Progression is a central element to any MMORPG.
What I mean by that is that players need to feel like their characters are growing in some way as they play the game. Most people equate this as “getting more powerful”, and that’s a part of it, but it’s broader than that. It’s not just about watching numbers tick off. It’s about seeing that character learn new skills and abilities, amass more money, obtain better or cooler things, and of course, become more effective at the parts of the game they play.
It’s folly to ignore this basic concept in a game design (because then players have little to no ambition to go out and actually play the game), but it’s also just as bad to focus entirely on it. If you have a game that’s all about progression and little else, you’ll lose players just as quickly as if you have a big sandbox with no progression elements whatsoever.
So the trick is to find a happy medium, and to do it in a way where you balance between a compelling progression and an appreciation for the game world you’ve created. Too many games emphasize progression over everything else, and cause long term problems for themselves in doing so. Sure, everything’s great at first, but a year or two into the game, population in low level areas is nonexistent, and the few new players who do join the game are at a severe disadvantage if they want to do anything that requires more than one player for their level. It also leads to mudflation, which is where the only way to keep people playing is to keep adding harder and harder things at the top end, and of course the rewards for those have to be better than what came before too. You get a never-ending spiral of player power that can quickly get out of control and stratify your playerbase to the point where people simply can’t play together anymore.
Progression should be meaningful – meaning every time you do advance your character somehow, it should feel important. Players should be happy to advance, and excited about it. They should cheer for friends that progress as well. No one wants a game where things are just handed to you (even though people will always complain that things are too hard, because it’s in the nature of people to complain). By the same token though, progression needs to happen often or easily enough that it doesn’t begin to feel impossible. I’ll talk more about pacing in a bit, but right up front I’ll say that most people have a higher tolerance for difficulty than they think they do, as long as whatever they’re striving for feels worthwhile.
Progression should apply to all aspects of gameplay – not just combat. We’re conditioned by games we have played to think of “leveling up” in terms of fighting monsters and getting better at fighting monsters. But it can just as easily apply to crafting, gathering, minigames, or other systems within the game. If there’s any type of gameplay that is built into a game for players to engage in, there can be a progression to it.
Ok, so enough general stuff, let’s dive into specifics of what I think the perfect game should look like in terms of character progression. For this post, I’m going to be talking specifically about character (not equipment) progression. Equipment is definitely a component of progression as well, and a game’s itemization strategy needs to take that into account – but let’s start with the concepts of character progression first and then add on from there.
Levels vs. Skills
Almost every major game on the market uses a level-based progression system for its core progression mechanic. You play the game and level from 1 to 50 in your chosen class(es), and as you level you gain raw power and access to new abilities and better items. When expansions come into the game, sometimes the level cap gets raised (usually in increments of 5 to 10 levels), so that there’s more progression to do. Most systems do this because they’re what everyone is used to. Text MUDs did it, and then EverQuest picked it up (UO used a skill system), and pretty much every game since has incorporated EQ’s leveling concept. It’s not because it’s a great concept – in fact, it has some pretty big failings – but just because it’s familiar and easy to build a game around.
So since everyone does it, level-based systems are the best way to implement progression, right? Wrong. They’re just easy and familiar, like I said. The biggest problems with level-based systems is stratification of your playerbase and obsolescence of content. Stratification means that your content has to be level-based as well, and lower level players simply can’t participate in the things that their high level friends are doing. “You have to be this tall to ride” is never fun for the guy who doesn’t meet the bar, not in a social game like an MMORPG anyway. Obsolescence means that as players level up, lower level areas of the game become useless. On an individual level this isn’t a big deal – after all, individual players don’t usually care about going back to something they did a long time ago. However, on a macro scale this is a really bad problem in older games. For example in EverQuest II today, 95% of the game world is quite simply not used by players in any numbers. The highest level areas are the only part of the game that gets used, and new players trying out the game encounter virtual ghost towns everywhere they go. Many other level-based games run into this same problem over time as well.
Game designers have tried various methods to address these problems – level scaling systems that scale character levels down (or up) to fit the content, “hard modes” that revamp old content for higher level play, and so on. The problem with all of these is firstly that no scaling system is perfect and players still usually end up overpowered for what they’re doing, and secondly that you still have to have some way to incentivize your content so that players will go back and play it on a regular basis. That’s difficult in games where players will always consume content faster than you can create it.
Ok, so if levels really aren’t so great, what about skill-based systems, where players accrue points and can allocate those points into individual skills as they play, instead of levels?
Skill-based systems allow for much finer control over character progression than a raw level-based system, because players can pick and choose how they progress. On the surface this seems like a great idea, but there are huge challenges that can arise with skill systems as well. The first is cookie cutter builds. Part of the draw of having a skill-based progression is that players can grow their characters in different ways, but the reality is that players will quickly try to figure out what the “most efficient” builds are, and the vast majority of people will do that. So much for diversity, right? The second problem with skill-based systems is the measuring stick. Players like to feel like they’re progressing, and they like to be able to measure their progress against other players. This is why level systems go over so well – a level gives a definite feeling of progression. But when it’s a skill system, and skills do different things, how do you compare your progress to someone else? Two players might have 100 skill points each, but one of them might have put most of those points into crafting skills while the other put most of the points into combat skills. While many players are just fine with this, many others really *need* that measuring stick in order to feel good about how they’re playing the game.
The third challenge with a skill-based system is building content progression around it. Players want to do more challenging things as they progress in a game. But how do you do that when your progression is abstracted to the point where you don’t have a measuring stick to use? How does a player figure out that they’re ready for something (or not)? How does a developer provide a greater challenge without locking out 95% of the playerbase who don’t have their skills mapped a certain way? Even worse, how do you test your content before releasing it?
Hybrid systems combine aspects of level- and skill-based systems to achieve character progression.
There are different ways to do hybrid systems too – for example, you can have a level system where each level grants players X number of points to distribute around however they like. Or you can do the same thing, but also have the level increase raw attributes just by virtue of achieving the level (so the skill points become a side thing in addition to the level, rather than the point of the level). Or, you can go the other way, where you have a hierarchy of skills grouped within certain themes, and as you advance through that hierarchy you level up within its theme. Most skill-based systems actually do this to an extent, if only so that you can have skills that are more powerful than others.
The core idea behind a hybrid system is that it gives players a power progression while at the same time keeping progression very free-form and broad. Obviously, just how broad it is depends on how the system is implemented, but most hybrid systems end up being “shallower” in terms of power levels than pure level-based system.
I prefer hybrid systems when they’re done right, because it gives me as a player the ability to grow in the way I choose, and at the same time it insures that content stays relevant to me longer (because I’m not out-leveling things). That said, it’s harder to do a hybrid system “right”, especially since “right” is very subjective.
The downside of a hybrid system is usually that you still have to impose strict limits or eventually everyone just masters everything, and then that turns into a “you must be this tall to ride” bar for whatever constitutes your in-game content. For example, if every skill box a player unlocks is equivalent to a “level”, then if you let them unlock 120 skill boxes, you essentially have 120 levels in your game and your content has to handle that. Another issue that can come up is when certain combinations are too powerful to the point where every player goes and learns them to make things easier. For example, if every single character is running around with a snare ability to slow enemies down, what’s the point of actually having the ability in game? A final downside to both hybrid and skill-based systems is that they can overwhelm players – while there’s plenty of us out there who are analytical and will go read all the tooltips and such, there’s plenty of other people playing these games who get confused by the minutiae and would rather just follow a recommended path.
There’s a lot more that I can say here but you probably get the gist. And you’re probably wondering “ok Tal, so how exactly *would* you set up a character progression system?” I’m glad you asked.
The “Perfect” Character Progression System.
Let’s start with classes (and let’s see if I can explain this without flowcharts).
Depending on the setting of the game, classes might vary, but classes are overall useful things because they allow players to identify with a core concept: healer, tank, ranged dps, etc.” So my idea of a perfect character progression system does indeed begin with classes – as in, when you start your character off, you pick a class. That class gives you a certain set of skills to begin with. It immediately provides you a direction for your character.
For the sake of this example, let’s say that there are 240 distinct skill “boxes” in the game, and those 240 boxes are arranged into approximately 12 skill trees of 20 boxes each. Skill trees themselves are generally 5 or 6 levels deep, meaning that to get the best skills in a skill tree, you need to pick up 4 or 5 preceeding skills. (Note to self: Make a flowchart sometime, it’ll be easier). What a “class” does is give you a few basic skills in one or two specific trees. For example, if you chose a “healer” class, you might get three boxes in the healing tree, giving you a few healing type abilities, and then one or two boxes in a generic tree that give you combat abilities. Essentially, the class choice is a starting template, but after selecting it you’re free to pick up other skills in any tree you want as you advance, with some rules:
- You can’t pick up a skill that’s high up in a tree unless you have the skills below it.
- There’s a maximum number of skills (let’s say 40) that you can pick up at any given time. This would allow players to completely master two skill trees, or get to a moderate level of achievement in 3-4 of them.
- There may be restrictions or requirements on certain skills. (For example, can’t be used while wearing heavy armor)
Make sense so far? There’s more to it, but the basic idea of progressing your character is picking a class to start with, and then advancing your character through picking up more skill boxes – you can choose to develop the class you started with, mastering a skill tree, or you can spread out to other trees, or you can mix and match, maybe taking two or three trees partially up.
You’re probably thinking “ok, you just described a skill-based system”, and it’s true I did. But I mentioned that I wanted this to be a hybrid system. The hybrid system comes in in terms of how you develop new skills. Every time you gain a certain amount of experience with your character, you get the following:
- A small increase to your base health or other statistics
- A skill point to spend on a new skill box of your choice.
- 5 specialization points to spend in skill boxes you already have.
Experience is gained by doing things in the game – most often combat, but not always. I’ll talk in another blog later about the pace of progression but for now let’s just say that leveling should be a big deal – players should not take it for granted. But for now let’s stick to the core of how progression works.
Specialization points are the second part of progression and what allows players to distinguish their characters from each other. Specialization points allow you as a player to emphasize certain skills over others. Doing so increases the potency of those skills, and may also unlock special things once you reach a high enough level of specialization.
Starting out, all the skills you know have a specialization of 1, meaning you just know the basics of that skill. However when you level up you get 5 specialization points to spend any way you like among the skill boxes you have unlocked. Each skill box has a number of points you can spend on it – how many depends on the skill itself. Some skills might only have 3 or 4 specialization ranks, others might have as many as 10 or 15.
As an example, you might have the skill “Swords”. That means that your character knows how to pick up and use a sword without injuring themselves. But your character could further specialize in the sword skill, earning attack bonuses when using a sword, or eventually the ability to dual wield swords in combat, or so on.
It should go without saying but the benefits of specialization should be high enough that it’s worth it to specialize in a skill, and players really have to pick and choose which skills they want to specialize in as they level up (since they could only “max out” a few skills in terms of specializations at most).
Specializations mean that even if you have the exact same skill choices as someone else, your characters could still perform vastly different depending on how you have chosen to specialize them. It helps insure diversity and keep choices compelling. After all, a skill tree is only useful if people have reasons to choose any/all of the skills in the tree.
I mentioned above that one of the downsides of skill and hybrid systems is that they can overwhelm players who aren’t very analytical. This is also a reason for using a “class” as a template for initial skills, but that in and of itself isn’t enough. So at any stage of the game a player should be able to ask the game to show recommended skills and specialization ranks for a predefined class role and then choose whether they want to follow those recommendations or do something different. This way, a player who really isn’t sure what skills or specializations to select can view different recommended options available to them and get some inspiration (or just pick one).
I’m going to stop here and pick this up in the next blog post where I’ll talk about the pace of progression. Before I do that though I’ll note that there is no such thing as a “perfect” progression system – the main goals with this design are to make it deep, compelling, and a platform for diversity among characters, which I think this system accomplishes pretty well.