A progression chain is just a map of all the capabilities (and sometime dispositions and motivations) an experience needs in order to be engaging (or to even progress in the experience if it is interactive). The map is structured to make clear what any needed capabilities are dependent on (i.e., previously obtained capabilities). While progression chains can be used for any type of experience, they are most useful for interactive experiences and the learning of skills. If the proper skills are not learned in an interactive experience, the entire experience can come to a halt, where in a non-interactive experience, at least it will continue even if the audience is somewhat confused.
The diagram to the right shows the beginnings of a simple progression chain for a platformer game. Note that most skills (the green boxes) are built out of actions, with the same action (or set of actions) used in a different context being a different skill. For example, jumping over a pit is a different skill than jumping on an enemy to kill it. Particular pieces of knowledge (the blue boxes) can also be necessary for the use of a skill (such as the knowledge that bullets are affected by gravity in this game and therefore must be accounted for with long-range shots).
More advanced skills and knowledge are dependent on more basic skills or knowledge and cannot be learned until the more basic skills are mastered or the more basic knowledge is acquired. This creates a chain of skills and knowledge that can be mapped out to help determine the order in which they need to be taught, which can greatly affect the macro composition of the game. Note that this simple diagram does not include any dispositions or motivations, but those can be added if a particular skill or piece of knowledge is dependent on them. Progression chains must be prototyped and tested. You cannot be sure a chain works the way you think it does until it has been tested with a real audience.
Any given skill or piece of knowledge can be in one of the seven states listed below. Different signifiers and affordances may be needed to take a skill from unknown to known than the ones needed to go from known to mastered, although in some cases they are the same and the only difference is the amount of practice. The stunted and abandoned states can happen when a signifier goes wrong and someone is "taught" that a particular skill is not actually useful. Even if they are taught properly, if the capability is not used for a long period of time, it can become dormant and they won't remember to use it when it is needed. Any of these states make the skill/knowledge non-functional, even if it is technically known.
- Unaware (doesn't even know a skill or piece of knowledge exists)
- Unknown (aware it exists, but can’t really use the skill or doesn't have the knowledge)
- Stunted (unable to, or uninterested in, gaining a skill or piece of knowledge)
- Known (a skill is usable at a basic level, or the piece of knowledge is understood)
- Abandoned (unable to, or uninterested in, mastering a skill or deeply understanding a piece of knowledge)
- Mastered (can learn dependent skills or knowledge)
- Dormant (technically mastered/known, but hasn't used it in so long it won’t be remembered when needed)
The audience often has pre-existing skills and knowledge that need to be accounted for ("people in masks cannot be trusted", “pressing buttons does things”, “rockets can be used for jumping”, etc.). Testing is required to determine if the audience has the pre-existing skills and knowledge necessary to learn the basic skills needed. They can also already have skills that they have mastered. While this means they can easily learn dependent skills, they can also easily become bored when they are being "taught" skills they already know. This makes dynamic teaching and optional teaching important for most interactive experiences. What skills are pre-existing or pre-mastered are important things consider when creating personas.
Games often have skills that can be used to cause something interesting to happen, or are just engaging to use, but aren’t necessary and don’t lead to other skills. These “reward” skills are still part of the progression chain, but don’t have dependent skills. Obtaining reward skills can be extremely engaging to players and are often one of the most powerful motivators a player has to learn new skills. Knowledge can be used in the same way if the knowledge itself is interesting to the player.
Players in games often fail to learn needed skills due to poor design. A huge amount of effort must go in to making sure players don't lose engagement or even stop playing due to design problems. Extensive playtesting is required to ensure this, but avoiding the four most common reasons for learning failure will help immensely.
- Poor Instructions: Unclear instructions, instructions given at the wrong time, instructions given all up front instead of just before they are needed, etc. can all cause learning failures.
- Not Enough Reinforcement: Even if the instructions themselves are clear, players still need regular reinforcement that they are doing the right thing or they may abandon the development of important skills.
- Fear of Failure: If using or developing a particular skills appears to be too risky, a player will avoid it even if it is not that risky in reality. The apparent risk needs to match the actual risk to avoid this.
- Challenge not Broken Down: If a given challenge is too large, the player may not be able to develop the skill they need to overcome it because it has not been broken down in to manageable chunks. The solution is to craft a good difficulty curve.