I've neglected this blogsite far too long, so I'm just going to go ahead and post one of the unpolished (and perhaps disunified) blogs I started in the past month. This is really a topic I'd like to put a lot more thought into in the future.
In his recent article on Gamesutra, Neil Sorens makes a number of good points. One of them is that the statistical progression many developers employ to portray character advancement does not translate into an affectual impression of advancement for the player. The player's character may get stronger, but so are his or her enemies. Abilities may become more powerful, but their relative effect remains constant, or even diminishes.
ESSENCE OF PROGRESSION
Game developers haven't been employing these methods blindly, of course. The same situations arise in many epic stories of adventure. Stronger protagonists face stronger enemies, the odds reverting to those faced during more amateur encounters. Yet there is a sense that the protagonists are growing. How? To answer that question, I'll use examples from the LOTR films.
Roles, not Power
Though growth in power does matter, the primary growth in literary and cinematic heroes occurs through the discovery or formation of identity through roles. Aragorn accepts a calling to lead those he feared to fail. Frodo, on the other hand, accepts a calling to leave the comforts of community in order to serve that community. Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White after demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice himself for others. Samwise defines himself through unwavering loyalty in the face of insurmountable odds.
Roles are necessarily relational. Other beings and the challenges one is faced with define one's placement within a context. So even in a single-player game, the player's capacity for growth must be viewed in the player's relation to other elements.So how has the concept of roles been translated into past games? Classes are the most obvious answer, but a class usually represents a combination of two factors.
The first is skills. In terms of gameplay, skills most represent one's inclination toward particular methods of engagement. A player may prefer sniping, firing a blaze of projectiles, or slow but powerful explosions. A player may prefer deception and luring, frontal assault, surprise attacks, ally direction, or environment manipulation.
The second factor is one's alignment within a group. This represents how one's skills and goals relate to those of others within a community and/or the community as a whole. A player may prefer scouting, leadership, advising, resource management, resource production, chronicling, or action assistance. This applies beyond the obvious example of online grouping. A character in a single-player game has specific relationships to the other beings of the gameworld.
NEGLECTED AVENUES OF ENGAGEMENT
These are relationships between the player-character and gameworld which are absent or rare in among the games I'm familiar with.
Shrinking the Skill Palette
In epic stories, heroes occasionally face opponents that can only be defeated by a reduced number of means. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the cave troll in the mines of Moria knocked the heroes about like vermin until Legolas finally brought it down with a single arrow expertly shot into the troll's brain. It's alright to present players with obstacles that negate player abilities, as long as (1) that obstacle may be circumvented (in the event of reasonable despair),(2) victory is accompanied by an impression of extraordinarily admirable accomplishment, and (3) it's not over-used.
Heroes occasionally face opponents that can only be defeated temporarily (incapacitated, banished, etc.). Sauron returned from a prior defeat, because total victory over him required multiple conflicts to be resolved. It's alright for enemies to recover from defeat, if (1) the reason behind that recovery is clearly evidenced and (2) the player has a means of conquering or circumventing that enemy within a reasonable timeframe.
Characters don't have to be omnipotent to be heroic. Gandalf cowered before the Witchking and refused the challenge of bearing the One Ring, both for knowledge of being outmatched. Frodo enabled the destruction of the ring, but not without becoming incurably scarred. Heroism does not imply a capacity to overcome absolutely anything. It implies extraordinary strength. Players should feel exhilirated by their own potential, but not as if all obstacles are insurmountable.
I've always thought RPGs should contain entities which will always inspire awe and/or fear, regardless of player growth. The mountain that can't be climbed, the beast that can't be conquered, the force that can't be contained...these are the most memorable and inspirational objects of any world. And how great the exhiliration of meeting them face-to-face. Some creatures should seem invincible, but ultimately be surmountable by the most creative and/or determined players. Others, however, should remain insurmountable. These are not wasted assets. They're at least as important as the common design practice of including buildings which cannot be entered but complete the setting...and I'd argue that they're infinitely more valuable.
Support Roles in Single-Player
It's interesting to note that single-player games have rarely, if ever, provided core gameplay opportunities for gamers who prefer to reinforce others, rather than lead. To provide such gameplay in a single-player environment is surely a challenge (perhaps one that only recent advancements in artificial intelligence can overcome), but it still surprises me. Many, if not most, human beings prefer following or accompanying to leading (albeit, often in contradiction to their spoken preference, since modern democratic ideals promote the idea that we should all be leaders and that following is a sign of weakness).
The main challenge I see here is giving supportive players control over the game's pace. This might be accomplished in the way the dog of Molyneux's recent Fable 2 demonstration presents. The dog runs ahead of its master, but in the direction the player chooses. Of course, in this case, the player is still playing the role of leader. But an NPC leader might similarly wait for the player to accompany him/her, and the player could toggle the A.I. from leader to follower or back by simply clicking a particular button.
It would likely require an extraordinary reworking of old mechanics. But, as I said, it seems an inescapable consideration when one considers that many people prefer not to lead. This is probably a major factor in the accessibility of interactive media to mainstream society.
Noticeable Differences in Skill Upgrades
Require the abilities and resources the player has acquired through growth to be used with progression. Make advanced abilities fundamentally different from amateur abilities. Increasing the strength of a fireball isn't enough (because strength is relative to the endurance of enemies). Increasing the area of effect, the possible uses (burns different elements, for example), duration of burn, casting animation, contact animation...these are significant. They cost more in design resources, yes, but the cost-benefit ratio is better.