[Blog] Torchlight 2 – Increments

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Games like Torchlight 2 are the popcorn of games. Boot it up and enjoy the gibs fly and before you know it 5 hours have passed and you notice your eyes hurt because you haven’t taken your eyes off the screen since then.

It’s this light buildup of tiny increments as the game progresses, the breadcrumbs of progress that makes these sorts of games so addictive yet at the same time rarely leave a lasting imprint on me.

It basically becomes he Sorites paradox; when does the pile of incremental stat upgrades, percentages, and various colors of loot plastered on my body become a heap of character growth and progress? At what point do I feel like I’m not just getting a slight boost in my weapon DPS and instead feel like I’ve become a sufficiently powerful character compared to my starting position?

This micro-increment system that you see in a lot of RPGs is often the fuel that the game relies on to keep the players engaged, and I’m all for that to an extent. The question becomes how fine a grain of increment does the game need before progression feels tedious or reveals too much of its hand and makes its Skinner Box-ness obvious?

I’ve been having a similar feeling while playing through Fallout 4 (thoughts coming soon), where so much of the loot, particularly the armor, offer incremental improvements in certain stats, but at the same time clashes with the upgrading/mod system to slow down loot assessment to a crawl as I try to figure out if a weapon upgrade or armor mod will adjust the stats to be just slightly better than what I have now.

Back to Torchlight 2, and I find this “microcrement” (coining new terms is always the sign of a intellectual, of course) to weave itself into the skill and ability systems. I always find myself defaulting to upgrading a skill I have already invested in rather than spending a valuable skill point on an ability that sounds cool but messes with the groove I’ve already gotten into when the default/basic abilities I started with. I don’t want to divide my heap of stat increases into a pile of unfamiliar territory.

Yes, there is respecing, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? One can’t reliably test out abilities and build without having another system in place to revert everything. Considering one can’t reliably respec outside the town hub, you’d be stuck with an ability you’re not familiar with or optimized for until you get back. Moreover, the microcrements encourage you to deep dive into an ability rather than have a breadth of options, so respecing only becomes useful when wanting to completely overhaul a build mid-game rather than waste time and currency trying out a single ability before reverting it.

I’m reminded again of this study (and I have no idea if it was a legitimate study, but bera with me) where two groups of people ate chicken wings. One group ate their food and had their plates and leftovers cleaned off while eating, and the other had their leftovers remain. The group who had their tables bussed ended up eating about 30% more food than the group that kept their leftovers.

Likewise, I think it’d be interesting to see how games can make players feel good, feel full, with less content. When people see the progress they’ve made, rather than tossing away evidence of the struggle, it puts the progress into perspective. Snapshots of early character levels with low-level gear, comparisons between higher and lower-level abilities, small things that indicate the heap of progress rather than a pile of increments.

Games like to get players to the end, all powerful destination, but rarely do they let us look back and see how far we’ve come.

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