The challenge: Many service-based games last for years, which necessitates a content treadmill to keep players fed and happy. However, many common progression systems borrow from RPGs and MMOs and involve leveling up in linear fashion. Players grind up to some max cap, at which point the numbers have started to break down. Such games run into power creep, diluted rewards and other balance issues when they belatedly extend the progression for a few thousand hours more.
An alternative is cyclical progression. This is where they player starts growing in power but eventually finds themselves (due to a variety of potential reset mechanisms) coming back around to the start of the progression.
Examples of cyclical progression systems fall in at least a couple main categories…
Hard cycles: The player progresses upward in a roughly linear or exponential fashion. And then they do some form of a hard reset.
- Seasonal leagues in sports and esports
- Season passes in various F2P games
- Permadeath in rogue-likes
- Ascension systems in idle games
Soft cycles: Instead of a hard reset, cycles blur into one another.
- The changing of the seasons. The original cyclical progression.
- Item decay like the weapon breaking in BotW
- Star Wars Galaxy’s unique crafting resources that then become scarce
Question to tackle at Project Horseshoe
What could the work group tackle? This is a relatively focused topic, but one that I suspect is worth a few hundred million for the right team.
- What are examples of cyclical progression?
- What are advantages?
- What are pitfalls?
- What are opportunities?
- Other lenses for looking at this topic?
Just some rough notes to kickstart people’s thinking.
1. Ideas from linear progressions
Cyclical progression is contrasted against linear progression (up and to the right!) where players steadily gain in resources and power.
Several key ideas in linear progressions that are also important to cyclical progressions.
- Shape: Every progression has a shape that determines pacing and feel of the progression. Common shapes for linear progression include exponential and sawtooth.
- Loss: The key benefit of linear progression is that players never are forced to feel loss. Since losses result in intense negative emotions that result in churn, many games intentionally use never-ending collection and leveling.
- Content treadmill: The downside of using linear progressions is that they put the team on a content treadmill. Where they must constantly make large amounts of fresh content to extend the linear progression. How might cyclical systems minimize the treadmill?
2. Managing loss aversion in cyclical progressions
Cycles inevitably involve loss. There are some very solid existing systems for managing that loss.
- Opt-in: If the player makes a conscious choice of their own volition to restart, the pain of loss is less.
- Gearing: Idle games use gearing systems where you lose your progress on one linear progression to gain progress on a much slower linear progression. A small gear slowly turns a big gear. You transfer the player attention away from the short term loss and towards the long term gain. Rogue-lite systems like Rogue Legacy are a version of this.
- Obsolescence due to environmental shifts: If items become slowly obsolete, players don’t feel loss as strongly. Winter boots are great in winter, but by the time summer rolls around, you don’t feel the need for them as much.
- The fading of memory: There’s a natural decay of human attention over time, where a thing that was once important no longer matters so much a few years later. Perhaps if decay is slow enough, no one will notice.
- Unique scarce resources: Star Wars Galaxy generated unique scarce resources that feed into the crafting system. Since the resources ran out, player would be economically incentivized to switch to more available substitution good. And once that is exhausted, the process repeats. Conceptually this is similar to obscelence, but coopts the opt-in agency of a trade economy.
3. Meditations on ritual and progress
Humans are inherently cyclical creatures. We live in a world with seasons. Our communities involves overlapping cycles of birth, growth, death. Many traditional cultures and religions emphasize cycles and their associated rituals. Are there ways of building cyclical progressions that enhance the gentle living of a player’s life? Or must games always be about climbing the infinite mountain.