Character
advancement systems are the bread and butter of the current crop of
MMOGs. They permeate nearly all aspects of gameplay, so that regardless
of what particular path you choose to explore on a given day,
you’re still offered some token reward for your efforts. As
the industry itself advances towards a next generation, many of these
mechanics will be the essential building blocks that create the
foundation of gameplay. But which are the most integral for the success
of future titles, and why? The contributing writers from Ten Ton Hammer
provide some insights as to which aspects of the current gen of MMOGs
will be at the core of tomorrow’s hottest titles, from
established norms to the less prominent and beyond.

Established
Norms and the Prominence of Raiding


By and large the MMOG industry
is still dominated by fantasy settings,
many of which rely somewhat heavily on driving players towards specific
endgame goals. To a certain degree, the destination has become much
more important than the journey, so much so that nearly all paths of
character advancement eventually converge at the level cap only to be
tossed aside in favor of an entirely new set of rules.

It's also become much more
commonplace for games to include
various methods of arriving at the endgame more quickly, further
reinforcing the notion that leveling is simply a task you need to
complete before the true game can begin. Rested bonuses for time spent
offline, faster leveling introduced with increases to the level cap and
even XP bonuses linked to recruit-a-friend programs are just a few of
the mechanics introduced over the past six years that help drive this
point home.

But what happens when players
reach this nexus; the points at which
there are no more levels to obtain and the XP bar becomes a temporarily
unnecessary U.I. element? For many MMOGs, all signs point to raiding.
Raiding may have been much less prominent earlier on in the
industry’s history, but over the years it has become a
critical component of player retention. Expansions like
href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/38">EverQuest's
Planes of Power which was built entirely around a
progressive raiding path helped pave the way for much of the approach
to endgame content we see today.

Some might argue that
developers have placed perhaps too much
emphasis on endgame raiding in the years since, but is that necessarily
a bad thing? To help answer that question, we turn to two of Ten Ton
Hammer’s resident raiding experts.


The
Ultimate Advancement of Progressive Raiding

Messiah
- Contributing Writer, href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/wow">World
of Warcraft

In any modern MMOG there are a huge number of paths of advancement that
a player can choose to focus on.  Just given a few minutes
thought you can come up with a big list, including experience, levels,
gear, achievements, professions, and many more. Which is the most
important and why? A lot of how you choose to answer that question is
based on personal preference.

For me there are no doubts that raid progression is the ultimate form
of advancement in any MMOG, period.  Even though those other
items listed earlier are all important, they are really only important
as they allow you to get to and participate in the raid content that is
the end-game of an MMOG. Think about it for a minute, while you are
racing through in your attempt to hit maximum level, why are you doing
it? When you are leveling up professions what is your end goal? When
gearing up a character why are you so interested in getting better
gear? For me and for many other players out there the answer is simply,
so I can raid.

Raids are the definitive end game content as well as the content that
most often drives or completes story lines in the game. Some players
complain about this, because they do not raid and therefore cannot see
the entire storyline in a game.  But think about it just a
little while and you will see why it is done that way.  Would
it really feel like you have done something epic if in World of
Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King you managed to defeat Arthas all by
your lonesome?  Would it feel any better as a standard
instance with 5 players, probably not. It only really comes into
feeling epic and something worth achieving when you have a raid
together. When it is you and 24 other players working together to
accomplish something that you could not even dream of doing on your own.

Raid progression therefore allows players and guilds to work through
progressively harder content as they accumulate more gear, more
reputation, and more experience. To be able to progress through harder
content you need to learn tactics and strategy for all the fights you
get to.  You are also required to learn additional real life
skills that are not even measured in game.  These are the
skills of communication and social interaction that you can carry with
you to any MMOG you play and into real life. That's why Raid
Progression is the be all and end all of MMOG progression for the
Messiah.


Raiding
as an Important Tool of Character Advancement

Mem
- Contributing Writer, href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/wow">World
of Warcraft

Progressive raiding is in my
personal opinion the epitome of character
advancement in MMOGs. Perhaps this seems like a haughty statement to
make considering the vast number of other character advancement
mechanics out there, but for me (and thousands of other players)
raiding is what makes MMOGs so appealing. Garnering an elusive boss
kill is the reason I play, and the feeling I get, one of
accomplishment, pride, and the following adrenaline rush are more than
enough to keep bringing me back for more.

This feeling of accomplishment
is not all that a player can expect to
get out of raiding. Raiding gives players a very real way to advertise
their personal victories which frequently comes in the form of gear
which can only be obtained by defeating various bosses. This gear is
without a doubt a status symbol, and allows other players to easily see
just how far you have managed to progress. Even if gear is not
available from the bosses you defeat, once you have taken them down,
word will spread of your conquests and that alone will say to other
players: “Hey, here I am and this is what I can
do”. 

It stands to reason that one of
draws of an MMOG is the ability to be
able to actively play with or against other people located the world
over. What better way to fulfill this desire than by gathering a group
of like minded people to charge valiantly into some forsaken dungeon to
defeat an unnamed nemesis?  Raids not only allow people to
group together, taking advantage of the multiplayer universe they
inhabit but it allows them to form and strengthen bonds amongst their
fellow players, sometimes even forming friendships that can last for
many years, and stretch across many different games.

Progressive raiding will not
only lure players in to the game, but can
also help retain players that otherwise may have quit early on. The
best example of this comes from my wife’s experiences while
playing World of Warcraft. At first we only bought one copy, which was
not one of our brightest ideas might I add, and I suppose I
rather dominated the game. I leveled quickly, and by the time we had
bought another copy I was already in a guild and beginning my raiding
career in Molten Core. Even with the second copy, after watching me and
playing a little herself she didn’t think that she was going
to enjoy the game, however she started leveling, albeit slowly.

Her first choice was a Hunter,
and all I can say was that was a
mistake. She despised playing it, to the point where after level 20 she
stopped playing altogether. That is until she witnessed the glory that
was my guild raiding in Molten Core. She was hooked, every night from
then on she sat excitedly behind me doing what I like to call backseat
raiding. Finally she was no longer content to just sit and watch, she
created a Druid, and never looked back. The draw of raiding is
undeniable, and will not only bewitch new players expanding the player
base, but can encourage those players on the brink of quitting to push
on that extra mile so they too can join in the raiding ranks.

It’s true that
progression raiding will not appeal to
everyone, and depending on how the developers choose to handle it can
be butchered into something that no one wants to participate in. But if
handled in the correct manner progressive raiding can be a straight
forward method of gauging character advancement that appeals to a large
majority of any games player base. What the best character advancement
mechanic really is, is up for debate, however for myself no other
mechanic comes close in value. Progressive raiding is a simple and easy
way to showcase character advancement, while offering three very
important things; fun, friendship, and a sense of personal
accomplishment.

The
Eye of the Storm - Controversial Advancement in MMOGs

While endgame raid progression
is often considered to be the bane of many casual MMOG players, its
potential for providing a more solid social structure within a given
game can often outweigh the potential negatives feelings of having
reached a personal glass ceiling long before you’ve seen what
the endgame has to offer. To this day however, it still remains just
one of the many advancement mechanics at the proverbial eye of the
storm – those gameplay elements that are as likely to spark
heated debates and break apart a game community before a new title is
even released.

Yet any debate surrounding the
inclusion of raiding as the de facto
endgame activity typically pales in comparison to gameplay elements
such as Player vs. Player or even the dreaded Death Penalty. Many MMO
gamers are quick to express their dislike of either, especially if they
have too direct an impact on gameplay, while still others feel that no
game is complete without them. But if these two mechanics contribute to
so much controversial debate among gamers, why have they become such
established norms in the industry? Contributing writers Mattlow and
Martuk help shed some light on why both PvP and death penalties have
become such an integral part of successful MMOGs over the years.


PvP
Me ASAP

Mattlow
- Contributing Writer, href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/">Main
Site

I personally feel that every MMOG released should have a PvP based
leveling system. I believe Warhammer
Online
showed this model to
perfection. I am by no means saying WAR is the perfect game,
it’s far from that, but giving players the option to level by
either PvP or PvE was pure genius. I am so tired of quests that send me
out to collect 10 bandit toe nails or wolf pelts. How many fed-ex
quests can you do before you are just bored out of your mind? On top of
this, mobs basically all do the same thing. They stand out in the
middle of a field staring blankly ahead waiting to die. Most of these
fights you can play while eating a sandwich.

No AI has yet to challenge me
the way another player can. Other players
will hide and ambush you; they attack differently and use different
skills all the time. The worst PvP I have ever experienced was still
more challenging than 90% of PvE out there. Most MMOGs give you the
option to PvP, but it tends to be pretty meaningless. The fact that WAR
gave you the option to advance in whichever way you wanted was a god
send. It breaks up the monotony of grinding, and rewards you equally.
How can anyone not like having the option to change things up?


The
Importance of Meaningful Death

Martuk
- Contributing Writer, href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/">Main
Site

Death Penalty mechanics are something that has been getting weaker and
weaker with the newer generation of games. I think it’s an
important feature for a few reasons. Naturally you’ll find
people that will disagree with me, but for each of them there is
another like me. That’s the beauty of an MMOG community, we
are very diverse.

Death Penalties do a few
important things that some people
don’t realize. First, they help build community. You can put
down and curse EverQuest all you want and while I will agree that some
of the corpse runs in that game were nightmarish, they were also very
memorable and in some cases some of my fondest memories and events
involve them. I would be hard pressed to find any modern game that
offers a similar form of experiences through the dangers a harsher
death penalty can provide. Death penalties also help encourage
grouping, improvement of skills, and encourage teamwork. Older
EverQuest players can probably tell you countless stories where
complete strangers regularly helped each other out of a jam when a
corpse was lost in a deep dark place.

It all goes back to the old
saying of Risk vs. Reward. Ask an old
school EverQuest player that has played both EQ and WoW and I can just
about guarantee you that they will have stories and experiences from EQ
that they never got from WoW. Why is that you ask? Everything in
EverQuest was a risk. It was a challenge. Any time you went into a
dungeon there was a chance you could lose a corpse with your gear and
be forced to go back and get it. At the same time, you could lose
experience and de-level. Was it harsh? Yes. Was it a little too much?
Probably, but it was fun.

MMOG gamers are a diverse bunch
and there are many who will agree with
my sentiment and just as many that will disagree. I just think it would
be nice for all of us to have options we find fun. Unfortunately, many
games just don’t offer that thrill of danger and challenging
difficulty found in the days of old. It’s something I would
like to see return to some degree. There should be a penalty for
failure. If not, what’s the point of success? R.A. Salvatore
may have said it best. "If you take out of a world two things: the pain
of losing, it will diminish the accomplishment of winning. And if you
take the element of chance out of it, I won't enjoy it,"

The
Path Less Traveled

Many players have come to
expect that certain advancement mechanics will be present within any
newly released title, even if some of them aren’t necessarily
flashy enough to make a bullet point list on the back of the box. In
some cases these aspects of gameplay are meant more as a means of
augmenting character development without necessarily having a direct
impact on progression. Crafting is a perfect example, as most MMOGs
have at least some form of crafting yet more often than not
it’s treated as a secondary advancement path rather than
having a direct influence on character levels. In some games such as
EverQuest II
and Vanguard,
crafting has been implemented in such a way
that many players opt to develop their characters with it as their
primary focus.

Over the past few years, however, we’ve seen a growing number
of less prominent gameplay mechanics that not only enrich the player
experience as a whole, but some also serve the secondary function of
granting base leveling experience. As we look towards the future of
character advancement in MMOGs, many of these things could very well
become the norms of the next generation, or at least they should be.


Rewarding
Exploration

Dalmarus
- Community Manager, href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/sto">Star Trek
Online

Unlike other gamers I know, I
am not a loot whore. I'm not supremely
anxious to gain new abilities, nor do I have a continual urge to
constantly level. That is unless, of course, it allows me to explore a
new area in a game. For me, that's what truly defines my enjoyment of a
game and sadly, it's all too seldom utilized as the dangling carrot by
development teams. I don't care if staying on Uber Leveling Hill Number
Eight will get me fast experience. I don't care if Ultra Rare Spawn
Five has a forty percent chance to drop the Holy Hand Grenade of
Antioch (although you have to admit, that would be pretty awesome).

No, for me, exploration is the
name of the game and I wish it were
rewarded in more games. While I can understand the need for development
teams to focus their efforts on content the majority of their players
will come in contact with, there's very little that's as cool in gaming
as wandering off the beaten path and discovering some hidden nook or
cranny full of adventure.

Though the game crashed and
burned on release
and has never recovered, Vanguard is the Holy Grail in terms of
rewarding explorers. There are countless adventures, hidden from the
eyes of the masses, tucked away through the lands of Telon. Some can
only be noticed from a distance at night. Others can be viewed from
miles, but take courage and perseverance to actually reach. These are
the things that drive my enjoyment of a game. I'm anxious to see if
Mortal Online can provide some much needed love for the gaming
community in this regard.


Adventure
XP through Alternate Means

Stow
- Contributing Writer, href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/">Main
Site

As a lot of you may know, I'm fairly hardcore about my
gaming.  I commit to 12 hour sessions of patrolling between
the same 8 spawns in Aion.  I spend millions upon millions of
Kinah mastering all 6 professions. I even leveled both gathering skills
on 3 characters.  The big difference between Aion and other
games is that there is a plausible benefit for my work in the crafting
and gathering systems.

I get experience.

Initially it started as something small, a few hundred XP for gathering
in an area where a standard enemy kill nets you twenty
thousand.  But it's slowly been boosted, tweaked, and stacking
with other boosts and is now highly significant.  NCSoft has
even implemented it into the Double Experience Weekends they're now
running.  Suddenly a painful time sink can kill two birds with
one stone.  It can remove the pain of leveling a new character
from 10-whatever level you feel they come into their own, and I don't
just mean 16.  If you are serious about crafting, or serious
about skipping those early levels and redoing those newbie zones, you
can do just that!  It's entirely possible to level a character
to 30 for a couple million kinah (I'd call this the equivalent of about
2-3000 WoW Gold)  and some attentive clicking when doing your
crafting work orders.

Surely it's not a route you can take with your initial character due to
the costs, but future characters can skip the early game and get right
into the Abyss PvP areas, get right into the good partying level ranges
instead of being forced to solo, and get on with the game in a matter
of a day rather than a week of questing and grinding.  It's an
alternate advancement path for your alternate characters, and it works
beautifully for preserving your interest in the game and providing a
speedy, efficient way to bypass those agonizing early levels that we
dread returning to so much in other games.

Just think, you could skip the Barrens!



Put
the Multiplayer Back
in MMOGs

Medeor
- Contributing Writer, href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/sto">Star
Trek Online

Social media is the technology
of the decade, right up until I log into
a MMOG. The disparity between what I can get for free out in the wild
versus the arcane chat and guild/clan/fleet systems in games where I
pay a monthly fee is dismal. The problem is really two-fold. The tools
aren’t available to generate more community *buzz* and there
are no compelling reasons to stay within a specific community. Wait,
what?

In smaller words, what I mean
is that online games lack anything beyond
a chat window and guild bank. Where is the built-in social media that
alerts my compadres of guild events, achievements and progression? Why
can’t I interact with my guild beyond a forum that we created
outside of the game? Some rudimentary versions are becoming available,
but these should be staples in any new game. The creation costs are
minimal compared to the creation of the game (management may be a
different issue).

Next, why should I stay with
the group of people I’m
currently playing with (or as I like to call them, the group providing
me with loot)? Guild leveling/progression is critical. If we as a group
have nothing to strive for after gathering the gear we like, then what
do we do? Guild progression provides players at all levels a way to
contribute to the overall group and the game is sort of called
multiplayer for a reason, right?

Paving
the Way for the Future

So far we’ve looked
at a few of the more common advancement mechanics in MMOGs such as
raiding, some of the more controversial yet still prominent gameplay
elements found in PvP and death penalties, and a few less obvious
systems that perhaps should be used more often. But as the MMOG
industry as a whole advances perhaps the established norms and less
utilized mechanics should be retired altogether. While each of these
things certainly has merits were all MMOGs in the future to adhere to
the loose template established over a decade ago, many believe that the
next generation could stand to throw caution to the wind.

Why have XP bars at all? Or
perhaps more importantly, why are so many
aspects of gameplay geared towards feeding into character advancement?
Why not allow players to create their own rules of engagement
and social hierarchies? Two Ten Ton Hammer contributing writers offer
up some answers to these questions, and help point us towards one
potential future for the industry.


Skill-Based
Advancement vs. Level-Based

JeffPrime
- Contributing Writer, href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/">Main
Site

One means of advancing that
should be integral to any MMOG is skills.
Yes, skills. I’m not just talking about a few crafting
skills, my friends, but skills that define your character. Your
character should be defined by skills, not just class, profession, or
race. If I wish to play a sword-wielding barbarian, I should have a
skill with swords. The more I use my sword, the better I should be at
swinging it. The same goes with every other weapon, but the list
doesn’t stop there. Spells should be skills too. If I have a
stunning spell, I should be better at casting it the more I use it. It
would not be hard for developers to develop a matrix that compares my
skill versus a similar skill to an opponent. If my sword skill is lower
by a huge amount, it should be harder for me to hit my opponent and
easier for him to hit me. The closer in skill level we are, the lower
the penalty to my to-hit chance and vice-versa. If my skill is higher
than my opponent’s, then it should be easier for me to hit
him.

Once learned, skills should
never be lost. If I’m playing a
warrior and I want to learn spells, then I should be able to do so.
Granted, I might have a handicap based on stats, but I should have the
opportunity to learn new skills. To keep people from abusing the
system, you can put some restraints into the skill system, such as if
you wish to use spells, you can’t wear medium or heavy armor
(and perhaps having a 30 second cooldown after you change your
equipment). Another restraint might be a penalty to your skill based
upon your equipment, such as heavy armor reducing your swimming or
climbing skill.

Having a skill based level of
advancement will allow for greater
freedom for players and their characters. As long as you’re
willing to put the time and effort into a skill, there’s no
valid reason to not allow players to learn every skill. If a player
wants to be the best woodcutter in the game and be able to cut down
trees from the Magical Forest of Zeus to make the best bows in the
game, then that’s ok. However, being a woodcutter
shouldn’t preclude that character from learning other
crafting skills. We all know that being able to learn only a handful of
skills in most MMOGs is due to the fact that the game company wants us
to waste endless hours of our time making alts and leveling them up.
Why should we? I should be able to learn one style of skills (such as
weapons), then learn another set if I wish to do so. It
wouldn’t be easy as that, having used weapons for a long
time, my magical skills would suck and I would probably get wiped a
great deal until my magical skills became good.

Having skills as a means of
advancing within an MMOG is a no-brainer.
It allows players great flexibility and will ensure that
they’ll dabble in a ton of different skills as time goes on.
The list of skills that could be used within an MMOG are almost
endless: weapons skills, crafting skills, pet skills (the higher the
skill used to train a pet, the more likely they’ll obey your
commands), riding skills (the higher the skill, perhaps the greater the
travel speed), and miscellaneous skills such as bribery, haggling, pick
pockets, sneaking, hiding, etc. Just think of trying to bribe your way
past a guard, failing that, and then trying to fight your way out of
the city! Awesomeness!


Why
Character Advancement Systems?

Space
Junkie
- Contributing
Writer, href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/eve">EVE Online

Character advancement is an
important element of successful MMOGs, but
I do not believe that it is essential. The idea in most game designers'
minds is that, without a sense of progression, players will eventually
lose interest and seek new games. This element of progress is essential
to gamer psychology, but is not necessarily character-related.

That advancement need not be character based is proven
by the
achievement point system of the Xbox 360. The sense of progression is
not specific to any particular game. With the exception of bragging
rights and an occasional avatar award, the sense of progression is
based entirely on a number. I do not think that a meaningless point
total is a great feature for MMOGs, though no doubt many companies will
try to include a knockoff, just to cash in on the buzz. There might be
a little bit of a "halo effect" where games get some press and a few
customers because of the attention that imitating the achievements
system will garner, but there is no shortage of near-meaningless things
to do for bragging rights, in pretty much any MMOG that you can name.
In short, achievements are great for popular console platforms, but
more or less inapplicable to MMOGs.

The inclusion of character progression is a deliberate choice made by
game companies that want their games to feel similar to the most
successful games in the MMO industry's history. For smaller game
companies, it is often a better business policy to imitate than to
innovate. To these game companies, character advancement is a sacred
cow.

The sacred cow of character progression may eventually be slaughtered
by a breakthrough success in a non-fantasy genre, but I do not think
Star Wars: The Old Republic will do this. If anything, it will probably
just try to cash in on the branding, without repeating any of the
mistakes involved with Star Wars Galaxies. It doesn't need to be
innovative in order to be successful, so there is no real need to risk
anything by departing from the usual tropes.

Sooner or later, somebody is going make another breakthrough success
MMOG, in a genre that isn't fantasy roleplaying, and quite possibly
without the tropes that are usually associated with that genre, like
experience points, acquiring rare gear, or crafting.


To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Vanguard: Saga of Heroes Game Page.

Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016

About The Author

Sardu 1
Reuben "Sardu" Waters has been writing professionally about the MMOG industry for eight years, and is the current Editor-in-Chief and Director of Development for Ten Ton Hammer.

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