The appeal of a “use and improve” system to character progression is easy to understand, in part because it mimics real life. Want to get better at something? Do it (practice). Unfortunately sometimes being ‘realistic’ does not work in the gaming world, and “use and improve” systems very much fall into that category in the MMO genre.
From 1997 and Ultima Online’s skeleton wall, to Darkfall 1 and bloodwalls, players have always found a way to game such systems and get around them to get ahead. The devs in turn make changes to curb the behavior, be it slower skills gains in your house, slower gains off players, ‘power hours’, meditation, etc. The problem has always been that you are applying a Band-Aid to a wound that is ever-increasing (power-gamers will always create smarter macros, find better bugs, or simply brute-force harder).
The easy thing to do is blame the players, but the reality comes back to the fact that making an MMO is hard (right Lord British?), and making a PvP-based MMO might be the hardest design job in the industry. Design too much against the power-gamers, and your title becomes completely unplayable for anyone outside of that small minority. Limit the impact said minority can have, and you drive away the content-providers.
It’s with this history in mind that I bring such high praise to DF:UW’s new prowess progression system.
The basics of the system are this: every action earns you some amount of prowess points. Simple things like mining some iron might be worth 1 prowess per resource, while farming high-end mobs might be worth 20 or more prowess a kill.
On top of gaining pure prowess from your actions, the game also has an achievement system (feats) that reward prowess when completed. Gather 10 piece of iron, and you earn a bonus 7 prowess. Gather another 200, and you get 50. Gather an additional 3000, and you get 400. Feats cover all areas of the game; gathering, crafting, PvE, PvP, exploring, etc.
An example: You are out hunting goblins. Each goblin kill earns you one prowess. Skinning each goblin tombstone also rewards you with one prowess. After 10 goblins you earn the first goblin-slayer feat and open up the second (100 goblin kills). While skinning, you completed the first feat for collecting eyeballs (enchanting material). As you finish up your farming session, you return to town and salvage some of the drops, gaining a bit of prowess for that. Using those mats, you craft a new sword (prowess gain, progress towards crafting feats) to replace the one you just used and broke.
The beauty here is that a character at basically any level of prowess can do the above and make progress. The above can also be repeated for practically all varieties of mobs, as each has its own set of feats, and different mobs skin for different resources which again have their own feats.
So how you gain prowess is pretty brilliant, because you get it from simply playing the game, but not in the ‘play the game’ style of a “use and improve” system. That is only half the system however.
What you do with prowess is equally important. Simply put, you spend prowess on skills or character stats, with the cost increasing as the skill/stat gets higher and higher towards the cap. All skills outside of crafting can be increased in this way (crafting still increases from use, which works as you are resource-limited rather than time-limited with crafting).
The result is you can very easily become ‘viable’ with a bit of focus. Near-maxing one weapon skill, some basic spells, and your key stats can be done in a matter of weeks with normal (20ish hours a week) play. At the same time, ‘maxing out’ a character is incredibly difficult, both due to the increasing cost of skills as they increase and the diminishing returns on prowess gain as your overall total increases. On top of that, the more you play the more feats you will accomplish, so finding new feats to finish for a prowess boost will naturally drive players out of their comfort zone and into trying new things (different mob spawns, more PvP/PvE, crafting, etc).
How to spend prowess also adds some interesting decisions making, without becoming a “you just gimped yourself” choice system (you can always get more prowess). For instance, say you decide to gather for a bit; how much prowess do you spend on the mining skill initially? The more you spend, the faster you mine and the lower your chance of failure. However, spending those prowess points on the mining skill means you can’t spend them on combat-based skills. Each player will initially spend to a different level, in effect customizing their character’s skill to better suit their style of play.
And much like in EVE, maxing multiple weapon skills or role skills does not make you more powerful, it simply gives you more options. And just like docking up and getting a different ship in EVE, it will take some time and gear adjustment to make the switch in DF:UW. It’s good motivation to keep progressing, but it keeps the barrier-of-entry reasonable for players joining at a later date.
The impact this system has on how you play the game is rather dramatic, if sometimes in subtle ways. For instance, it’s no longer beneficial to use a spell as often as possible to skill it up, so players no longer run around cycling transfer spells ‘just because’. It’s not a game-defining change, but it cleans up one aspect that to new players traditionally quickly comes across as a flaw, or just stupid.
It also instantly removes blood walls, mount bashing, or the infamous ‘group-sex’ macroing from DF1. Instead you have the power-gamers identifying the best mob camps to farm, in the best group setup, and in the most efficient rotations. It creates new value in holdings close to such spawns, and rewards organized guilds that prioritize a guild crafter.
In short, the system rewards the kind of player behavior you want to encourage, which is basically going out and playing the game rather than doing boring/exploitive activities just to progress. It keeps the barrier-of-entry reasonable, while still retaining a very long character progression path. And most importantly, it feels fun and rewarding, both on a micro and a macro scale.
Funny that it took 15+ years, and a small indie studio to get us there, but better late than never.