Progression, experience and upgrades


a nice feeling in video games is getting a new item or upgrade. cool, i can do new things now, or maybe things i’m already doing, but better.

but sometimes your existing item is like “+3% attack speed +50 piss potency” and this new item is like “3% ass amplification +40 backflip dipshit” and nothing in the game explains what any of these things are or if it does you have no idea what it actually means numerically, or if it does, how that factors into actual calculations. i have no idea if i want this.

this is not to say this is necessarily bad. people enjoy this for understandable reasons. there is value in it. in MOBAs on-the-spot damage calculations give you a competitive edge. in long ass RPGs it gives a gradual sense of progression, and limits off certain things until you’re strong enough (though this can be bad thing). even empirically figuring out the secretive damage formulae in FFXIV is like a whole thing.

but i, i am a simple man. give me 3 discrete swords. Bargain Bin Sword. Pretty Good Sword. Sword For Killing God. do not tell me how strong i am or how lucky i am. give me a thing which has an obvious function and discretely different from the other things. also let me get it by doing a specific thing, or going a specific place, rather than Filling Up An Experience Bar Very Slowly. you could say i’m saying that nobody’s improved on ocarina of time in 20 years, but that seems like a thing people would get mad at me for, so i’m not saying that.

how much do you like numbers. in video games.

i can maybe do smart words about this when i’m not very tired but i feel too strongly about it to not post about it right now.

edit: turns out i’m always very tired and incapable of writing smart words, thank u for posting


I was thinking about this just this morning as I was looking at all the 2018 releases I played for my GotY list. Super Mega Baseball 2 was a huge let down because of the numbers and progression.

In Super Mega Baseball 1 there are 100 different difficulty levels. Your difficulty affects a score multiplier (for things like hit a home run or make a great catch, not the score of the game). Your score contributes to a progression where you unlock buffs and stuff so you can make your outfielders faster and able to throw farther, make the infielders better at diving after balls and catching them, etc. It’s an added level of team management.

So the loop in SMB1 is this: increase the difficulty then score points faster then improve your team then increase the difficulty and suddenly you’ve played 7 seasons. The numbers keep going up.

Super Mega Baseball 2 added online multiplayer, so they standardized the stats on your team. You still score points for doing all the same stuff and you still have 100 degrees of difficulty, but you don’t unlock anything. You aren’t progressing towards anything. You don’t have to manage your team in the same way. I stopped playing after one season. I might go back and try to finish up some trophies, but I’ll be playing SMB1 after that.

I have the feeling I’ll be playing SMB1 for another 7 or 8 years because it’s so good. I still have like 30 levels of progression to go, and there are still 20 levels of difficulty I could bump it up to.


I like when the numbers are there but I can ignore them because the game crunches the numbers and tells me what stuff I should equip for MAXIMUM NUMBERS. Tho, there’s always this nagging part of me that thinks the computer’s doing it wrong and surely I could find a more elegant, more perfect solution—just this little unpleasant note of disapproval any time I’m swapping out my loadout.

Anyway, the best item should always be the one that looks either the most boss or the most stylish so I can finish the game looking my best.


This is why I tend to be really into 2D soulslikes like Hollow Knight and Hyper Light Drifter, but have generally bounced a lot harder off the actual Souls games. I enjoy the combat in all of them, but have a pretty low tolerance for RPG mechanics in general, especially ones that involve a bunch of points I can add into categories I need to look up to fully understand. For me, watching a number go up can give a decent sense of progression (super satisfying for me in JRPGs for some reason, and especially Pokemon), but if it’s not clearly connected to something I can observe, it ends up feeling pointless.


I just want a game to tell me what a number means, and then I want the game TOO GIVE ME EVERY NUMBER POSSIBLE. MORE NUMBERS. NUMBERS EVERYWHERE. I NEED THEM. My favorite things in RPGs are conversation systems and numbers. I WILL DEVOUR THE NUMBERS. LET ME BREAK THE DIFFICULTY WITH NUMBERS.


I agree with @JKDarkSide that numbers are very good in video games, however lets use them sparingly.

This is like an hour into this game and look how many numbers there are to take in here. Final Fantasy, you used to be king of numbers but ever since Final Fantasy VIII: Fun With Numbers you’ve been slipping.
I really appreciated Paper Mario’s super simple but reliable system, where if you hit someone with a hammer it does, say, 2 damage if you nail the timing, or 1 damage if you don’t. Make my JRPGs rhythm tactics games.



I’ll echo this. Lots of stats and granularity between many many items is also part of the fun of BUILDZ, for me. I haven’t played MTG since like 2013, but I’ve never really stopped building decks. Same principal when it comes to RPG mechanics for me. I like being able to define my character in the minutiae.


In Horizon Zero Dawn you can get a blue bow, or a purple bow or whatever. The purple is better! But then you can also install mods that give you 27% tearing, or 14% fire or both or something else, and I tell you, I can’t begin to care about that. Just let me shoot the bow, give me a better bow if I do a quest, that’s all you need.

I feel a little the same with Bloodborne, which is a much more proper ARPG and where it fits much better, but the gems add a layer of numbers to your weapon and build that I don’t think is needed. My friend said he farmed gems in the chalice dungeons, so that’s something you can do too apparently.


I don’t mind that. The only time RPG systems make me mad is when far too many things in a single player video game RPG are decided by invisible dice rolls with bizarre probabilities. KOTOR 1 made charisma checks into overly complicated dice roll equations that would often let you fail checks even if you had the necessary amount of numbers, and THAT is the sort of math nonsense I hate.

Numbers good, complicated probability equations bad.


The trick is making the numbers work with a system. Minor buffs or elemental effects in an action game mean very little, for example, but the numbers can be tweaked into higher ratios for payoffs that are instantly notable. From there, you can create trade-off weapons that cripple you in one area but let you excel in others, which can let you choose your own play style or experiment with different styles of play within the system. Dark Souls is particularly good at this. All the gameplay is pretty much action based, but numbers are used to create a wide range of play styles.

I think Borderlands, as a franchise, is the best possible version of making numbers mean everything. The amount of variables within that game mixed with numbers creates a FPS that keeps changing in flow, which prevents the games from getting too stale.


I don’t like miniscule percentages either in games, you almost never feel the difference and it can be a lot of unsatisfying micromanagement. Watching numbers go up is satisfying, but only works because of clarity,

Destiny has been a good take on loot shooting because it’s a very clear linear progression, and you are still rewarded for matching elemental ammo with different types for shields and knowing the perks of your weapon of choice.
You maximise efficiency by using it differently, like how there’s a perk that rewards body shots by then making your next precision shot do more damage.

My experience with the core souls games might taint my feelings on this just FYI, but for all the obscurity in that series, they’re usually quite good at giving you a clear progression path, especially for weapons.
On the weapon stat screen it becomes quite clear what it’s doing; it has the damage number the weapon is doing per element type, plus a number that indicates its scaling; level up the weapon to increase the numbers, level up the stat it scales with to increase your damage output when wielding it.

I like that these games don’t trade very much in “+3% crit chance” or “-6% poison resist” stats and instead make it clear what the weapons and armour specialise in. Although understanding the systems to the degree that it’s more or less internalised may take some time, and I’m biased in that regard…

I really appreciate straightforward and meaningful leaps in character upgrades these days, like getting a new item or health tank in a Metroid game or trading some orbs for an extra quarter-circle on you stamina meter in Breath of the Wild, you really feel the difference in that regard.


i’m very bad at the numbers. they confuse and frighten me

the only big numbers game i play is guild wars 2 and let me tell you, i have only the VAGUEST possible idea of what any of these stats mean. all of my characters probably have terrible builds but! it’s fine! i’d rather do less damage than have to research what stats are good for my class and weapon! it doesn’t really matter since i don’t do pvp or raids anyway!

pokemon numbers are pretty straightforward so i generally don’t mind them although it does bother me that i could have a perfectly statted team if i engaged with these bizarre obscure IV systems or whatever but i don’t so i’m never playing at my Full Potential


If you looked up all the Pokemon metagame math, your brain could very well pop like a grape.


yeah that’s why i don’t do it

i just mean it’s pretty easy to know how all the basic stats (atk, spd, def, sp atk, etc) affect how well your pokemon performs in battle. all the other stuff though…hoo boy


Complex gear/number systems in games is a great idea, but one that is usually only partially fleshed out. the thing about ~numbers numbers numbers~ is that play should be designed around analyzing them and situationally applying them.

i.e. you should be rewarded for playing smart.

lots of games throw numbers at the player, but fail to adequately punish players for just brute-forcing the solution instead. if you’re having trouble with a boss/area, there usually isn’t too much reason not to just reload and retry, maybe stock up on curatives, and power through it. If you’re more heavily punished (curatives are non-replenishing, souls-like money loss, etc.), you need to think laterally about encounters and situations, and try to have equipment available that improves your chances.

each encounter and environment is a situation, its up to the designer to make ‘situationally useful’ items and buffs relevant to them, usually by having item scarcity making losses hurt more.

it doesn’t hurt to telegraph what situations might be relevant in the near future, so the player is able to think ahead.


i feel like that’s the key difference though, is that the presented game of Pokemon does a lot of work to hide those numbers from you, because in “intended play” they are largely unnecessary. its great that the games do have this reservoir of complex math and metagame for people who want to dig into it, but i would say that pokemon is a great example of a game that does not frontload stats or numbers in a way that would overwhelm a player, but retains strategy and depth


this gets at how i feel about it, and seems to reflect what a lot of people are saying: essential numbers need context. if it’s a system i have to interact with, a number going up should feel meaningful and clear. Horizon’s 14% fire is such bullshit imo. is it on fire or isn’t it???

the pokemon system is a great way of having the game’s math be another avenue for player expression, just like any other mechanic


I can agree with that. I will never shut up about what bullshit KOTOR is because it calls evasion “defense” and has that particular stat build up in ways I still don’t fully understand. It also fails utterly to explain how the various character stats work, which makes it insanely easy to create a starting build that has no accuracy whatsoever. It mainly comes down to the ridiculous way it handles strength and dexterity, plus not informing you that melee weapons and lightsabers do not function the same way. Basically, melee weapons need strength for accuracy, and ranged weapons require dexterity. You have to dump in one stat way over the other so the accuracy equation comes out to “might actually hit something.” The thing is that lightsabers, FOR SOME REASON, can go either way, which IT NEVER TELLS YOU, so I often wasted building up my party because I didn’t even understand how to begin optimizing them, and my own build suffered greatly as well. ALSO, defense requires dexterity, so you need that stat built if you want to make a character who can dodge and focus their talents elsewhere than building up HP.

Obsidian’s KOTOR 2 still doesn’t explain lightsabers and the defense stat well, but it does fix a lot of this, like having passive skills that say you gain accuracy bonus for melee weapons with dexterity instead of strength, informing you quickly how weapon accuracy functions.

As for that 14% fire thing, I’m guessing there’s elemental damage in the game, which means some enemies are weak to fire attacks. That 14% is referring to how much of the damage listed in the weapon is fire elemental damage, which gets a buff against enemies weak to fire. At that low a percentage, you can also probably safely guess that burn effects won’t be common. However, that is still ridiculous in a game like Horizon, which is less RPG and more action game. These numbers mean very little for the flow of battle.

More major game releases with these systems need to just copy Borderlands, which doesn’t just have numbers, but hidden numbers expressed in a more understandable manner through the gun companies that all have their brands on the guns you find. Every single company has a different idea of how to make a gun, like Jacob focusing on pure power or Bandit weapons having weird drawbacks in exchange for major buffs, so you already have an idea of what every weapon does as you look at who manufactured them. From there, you can take the additional numbers listed into account, along with the simple elemental system expressed with just a simple “does [blank] damage” notifier.

The end result to all of this is that you’re constantly switching up your gun load and discovering new ways to play by how wildly different every gun is. For example, if you like things dying in one shot, Jacobs snipers and shotguns are obviously good, but a Hyperion version might include a higher fire rate and a weird statistic where it starts inaccurate and then every shot after being fired out quickly gets more accurate, which can be unexpectedly useful against damage sponge enemies to do a lot of damage in quick order. Any additional numbers from there just give you a better idea of what this particular gun can possibly do for you now that you already have an idea of how the brand works from past experience.

Someone also pointed out that Pokemon hides a lot of numbers, and that’s true. While some games benefit from just showing you all the numbers, particularly RPGs with a tactical heavy system (see Pillars of Eternity, Dragon Age, Baulder’s Gate, ect), for games with a more action focused bent, you have to have shorthand to players because seeing effects in battle might be harder to spot, especially with very minor, under 20% buffs.


So Horizon doesn’t really have elemental damage in the traditional sense - elementals are all status effects that you apply by building up a meter on the enemy (like poison in Souls games). Once you proc the burning condition (for example), the enemy will then take damage over time. Other elements cause stun or have other effects.

I’m fairly sure that the example 14% fire increases the burning condition progression - I’m not sure if it also increases the damage the burning condition does (and, now I think about it, I don’t remember what determines how much damage that actually does - a quick search tells me that it’s just a fixed percentage of enemy health).

Something I remember from my time with that game is that early on those weapon mods are almost irrelevant. Maybe you get lucky and find a good one, but a single +10% mod isn’t all that powerful - at least, you don’t really notice the effects. But in the late game they’re extremely overpowered since you unlock weapons with multiple mod slots and can easily get to the point you’re stacking multiple +40% mods and killing the biggest enemies in the game in a couple of volleys.

I generally feel like Horizon hits a good point between having meaningful choices in its progression without having a large number of uninteresting decisions. Mostly your choices are which weapons to buy and to have equipped to cover a range of enemy weaknesses and engagement types and though you can minmax the mods, it’s also completely reasonable to just use whatever the biggest relevant numbers are and not think about about it any more than that (a lot like Bloodborne in that regard).