There's an annoying trend I'm seeing in a lot of video games lately. It's starting to gain a lot of traction in newer, social games like Facebook apps and simple things like iGangster for the iPhone. This is a gameplay trend I'm going to call fake gameplay growth.

Gameplay growth is one of the things that makes video games fun to play. It's the flexibility and familiarity one gains when the gameplay grows due to their increased experience with the game. Most new games on consoles have gameplay growth: the player is free to experiment and find new ways to play the game. In a strategy game like StarCraft, the game gets steadily harder as the player gains more experience with the mechanics of the game; if you can't keep up with the gameplay mechanics, you can't keep up with the gameplay growth. So you'll be stuck doing levels over and over again.

Restarting levels is annoying, so it's easy to see, from a business perspective, why developers would want to cut back on real gameplay growth. How could they do this without making the game seem easy? If every level in StarCraft were the same, everyone would notice. This is where the fake gameplay growth comes in.

This is when the game only appears to be getting harder, in order to placate claims that the game is too easy. How do games pull this off? Mostly with poorly-executed RPG elements, really. Think of the leveling stuff in Dead Rising. Stuff like that. Why is it bad? Because as your levels go up, you get stronger, and the enemies get harder. It all evens out and has no effect on the game whatsoever; it just makes the game look like it's progressing when it really isn't.

Dead Rising isn't a bad game, however, because it still has other aspects to it that exhibit real growth (navigation, for example). In fact, fake gameplay growth is not necessarily bad at all. A lot of RPGs use fake gameplay growth but make up for it with a compelling story, or some kind of social aspect. (Almost every MMORPG is like this, and browser games with well-implemented communities.)

All in all, fake gameplay growth is not really all that evil -- it's primarily used for padding, which doesn't usually have a negative effect on the game itself. The only place where it really reigns supreme is in low-concentration "menu games", like the many "virtual mafia" type games you see on Facebook or the iPhone. These games usually have no goal other than navigating menus clicking buttons that do nothing but increase numbers. They're basically ego-stroking games, the only goal being to make yourself look cool by having a larger number than other people.

This is all just to say, it pays to pay attention to gameplay growth. Some games obfuscate it so well that it can be hard to tell if you're really having fun, or just pressing buttons.

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