Good morning and happy weekend to you all!

So I decided to spice things up and give you all a bonus column entry for the week and provided I have the time and energy on Saturdays, I may continue doing this in the future. Anyhow, after a very lively discussion last night on Theory Forge Friday with the gang I thought I would give you all a recap here of the discussion and my big takeaways after a night for everything to sink in.

For those of you who may not be aware what TheoryForge Friday is, it's an online gaming talkshow where myself and several friends and co-hosts openly discuss gaming related topics - specifically theory, design, and mechanical nuances to MMOs and gaming in general. You can check out past episodes on either our Twitch or Youtube channels if you like what you read here.

Leveling Systems and Gated Gaming

Last night we took a break from having developer and community guests on and went back to what we do best, which is breaking down mechanics as a group and discussing what works, what doesn't, and where things are going. I really felt like leveling systems are one of the primary drawbacks of participating in a modern MMO, for various reasons that I'll touch on in this breakdown. There were a lot of different perspectives on it, but I'll do my best to summarize what we as a group feel leveling systems consist of in the realm of online gaming.

What is Leveling?

It may seem obvious, and in so many ways - it is.

Leveling up is in just about every major online game these days. It serves several different purposes, some of them good; along with others that are not so good. Leveling in its most basic sense is a mechanic in games that tracks progression - plain and simple. You can have full-character leveling, skill-leveling, and even stage-leveling (where you progress from one level of a world into the next), but it all comes back to progression.

Leveling is a simple gradient that traditionally just moves up (sometimes including the ability to de-level down) on a vertical scale, and more often than not reaches a "cap" at some point - for reasons I will dive into in the next section. It's important to clarify here that leveling systems are not inherently good or bad. It's all a matter of how and where they are used, and what functions they serve in the game itself (which has a lot to do with what other systems the developers tie into them).

Power Creep and the Heroes Journey

When it comes to leveling systems in MMORPGs, there is usually always some form of power gain tied into the leveling systems. Whether that's character leveling, skill leveling, or even stage/difficulty leveling, the higher up you go, the more powerful you get or must be to continue being successful. That's the popular design today, and it stems largely from the concept of the "Heroes' Journey".

For those unaware of what the Heroes' Journey is, it's the concept that a character begins their story as an "everyman" or an average individual that along the course of narrative events and personal choices - is called to action by acquiring certain powers or a certain position of influence on the narrative and must act.

While every hero's journey doesn't require power gains, it's typically the easiest way for a reader, player, or participant to understand a change in influence on the world around them. When it comes to online role-playing games (which pulled heavily from table-top role-playing games at their outset), it's very easy to convey that hero's journey arc through power increases provided by a simple system like leveling up. That's why it is so prevalent today.

However... that doesn't mean it's the only way of doing things. We've already seen some games explore alternative methods of progression that aren't quite so vertical, though they still do contain vertical elements.

Vertical vs. Horizontal Progression

Let me first start by saying that neither of these are "better" than the other. They're just different. They are alternative means of achieving the same goal, which in MMOs is allowing players to both feel achievement and also experience that hero's journey I talked about above. While they both strive to achieve the same thing - they do it in wildly different ways. First I'll touch on the differences and then I'll get into why one actually is better than the other, specifically when it comes to massively multiplayer games.

Vertical Progression

Like I mentioned earlier, vertical progression is a leveling process that climbs straight up, typically with very few branches; and usually only enough branches for players to feel like they are involved in the playstyle or role they enjoy the most. Vertical progression in MMOs began with EQ and all of its continued expansion over the years. It's a system that Blizzard picked up and utilized in WoW and has essentially become the staple of online RPGs. For all the benefits of leveling, there are some significant drawbacks to vertical progression - especially the way it's being done in RPGs today.

First of all, it gates content; which is a good thing - for developers, that is. It gives them time to make the next chunk of content, and it allows them to balance challenge and difficulty by portioning out obstacles of various tiers around the world, based purely on character level. That all sounds good, but what if you're a player who just wants to explore the world and not get to drawn into the combat elements (which I should point out is another separate issue with MMORPGs today - being almost exclusively combat-focused... but we'll save that topic for another day).

Also, specifically talking about social online games, the vertical leveling systems in most games today are a harsh barrier to entry for new players. If you've already got friends in a game and you come in late, you're at an impasse - unless your friends want to start over with you, power-level you up to their range, or some mixture of the two. Most games don't offer any fixes for this issue, though a few have begun to offer level-scaling to help mitigate this serious downside.

Horizontal Progression

Other games have eliminated the problem almost entirely by featuring heavy doses of horizontal progression. Games like Firefall, Final Fantasy XIV, and Landmark are prime examples of progression models that focus much more on horizontal options that allow players a wide range of choices with much shorter progression paths for each choice. Quite often in these games, the player is allowed to mix and match newly learned abilities or features from different branches of progression and assemble a very custom-tailored progression experience.

While horizontal progression isn't innately better than vertical progression, it offers some interesting benefits for MMORPGs. There is a much lower power-gap between new players and veteran players - in terms of single-branch verticality. That means that new players are immediately more impactful in a group setting, which is a huge benefit for games that are built around dynamic group play. At the same time, little true power gain is lost. I'll use my cohost Dygz comic-book hero example to illustrate the difference in these (albeit slightly modified).

Hulk vs Hulkbuster

Vertical progression is the power set of the Incredible Hulk. Very straightforward, very simple, with a constant rise in power. The further along you get, the stronger and more powerful you become - without much of a change in scope of abilities or group role. Whatever your role is, you just get better at that specific role and continue climbing. Just like Hulk, the angrier he gets, the stronger he gets - and the more effectively he gets at doing what he does best: HULK SMASH.

Horizontal progression on the other hand is Iron Man's skill-set. Instead of vertically becoming more powerful, Tony simply continues expanding his arsenal and branching out with new technology and new innovations to gain more versatility and the adaptability to have an answer for everything. While he isn't necessarily getting any stronger, his power is effectively increasing. He is able to do more, achieve more, and be more impactful both alone and in a group setting.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, these are both completely different thought processes, but in the end they both still are capable of providing a heroes journey, as well as serving the purpose of tracking progression and gating content. When it comes to social online games, horizontal progression makes a huge difference in reducing the drawbacks that vertical progression presents - without taking away from too many of the benefits.

If anything horizontal progression is a serious upgrade to character achievement tracking in social online games. Its single major drawback when compared to a more vertical system is the amount of depth that can be achieved in a very-specific skill-set; as shorter branches inevitably mean that most characters will need to expand their ability set rather than upgrade what they already enjoy doing.

Obviously the best system would be a combination of both, allowing players to gain power by both branching out or climbing vertically up a single branch. The tricky part is making sure that both options are equally viable, because players will find out what is optimal - and as LockSixTime frequently reminds me: they will take the path of least resistance.

Final Thoughts

There were a ton of other great points that were made, including a major case I made that a rise in episodic content popularity could push towards a type of gameplay that doesn't require significant power gains at all. The Heroes' Journey at that point would be more of a player taking a more limited ability set and power level and finding their role in an evolving story that continuously changes and therefore doesn't require players to really grow vertically or horizontally at all to feel entertained, engaged, and that they have achieved something meaningful.

The last point I'd like to share is that the whole discussion ultimately boiled down to the realization that while power-gains should happen early on to facilitate that initial feeling of the standard hero's journey, it should taper off significantly into more of a horizontal field of customization. Most games today have that entirely backwards as your horizontal options are laid out first, you lock yourself into one branch and climb vertically from there. That creates a steep power-gap between new and veteran players and really segregates both the content of the game, and even social involvement in various portions of the world itself.

Games need to move more towards short initial vertical gains that lead into very wide horizontal path options that each have their own unique vertical climbs if a player finds something that they truly enjoy. Any developer will probably cringe at that thought, because it is a lot of work... However, if they can reduce the amount of time spent on content production with scripted and static AI and move into more dynamic, evolving, and procedural content generation; then the ability to shift time and resources to creating new ways for players to experience that automated content won't be so bad.

What do you think? Let me know in the comment section below! As always, thanks for reading - and I'll catch you next week.


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Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016

About The Author

Wall2
Alex has been playing online games and RPGs for quite some time, starting all the way back with Daggerfall, EverQuest, and Ultima Online. He's staying current with the latest games, picking up various titles and playing during his weekly streams on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings with both MMOs and MOBAs being feature plays. Hit him up on Twitter if you have a stream request for Freeplay Friday! Two future games he's got a keen eye on are Daybreak's EverQuest Next and Illfonic's Revival.

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