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author: @aestranger

Reading time: 8 minutes

The power of progression in gaming & gamification

Progression systems are always a tough choice when you create an experience for your players. Everyone enjoys the feeling of moving forward, of accomplishing something and getting a reward for it. With games, it’s a bit more straightforward, as you will generally consider whether you want a progression system in your game or not. With gamification, it can sometimes end up being an afterthought. This is one issue, not giving it enough thought early enough. Another issue that both games and gamification share is that progressions systems are seen tools to psychologically trap players.

Progression systems become Skinner boxes, training player through a method of randomization, that as long as they keep coming back and trying their luck, they will eventually get the right reward. Many games can be accused of using such a system, the Diablo series certainly uses it at times. But also, slot machines in casino’s use this method. Pay enough money and press enough buttons and you might win the jackpot.

Another problem that progression systems get used for is to artificially slow down the player. Designers in both the game and gamification industries are always afraid that some hardcore player will come along and speed-race through their content. So, they naturally think, well if we add a progression system to the experience this will slow them down. Unfortunately, this will most likely frustrate and irritate both casual and hardcore players, especially if the content isn’t worthwhile. You are artificially creating a grind for your players. Though it must be said that having a grind in a well-designed progression system can be useful for teaching your players, you just need to make sure it’s fun.

Progression is supposed to be fun

If you add a progression system, make sure its part of the experience from the start. Ensure it fit holistically into your design and is not something you’ve tacked on. You really want to avoid it being something that tricks or trapsplayers to keep returning. Usually, when that happens it’s a sign of a progression system being used as cover or substitute for a lack of content. The system then simply repeats old content for the benefit of extending the gameplay period of its players. In other words, you were not able to create enough valuable content for the player to consume and be engaged with. If that happens, go back and try again.

However, you should not be afraid to use the mechanic of grinding, if your content is voluminous and well-designed. If the content is worthwhile then the casual player will have no issues (usually) with more gameplay hours and the hardcore player will be ecstatic. And you will have avoided arbitrarily slowing down your game. It does, however, mean that you will be working more.

Your driving motivation when adding a progression system to your gamified experience is whether it will improve your player’s experience. Is it adding intrinsic value in the long and short-term?

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.

Progression systems as teaching tools

Progression systems are brilliant tools for teaching. It may be obvious but slowly introducing aspects of your experience to your players as they progress through it, is a far more effective teaching tool than developing a tutorial. It also thus removes the need to spend time and money on developing an unnecessary separate tutorial section. Remember though that you should not overburden your player from the get-go. Still use the ethos of the tutorial, semi-guiding them step by step until they comfortable, give them adequate time to familiarize themselves with your gamified environment. The benefit of incorporating the tutorial into the start of your progression system is that players are then able to determine their own pace of learning. The player will slowly gain confidence on their own with a particular step and its challenges, and they will, therefore, progress with greater confidence and efficiency to the next step. In essence, you are allowing for a self-regulating learning curve with your players, which removes you as a micromanaging creator, freeing you up to create more meaningful content.


Progression systems, at a very basic level, are about letting people feel good about themselves. We all want to move forward to something that gives added value to the experience we’ve gone through. Therefore, we should all make certain that the path is a worthwhile one for our players, that the content is extensive and strong. The best way to check ourselves is by playing other games and gamified experiences and analyzing them from the perspective of the points outlined in the piece. Are we enjoying ourselves? Are we being sufficiently rewarded for our efforts? Is the investment worth the outcome? Have I learned something of value and am I able to use that learning to continue onwards? If you can answer these questions sufficiently and are able to implement those answers in your own gamified experiences, then you will be in a much better position to engage your players effectively and successfully.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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