Comics for cut scenes, checkpoints that are placed milliseconds before an inevitable failure, the ending to Mass Effect 3…I have more complaints for games than I have fingers and toes to count them on (yes, that is in fact 20). But there’s one common aspect shared among many games that I dislike. One that I would love to see significant effort put towards finding design alternatives: numbers.

All too often I find myself managing numbers to the point of irritation, even frustration. Math and I have never been good friends, but the problem with numbers in games isn’t so much a mathematical one, but a design problem. For the sake of keeping this topic focused, I’ll be referring to common number mechanics found in many RPGs.

Leveling up, applying skill points, managing the number of items you have; mechanics such as these easily become mundane. I must admit that some are enjoyable, like managing my characters finances. I enjoy living out my fantasy of becoming a rich and powerful warrior in a fictional world as much as the next person. Yet even still, I believe that many of the less enjoyable numbered mechanics have the potential to be replaced with experiences that are more engaging for the player.

Imagine this scenario:

You just finished completing a task which aided a group of characters. For your services, you are rewarded.

Now which reward sounds more appealing:

  • having a passive skill, such as HP, increase by a fraction of a hundred or,
  • being given a new ability that somehow alters the way you’ve been playing the game, and keeps the experience fresh?

I’m going to go ahead and assume you chose the second option, and if you did then I’d like to thank you for agreeing with me. The numerical increase as a gameplay reward is appealing from a developers perspective. A numbered reward system is easier to program and it formulates gameplay, but it also dilutes the system of ‘accomplish and reward.’

Occasional, large rewards, make for more meaningful experiences. Frequent, small rewards offer constant satisfaction, but often fail to be memorable. After all, anything that is great is sure to be memorable.

I would like to see games replace their statistical reward system with something a little more…well, rewarding. It won’t be easy, but it’s bound to happen. I predict that these changes will come as a result of RPG features being added to game that fall in other genres that are traditionally less number-focused.

Players won’t remember the numbers as much as they’ll remember those moments where the game changed just a bit, and managed to keep the experience fresh.