Friday, June 19, 2009

Random Shots: Progression Woes

  • The conversation about vertical progression continues in the MMO blog community. Green Armadillo at Player Vs. Developer, Syncaine at Hardcore Casual, and both Ravious and Zubon at Kill Ten Rats have been tackling the issues facing games with a shifting level cap. On Shut Up, We're Talking #49, Karen told us that she was never going to play a level advancement game after EQ2, which sums up the problem nicely.

  • I think things have to change, but I don't think they can do so in the games we're playing now.

  • The issue at hand, for those of you who haven't followed along, is that leveling games (like World of Warcraft, Everquest, Everquest 2, Lord of the Rings Online, and many, many others) face the inevitable problem of how to direct their limited development resources. Do you develop content to maintain your loyal customers or direct efforts to attract new players? There is no easy answer, especially based on the way games have been designed to date.

  • World of Warcraft is the primary example of a developer in maintenance mode. Almost all content updates are aimed at the endgame player. Two new starting zones were added at the time of the first expansion and one midlevel zone has revamped during a content patch, but little else has been added for new players. Instead, Blizzard has concluded that it's better to push players to the current expansion as fast as possible. They have lowered experience curves, nerfed difficult, and are now making mounts and other travel options trivially easy to access. This is a tacit admission that there is little value in the early content, only left in place because discarding it would be a waste of resources. However as the level cap increases, you can only speed leveling so much before the process becomes ludicrous, neither giving a sense of accomplishment not properly training players how to use the many available abilities.

  • As I said, there is no easy solution. Blizzard could spend a lot of time revamping the old world, but that would only serve new players that have avoided the game for the several years since launch (not that they don't exist) or existing players that don't mind starting a new character to experience the content in a level-appropriate challenge. However, MMOs have encouraged persistence to maintain their audience, so asking players to abandon their characters would betray that paradigm.

  • As games are designed today, vertical progression is too ingrained to be corrected mid-stream. Servicing both new and experienced players is a challenge that must be faced by games no one is even making yet.

  • Heck, I haven't even gone into the problems of MMOs pushing the gear reset button with every expansion. I feel a headache coming on.

  • If anyone has 50 million dollars they're looking to invest, I'd love to show you a few ideas.

  • © 2009 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.
    If you're reading this on a site other than Bullet Points, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. It's a problem endemic to level-based games with a player base putting in a wide range of hours. Make your progression too difficult and the people who play for 5 hours a week will feel frustrated and leave, and make it too easy and the jobless crowd will eat all your carefully-crafted content in mere weeks. The development cycle itself feeds the problem - it takes longer for the provider to develop content than it does for the players to consume it, and people suffer from post-expansion malaise while they wait for another new round of content to be pushed out.

    It's a thorny problem, and one that I see many titles wrestling with, none of them entirely successfully. The only game I can see that mostly gets to avoids the issue is EVE, becuase it doesn't revolve around programmed content.

  2. @ Ardwulf - You're right that games like EVE, GW, and other non-levelers don't have the problem, but that is primarily because they outright reject it. There is something so viceral about levelng, though, that we won't see that game style go away completely. So yeah, thorny is a good word.

  3. Yeah, I agree. People just seem to like level-based games more than games that don't use levels, perhaps becuase it provides better "tactile" feedback as to progression. This phenomenon is also apparent in the tabletop arena. I think level-free games, generally, are doomed to remain a minority pursuit, although there's still room for outstanding examples (i. e. EVE) to do quite well. GW is, I think, a special case - it has levels but you cap pretty quickly, and the progression thereafter mostly consists of getting cosmetic and ornamental stuff, and unlocking additional skills. I consider it something of a hybrid model.