Design and Implementation of Player Growth Systems. Exemplified through a Third-Person Action Game

Bachelor Thesis, 2020

139 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Contents


Table of Contents

List of Figures

List of Tables

List of Terms

List of Abbreviations


Executive Summary (German)

1. Project Introduction
1.1 Individual Goal
1.2 Relevance
1.2.1 Player Growth Systems
1.2.2 The Power of Growth as a Game Mechanic
1.2.3 Method: Experimental Nature of Relume
1.3 Outline

2. State of the Art - Literature Review
2.1 Defining Black and White Thinking
2.2 Systems Theory
2.3 Player vs. Player Character

3. The Design of Player Growth Systems
3.1 Definition of Player Growth
3.2 Visual Growth
3.2.1 Visual Growth Definition
3.2.2 Background
3.2.3 Examples
3.3 Player Ability Growth
3.3.1 Definition
3.3.2 Background
3.3.3 Examples
3.4 Emotional Growth
3.4.1 Definition
3.4.2 Background
3.4.3 Examples
3.5 Growth Related to Audio
3.5.1 Definition
3.5.2 Background
3.5.3 Examples
3.6 Combining multiple aspects of Player Growth
3.7 Player Regression
3.8 Growth Plateauing
3.9 Summary of Growth Elements

4. Methods as Applied to the Project (Implementation)
4.1 Why Third Person Action Games?
4.2 Growth Systems Outline
4.3 Growth Unlock Structure
4.4 Growth Mechanics instead of Violence
4.5 Movement in Relume
4.6 Storytelling: Emotional Growth
4.7 Player Narrative
4.8 Combat in Relume
4.9 Dancing in Relume
4.10 Teaching Growth Mechanics to Player
4.11 Summary of Growth Systems in Relume

5. Technical Implementation
5.1 Visual Player Growth
5.2 Player Abilities
5.3 Animations
5.4 Audio Programming
5.5 Teaching and Communicating Mechanics
5.6 Contributed Assets

6. Measurement Approach
6.1 General Playtests
6.2 Reworked Thesis Testing
6.3 Online Growth Testing
6.4 Questionnaire Comparison
6.5 Measuring Engagement through Analytics

7. Data Results
7.1 Early Survey
7.2 Late Production Survey
7.3 Online Growth Survey
7.4 Unity Analytics

8. Data Evaluation
8.1 Connection to Bachelor Goal
8.2 Survey Methodology

9. Player Growth Discussion
9.1 Conclusions for Player Growth Systems based on Results
9.2 Limitation of Player Growth Systems
9.3 Inherent Problems of Player Growth Systems

10. Project Reflection
10.1 Missing Research
10.2 Lessons Learned
10.3 Team Evaluation

11. Conclusion

12. Bibliography

13. Ludography 80 Appendix


Growth is an intrinsic element of human nature. Humans age and develop with the passage of time. Video games use elements of such desires for growth to power their gameplay.

Player growth systems analyze the changes that a player and their player character experience during gameplay. This includes the visual changes, ability upgrades, as well as the emotional development that takes place during the story. Thus, a framework is presented to investigate how games with player growth systems are structured and how player characters evolve inside these games.

This framework is then applied to a game project during its development to show how these tools can be used in an actual project. This process of implementation serves to visualize concrete examples of player growth systems. Specifically, the focus of the project was on the idea of plant growth in a third-person action game.

The game developed during the project is tested in user tests to study the impact of player growth systems on engagement and gameplay structure. For this, a survey is used. It was found that players enjoyed learning new abilities and growing visually. Finally, the limitations of player growth systems are presented. This includes growth stagnation (lack of new end-game content).

Keywords: Player growth systems, action, adventure, black-and-white thinking, game design, overview, narrative, upgrades, user testing, Unity, analytics

List of Figures

Figure 1 Visual player growth in Katamari Damacy Bandai. (2004). Katamari Damacy

Figure 2 Visual player growth in Pokemon - evolution process Nintendo a Game Freak, (n.d). Accessed on January 31, 2020 from

Figure 3 Jenova Chen's game flow theory Chen, J. (2007). Flow in games (and everything else). Communications of the ACM, 50(4), 31-

Figure 4 Player ability progression in Super Metroid Nintendo a Intelligent Systems. (1994). Super Metroid

Figure 5 Ability stickers in Super Smash Bros. Brawl Nintendo et al. (2008). Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Figure 6 The escalating process of collecting money in the Lego Star Wars series. Traveller's Tales. (2007). Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga

Figure 7 Using tools to make new tools in Minecraft. Mojang. (2011). Minecraft

Figure 8 Minecraft experience bar indicating player growth. Mojang. (2011). Minecraft

Figure 9 Enchanting items in Minecraft. Mojang. (2011). Minecraft. Accessed on January 31, 2020 from

Figure 10 Deus Ex provides players with high levels of player agency and freedom Ion Storm. (2000). Deus Ex

Figure 11 Player character journey in the high-expression game The Sims. Atreya. (2008). Mansion and Garden Hair Fix. Accessed on November 7, 2019 from

Figure 12 Player characters making new friends in the game Wattam. Funomena.(2019).Wattam

Figure 13 Player audio growth in Rhythm Heaven - escalating music. Nintendo. (2006). Rhythm Tengoku

Figure 14 Player audio growth in Rhythm Heaven - new drum lessons. Nintendo. (2006). Rhythm Tengoku

Figure 15 Patapon has players gather more patapon and make use of rhythm timing. Sony Interactive Entertainment. (2007). Patapon

Figure 16 Patapon gameplay showcasing audio growth. Sony Interactive Entertainment. (2007). Patapon

Figure 17 Fusion of various player growth systems in Darwin's Demons. Polymorphic Games. (2017). Darwin's Demons

Figure 18 Growing the town in Empires and Puzzles. Small Giant Games, (n.d.). Empires a Puzzles

Figure 19 Hero selection in Empires and Puzzles. Small Giant Games, (n.d.). Empires a Puzzles

Figure 20 Warframes and equipment in Warframe. Digital Extremes. (2013). Warframe

Figure 21 Warframe allows players to create their own music which affects gameplay. Digital Extremes. (2013). Warframe

Figure 22 Player weapon "deleveling" in Cave Story as type of player regression. Studio Pixel. (2004). Cave Story

Figure 23 Various player growth stages in Knack. SCE Japan Studio. (2013). Knack. Edit: Arndt, L (2020)

Figure 24 Visual regression in Loco Roco. SCE Japan Studio. (2006). Loco Roco

Figure 25 Growth plateauing in a linear game. Arndt, L (2019)

Figure 26 Relume influence explanation Arndt, L (2019)

Figure 27 Example of one of the growth wells found inside the game. Arndt, L (2019)

Figure 28 Ability growth unlock structure in Relume. Arndt, L (2020)

Figure 29 Learning to walk in Relume. Tiny Snail Games. (2020)

Figure 30 Dashing upgrade concept by Sophie Kernbach. Kembach, S. (2020). Creating an emotional and thought-provoking narrative through non-verbal storytelling and engaging character design

Figure 31 Increase in player ability possibility space in Relume. Arndt, L (2020)

Figure 32 Early concept sketch of the shadow baby by Sophie Kembach. Kembach, S. (2020). Creating an emotional and thought-provoking narrative through non-verbal storytelling and engaging character design

Figure 33 Shadow paintings in Relume to promote player narrative and emotional growth. Tiny Snail Games. (2020)

Figure 34 Iteration of the dance targets in Relume. Shadow dancer drawing by Kembach (see other citations). Arndt, L (2020)

Figure 35 Explicitly teaching the player how to jump.. Tiny Snail Games. (2020)

Figure 36 Interactive teaching of dancing with the Shadow Baby. Tiny Snail Games. (2020)

Figure 37 Overview of player growth systems in Relume. Character drawings by Kembach (see other citations). Arndt, L (2020)

Figure 38 AbilityManager and FlowerHealthlndicator. Arndt, L (2020)

Figure 39 Usage of signals to implement visual player growth. Arndt, L (2020)

Figure 40 Technical implementation of player abilities. Arndt, L (2020)

Figure 41 Questionnaire comparison. Arndt, L (2020)

Figure 42 Participant reaction to the player growth systems. Arndt, L (2020)

Figure 43 Participant response to various items. Arndt, L (2020)

Figure 44 DancersBefriended vs DancersKilled analytics(custom events). Arndt, L (2020)

Figure 45 Unlabelled figure in conclusion section. Kembach, S. (2019). Untitled

List of Tables

Table 1 Data: Game Freak (1999). Size of various evolution stages. Edit: Arndt, L (2020)

Table 2 Arndt, L (2020). Growth Wells in Relume

Table 3 Arndt, L (2020). Ability Growth Systems in Eternal

Table 4 Arndt, L (2020). Example of Analytics Data

Table 5 Arndt, L (2020). Table 5: Empathy results of the late production survey

Table 6 Arndt, L (2020). Online Growth Survey Results

Table 7 Arndt, L (2020). Likert-scale matrix results from late production survey

Table 8 Arndt, L (2020). Total frequency of different custom events

List of Terms

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


This project would not be possible without the team behind it. Relume was developed by Lea Bormann, Darleen Schipper, Sophie Kernbach, Eike Kreisel, and Leon Arndt. Sound and music support was provided by Darius Sobolewski, Theresa Paulsen, and Gabriel Arlauskas.

This project was created under the supervision of Prof. Carla Heinzel and Prof. Katharina Kafka. Their patient care and feedback helped to nurture this project while it was growing. Prof. Boris Kunkel kindly provided additional supervision for various research projects of the team. Furthermore, the consultation and input of various students was helpful. Specifically, Daniel Schellhaas and his insight into action combat systems, Fabian Kober's knowledge of Unity, and Lauritz Vogelsang's perspective on color proved invaluable for the project's development.

Relume was created at the Hochschule Darmstadt in Dieburg, Germany. The generous on-site support and Darleen's reliable water cooker made this project a pleasure to work on. The team is thankful for the assistance of Max Trautvettter and Fabio Strenger who made rooms available to us and supplied the project with additional hardware. Furthermore, the version control support of Prof. Dr. Martin Leissler and the sound support that Martin Haas provided for us helped to keep the project on track. I would like to thank Lea Bormann and Dr. Peter Arndt for their feedback on the thesis and helping me to make sure that everything is comprehensive as well as comprehensible.

Player growth systems offer a broad lense to study and design games. Other researchers in the field have already supplied a quantity of helpful work. Previous work from Petri Lankoski was helpful to develop new ideas behind emotional player growth. The work of Tracy Fullerton helped to provide a foundation for game system analysis. The early work of Jenova Chen on game flow was helpful in writing the player ability growth section. All of this imparted knowledge was instrumental in the creation of this thesis and their work was a precious resource during the research process.

Executive Summary (German)

Wachstum ist ein Kernelement der Menschheit. Kinder werden groBer und Lernen Lauren. Stadte entwickeLn sich und wachsen zusammen. Menschen Lernen sich kennen und ihre Bekanntschaft wachst zu einer Freundschaft. Immer gibt es Veranderungen.

SoLche Veranderungen gibt es auch in SpieLen. Diese Mechaniken des Wachstums findet man in diversen SpieLen aLs ein MitteL der SpieLstruktur und des Game Designs. Es ist notwendig eine Ubersicht fur diese Wachstumsmechaniken zu ersteLLen. Nur mit der HiLfe einer soLchen Ubersicht ist es mogLiche soLche Systeme zu evaLuieren und miteinander zu vergLeichen. ZusatzLich Liefert eine soLche Ubersicht die MogLichkeit SpieLe zu entwickeLn die sich an diesen Prinzipien und ELementen des Wachstums orientieren.

Zunachst werden die Arten des Wachstums definiert und erkLart. Hier foLgt eine knappe Ubersicht:

VisueLLer Wachstum ist Wachstum, der das Aussehen der SpieLfigur verandert. Das kann eine einfache Veranderung sein wie die GroBe des SpieLers aber auch eine kompLexere, wie die voLLstandige EntwickLung von einem Wesen zu einem anderen. Ein BeispieL dafur sind die EntwickLungsphasen von Pokemon.

FahigkeitsentwickLung umfasst die Mechaniken die dem SpieLer zu Verfugung stehen. Dabei handeLt es sich urn die Verbesserung bereits verfugbarer Mechaniken/Fahigkeiten und das freischaLten neuer Fahigkeiten. Bei einer soLchen FahigkeitsentwickLung erweitert sich der sogenannte "Possibility Space" weLcher dem SpieLer zur Verfugung steht.

EmotionaLer Wachstum umfasst die Beziehung, die der SpieLercharakter zu anderen Charakteren hat. EmotionaLer Wachstum umfasst auch die MogLichkeiten, die der SpieLer hat sich in der Story durch etwaige Entscheidung oder dich die gefuhLte Zugehorigkeit mit verschiedenen SpieLpartien auszudrucken.

Audio Entwicklung umfasst interaktive Musik und Sound Effekte die auf den Wachstumszustand des Spielers abgestimmt sind. Ein BeispieL hierfur sind Rhythm-Games, die nach und nach neue Soundeffekte und Rhythmen in das Gameplay integrieren, urn dem Spieler mehr Moglichkeiten zu geben und urn auf dessen Entscheidungen zu reagieren.

Nachdem Wachstumsmechaniken in Spielen definiert sind werden sie bei anderen Spielen untersucht. Dabei werden Spiele aus verschieden Genres und Platformen untersucht. Hierbei stellt sich heraus dass Wachstummechaniken vielseitig verwendet werden. Verschiedene typen von Wachstumsmechaniken konnen auch miteinander kombiniert werden.

Danach wird die Implementierung von Wachstumsmechaniken in dem entwickelten Bachelorprojekt "Relume" gezeigt. Relume ist ein third-person Action Adventure game. In diesem Spiel geht es urn eine Pflanze in einem Wald. Nach und nach wachst diese Pflanze von einem Samen zu einer groBeren und starkeren ausgewachsenen Baumkreatur.

User Tests wurden verwendet urn die Leistung dieser Wachstums Systeme zu prufen. Wahrend des Spiels wurden Tester gefragt ihre Gedanken und Gefuhle laut auszusprechen. Zusatzlich dazu gab es eine Umfrage nach diesen Usertests. In der Umfrage wurden zu der Empfindung der Wachstumssysteme Fragen gestellt. Weiterfuhrend wurden Teilnehmer gefragt wie ansprechend diese Mechaniken fur sie waren.

In der letzten Phase der Produktion wurde eine zweite Version des Usertests entwickelt.. Dieser zweite Usertest ist speziell designt, urn die Daten zu den Research Questions der einzelnen Mitglieder des Teams zu generieren. In dieser Thesis geht es urn Spielerwachstum, deswegen betrachtet der zweite Usertest dieses Thema genauer.

Weiterhin wurde eine Onlineumfrage zum Thema Wachstum in Spielen evaluiert. Diese wurde von Darleen Schipper aufgesetzt. Es wurden verschiedene Arten von Wachstum miteinander verglichen. Tester wurden gefragt, welche Art von Wachstum sie praferieren. Hierbei lag der Schwerpunkt bei den unterschiedlichen Methoden visuellen Wachstum darzustellen.

ALs Letzte Testmethode wurden Unity Analytics verwendet. Somit konnte das tatsachliche Spielverhalten von SpieLern untersucht werden. Dies war hilfreich urn die Antworten der anderen Umfragen zu erganzen.

Anhand der Usertests hat sich herausgestellt, dass diese Systeme fur Spieler interessant waren und als strukturierendes Element erkannt wurden. Weiterhin, war es fur Sie enttauschend wenn die Frequenz dieser Wachstumsveranderungen zu gewissen Zeiten im Spiel geringer war. Dies zeigt die positive Funktion von Wachstumssystemen in Spielen.

Die Nachteile und Limitationen von Wachstumssystemen werden ebenfalls untersucht. Hierbei geht es insbesondere urn die Stagnationsphase. Da Methoden wie Fahigkeitsentwicklung abhangig davon sind, dass Entwickler neue Inhalte fur das Spiel erstellen, gibt es in solchen Spielen ein "End-Game". In dem der Spieler keine neuen Fahigkeiten mehr bekommen kann. Dies ist die Stagnationsphase. In dieser Phase kann der Spieler keine neuen Mechaniken mehr entdecken und hat somit weniger SpaB.

In der Zukunft sollte das hier prasentierte System zur Analyse fur Spieler Wachstumsmechaniken von anderen Entwicklern erweitert werden. Beispielsweise lieBen sich die Elemente des Wachstums auf Genren aufteilen urn die jeweiligen Vor- und Nachteile der verschiedene Elemente in verschiedenen Genren vergleichen; zum Beispiel Fahigkeitsentwicklung in Action Games verglichen mit emotionalen Wachstum in Story Games. Sind diese beiden Entwicklungen gleichwertig fur den Spieler?

Im Appendix der Bachelorthesis befindet sich ein Research Paper. Dieses Paper beschaftigt sich mit Gewalt in Action Games. Der Action Games Markt wird untersucht und die Rolle von Gewalt wird fur verschiedene Spielertypen analysiert. Macht Gewalt fur soziale Spieler SpaB? Kaufen kompetitive Spieler eher Action Games mit Gewalt?

1. Project Introduction

This introduction has been written as a team but reworded where needed. Relume is a third-person action-adventure game developed by a team of five bachelor students at the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences. Our bachelor project began with the idea of creating a game that challenges traditional tropes of black-and-white thinking in action games. Black-and-white thinking is used to describe games which promote the idea of simple heroism: you play the hero and kill the bad guys. This is what drives popular violent action games (Gartside, 2015). We believed that more could be done to make action games a medium that moves beyond this trope. During production, this initial goal of overcoming black-and-white thinking has evolved to a more specific primary goal: Implementing a change of perspective in an action game. The two secondary goals are nonverbal storytelling and player growth mechanics.

Non-verbal storytelling is used to reduce production costs (writing, recording, and implementing dialog) as well as to allow players more freedom of interpretation. Furthermore, non-verbal storytelling has been found to stimulate imagination and reflection (Sim and Mitchell, 2017). This gives the player an increased responsibility to formulate their own opinions. The growth mechanics in Relume provide an alternative to traditional violent mechanics found in action games. Additionally, players are allowed to dance rather than to fight. This provides an interesting and engaging moral choice (Formosa, 2016; Ryan et al., 2019).

Various games have established the concepts that our project relies on. The game Spore (Maxis, 2008) has gameplay focused around the concept of growth and evolution. However, its focus is not on action-based gameplay. The game Ryse: Son of Rome (Crytek, 2013) has a change of perspective but does not employ non-verbal storytelling. The game Journey (Thatgamecompany, 2012) has non-verbal storytelling but is missing a change of perspective. Thus, there is a gap for a game that employs all of these elements. Our game, Relume, aims to fill this gap by combining non-verbal storytelling together with growth and a change of perspective. This creates an innovative experience which explores new ground.

1.1 Individual Goal

As a programmer and game designer, my contribution to this project will be to supply the systems that power the game. That means committing to designing fun mechanics in a game that is no longer about earning coins or beating up bad guys. The challenge herein lies to replace traditional violent action tropes such as warfare and black-and-white heroism with alternative constructive approaches focused around growth and development. Specifically, I will be taking a look at player growth systems.

The research question is:

How can the player character grow over time and how does this affect the player?

To approach this problem, the game's systems will need to facilitate movement to support storytelling by providing an alternative to violence (movement and growth). Furthermore, it will be necessary to design these constructive mechanics in a way that is fun for the player and satisfies them equally to violent games.

The lessons learned and models created are gathered here in a way so that they can also be used by other developers and researchers working in game development. It is my wish for this project to contribute to an ongoing conversation on player growth and alternative tools to replace violence in action games.

Finally, it is a personal goal of mine to work on a project with the scope of a small indie production. I want to pursue the optimization of various development workflows and production pipelines as well as to hone in on an iterative approach for a large-scale production such as that found in the bachelor project.

1.2 Relevance

1.2.1 Player Growth Systems

This thesis is centered around player growth systems. These systems can be found throughout many different genres, platforms, and eras of games. However, often only a small chapter of an expansive piece of design literature is dedicated to them. Additionally there does not seem to be literature focused on the subject completely.

This thesis aims to fill that gap by providing a comprehensive overview of the definition of these systems as well as guiding the reader through the design and implementation of such systems alongside a third-person action-adventure game.

The design chapters are dedicated to introducing the reader to various titles which incorporate elements of player growth systems. These titles will be analyzed using a systems design framework. Through this, player growth systems will be used as a lens to study various titles. Many game designers and gamers will attest to these systems but there is a clear need for concise terminology and tools to analyze these systems. Finally, the necessity and general application of these systems will need to be evaluated.

1.2.2 The Power of Growth as a Game Mechanic

The importance of this research stems from a lack of a framework dedicated to the study of player growth systems. This means that it is currently difficult for designers and players to communicate on a topic related to these systems. Furthermore, if growth mechanics provide a positive effect on engagement, more action games should incorporate such mechanics to reach a wider audience (Arndt, 2020). This means that action-adventure games such as Relume will benefit from nonviolent mechanics and it will be easier to move past black-and-white thinking.

1.2.3 Method: Experimental Nature of Relume

As mentioned previously, player growth systems will be studied through literature review as well as through practical work: testing the player growth systems in a newly created title focused around such mechanics.

Relume is an experimental project. It strives to push action games forwards through non-verbal storytelling, player growth mechanics, and player agency. Furthermore, the choice to either fight or dance presents players an option that is unusual for action games.

Due to this highly experimental nature, elements of the game are changed in production. Some ideas will work, others will need to be changed to work or will fail completely. These shortcomings are covered in the Discussion chapter.

1.3 Outline

A brief outline for the bachelor thesis is provided here. First, the State of the Art chapter is dedicated to reviewing existing work from other research related to player growth systems. This covers definitions as well as foundational findings which will be used in the Design of Player Growth Systems section.

The Design of Player Growth Systems section is dedicated to defining what player growth systems are as well as the elements related to player growth. This includes new definitions for visual player growth, ability player growth, and emotional player growth. These definitions are then applied to study examples from existing games. This is done to communicate their usage to the reader more clearly.

The next section of the paper, Implementation, applies the methods studied in other games and newly created methods to the bachelor project, Relume. The experimentation and production process is explained as well as how various growth systems work together in the project.

The Technical Implementation chapter explains how the player growth mechanics of Relume were programmed. Each element type of player growth is covered separately.

The Measurement Approach chapter explains how the combination of analytics and user testing provided multiple perspectives. It goes into the methodology for each type of testing and explains the thought process behind the questions. Furthermore it indicates the advantages and disadvantages of each type of testing. The chapter Data Results displays and explains the data found in the user testing sessions as well as the data found through the analytics testing.

Finally, the data results are discussed. This is followed by a more general discussion of the bachelor project. This general discussion includes the advantages and disadvantages of player growth systems. Furthermore, a conclusion for the project is provided. This is accompanied by suggestions for future research and indicates shortcomings of the project as a whole.

2. State of the Art - Literature Review

2.1 Defining Black and White Thinking

To assess this problem we must first define black and white thinking. In popular psychology, black and white thinking is the process of splitting an individual's actions into two extreme categories: either all good, or all bad. This is often visualized as a defense mechanism of a child towards its parents (Fairbarn, 1954).

When applied to games, the meaning becomes more specific: Black and white thinking in games will be defined as any system which dictates what is "good" and aligns the player's goals according to that. Unlike the real-world psychological concept, there is no defense mechanism in play here since the extreme concepts of good and bad are presented to the player directly by the game. The player's own moral compass is not of importance in these cases since the moral meaning of good and bad is already defined in the game world.

Going further with this, the context in which moral situations are presented affects the intensity of how humans evaluate them morally (as just or unjust). Research at the University of Cambridge indicates that simple visual changes have an impact on this. For example, a black-and-white checkerboard pattern leads to more extreme cases -completely just or completely unjust (Zarkadi and Schnall, 2013).

2.2 Systems Theory

Player growth mechanics will be examined as systems. To frame the design part of this paper research by Tracy Fullerton will be used to provide a method to structure and identify various elements. Fullerton proposes that all games are systems (Fullerton, 2018). Furthermore these system dynamics govern the growth and change of these systems over time (Ibid).

Such systems consist of objects, properties, behaviors, and relationships. This is not only true for game design, as Fullerton posits, but software design in general In a 2015 overview on the relationships of systems inside object-oriented design, Rashidi indicates that all of the properties described by Fullerton apply to general object-oriented programming as well (Rashidi, 2015).


"Objects are the basic building blocks of a system." (Fullerton, 2018). This means that in general, both the player (the human being) and the player character are objects of the system (Ibid). In this paper, both the player and the player character are examined as different objects.


These objects have various properties. These properties may include visual information such as appearance but also encompass character health or location (Ibid). Fullerton further notes that these properties directly impact the possible interactions of the objects within the system (Ibid).

In this paper, visual appearance and player ability growth are examined as changes in the properties of the player object.


Fullerton defines behaviors as "potential action that an object might make in a given state" (Ibid). In the context of a game, a behavior may be the player character's ability to navigate around the world as well as their abilities in a combat situation.

In this paper, player ability growth systems are used to identify changes in behavior of the player character. Furthermore, player behavior is inspected in relation to player agency (freedom of choice and meaningful consequence) to study player choices and their consequences. This also includes the ability to make those choices.


The final element of game systems are relationships. Fullerton argues that relationships between objects is what defines a system and differentiates it from a collection. Collections consist of many objects without a relationship to each other. When these objects are given rules and relationships, a system is created (Ibid.)

In this paper, relationships are used to study the impact that different variables have on the player and vice versa. For example, the conditions and consequences of player actions.

System Dynamics

System Dynamics refers to the unpredictable nature of these systems (Ibid). According to Zimmerman and Salen, this unpredictability can be attributed (at least in part) to the nature of games (Zimmerman, 2008). Zimmerman proposes that "The game designer creates structures of rules directly, but only indirectly creates the experience of play when the rules are enacted by players." (Ibid).

Later, in the Implementation, section, these inherent system dynamics are studied for how they are encouraged and influenced by player growth systems. Different examples of the implementation of player growth in released games will be studied in the Design section.

2.3 Player vs. Player Character

Player refers to any human playing a game. Player character refers to their representation inside that game. This is commonly referred to as an avatar. Filiciak defines avatars as "the user's representative in the virtual universe" (Filiciak, 2013). Thus, the same player character (avatar) may have many different players. (Waggoner, 2009; Goldberg, 1998).

A distinction needs to be made between player and player character in order to identify differences. An example where this becomes apparent is the possible difference in emotional growth experienced in the player and the player character. The player may grow to align themselves differently in the game world than the changes the player character goes through.

3. The Design of Player Growth Systems

3.1 Definition of Player Growth

After being unable to find a commonly agreed definition for player growth in games it has become clear that this term needs to be defined for this paper.

Player Growth: The changes a player and their character go through during gameplay. Going beyond physical growth, this also encompasses emotional advancement and developing/unlocking character abilities.

Some examples which will be covered in this thesis are:

- The visual growth and collection process in Pokemon
- The emotional bond developed in The Sims franchise
- Unlocking new abilities in Super Metroid

A psycho-structural analysis of video games was performed in 2004 to define categories and characteristics for different products (Wood, 2004). The team created these categories after studying various games and conducted empirical research to evaluate these structural attributes of video games. The research found that 66% of respondents answered that they found "it was important for the characters to be able to develop over time in terms of features such as dexterity, strength, and intelligence." (Ibid)

This category, referred to as "character development" in the study, is tied closely to the concept of player growth systems which will be studied in this paper. Additional categories from this research such as "Game dynamics" and "Advancement rate" will be used as found applicable to describe various methods of player growth. The research of Wood demonstrates the importance of player growth systems for video games which indicates a need to further investigate them.

3.2 Visual Growth

3.2.1 Visual Growth Definition

Visual Growth: The development of the character representation inside the game. Expansive visual growth means that the player representation grows in scale. Transformative visual growth means that the representation changes characteristically.

3.2.2 Background

Many games have changing player character representations. These changing character representations can be categorized into different types of visual growth. According to Schipper, "the three groups for 3D growing approaches that evolved are scaling, covering model replacements with particle effects and related works that have actual body part growing." (Schipper, 2020).

These three categories are combined into one aspect of player growth. This is done for the sake of simplicity. All types of 3D growing will simply be referred to as visual player growth.

3.2.3 Examples

Arguably one of the simplest visual player growth systems is that inside the game genre Snake. As the players eats more pellets the player character becomes longer. This process escalates as the snake becomes longer and longer making it harder to manage the growing player.

Visual player growth will be split up into two categories:

1. Expansive Visual Growth
2. Transformative Visual Growth

Snake is an example of expansive visual growth because the character visuals expand while the structure of the player character (a following snake) remains the same. Transformative visual growth is often linked to ability growth (see later chapter).

Another example of expansive player growth can be found in the game Katamari Damacy (Bandai, 2004). Here the player controls an increasingly large ball as the level progresses. It should be noted that the changes are not permanent and that the size of the ball is reset at the beginning of every level. The increasing size of the ball makes the game visually escalate as well as artificially extending the possibility space: players can pick up larger objects the larger the ball is.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1: Visual piayer growth in Katamari Damacy

Another example of visual growth is the evolution process of Pokemon (Nintendo, 1996-). The series is primarily focused on collecting (Schell, 2019). Players are meant to "catch 'em all". However, many of the Pokemon inside the game are able to evolve. Throughout this evolution process, many Pokemon grow in size as well. This includes Pichu and its visual growth process is shown in the table below.

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Table 1: Size of various evolution stages

This change in appearance is then linked to player growth. In the Pokemon games, the player technically plays a trainer instead of a Pokemon (with the exception of the Mystery Dungeon series). I will consider the Pokemon player characters because the player has full control over them.

Evolution is commonly linked to player progress, either in the form of Pokemon level or items. This means that the Pokemon trainer will grow alongside them. They represent their experience inside the game. Not at all Pokemon evolve and not all Pokemon grow when they evolve, however a clear trend becomes visible.

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Figure 2: Visual piayer growth in Pokemon - evolution process

This visual growth may be shown in its entirety as a form of scaling or mesh transformation. It may also be hidden by particle effects or other visuals (Schipper, 2020). This is an important differentiation for the type of visual growth that occurs. Hidden growth allows developers to save on production costs by choosing to leave out a mesh animation, sprite animation, or scaling effect.

What happens when growth actually affects the player? That will be covered in the following chapter on ability growth.

3.3 Player Ability Growth

3.3.1 Definition

Ability Growth: the process during which players unlock new abilities and upgrade previously obtained abilities. Unlocking new abilities increases the player's possibility space.

3.3.2 Background

Player ability growth is the process through which players unlock new abilities during gameplay. This will also be referred to as ability progression. Before diving into player ability growth, some background on game flow will need to be provided. Game flow is the framework for player ability growth as well as its pacing.

Jenova Chen wrote about the concept of game flow. Chen proposes that flow is a special state achieved by players which are categorized by certain criteria explored earlier by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Csikszentmihalyi, 1989; Chen, 2006).

According to Csikszentmihalyi, These criteria are:

- A challenging activity requiring skill;
- A merging of action and awareness;
- Clear goals;
- Direct, immediate feedback;
- Concentration on the task at hand;
- A sense of control;
- A loss of self-consciousness; and
- An altered sense of time.

Chen argues that it then becomes a balancing act to design the game so that players enter/remain in the flow zone (Ibid).

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Figure 3: Jenova Chen's game flow theory

How a game is structured (when players Learn new abilities) affects the state of flow and either Leads towards boredom (if there is too Little challenge) or anxiety (if there is too much challenge) if this state of flow is brought out of balance (Chen, 2006).

Player ability growth relates to abilities axis in the diagram. This means that ability growth opposes challenge in the flow theory: there needs to be a balance between the two. Ability growth is how players become "stronger" as they play the game. It may also be referred to as the player's possibility space since the choices a player can make are confined to the abilities they are offered by the game.

3.3.3 Examples

Many games such as Super Metroid (Nintendo, 1994) offer ability upgrades to the player such as new weapons and movement methods. This has become a widespread element of many games and is considered a central element of metroidvanian games (Bycer, 2017). These upgrades can include more health, improved movement options, or increased combat power.

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Figure 4: Player ability progression in Super Metroid

In the game Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Nintendo, 2008), the player is able to collect stickers after different levels in the campaign and use these to modify their character's abilities similar to a metroidvanian game. These stickers are unlocked after completing levels, letting the character become stronger as the player becomes more familiar with the game's mechanics.

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Figure 5: Ability stickers in Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Traveller's Tales, 2007) lets players collect "studs" which they can use to purchase items in the store. Amongst these items are stud multipliers. These multipliers multiply each stud the player collects by a factor (such as x4). The consequences of activating these items is that they escalate the process through which the players earns money. These stud multipliers can work in conjunction with each other (2x4x6 = 48x multiplier). This financial multiplier provides a contrast to the other examples of player ability growth mentioned here, such as the abilities learned in the Metroid games, because it does not technically extend the possibility space which the player explores but instead speeds up the process through which this process is explored. As players unlock more stud multipliers they may also use their gained financial assets to purchase traditional upgrades (such as new characters and extras) which align more closely with a conventional expansion of the possibility space.

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Figure 6: The escalating process of collecting money in the Lego Star Wars series

Eternal Card Game

To demonstrate the broad (and sometimes indirect) application of player growth systems, Eternal Card Game will be studied. Eternal is a free-to-play digital trading card game released by Dire Wolf in 2016. The game has players playing various cards in order to reduce the opponent's life to 0. The player ability growth in the game comes from earning and finding new cards. The ability to play new cards increases the player's possibility space. When the Fullerton system model is applied to this growth we can find the following:

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Table 3: Ability Growth Systems in Eternal


Minecraft presents several ability growth systems to the player. Primarily, the behavior of the player character will be studied here according to the Fullerton structure for system analysis. The player character (object) makes decisions (such as mining or exploring) to find new items. These new items have properties which make them combinable with other items. Finally, if a new object such as a pickaxe is crafted, this pickaxe introduces new potential actions which the player can take (such as mining rare minerals).

These newly crafted tool objects have a durability which defines how long they last when used. These properties are related to the material from which the tool is crafted. Thus there is an escalating growth process (positive loop) of using tools to mine better ore and using better ore to make better tools. Many objects in the game have this "tool" relationship to the player. For example, the player can craft a boat which allows them to navigate oceans more easily.

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Figure 7: Using tools to make new tools in Minecraft

The player growth mechanics in Minecraft are also apparent in the experience mechanic. Experience is gained through combat, mining, and other activities. Experience points are used to increase the player level. Unlike many traditional games, such as RPGs (Role-playing games) and MMOs (Massively multiplayer online game), experience in Minecraft is not directly linked to player ability but rather acts as purchasing power to enchant tools or produce weapons. This makes it an interesting twist on the concept because of how it still increases the player's possibility space to make choices (buy new objects) without changing the player directly. Thus, experience in Minecraft is an example of high player agency (the player's ability to make decisions).

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Figure 8: Minecraft experience bar indicating player growth

One Last distinguished feature particular to the experience in Minecraft is that it is Lost when the player dies. This means that the player growth gained from it is temporary. The exception to this are enchanted items which can be made permanent by being placed in chests. It should be noted that a part of the experience which is lost upon death can be collected again if the player reaches the location of their death. This is a type of player growth regression which is covered in the Player Regression chapter.

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Figure 9: Enchanting items in Minecraft

3.4 Emotional Growth

3.4.1 Definition

To begin, emotional growth will be defined for this paper.

Emotional Growth: Emotional growth is the total sum of all emotional development that players experience during play. Furthermore, it encompasses the changes of player perspective as well as the growing relationships of the player character to other in-game characters.

3.4.2 Background

Players and player characters in games may develop emotionally. Emotional growth comes from developing relationships with characters (Lankoski, 2011). Emotional growth of the player is a consequence of the narrative devices employed by the game. This growth can stem from human empathy (Ibid).

Lankoski suggest that engagement inside games can either be related to achieving goals or empathic. Lankoski argues that characters encourage empathic engagement and players grow to align themselves with these goals (Lankoski, 2011; Biggs and Tang, 2011). Besides alignment, the terms recognition and allegiance are also discussed. Recognition refers to the interpretation of a character's personality and depends on their representation (Ibid).

The last terms discussed by Lankoski for empathic engagement is allegiance. "When players have a positive evaluation of a player character, it means that the players are more likely to accept the goals the game proposes" (Lankoski, 2011). This allegiance is likely to form when the player character has characteristics that the player can value.

Researcher Salter examined different Twine games to study empathy and emotional growth. Twine games are a form of hypertext games often focused around telling narratives or personal story. Ten games were studied for themes, content, and storytelling methods. It was found that emotional growth is an important driver in these titles (Salter, 2016).

Gallen defines agency as "...the player's ability to make decisions in the game. This can be in the narrative, such as choosing one story arc over another. It also occurs in gameplay, where the player chooses one gameplay approach or style over another" (Gallen, 2016). Gallen argues further that agency is not limited to narrative choices (the likes of choosing a story arc) but also includes gameplay decisions, or rather styles of playing the game -called "expression". If consequences are provided for player decisions, they naturally carry more weight. The weight of these decisions aligns with the consequences of the choice.

3.4.3 Examples

Gallen notes a framework to distinguish between different types of games. This framework is inspired by a presentation given by Warren Spector at Pax 2015 (Mawson, 2015).

1. Games with low expression: Uncharted, Grim Fandango
2. Games with medium expression: The Walking Dead
3. Games with high expression: The Sims, Deus Ex

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Figure 10: Deus Ex provides players with high levels of player agency and freedom

Gallen considers Deus Ex a game with high mechanic expression because players can either play like a pacifist or a mindless violent killer and the game reacts to both choices accordingly (Gallen, 2016). The emotional player growth comes from the moral choices the player makes and the development of their consequences. An example of both high expression can be found in The Sims franchise where player character grow from children and age until they pass away of old age. The character's choice options develop as they grow. This allows players to internally develop their own narratives which match the character's growth (Chan, 2003).

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Figure 11: Player character journey In the high-expression game The Sims


One upcoming title with heavy emphasis placed on emotional growth and player ability is Wattam (Funomena, 2019). It describes itself as a game about "the joys of friendship and discovery" (Ibid). The focus lies in meeting new friends and players are meant to make connections with the crazy citizens of the town.

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Figure 12: Player characters making new friends In the game Wattam

3.5 Growth Related to Audio

3.5.1 Definition

Audio Growth: Audio growth refers to the changing music and sound design Linked to player progression. This includes interactive music which reacts to player actions and sound design linked to player abilities.

3.5.2 Background

Rod Munday posits that music is a topic that is relevant for many games (Munday, 2009). Munday wrote an overview paper on music in video games and how it may be analyzed. This overview splits music into three large categories:

1. Environmental: how music supports the perception of a gameworld.
2. Immersion: how music supports the player's involvement in the game.
3. Diegetic: how music supports a game narrative.

- Munday, 2009

However, this analysis only covers the types of video game music that is used. It does not include the role nor definition of interactive music. To address this, the work of another researcher will be covered. Collins wrote a landmark piece on interactive music and its role. This research examined interactive music from various angles, including programmers and composers (Collins, 2017). A chapter of the work, written by Tim Van Geelen is dedicated to the vertical and horizontal layer of interactive music. This allows interactive music to react to actions within the game (Geelen 2017; Collins, 2017). Such dynamics in the music may be a response to the actions of a player. For example, when the player is low on health the music might speed up to indicate danger by adding a new instrumental layer. This is an example of vertical layering. The methodology behind interactive music is now more established but no connection to player growth could be found in published game projects.

3.5.3 Examples

Player growth systems related to audio are most apparent in rhythm games. The Rhythm Heaven series (Nintendo, 2006-) has sequences which require precise timing by the player. As the sequence progresses, the rhythm becomes progressively more complicated, escalating to match the player's progress. These games start out with simple 4/4 rhythms but develop and become more complicated throughout the campaign.

Additionally, there are a series of drum lessons which can be accessed in the game. These are unlocked as the player earns medals for high scores in different challenges. The drum lessons allow the player to learn more patterns and to continue honing their abilities. Finally, the game offers remix stages which combine a series of mechanics and patterns the player has encountered previously and cumulate in a sort of "boss stage" (Kotaku, 2015).

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Figure 13: Player audio growth in Rhythm Heaven - escalating music

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Figure 14: Player audio growth in Rhythm Heaven - new drum lessons


Patapon (Sony Interactive Entertainment, 2007) is a rhythm game released in 2007 for the Playstation Portable. It has players singing a song with their "Patapons" to the beat in order to advance levels in a 2D sidescroller. The audio growth comes from the changing music and changing tools. Players start off with the pata-pata-patapon command but later also learn the pon-pon-patapon and the chaka-chaka-patapon command according to a Gamasutra interview with the game's designer, Hiroyuki Kotani. The player growth comes from collecting materials and then using these collected materials to create new Patapons. Kotani suggests that players enjoy the sense of creating music with the Patapons and that this gives the game depth (Nutt, 2008).

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Figure 15: Patapon has players gather more patapon and make use of rhythm timing

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Figure 16: Patapon game play showcasing audio growth

3.6 Combining multiple aspects of Player Growth

As established, player growth systems are a tool of game design. Their different components: visual, ability, and audio growth systems may work together. This section aims to provide examples of games which combine multiple elements of player growth systems.

Polymorphic Games, a game design studio at the University of Idaho, conducted some research and created a project called Darwin's Demons focused around evolution (Soule et a I., 2017). The game is meant to utilize a process of evolution based on scientific background and data.

The enemies follow a model of evolution based on their appearance. Each sprite is split into a top and bottom half (Ibid). This sprite defines their behavior and will evolve with each generation. This is a rare example of real enemy growth (as opposed to player growth). The player also has evolution choices. Earned currency can be spent to upgrade the player ship: This results in ability growth and high player agency. Every playthrough is different and players have a high level of control over the contents of the game.

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Figure 17: Fusion of various player growth systems in Darwin's Demons

Mobile Game Empires a Puzzles

I want to provide one more example which provides many different player growth systems. The mobile game Empire & Puzzles (Small Giant Games, n.d.). Players have a player level which indicates their experience within the game and their progress. Players have different characters with different abilities. These characters can level up. Players can earn new characters. There is a town which the player can upgrade using resources. The resources can be used to generate more resources (escalating growth and the possibility space). Through the inclusion of various growth systems such as this, the game places a heavy focus on ability growth.

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Figure 18: Growing the town in Empires and Puzzles

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Figure 19: Hero selection in Empires and Puzzles


Warframe (Digital Extremes, 2013) includes all elements of player growth systems into its gameplay. This provides a growth-oriented experience for players.

Visual growth is embodied by the changing appearance of the warframes as the player unlocks new colors and equipment pieces. These allow an experienced player to distinguish themselves from a newcomer.

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Figure 20: Warframes and equipment in Warframe

Ability growth can be found through the unlocking of new warframes, new weapons, and new mods. These all affect and increase the possibility space of the player. Furthermore, currency systems exist similar to the ones explored in previous examples. This means that economic growth (buying power) exists in addition to traditional ability growth. Such buying power can be used to buy new tools, increasing the possibility space directly.

Elements of emotional player growth are also present in Warframe. Interestingly, due to the massive-multiplayer online nature of the game, social play takes an important role. One researcher, Rebecca Carrino, analyzed how Warframe was played and found that the game fosters human empathy. However, the social interactions to other players are limited (Carino, 2018).

There is an interesting tool in the game called the Mandachord. This tool allows players to compose their own songs and share them with the community. These songs are also used in gameplay, tying audio and ability growth together. Thus, as the player collects more parts of the Mandachord (audio growth) during their quest, they also unlock new abilities.

Finally, the team behind Warframe has also been releasing large content updates for the game for free to keep players engaged with new content regularly. This makes sure that the players always have new abilities to learn, new visuals to try out, and the opportunity for more story. More on this topic is explained in the "Growth Plateauing" section.

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Figure 21: Warframe allows players to create their own music which affects gameplay

3.7 Player Regression

The Oxford Advanced American Dictionary defines regression as:

"The process of going back to an earlier or Less advanced form or state."

A new definition will be created here to apply the concept of regression to games and player growth systems:

Player regression: The process of player characters returning to a previous development state. This includes a loss of gained abilities, a visual return to an earlier player representation, or a step backwards in story agency and emotional relationships to other characters in the game. This regression may be temporary or permanent and can apply to all elements of player growth systems.

Applying regression to player growth systems

When the concept of regression is applied as a lense to player growth systems, it can be used to identify where player characters return to an earlier form of themselves. This can fall into the overarching categories of visual growth, ability growth, and emotional growth. An instance of regression can also affect multiple categories at once. Regression can then either be temporary setback, such as the player ability regression in Cave Story (Studio Pixel, 2004), or a permanent change.

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Figure 22: Player weapon "deleveling" in Cave Story as type of player regression

Regression in Knack

Knack is an action-adventure game about a main character made of pieces which has different growth stages. It was released for Playstation 4 in 2013. Regression is used as a temporary tool to solve puzzles which can only be solved by the smaller forms (e.g. to fit through tight spaces). This makes regression useful and even desired in many cases since it is required to progress through the game.

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Figure 23: Various player growth stages in Knack

Regression in Loco Roco

Loco Roco (SCE Japan Studio, 2006) is a game released for the Playstation Portable. The player character may collect fruit in order to grow visually. Similar to Knack, the player may split up into a previous state (regression). Unlike Knack, the player then controls multiple small characters at once. The small characters unite again into one large character at the end of one of these gameplay segments. Since the player grows back to their previous size, the regression should be considered temporary.

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Figure 24: Visual regression in Loco Roco


Excerpt out of 139 pages


Design and Implementation of Player Growth Systems. Exemplified through a Third-Person Action Game
University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt
Animation & Game
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
action, design, exemplified, game, growth, implementation, player, systems, third-person
Quote paper
Leon Arndt (Author), 2020, Design and Implementation of Player Growth Systems. Exemplified through a Third-Person Action Game, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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