Improving gamification with a progression system
The benefits of adding a progression system from the get-go in your gamification experience are that you are offering your players a framework and a context for placing and creating long-term goals. Goals that you can set for them, but also ones that they can develop themselves while going through the experience.
The framework the system creates will support the player as it asks them to make certain strategic decisions about how they will engage with challenges and how best to spend their time and what aspects to tackle first. Everyone always wants to find the most efficient method, and a system the asks this of players will be an engaging one.
The organic byproduct of such a system, which further increases engagement and removes the necessity for Skinners box trap, is that a meta-gameplay will grow. If a system is complex enough and offers enough freedom of which paths to choose, the players will invariably start to do external research. They will brainstorm when not participating in your experience, and you will have extended your area of engagement influence beyond the experience itself.
A very effective method of guaranteeing that players remain engaged with the experience is to add a narrative and a theme with your progression system. Having a strong story and solid theme bound to your system will create a sense of agency in your players, especially if they are placed as the hero of the story. And what better way to engage and immerse a player than with a gripping epic story.
An epic story also creates a context for the long-term goals that the players will, and in turn, those goals also offer focus to your players. With this addition of focus, players will also be able to concentrate more on their own personal improvement within the experience. In both cases, you will be required possibly to add a level of arbitrary visualization of improvements, as it will be necessary to let your players see their progress. It is naturally also a very effective tool, as the very successful and popular SuperBetter has proven.
Examples worth looking at
SuperBetter is a great example of gamification or gameful design for self-recovery and improvement. But games, in general, all have something to offer. Either in showing how to do it well, or how not to do it.
One way of not doing it, and I’ll refrain from naming the games that do this, is by having a progression system, that when the player levels up or ‘progresses’, the abilities or attributes are pre-determined. That the player themselves have no choice in how they shape their own experience. If this happens in your system, it will inevitably alienate your player base.
A progression system should always include choice, and preferably choices that are mutually exclusive. Having such a system will allow for players to take complex and strategic decisions around what they need and what they can do without for the time being. This is also the trigger for the external meta-gameplay that we discussed earlier. And the bonus that arises from creating such a system is that you as the creator are given greater freedom to shape the player’s experience, and the player also feels more empowered and autonomous in deciding their own path.
Games that do this well are naturally those within the Role-Playing Game or RPG genre. A game like Divinity: Original Sin 2, which I have been enjoying recently, does this very well. As all the aspects of the game have easy to understand tooltips, so you are always informed of the choice you are making. And your choices are mutually exclusive, forcing you to make difficult decisions for the challenges. It has also led me to go searching through forums and guides to find the most optimal and enjoyable route for my gameplay experience, making sure I choose the correct attributes and abilities to make my characters as powerful as they can be. A fairly expansive group-customization experience.
One that is a bit more focused on the player itself, is possibly the Dark Souls series in the RPG genre. Here the character customization only slightly augments the gameplay experience. The skills of the player themselves and how will they can recognize patterns and train themselves is more important in enjoying the experience. The progression here merely highlights what the player themselves are accomplishing.
Both these games give different experiences, but both emphasize the fact of personal growth, worthwhile challenges, external learning and visual gratification when developing a progression system.
Gratification or rewards are essential in the experience. As they player must be rewarded adequately for their abilities and strategic thinking. Preferably the rewards are tailored in some way to the player, if the rewards are random then you risk player alienation yet again. Also, be aware that your players will fail as well, and often, the system should allow for them to retry and their failure should also be as epic as their success so that they are motivated to learn from their failures.