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.