Disposable Progression

As I am playing a lot of mobile games lately, my nose is being rubbed in perhaps the most annoying design “feature” I have encountered in years: disposable progression.

The game in question is Gems of War, but it’s not specific to this title. Basically, you create a four-member team of monsters and use their abilities to fight your foes. There are hundreds of different monsters available, across a number of rarities, with all sorts of possibly interesting combinations. Each monster can be upgraded with a certain currency, special traits unlocked with a separate currency, and a third currency (extra copies) can upgrade the rarity of the card itself.

The problem is that you aren’t likely to use the first four monsters you pick up. So any currency you use to level them up and otherwise bridge the gap between completing missions and unboxing better monsters is effectively wasted. Maybe it can be considered “the cost of doing business,” but it nevertheless creates perverse incentives when I play. “Do I really need to level this guy up?” The answer is generally no, or at least never feels like a solid yes, so I don’t. And thus not only do I make the game more boring and harder for myself, I also rob myself of whatever pleasure can be derived from improving one’s characters.

I mean, it’s possible things were designed this way with the goal of actually getting players to waste currency in a bid to pad out game time. After all, if you sufficiently hoard currency, it’s technically possible to max out a new monster the minute you unbox it. That is not a particularly good outcome for anyone. And perhaps there isn’t really a way around things anyway – this may be a systemic issue the moment you design a game to have dozens and dozens of party members.

Regardless, it still feels bad. I have used the same monster team for the past two weeks, so I possibly should just bite the bullet and spend all my currency leveling them up. But the moment some cool legendary monster or whatever pops out of a box, I’m going to be quite miffed. And miffed to me is not opening the wallet to spend real currency buying fake currency, but uninstalling the game.

Posted on May 13, 2019, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. This translates into MMORPG game design as we’ve known it for years now. I’m playing through SW:TOR at the moment; it has all kinds of progressions, gear, gear modification, slills, stats… I don’t bother with any of them beyond a quick glance at the auto-comparison when I get a drop or quest reward and a r-click if I see more green than red. Why would I waste time on any of it when the game allows such rapid and unhindered progress in any old thing you happen to wear, using whatever skills you started out with?

    GW2 is the same – if you ask in-game people will routinely and rightly recommend you not to bother with any upgrade paths for armor or weapons or augmentation until you hit Level 80. The entire leveling process could be done naked if you so desired and you’d barely know the difference. In EQ2, where I’m playing up a Shadowknight on a server where I have no other characters, so entirely untwinked and by-his-bootstraps, I’m burning through at-level content at Level 90 in gear that’s thirty levels or more out of sync. I swapped out a quest reward yesterday and the piece I was wearing was Level 11 !

    A year or three back, when i played a bunch of imported MMORPGs like Blade and Soul and Revelation Online, they made a huge deal about upgrading your armor and I fell for it for a while, but eventually I realised it was a total waste of time. None of it ever matters until you hit max level and even then you can often skip a load of steps if you plan to go to the real end-game.

    I think it’s terrible design but that’s the way things are everywhere these days, not just in mobile.

    (Obligatory second-attempt post because I am an idiot).


    • I was going to suggest it’s a little worse in gacha-style games where you have to get party members out of loot boxes… but, nope, there isn’t much difference between monsters and rare items dropped from monsters in MMOs. I’m not sure why this feels like a revelation to me, but it does.


    • This is 100% because the difficulty level in most games, MMO or otherwise, is so low, that you don’t need to upgrade or play anywhere close to optimal to succeed. If the difficulty is higher and you can’t progress without understand the game better and actually caring about systems/progression, that all stops.


  2. I think Clash Royale handles this as well as it can be handled when new cards come out: initially that new cards is under-leveled for everyone, so not really usable outside of draft mode. But it’s not that hard to get the card to tourney level, and then its usable in that. Then depending on your clan, maybe you level it up to your current war levels if you want. Then if you like the card and it fits your ladder deck, you max it out.

    Each step the pool of players actually using the card gets smaller, but no card is ever completely unused (you don’t pick half your deck in draft).

    But poorly designed games will do exactly what you wrote above; give you choices that result in either paying now to hurt yourself later, or not paying and hurting yourself now. Good times.


    • Eh… I feel it breaks down in Clash at the top levels. Certain cards are almost completely useless unless they are maxed. For example, Furnace only deals chip damage against the same-level tower, and a level 13 Zap negates a level 12 Goblin Barrel. Even if I like a card, I can’t use it for months unless drop hundreds of dollars or wait 6+ months.

      Where I do (grudgingly) give credit is Clan Wars. Having the max level be 12 and a randomized card pool meant I actually spent 50k gold upgrading Spear Goblins, for example, despite never using them in any other deck on ladder simply because I wanted an extra edge in the clan battle. Can’t really use them on ladder though, because they don’t one-shot level 13 Skeletons or Bats. So it’s a “solution,” one that I don’t actively feel terrible about, but still recognize as being manipulative.


      • Right, ladder is the highest requirement for card usage, and at our level, that means maxed (even cards that still ‘work’ at v12 you ideally want at 13 anyway, or you get odd interactions like a 12 musket dying to 13 fireball).


  3. As long as the currency isn’t derived from real world money and the amount of currency to invest isn’t too cripplingly high, personally I’d go with what makes the game experience pleasant for myself while working towards the final goal.

    In GW2, while leveling characters, I used to stop at a couple of level tiers to do a quick re-gear out of cheap green masterwork gear, twinked with sigils for extra stats. It was of a disposable price, and speeded up combat noticeably. Time is a resource too.

    Not to mention, my enjoyment of fights went way up and I willingly engaged more and/or harder enemies for more experience. Maybe I’m just sensitive towards a smooth optimised experience, but I wouldn’t mind a cheap disposable investment towards a final goal as a stepping stone that makes it easier to reach and easier to earn more of the desired currency.

    If the currency is a scarce resource, time-limited or real money gated, then yeah, there may be more of a problem to weigh the balance of tradeoffs. Sometimes it’s still worth it to invest a little, not the max amount possible.

    In this case, I’m thinking something like Warframe where a Prime version of the frame is always better than the normal version, so one should optimally only twink out the better version. But if you don’t have the Prime version, are not going to get your hands on it for some time, and still need the normal version’s ability set for some missions, then it may still be worth installing a reactor to double the mod space, improving its effectiveness in the interim than struggling along with something weaker.

    As long as I can envision earning back the necessary amount of currency (in this case the reactor) by the time I need it for the final version, then the stuff I invested in the preliminary version to get a better experience is fine. It’s a rental, you’re not paying to own something forever, just to utilize for a certain time period.


  4. I’ve been playing Gems of War for a couple of years and I think maybe you are missing some data to see the whole picture. Gems of War is not a game about making two or three good teams. When you go beyond the first levels, the game is about making different teams. Then, suddenly there are a lot of troops you want to have fully traited and leveled. Maybe not all of them, but a lot. Also, you need to level all the troops to improve your kingdom’s power, so you get better tribute and bonuses from them.


    • That’s fair. My experience thus far is coming from having an initial number of troops I thought were good, then suddenly finding the Midge Swarm, which deals 11×2 damage (or 13×2 partially upgraded) with its ability. At the time, that was such a huge, nonsensical increase to power relative to what I had before that it called into question what troops still exist out there.


      • I’ve been there :) I struggled with a goblins team for quite a while after a found a guild where other members taught me a lot. It’s way more important to create synergic teams that the individual troops. There are quite a few ‘easy to make’ (no mythics) teams that are insane. Feel free to ask if you want some advice!


  5. You should build the classic soul farm cycle team.

    – Something robust, most likely your hero which also allows you to level it. I would use a weapon or a troop that uses blue gems.
    – Alchemist, with the first talent to get 25% more gold.
    – Banshee
    – Valkyrie


    Alchemist turns a gem color to yellow. The yellow gems will activate the Banshee and Valkyrie. The spell generates gold.

    Banshee deals direct damage and turns blue gems to red. The red gems will activate the Alchemist and Valkyrie. The spell generates souls.

    Valkyrie changes a gem color to blue.

    Use the spells only when you will get an extra turn, e.g. when chaning the color of a spell will result in at least a 4 match. After charging your troops you should be able to keep this cycling until you win without your enemy to play again.

    Not the fastest way to win but it’ll generate a ton of souls and gold.


%d bloggers like this: