Progress is what we live for. Without some sense of growth or even a goal to aim for beyond our current capabilities, attainable or not, we die. It’s just that simple, if a bit hyperbolized. I don’t necessarily prescribe to the extreme that George Clooney proselytized in Up in the Air, but I do agree that we are a bit like sharks: we need to keep moving. And some studies agree.
That’s what makes progress in video games so interesting. Do you remember back when magazines rated games based on categories like graphics and fun factor? One of them would almost always be replayability, a made-up word to describe how worthwhile it would be to pick up the game again once you’ve beaten it. It’s basically shorthand for whether or not the core mechanics or story can make up for the lack of progression you feel once you’ve achieved all there is to achieve. Ham-fisted? Sure, but it does bring into light the notion of meted out and purposefully designed player progress.
I think that in the current form of games, replayability takes a backseat to firstability, or if the initial journey through is enough to warrant either a purchase by a potential player or the existence of the game itself. Compared to when arcades ruled the world or when computers first found their way home or even when the Nintendo 64 made a splash, the number of games that come out now is absurd. From indie releases on shady websites to Kickstarter and Steam to traditional big publisher titles to the impossibly large swath of mobile games, we are inundated with things to play and that firstability is important.
A game that excels at that is Ridiculous Fishing, the latest iOS offering from Dutch development duo/loose partnership conglomeration Vlambeer. There are many ways to do it right such as with a perfectly built story that progresses through highs and lows just when you need them to or with a succession of changing and morphing gameplay sequences that tease you along to the finish, but Ridiculous Fishing does it through a rather unconventional way: a store.
It’s unconventional in the sense that few other games succeed at doing so, not that no one else tries. As you play through the simple but ever-maddening gameplay loop of drop lure, collect fish, and shoot things, you collect money, money that you spend in a store that seemingly follows you all over the world on a perpetually offscreen boat. Amongst all the Tesla coils and gravity wells, the most mundane category is probably the most interesting.
You can buy fishing lines that increase in length and price. These upgrades allow you to dive deeper and deeper in to the ocean which, at first blush, only serves to allow you to rake in more money on a single run than before. However, you’ll notice that each new location on the map subsequently has a deeper and deeper maximum depth. What’s down there? Why new fish, of course.
Fish species themselves are somewhat of a currency as for each one you hook that is new to your fishopedia, you get closer to unlocking a new location on your map. So the money you use to get the darkness-loving fish with a longer line in effect allows you to tangentially buy new fishing areas, but these new fishing areas themselves progress as well. Fish are trickier (some will zoom by and accidentally hit your hook or maybe chase you down if you get too close or prevent you from chainsawing through them) and the jellyfish are more punishing but they are worth so much more money.
And by the time you unlock these new areas, you’ve played enough to where your skills at both playing the game and reading fish behavior have increased that you feel ready for these bigger challenges, as if you’ve outgrown your old stomping grounds.
The important part, however, is the timing framing these incremental steps. Everyone’s attention span will vary, but they can largely be generalized to nominal values, and it seems like Ridiculous Fishing taps into this to great effect. Just as you feel like you are beginning to wear down from playing the same area with the same fishing rod setup, you’ve earned just enough money. Just enough for what? To keep you interested.
Every time I thought about quitting for the night when I first downloaded Ridiculous Fishing, I would notice that I was just a few more outings out from buying a new gun or some new lure enhancement. Or maybe I would be just a few drops away from buying a new line that would allow me to reach the end of a previous area so I could catch whatever special critter lie at the bottom. While the objective value would increase (just $3,000 more, just $6,000 more, just $10,000 more), it would always increase commensurate to my absolute progress so I would never be something like 20 more outings from being able to afford the next upgrade.
Then when you buy your new toy, at least a few outings are spent messing around with it, determining if it fits in this area or your style or whatever. And by the time you’re done dicking around, you notice you’re just a few more trips to the bottom away from buying the dual miniguns or the big fuel tank. Of course, this all only lasts as long as the store lasts, which is unfortunately finite, but that’s why it’s about firstability and replayability. It’s the first-time progression that is important and not the ones that follow. Curiosity has no reset button.
The progress in Ridiculous Fishing is ridiculously appropriate for the game. You are a fisherman constantly hooking new creatures to your bait, stringing them along launch them for a thrilling ride in the sky, and that is exactly what playing Ridiculous Fishing feels like. You are a fish and Vlambeer has dangled a lure right in front of your nose. Break the line and there’s just another one waiting. This is a tease that keeps you hooked. This is progression perfected.