Progression, brass rings, and horizontality

Muckbeast recently reworked his original article on Quest-Based Advancement in MMOs, this time on Bright Hub, and I’ve been pondering the questions it raises since the first “edition.” I have a whole lot of opinions on advancement in MMOs in general and quest-heavy advancement in particular, but many of them are either shared by so many it’s almost pointless to express them, or too formless for proper articulation. Nonetheless, before the whole discussion slides back under the swampy murk of the Blog of Eternal Stench (hey, that’s not a bad name), I thought I’d have a stab at a little articulation.

One thing in particular that has bothered me for a long time is the current most common (in my experience, anyway) model of MMO content-progression: upward, ever upward. Given that this principle is embedded in the D&D-type pen-and-paper RPGs that form the basic inspiration for many MMOs — the primordial ooze, to tickle that metaphor a little more — it’s nt entirely surprising, but it isn’t necessarily the best thing for the long-term health of games. (For one thing, content-progression in PnP games tended to be a great deal slower, given the nature of offline gaming.)


I’m not entirely certain of this, but it seems to me that WoW formalised the next logical step in that design principle: “end-game content.” As many of you know, it’s a concept I dislike, for many reasons, one of them being that the brass-ring model ends up with slogans (and design to match) such as “The game begins at 60!” No, wait, it’s 70. I mean, 80. And there’s the rub. If the end-game is the primary thing a game’s design encourages players to strive for, then sooner or later you’re going to have to move that brass ring upward. And again, and again after that; and even some of the most dedicated WoW players are starting to opine that raising the level cap isn’t really much of an expansion, since all it offers is more of what went previously, just with bigger numbers. (You also run into issues like gear obsolescence which, in a game like WoW where obtaining gear is a primary reason for experiencing some of the content, then makes a whole bunch of content obsolete too.) This relates to quest-heavy advancement because that particular model is probably the most efficient way to ensure that players experience the content you’re creating, that they experience it in a certain way (that is then easier to control and plan for), and that they get the kinds of rewards you’d expect, which should encourage them to try the “central” content — which in WoW and other games is raiding, instance dungeons, and so on.

What I’m not saying is that this is a conspiracy, or even wilful laziness. Most of the time we design based on what we know, and it can take a while for some of the flaws of a given design to become apparent — one of those, to my mind, is that the upward-only progression model demands more and more upward content to keep your players happy, which means you’re so busy designing circuses that you forget about the uses of bread. In other words, horizontal progression. I’m quite sure Blizzard never intended to create a treadmill quite as intense as WoW’s is now — they just wanted to make a great game and, if possible, make pots of cash; and it was a great game, think of it what you will, though in my opinion it’s not aging as well as it might. Which is not, one should add, an issue WoW is alone in facing.

Most combat-based MMOs have a certain amount of horizontal progression: crafting (to some extent), reputation building, exploration (little xp-handouts for finding new places)… I’m sure there are many more possible ways of building horizontal content players would enjoy, but MMOs are like anything else and are created with finite resources, even WoW, and there’s only so much you can do with a given amount of money, time and manpower. Besides, it’s probably “easier” in many ways to keep designing upward-progression, because at least the rails are clear, for both designers and players.

Changing the way “progression” is defined and designed in MMOs is going to take time, if it can happen at all. Many MMO players are perfectly happy with the “brass ring” progression, with its associated quest-driven advancement — and if they’re not, it’s usually expressed only as a certain kind of unease (often called “burnout”) where what they’re doing isn’t quite as fulfiling as they expect, but they don’t really know what would be. We’ve become accustomed to a certain kind of playstyle and it’s very likely that if that brass ring stops being dangled, or isn’t quite as LOOK-AT-ME! shiny, we won’t feel as though we’re “achieving” anything.

There’s a lot of talk along the lines of “going back to basics” (or the “good old days”) and doing things like “making travel more meaningful,” but the problem with that is that there’s often no proposed alternative, just a string of grievances, and when there are alternatives they don’t always end up providing a better or more immersive playing experience. I don’t think the speed of travel, for instance, really has anything to do with a game’s basic enjoyment, but it does mesh with a whole load of other elements — finding groups, getting to “interesting” places, meeting up with friends, etc — that do have a great deal of impact on enjoyment. Teleporting isn’t a problem in itself, if it supports other elements of the game’s design; similarly, slow travel isn’t necessarily a problem either, if the game doesn’t require you to cross continents at a snail’s pace just so you can meet up with a friend when both of you only have a half hour to play. It’s about time games and players accept that the 8-hour marathon sessions aren’t the norm now, and probably never really were — we fit games into whatever time we can claw back from work, kids, grocery shopping and figuring out how the hell we’re going to pay the next utilities bill.

Similarly, if we dial back on quest-heavy advancement (the benefits of which Mr Muckbeast has already gone into), we absolutely must provide some sort of alternative, though the range of options is wider than we tend to think. Raph Koster’s had a lot to say on the subject over the years, including the fact that just sitting and chatting is absolutely a valid way to spend time in games, provided those games work towards encouraging said activity. Or, in the case of quest-driven advancement, provided the game’s basic progression design doesn’t actively discourage said activity.

And that’s the main problem, in my view. Quests are absolutely wonderful things, when they’re not the ONLY thing, or when their presence doesn’t overwhelm other avenues of play and/or progression.

Sure, we can all choose to do different things in games, no matter how the game presents itself to us. I’m not disputing that, and I’d rather not end up debating that in the comments since it should be self-evident. Players certainly can make an effort to break free of playstyles that aren’t as fulfilling as they could be, though it’s not as easy to break habits as we tend to think, even playing habits. The fact is, however, that most players will play the game mostly as it was designed to be played — that’s just basic game and design theory coupled with human nature. We don’t try to play Scrabble on a Monopoly board, though the attempt might be fun once or twice. Design affects use.

{Inspector Columbo} And one more thing — it’s all very well to say it’s the journey that matters (and I agree, it really does matter), but a journey implies a destination. Which isn’t to say we should all be achievement-obsessed, God knows I’m not, but we cannot just ignore the fact that people like to arrive somewhere just as much as they enjoy getting there. Of course, the destination doesn’t have to be max level; one thing games could usefully learn (or relearn) how to do is to include meaningful side-destinations and sub-destinations — not just “Oh look, I hit x0 level, ding, yay, yawn.” A journey with no purpose doesn’t hold players long; it’s too Zen for most people, and I’m not sure my leisure time should be all about the pursuit of Zen in any case, much though I love its basic principles. Gaming should be about FUN, first and foremost; how games are designed, and how we condition ourselves to play them, are a large part of how we perceive fun or the lack of it.

As a last tangent: one of the other downsides of the enormous amount of quests required by a quest-heavy system (which, as Muckbeast points out, leads players to ignore the trees for the forest), especially one in an item-heavy system, is that players will end up cherry-picking quests based not on how good they are (which is hardly noticed these days anyway) but rather on whether the rewards are “worth it” — in other words, whether the quest provides an item the player might actually want. After all, there are a gajillion other quests out there to do, more than any single player could possibly need in order to reach max level, which — along with items — is the ultimate goal. I can see that leading to a quality-loss cycle where quest designers know nobody reads the damned things anyway, so they don’t craft them as lovingly as they used to and instead spend more time wondering what kind of reward-carrot they can slot into it to make players choose to accept it. That’s a shame.