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11 Ways Progression Works in Video Games


One of the biggest ways video games keep us engaged is the sense of progression, whether that be through our skill improving, unlocking in-game items, or seeing how a game’s story unfolds.

There are a number of unique ways you can progress through video games. Let’s take a look at 11 of them.

1. Completing Story or Side Missions

Man with holding controller with PS5 in the background

Let’s start with one of the clearest ways you can progress through a video game—by completing in-game missions, levels, quests, and so on.

This might sound obvious, but it’s easy to overlook the fact that completing in-game missions is progression. You might have varying motivations for completing certain missions, such as wanting to see more of the game’s story, unlock various items, or gain loot.

There are a bunch of accompanying progression methods that you’ll see as you play through a game’s missions (which we’ll get into), but you can always expect certain “rewards”. These can be intangible things, like fulfilling character arcs, story arcs, and new cut-scenes, or something that directly affects your gameplay experience, such as unlocking new areas to explore or more powerful weapons.

2. Leveling Up

Another obvious way you can undergo video game progression is by leveling up.

With a new level comes new stat increases that the game will automatically assign (i.e. increased health or damage), you will manually choose (assigning skill points), or a combination of both.


Besides this, if you’re leveling up, it’s often a sign that you’re both engaging with the game for an extended period and thus improving at the game.

Feeling your character or faction grow stronger in combination with your own gameplay skills improving leads to a very engaging and satisfying sense of game progression.

3. Video Game Score Systems or Ranks

A type of progression that adds to a game’s replay value is a score or rank system.

These can come during or at the end of levels (e.g. style ranks in the Devil May Cry series), in mini-games, or in leaderboards for various missions or game modes.

Having a score or rank gives you something to beat and marks a clear way to monitor your progression. Depending on the kind of game you’re playing, a score can be nearly as important as the game’s core gameplay loop, or it can be a nice, but not essential, addition.

4. Video Game Skill Trees

Video game skill trees are an excellent way for games to make you feel a sense of progression.

Though you’ll find them in all genres of video games, skill trees are a core part of role-playing games (RPGs) and usually comprise a set of skills you can unlock in, typically, a linear order, through skill points. These skills can range from simple stat boosts to giving you new abilities that could change your gameplay experience.

As we mentioned earlier, you can gain skill points by leveling up, but that’s not the only way. Games can reward you with skill points or upgrades for completing story or side missions, using a skill more often, or interacting with various parts of the game world (e.g. reading a skill book in Skyrim).

5. Visual Progression

Man Holding Smartphone Gaming

It’s one thing for a game to tell you you’ve progressed, it’s another thing entirely for you to actually see that progression on screen.

Visual progression can vary from subtle but impactful elements to grand changes that can directly impact your gameplay.

For example, the wear-and-tear on Batman’s costume as you progress through the story in each Arkham game doesn’t offer any gameplay changes. Instead, it serves as an impactful reminder of the grueling night Batman is having and the toll it’s taking on him, physically.

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got Ubisoft’s synchronization points in the Assassin’s Creed franchise or radio towers in the Far Cry series, which reveal huge sections of the game world once you complete them.

Then there are things like cosmetic upgrades, new animations, new skills, and so on. Visual progression is one of the strongest and most varied ways we can engage with games.

6. New Equipment Unlocks

A key form of video game progression that combines all the previous points is when you discover and unlock new in-game equipment.

The kind of equipment can vary depending on the type of game, from weapons, new costumes, armor pieces, vehicles, etc, as can the criteria you need to fulfill in order to use them.

It’s always satisfying gaining a new piece of equipment, but even more so when you really earn it, through completing a difficult side mission, defeating a certain boss, or leveling up your character’s skills in the right way.

7. Collectible Hunting

Nowadays, most games come packed with collectible items. Though the majority of these items don’t tie into the main story and can get to the point of busywork, they give you another reason to keep playing a game you love.

For completionists or those that really want to uncover every part of their favorite game, collectibles serve as accolades that reward your sense of exploration.

Finding the final chest or solving the last hidden puzzle brings a sense of gratification and progression that only one other type of progression method can give. Which is…

8. Trophies or Achievements

An extension of collectibles, we have your game’s unique Trophies or Achievements. Going beyond just finding things the developers have scattered throughout the game, earning a trophy can involve novel challenges.

Sure, you can grab trophies as you naturally play through story missions or try a new feature out for the first time. But collecting all of a game’s Trophies will require you to have a thorough understanding of the game’s mechanics.

The sense of progression is palpable as you see your Trophy list fill up with more and more trophies of differing rarity. Finally, there’s PlayStation’s Platinum Trophy (at the time of writing, Microsoft doesn’t have an equivalent) which displays just how far you’ve come and how much you’ve achieved.

Related: What Are PlayStation Trophies and What Do They Do?

9. Pay-to-Win Methods

Now for one of the… let’s say “hollower” methods of video game progression: pay-to-win.

Pay-to-win in video games gives players who decide to pay more money in a game an unfair advantage over those who’d like to progress naturally through… well, paying the game organically.

If this is so unfair, then why is it in gaming? Simply put, it’s another way for video game developers and publishers to squeeze money out of gamers at the risk of undermining their games. Which brings us to everyone’s everyone video game topic…

10. Microtransactions

Pay-to-win is part of a bigger beast and that is microtransactions. These small, often repeatable purchases can come in many forms, both in multiplayer and single-player games.

Microtransactions exist for the same reason pay-to-win does: they bring a ton of money for video game publishers and developers at the cost of gamers.

There are an entire load of problems with microtransactions which we’ll save for another day, but they do present video game progression, albeit in a potentially vapid way.

We say ‘potentially’ because some games can come with so much bloat that purchasing certain microtransactions actually gives you the best form of the game to play. Which highlights how broken certain video game developers’ and publishers’ philosophies are.

11. Trying Out Different Gameplay Styles

To end this list on a positive note, a last way you can progress in video games is through experimenting with different gameplay styles.

Whether it’s playing an RPG with a new character build, trying out pacifist or ghost runs in games like Dishonored, or mixing up moves and abilities in combat, you’ll face new opportunities that bring an all-new sense of progression.

Trying out new gameplay styles can make you view a game through a different lens, progress in unique ways, and thus appreciate it more.

Progress Through All Types of Video Games

Video games can give us an incredibly rewarding experience. In combination with their design and presentation, the multitude of ways in which video games present us with a sense of progression keeps us engaged.

Almost all games across each genre feature multiple methods of game progression. Be sure to try out different kinds of games to experience the wonderful and varied ways they keep you playing.

person playing Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch in handheld mode
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