I am closing in on 100 hours of playtime with Onward. Even though I’ve never really been a fan of tactical shooters before, I absolutely adore this game. Once you get accustomed to the controls, the sense of immersion is unparalleled. Many times when playing, I have taken note of how seriously I treat the gameplay, as if it was a genuine experience.
So, you must be thinking, ‘what hooks have Downpour Interactive built into the game to keep me coming back for more?’ The answer is: absolutely none.
There is no XP, player levels, weapon unlocks, skins, sprays, etc. Everything that is available to you is available the first moment you launch the game. You choose how you want to play it.
This got me thinking how distracting progression systems actually are. When I launch Onward, I am focused on my experience. I judge how I am performing at the game and I decide what I want to accomplish. I choose what I find to be a valuable use of my time.
Progression systems often encourage the player to accomplish specific tasks. This can be really helpful for people new to a game, as those tasks can get you to explore or learn new mechanics. Once the player has mastered the basics of a game, these same mechanics can eventually feel like a grind, because the player is no longer learning anything, they are just performing tasks, usually to chase a reward.
Without any progression mechanics a game needs to really shine on its own. If it is not enticing a player to keep playing, it needs to have a rock solid game loop. Without a sense of ‘level’ or XP, other players must judge each other by what they see and do, rather than a number, title or badge.
Part of me worries that Downpour Interactive just isn’t big enough of a studio to focus engineering time on a progression system, but I also like to imagine that it is a fully intentional decision not to have one. Creating a game without a progression puts every other decision under immense pressure to succeed. I personally think that is a really neat way to approach game design.