Character progression: Why SW:TOR is DOA

The style and impact of character progression is an issue that every MMO must consider, and it’s an issue that far too often is misunderstood by many players (and devs for that matter). The concept of ‘the grind’ is heavily related here, and while many have negative feelings towards it, it remains a vital need for any MMO looking to not only survive, but to growth and prosper long-term.

The core issue here is that while we all love playing massive, MULTIPLAYER, online games, what drives most of us to log in day after day is PERSONAL progression; that feeling that you are getting stronger, that you are able to do more, and that you are better off at the end of the week then you were at the beginning. In short, we are always chasing the ‘ding’, be it the traditional leveling ding, an item upgrade, or reaching a certain skill level. The importance of this can’t be stressed enough, and the simple fact that many MMO players will move on from a game shortly after they have ‘maxed out’ is clear evidence of this.

Raiding guilds don’t move on from an instance once they feel they have seen the content enough to be satisfied, they move on once they no longer need the ‘ding’ of the item upgrades it offers. If that happens to be the final raiding instance (aka, the best items), the guild goes into hibernation.

WoW of course is the perfect example of this, and one glance at the actual content being run and its gameplay quality (vs the items it drops) should be evidence enough to anyone still thinking it’s the content itself that drives player action. Given the choice between a boring raid with good loot and a great raid that features no upgrades, the raiding guild will see the great raid once (maybe), and then spend weeks/months farming the boring raid. Consider the MMO you are playing today and I’m sure you will see a similar pattern.

Now I’m not saying that the ‘ding’ is ALL you need in an MMO, that would be silly. You DO need great, balanced, engaging, bug-free content to entertain your players, but the fact remains that no matter how great your content is, if it does not further character progression, it won’t be effective (effective being content that keeps MMO players entertained (paying) for the months and months we go between updates).

The second piece of the puzzle is power creep. You simply can’t have your current playerbase continually getting more powerful if you expect new players to be able to come in and get into the action, be it PvE or PvP.

Most PvE games handle this by simply starting over. Raise the level cap a few levels and all those months/years of ‘gearing up’ at the old cap is reset, and everyone is back to square one. While this is not very MMO-like in terms of a persistent world and continual progression, it’s the easiest way to balance things, and most players today seem to accept it.

The funny evolution of exclusion also plays into this. ‘Back in the day’ you would be excluded from a group based on your level, while today you are excluded based on your gearscore. Same basic concept, same character progression basis, just a different name for the ‘ding’; perception is king.

PvP-based MMOs on the other hand can’t be so easily reset. For one, games like EVE or DarkFall feature more persistent worlds than a game like WoW, and so a reset would cause more havoc than simply wiping all gearscore totals. The other issue is that those games feature more direct player interaction (PvP) than something a bit more insulated. In a raiding guild you are only competing with other members of your guild for a raid spot, while in a PvP game you need to keep up with all players who could potentially be an enemy. It’s this competition that also makes the need to progress more important, as you want to reach the level of being ‘viable’ as soon as possible. Just like a raider would never walk into an instance without his gear, a PvP’er never likes to face someone who beats him simply on the basis of character progression.

So while vertical progression with a reset is acceptable (though I would argue far from ideal) in a PvE setting, quick viability and endless horizontal progression is key to a more PvP-focused MMO. The difficult part comes in pulling this off, and I feel EVE has done the best job in this area so far. Pilots are able to quickly jump in and actually contribute early on, while as time goes on they are simply expanding their options rather than growing more powerful in any one area. DarkFall is making progress in this regard as well, with the current (incomplete) specialization system and hopefully ultimately with the addition of prestige classes. Short-term fixes like the rebalancing of the hitpoint formula and the increased gains to ‘core’ functionality are solid (if unfortunately late) steps as well.

Regardless of the system in place, one thing is for certain; we play MMOs to progress, and we leave MMOs when progression is no longer possible (or deemed worthwhile). Short of the server being down and the game constantly crashing, all other issues are secondary to this core fundamental issue, and the better an MMO is able to solve it, the brighter its future.

Which is why, IMO, SW:TOR is DOA. One-time content and story are not what you build a long-term viable MMO on, no matter how compelling that content becomes. Players will see it once, love it, and then look around, see no further progression possible, and go back to grinding X or chasing shiny Y. It’s what we do.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Darkfall Online, EVE Online, MMO design, SW:TOR, Uncategorized, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Character progression: Why SW:TOR is DOA

  1. sid67 says:

    Echoes my sentiments about character progression for the most part. It’s integral and important but very difficult to balance. Too slow of progression and it’s a grind. Too fast and it ends and people quit. And if it never really “stops”, then new players will have a much poorer experience than the earlier adopters.

    Although — I’m not going to say SW:TOR will be DOA. If they release expansion/premium packs with more content on a decent schedule than it might be able to compete.

    Easier said than done…

    This is also interesting in light of the recent discussion on Dynamic Content. Clearly, the advantage of Dynamic content is re-playability.

    Could SW:TOR somehow come up with some interesting Dynamic PVE Story lines? Might be some possibilities there in putting together some “build-a-quest” or “choose your own adventure” style story lines.

  2. Maladorn says:

    You’re projecting WoW “story-telling” onto TOR. Maybe TOR will end up no different than WoW, but I’d at least posit that BioWare is expressly trying to sell us that it will be different. So, assuming that they aren’t just blowing smoke, there will be eight different stories to “ding” with (and that’s not counting betraying your main faction as a possible alternate story). Even assuming that not all class-types appeal, you’re talking about multiple plays of different content. And that’s before any expansions or consideration of alternate progression. I’ll admit, I’m biased toward a good story, so I put a lot of stock in that aspect of the game. But even if you aren’t as big on story, it still shouldn’t be discounted.

    • sid67 says:

      I agree with you, but here is the problem.. that’s great for a solo game.

      Not so good for a MULTIPLAYER game where you want some continuity for hanging out with your friends and completing content together.

      Also — the thing about character progression is that people want to develop the best “character” that they can. Some people just will resist re-rolling ever time they reach the “end” because they’ll view it as starting over. Which it is..

      • Anti-Stupidity League says:

        That’s why I’m hoping TOR is going to be an excellent single player game (that will get regular updates), just like Dragon Age and Mass Effects have been. I’m not even planning on playing TOR with my friends, I’m preparing to solo it all the way.

  3. Bhagpuss says:

    I broadly agree on the progression thing. As meandering and undirected as Mrs Bhagpuss and I are in our MMO journeys, we do generally come to a point where we want to see some character development. It doesn’t have to be much, though. A new spell here, a new pet there, access to a new area or just a nice hat even.

    Progression definitely doesn’t have to be about combat, though. For some people achievements or house-decorating drive account retention very effectively. Whether story can, though, I do really have to question. My experience with Dragon Age certainly doesn’t predispose me to subject myself to countless more hours of straight-to-video quality voice acting linked to badly lip-synched cartoon close-ups.

  4. Mala says:

    I’ve basically been saying/thinking this since they announced this game and what it was going to be. They keep making vague remarks about “MMO” features but basically give 0 details. I have to suspect we are going to see a heavily instanced single player game with some co-op elements if you so choose. I mean, there isn’t anything wrong with that per se, but rather that they are calling it an MMO and presumably charging MMO fees. If Bioware wanted to make a blockbuster co-op RPG with persistent characters then they could’ve, but to call it an MMO seems to just be a big marketing ploy.

  5. Stabs says:

    “It’s what we do.”

    Maybe we are not the target audience.

    Maybe they really aren’t trying to grab the progression minded achievers, that it’s a dip-in game for a bit of interesting story, more like an interactive film than a traditional MMO.

  6. defconquell says:

    Everything I’ve seen so far in terms of gameplay looks like KoTOR from 2003. The fact that they are showing re-hashed combat videos makes it obvious this is a WoW-clone.

    I love Bioware RPGs, but just throwing in some voiceovers and perhaps some interesting scripted quests doesn’t do justice for a MMO in 2010. This will be WoW for Star Wars fans. C’mon already, lightsabers and togas are so 1977.

    What I find far more appealing is where EVE is going with planetary interaction and player merc armies in Dust 514. It’s genius having a fresh FPS and mature RTS interact the way they described at fanfest this year. Two completely different types of gamers called upon to wheel and deal with each other. Maybe in 2012 CCP will bring us dropships that fly thru the atmosphere and deploy mech units to our ground forces… and orbital nukes, and… instagibbering ensues…

    * Grabbing a towel, brb.

    So, CCP. Listen up, my twinkletoed little Icelandic chudnuggets. Dynamic events + walking in stations = opportunity to do some wicked PvE storytelling in parallel with your dominion PvP machinations.

    Tell your writing team to read any of Gardner Dozois’ annual collections of Best SciFi short stories. Hire Michael Swanwick as a consultant for chrissake. CCP Games are to nerds what nerds are to normal people. Grab your sacks and supernerd up.

    I want that moment where my clone is huffing hot condensation against his faceshield, after watching his buddy get transmogrified by alien nanos. Nanos that have waited millenia to relay a message from the Jovians. My God, it’s full of stars.

    Nice wormhole over Norway BTW. You guys and your crazy toys.

  7. bonedead says:

    Yeah well my X is better than your Y.

  8. Eric says:

    I agree.

    A potential solution to the never ending gear progression is to add age and death. Like growing old we are less agile but much smarter.

    Incorporate mechanics that mimic aging and death. We still get to level our characters to max, but ultimately they die and pass on their wealth to our alts.

  9. Bluefleye says:

    I appreciate your comment on about Eve Online players “expanding their options” through time, and not necessarily just growing stronger in one area. They can in one sense get stronger in one particular area, but in the end, characters are much more balanced.

    Winners are usually decided by either the size of their gang, their knowledge about how to outfit their internet spaceship for a particular task/fight and their application of that knowledge during a fight.

    New characters are never ruled out as the line is grayer, not being “level” based.

    I wish I could try Darkfall, but my old laptop will crap out if I even try to install it.

    **Another game to watch – Perpetuum… It seems like they are trying to apply a system much like the one that exists in Eve, (but with Mechs)**

    Cheers! I love your in-depth looks at gaming,
    Yourm Ama/k0ld <-my pilots

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  11. krystallos says:

    Hmmm… lets see, the game doesn’t come out until 2012 so you all are pronouncing it dead a YEAR and a half before it even releases? ROFL! I will stop back by in 2 years to laugh again.

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