I keep coming back to this topic again and again. The recent gamer profile stuff kicked this to the front of the brain.
Games can be categorized as vertical or horizontal progressing, to varying degrees. RPGs are mostly about the vertical (levels + skills), with some horizontal (strategy + tactics). Fighting games appear vertical (ranks) but are actually horizontal (player skill). In fact, PvP games need to be horizontal in order to give the perception of fairness (it’s why PvP generally fails in MMOs. EvE being the sort of exception, but I can’t recall any battle that wasn’t predetermined before the first shot was fired.)
I’ve been playing various puzzle games, and that’s horizontal and quite enjoyable. Obra Dinn, Edith Finch, Outer Worlds. You never get new tool sets, just new data to parse through. It’s your brain that gets better. I find these games tremendously enjoyable. Board games as a family are blast in this space as well, and the worst ones deal with vertical aspects (Monopoly!!!). Building a story and seeing it through is great. It’s why we watch movies and read books. Having those be interactive is the next logical step. The challenge here is that the difficulty curve has to account for the player getting better. The Witness gradually builds on puzzle complexity. If you somehow managed to skip to the last puzzles, you’d have no idea what to do.
I still enjoy the vertical aspects. Getting better tools to address a challenge is fulfilling. The challenge here from a game developer perspective is not making the content trivial. Monster Hunter is a decent example, where the scaling of monsters is within a given range and even with the best gear, it doesn’t reach a point where you can totally ignore mechanics. At least in the context of content that still provides vertical progress. Other games struggle with this, where the reward loop makes the content increasingly trivial, yet still rewarding (WoW raining purples). Or in the opposite direction, the challenge is extremely high with no reward (Anthem drop rates).
If the game is entirely based on vertical progression, you’re going to have a bad time. Thankfully, many folks have realized this and all successful games are based on horizontal progression being a valuable option. Think of a successful game that focuses on vertical and I’m sure you can find a horizontal progression system that keeps more people active (cosmetics, titles, pets).
Sometimes its good to enjoy games for just being games. Other times, I have a heck of an itch to scratch and it’s good to find the right game to scratch the right itch. Sometimes it’s a puzzle, sometimes a world builder, sometimes a world destroyer.