Character Growth vs Player Growth in RPGs

  • Edwin McRae

Character Growth vs Player Growth

I’ve encountered this interesting game design pitfall while playing Grim Dawn and Victor Vran. I’ve also encountered it in ship combat games like Rebel Galaxy: Outlaw and 1st person shooter RPGs like Borderlands 2.

In many RPGs, if the player grinds the same activities, over and over, their character will grow more powerful. In response, the game will increase the health and frequency of the mobs. More enemies that are harder to kill. But you get more XP from each kill so it’s a ‘virtuous’ cycle, right? You gain the resources necessary to improve your character so that it matches the current difficulty of the game.

But here’s the pitfall of this cycle.

After an initial learning curve, the game’s demands on ‘player skill’ plateaus. There’s little further challenge to a player’s judgement, timing, perceptivity or problem-solving. The character’s abilities take care of all that.

Yes, there’s some ongoing number-crunching as new gear is obtained, new abilities are unlocked, but the core gameplay remains ostensibly the same. You’re spamming mobs with skills, spells and protons canons. This leads to a near trance-like state where you simply react to environmental stimulus with repetitions of ingrained, subconscious actions.

That's not 'Flow'. It's zombification.

Ever driven to work and not remembered anything about it when you got there? That’s the trance I’m talking about.

In fact, the self-driving car is a pretty good analogy for the maxed-out RPG character. Set and forget. ;-)

It’s good to remember that Character Growth does not equal Player Growth.

Check in on yourself in your next gaming session. Are you consciously solving the game’s challenges or have you slipped into a trance induced by rinse-and-repeat mechanics?


About Edwin McRae

Edwin is a narrative consultant and mentor for the games industry.

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