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Monday, May 6, 2013

Vertical Progression In MMO’s: Incentive? Or Annoyance?

Ever since the old-school days of pen & paper role playing games, when players had no other choice other than to hunker around a table with dice in one hand and a soft drink in the other, vertical progression has been a staple of the RPG formula. This concept transferred over well to the digital/online space when massively multiplayer games such as Ultima Online and Everquest started showing up in the mid to late 90’s. But now that we’ve officially entered the 21st century, is giving players a giant mountain of vertical progression to climb really the best way to hold their interest?

I suppose it all boils down to a matter of perspective. Some players relish the opportunity to grind through hours upon hours of content, others loath it. Some players feel that access to “endgame” content is something that must be earned through a hefty time investment, others would gladly resort to paying real money in order to speed the process along. It’s no secret that today’s MMO developers have to carefully balance these and other factors if they hope to attain and keep a large playerbase but I’m still left wondering if players are going to be as tolerant of hefty vertical progression requirements three, five, even ten years from now.

I know I won’t.

Let’s look at the average MMO of today; upon first release, many have a max character level cap of between 50 and 70. If a particular MMO does well enough to spawn expansions and updates, one of the very first things the developers do is raise the level cap in order to give max-level players more incentive to buy said expansion. Now we have MMO’s with max-level caps of 80, 85, 90, some have even reached 100. 

Imagine there were two different MMO’s you were interested in playing; one had a max level cap of 70, the other 90. For an average/casual MMO player, such a scenario wouldn’t lead to many positive conclusions; you’d either end up growing bored/burnt out on one and focus on the other or you’d try to continue playing them equally and risk getting burned out on both. So, if the problem is then how to keep players coming back even without all the grind and vertical progression, where is the solution? 

One possibility would be finding *other* ways to incorporate grinding, preferably on a more horizontal plane. Imagine an MMO where your character could choose from several different “paths” (crafting, PvE combat, and PvP combat); each path would have a selection of different classes or professions tied to it with each path having a separate level cap of 20-30. Players who wanted to focus on one path could do so, as could players wanting to level two or even all three paths; allowing them to zero in on whatever MMO aspects they enjoyed most.

To help keep players around even after reaching the low level-cap for a particular path, developers could focus more on giving players tangible incentives such as max-level advancement systems like reputation grinds (World of Warcraft), a massive amount of skills/abilities to earn and customize (Guild Wars), or even new quests/dynamic events to play through (Guild Wars 2/The Secret World). While the risk of max-level boredom would be slightly increased, the trade-off would be a significant *decrease* in tedium and thus risk of getting burnt out on the game. I for one would be much more inclined to play an MMO that didn’t gate all of its endgame content behind countless hours of grinding levels and instead focused on allowing players to do what they enjoyed minus the tedium. 

Another possibility could be to abolish levels altogether and instead focus on other areas such as player-commerce, combat, and crafting. I have to admit the idea of an MMO where every player started on an even playing field and, instead of focusing on accruing xp and levels, focused on gathering, crafting, trading, and even fighting for cosmetic rewards. Again the risk of player boredom would have to be carefully balanced against player interest and participation but I think such a concept could work if done right.

But, at the end of the day, I’m just one MMO player out of tens of millions and my opinion isn’t shared by all. Hopefully someday MMO developers will find a way to make, if not every MMO player, at least a vast majority of players happy. I just hope that down the road I’m not struggling to reach level caps of 120 and higher. I’ve got little enough free time as it is…..

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