Horizontal progression systems, when done correctly, offer MMO gamers better options on how to refine their characters over time that a steep power curve based on disposable itemization alone fails to accomplish. That power curve is the common denominator in the vast majority of titles available today, but there is tectonic shift towards horizontal progression systems happening beneath the surface.
That shift has been occurring for much longer than you’d think, but we’re finally reaching a point where what began as a subtle movement has the potential to shake the very foundations of the MMOG industry like a massive earthquake. A tidal wave of new titles is looming just over the horizon that could cumulatively bring forth a new era for MMOGs, and wash away the old paradigms.
This new wave effectively marks the dawning of the sandbox era, though proper theme park MMOGs won’t necessarily be going the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon. Much like those behemoths from ancient times, theme park MMOGs will simply change form; they will adapt to the new climate and may change form, but only select species will die out or be hunted to extinction.
"You Said You Wanted Evolution, the Ape was a Great Big Hit"
There are any number of titles that have helped pave the way towards proper progress or change in the way massively-multiplayer online games are built and consumed. It began even before World of Warcraft hit the scene nearly a decade ago, but didn’t really catch fire until much later. It took many years of revision, planning, and ultimately a development studio with both the guts and the capital to make it stick in the eyes of the mainstream.
The original Guild Wars was by no means an MMOG, though it was discussed and consumed as though it was. In many ways it defied classification or association with just a single genre. It’s both a lobby-based multiplayer RPG, and a fiercely competitive playground. Meanwhile, each campaign does something few online games have ever attempted: you can effectively beat the game and watch the credits roll, but then also keep on playing without skipping a beat.
Guild Wars offered a new game plus experience even before it became popular in single-player RPGs or other genres, but it also offered something else that has been infinitely more impactful. The way it handles horizontal progression is nothing short of brilliant, as it managed to keep players engaged over the years without devolving into disposable power-based progression systems like raiding.
With each successive campaign, the level cap could be reached in less overall time spent playing, so the majority of consumable gameplay was balanced appropriately. The idea was to let you reach level 20 quickly, and then horizontal progression kicks in so that you’re still evolving your character in meaningful ways. Those ways just didn’t include power grabs based on itemization progression.
ArenaNet clearly learned a lot of lessons from this approach, and adapted its concept of horizontal progression to fit into a proper MMOG wrapper with Guild Wars 2.
In GW2 you hit the level cap (80) long before you finish the main storyline. By then you’ll have unlocked most of your skills, and could also have full armor and weapon sets of the highest tier, though this was ultimately muddied a bit with the inclusion of Ascended-quality gear.
Regardless, the fact remains that the release of Guild Wars 2 was a shot heard around the MMOG world. For all the hype surrounding dynamic events and massive world boss fights, at the end of the day the thing GW2 helped inject into the consciousness of the average MMO gamer is that horizontal progression not only works, but is a viable alternative to disposable gear-based progression grinds.
The key is to still have carrots for players to chase. In other words, an MMORPG needs to give gamers a reason to continue playing once they’ve reached the pinnacle of power.
Guild Wars 2 handles this with its regular deployment of Living World updates, and has also finally began baking in new layers of horizontal progression. The April Feature Pack update lays an awful lot of groundwork to allow for things like new traits, skills, items, and build concepts to neatly enter play in the future. ArenaNet is clearly building towards something massive, but only time will tell exactly what form that something will take.
"You Say You Want a Revolution, Man, and I Say That You’re Full of S**t"
The launch of Guild Wars 2 may not have invoked a massive revolution in the MMOG industry, even though there was plenty of pre-launch buzz that it might. Instead, it blew the doors wide open and helped pave the way for one to eventually happen. Its combination of horizontal progression, business model, and player retention via Living World updates is finally beginning to inform a new generation of titles.
These aftershocks are being felt with an increasing frequency with each new MMOG announced via Kickstarter campaigns, or similar approaches somewhere off the beaten path. The Future of Online Gaming panel hosted by our friends over at MMORPG.com during PAX East this year was representative of this fact. Along with Guild Wars 2, the inclusion of titles such as Pathfinder Online, Trove, and The Repopulation made an impactful statement on where our industry is headed.
The only way a revolution can truly take root is for people to take up its banner and fight the good fight. Developers and publishers ultimately hold the keys to our MMO gaming future, but that doesn’t mean the millions of active MMO across the globe gamers don’t have a say as to which doors we want to see unlocked. Consider this a rallying cry to not just say you want a revolution in the MMOG industry, but to live it as well.
If you’re tired of disposable item-based progression systems and want to see horizontal progression become the norm, take to the social media rooftops and shout about it. It’s a worthy dialog that needs to happen either way. And if enough gamers are bold enough to explicitly state their intent to support titles like GW2 based on progression rather than focusing too much on things like active combat systems, we can make sure that more of the types of games we want to consume are being made.