been on difficulty and challenge leading to a cathartic end. Without that difficulty, Dark Souls is nothing more than just another game in a huge library of online games. The Elder Scrolls has always offered a narrative as a central focus and when a game departs from tradition it creates shockwaves.

In Elder Scrolls Online you progress, but the story doesn’t.

Maybe this is the nut that has made me frown while playing the game thus far or maybe I still need more time with the game to see the nugget that makes it worth while. My character will certainly progress and become more powerful thus making the game easier and social interactions more fluid, but the story will remain decidedly fulfilling.

A review over at PC Gamer echoes this feeling, but the reviewer decides to take away from his focus on the game’s narrative.

There is certainly a story in the game, but its depth is a far cry from the other games. Check out this link to see what Morrowind‘s story looks like.

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