[In this critical examination, British games journalist and Flash game producer Simon Parkin takes a look at a satirical game that reveals much about the state of game design.]
The evidence that video games may yet emerge from their period of extended adolescence comes not from the dizzying realism of the next Forza, nor from the unrivaled spectacle of the forthcoming God of War, nor even the news that Lara's improbable cleavage is scheduled for a sober reduction in the next Tomb Raider.
Rather, it's in the emergence of a new breed of satirical web game, one most famously exemplified by last year's Achievement Unlocked, which poked fun at gamers' obsessional pursuit of Xbox Achievement points and PlayStation trophies.
These snappy experiences parody not the grim cliches of gaming's stories, settings, or visuals, but rather the more subtle underlying systems that drive them or, in the case of Achievement Unlocked, surround them. They compel us to play via the very same hooks that big budget titles employ, but their exaggerated presentation and irreverent context encourage us to evaluate the worth of these mechanics and, in doing so, question the very reasons why we find them so irresistible.
Upgrade Complete is the latest such satirical game in this vein. It begins by presenting players with the bare bones of a shoot 'em up; a blocky, silent retro game whose music, graphics, menus and even developer logos must be bought and upgraded one by one with in-game currency.
At first glance Upgrade Complete appears to be making fun of downloadable content, those upgrades -- new costumes, weapons, characters and levels -- released by a developer for a modest fee after a game's initial release. After all, until you purchase a humble loading bar you can't even start this game (the developer "lends" you $1000 to make this initial purchase).
But as you play on, the game's target is revealed to be a more substantial and pervasive one: that of the in-game upgrades that furnish our characters with better weapons and abilities, a feature found in almost all contemporary video games from Fallout 3 to Call of Duty 4.
In Upgrade Complete, your slow-moving ship starts out with a single front-mounted gun. But as you shoot down enemy ships and collect the coins they drop, you can pay to upgrade and "customize" its maneuverability, weapons and effectiveness, revealing, piece by piece, the final, ideal iteration of the ship originally designed by the game's creator.
This mechanic originated in traditional RPGs, where defeating monsters earns experience points and coins used to improve your character's abilities and purchase new spells, armor, and weapons. The system is compelling because it offers a clear way in which your time spent with a game results in demonstrable progress, while also strengthening the idea of your character undergoing a journey through which they're growing and developing.
But it's also a fiercely linear sort of progression: the more you play, the more your character realizes its predestined potential, one that has little to do with your own choices or successes.
In recent years more diverse games have begun to adopt this unlock trajectory, using it as a way to hook their player in and to artificially pace the game’s progression. Recent open-world titles Infamous and Prototype each feature characters who start off as pale reflections of the avatars they eventually become, the pacing of each game set by the character abilities that unlock in a steady trickle.
So it is with Upgrade Complete, a game that only begins to resemble its final, finished state as you play and invest in it. It's compelling because the economy of cause and effect is immediate, overt and frequent. But it is also a cheap trick that highlights a fundamental change in the way designers are constructing their games.
In the beginning, non-RPGs rarely employed this kind of system. In Pac-Man, for example, players enjoy the full range of their avatars' abilities right from the off. The focus isn't on playing the game for a long time to develop (or, more accurately, complete) their characters, but on perfecting technique with a defined, immovable skill set. The better you are at Pac-Man, the further into the game you are able to progress, its rewards structured around perfecting skill rather than merely investing time.
Likewise, the full breadth of Street Fighter IV's content is unlocked very quickly. And yet tens of thousands of players are still heavily invested in the game, not because there is more content to "purchase," or better moves with which to upgrade Ryu and Chun-Li, but rather because they are on a quest to play the game more effectively and beautifully, to perfect their technique and to better manipulate its systems.
There is no in-game reward structure in Street Fighter IV for a player who invests more time than another player, other than the probability that they will grow to become better at the game. As such the payoff for the player is in learning and improving a skill, not in purchasing and accruing in-game items or upgrades, a crucial distinction that bucks current consumer-based gaming systems.
In part the use of sequential character upgrades in games is a byproduct of the pursuit of linear narratives. If a game is telling the story of a character's journey, then one of the easiest ways to communicate a sense of that journey through the game system is by adding to the character's abilities. But this approach, while effective, encourages sloppy design.
Imagine if Super Mario's jump distance extended as you worked through Super Mario World (as it does in Prototype). The need to craft thoughtful levels and puzzles and construct a balanced difficulty curve through them would diminish as the pacing of the game is instead dictated by withholding abilities, not finding ever more inventive ways of challenging a player to apply what they've always had.
Good games encourage players to literally better themselves, rather than simply toiling away to unlock game features or character upgrades that should have been present from the start. And yet, this most simple of reward schemes can prove irresistible, locking us in to patterns of play that distract without enriching.
We should be glad of satirical games such as Upgrade Complete which challenge us to identify what it is we find attractive about a particular game, and, as with choosing a partner, discern whether that attraction will be good for us in the long run. Therein lies maturity.