While we're all exchanging our ugly knit goods for better presents, the official Guild Wars 2 forums are hard at work on the final collaborative development initiative thread of 2013. The topic revolves around horizontal and vertical progression in GW2, one of the more divisive issues frequently discussed by the playerbase. We're forever debating the merits of both styles of progression and trying to determine which of them has a place in the game.
According to ArenaNet's Studio Design Director Chris Whiteside, there's room for both, and he'd like to get us brainstorming about how they can work for us. My brain is pretty stormy at the best of times, so grab an umbrella and let's talk progression.
RPGs and vertical progression go hand-in-hand, but that's typically in the single-player format where games have a definite end. A player can sink hundreds of hours into making her characters very powerful before (or even after) beating the game: getting the ultimate weapons, maxing out stats, collecting 999 of each overpowered consumable, and generally becoming a small god. This whole dynamic changes when you have to account for thousands of other players also wanting to play gods and the fact that if you make one of them a god relative to the others, they will start wanting to throw lightning bolts at you. You can make them gods relative to previously cleared content, at which point all but the most peaceful and benevolent of them will become bored with the trifling world of mortals and go looking for eldritch horrors and other gods to test their powers against. Many of them will wax wrathful and blame you for an imbalance in godly magic if they are defeated. Gods can sometimes be kind of mean.
MMO developers are still looking for a perfect way to handle godhood, more commonly known as endgame. So far I don't think anyone's found it. Many games followed World of Warcraft's lead, and WoW seemed to know what it was all about right up until it didn't. The people who enjoy WoW's progression system are playing WoW, while the rest of us are so used to looking for something that isn't WoW that we can occasionally be a touch reactionary. For my own part, I enjoy tricking out my party in single-player RPGs, and I like gaining power as long as it makes my character more powerful permanently. On the other hand, I can summon up more enthusiasm for watching grass grow than I can for cyclical progression along the lines of WoW's endgame because it's essentially just performing godhood maintenance. If I thought ArenaNet had really implemented a gear treadmill rather than a gear ladder through Ascended armor, I'd be a lot more upset.
With the knowledge that vertical progression is a thing in GW2 and won't be going away any time soon, the most constructive thing we can do is examine the many different elements it can include and pinpoint ways in which it could be more fun and accessible. I love crafting, so locking Ascended armor and weapons away behind max-level crafts has made it more fun for me and given me greater satisfaction in improving my character. Some other player has Weaponsmithing at level 4 and would like to rise from the depths and make loud dragon noises at the person who first proposed account-bound Ascended crafting. Ascended chests do drop from high-end content, but the drop rate is stingy (something ArenaNet will look into) and you might not get the stats you want.
I think my favorite idea is allowing Ascended items to use the stat-swapping feature implemented for Legendary weapons. That might be controversial since it was applied to Legendaries in the first place to make them desirable apart from their looks, but it's incredibly useful technology and potentially solves a lot of problems. Ascended items fulfill their intended purpose, but at the cost of making players feel locked into a single build and a single character. Future balance changes could inadvertently result in people wanting to change their entire stat setup and being faced with setting aside a lot of work to start over. Having the pinnacle of stat progression culminate in greater flexibility would be awesome and would lead nicely into horizontal progression at max level.
In the original Guild Wars, flexibility was the high point of progression at max level. The vast difference between taking a fresh level 20 character into difficult content and bringing along a more seasoned one mostly came down to how well-prepared that character was to adjust to the demands of the content. I have a feeling that's going to become more important in GW2 if ANet continues to add high-level fights like Tequatl that encourage us to think outside of the Berserker box.
As Whiteside notes, it's already possible to play professions in such a way that they cover different roles. My wife and I play our level 80 Necromancers very differently: She's specced for pure damage and uses axe/focus and scepter/dagger as her main weapon sets, while I'm tankier and more support-inclined with dagger/focus and staff. The flexibility is baked into the profession system already; what would be great to see is the ability to expand a role into something cooler.
ArenaNet has long associated professions with archetypes, and that's one of my favorite things about GW2. Whiteside's positive response to a post about class specialization -- which might allow a player to refine his profession into a sort of sub-archetype -- resulted in a brain hurricane on my part. From a character design perspective, my wife's Necromancer and my Necromancer both represent totally different sub-archetypes in the broader category of Necromancy; she's a traditional dark caster, and he's more of a blood ritualist (although not, unfortunately, a GW1 Ritualist). In my cute fantasy world where Necromancers get access to greatswords, they're already guaranteed to use them differently than a Warrior would. But with different specializations, could my melee Necromancer also use them differently from my wife's hybrid caster?
GW1's secondary profession system wasn't brought over to GW2 due to balance concerns, but archetype refinement might recapture and refine the fun of that without turning the game into a lumbering design nightmare in which it's possible for a Ranger to be a Guardian in everything but name. On the totally wild and crazy end (because this idea makes me think wild and crazy things), specializations might be a good place to toy with adding elements of professions that overlap too much with an existing one to stand on their own. I know I can think of a few ideas.
"Grind" is a dirty word when used to discuss GW2 progression. A lot of people speak out against it, and yet it's difficult to define exactly what constitutes a grind to everyone's satisfaction, and we've already got quite a bit of it in the game. We run dungeons multiple times for tokens; we run Fractals over and over for relics; we gather 250 of various hard-to-farm crafting materials in order to chuck them at Zommoros and get shiny stuff. I feel as though grinding is an area that GW2 tries to disassociate itself from on principle when it might serve the game better to admit that it has its charms and embrace it in limited quantities.
I'm one of those rare and incredibly goofy gamers who like grinding. I find it relaxing and rewarding. It doesn't usually take any particular skill aside from the ability to enjoy the scenery, but set me up with a nice view and a variety of pleasant sounds to farm a stack of magical sklorbniks and I can do that for hours. I can also sit on top of that really badass ruined tower wreckage in Kessex Hills and look at the sky and chat with guildmates for hours, but for some reason doing that isn't looked down upon by other gamers unless they're sarcastically telling me to go outside. The only difference is that in the second scenario I'm not gaining any sklorbniks.
GW2 appears to have attempted to ease the drudgery of grinding by making it part of more engaging content, which has unfortunately had a negative impact on both people who hate grind and people who love it. Grind-hating players still have to gather 250 sklorbniks even if they're expected to do it naturally over a long period of time through normal gameplay; grind-loving players are discouraged from parking themselves somewhere and goofing off while pursuing an attainable goal. A combination of decentralized rewards and low drop rates means that it's often more efficient to simply farm gold and buy what you need off the trading post, which just doesn't have the same appeal as collection (before anyone pipes up about the gem-to-gold conversion, the same thing was true of several high-end crafting materials in GW1).
Someone in the CDI thread brought up faction reputation, and Whiteside responded by saying that it would certainly be doable, but would it be grindy? Would it allow players to access faction-specific rewards? My feelings on this are that yes, it would be grindy, but faction-specific rewards are exactly the place for that. GW1 made the mistake of tying reputation grinds to greater power and special skills, which made them unavoidable for players who were interested in being more effective. WoW did a lot of things right in terms of reputation grinds, though, and I spent a great deal of time in that game collecting tabards, titles, minipets, and mounts to express a visual connection between my character and a faction I particularly liked. The grind was suitable for that because it never pretended to reward players for skill; instead, it was a bit like being able to say you were made an honorary member of the Consortium because you spent so much time bringing them Zaxxis insignias.
Personal expression is at a premium in MMOs, which is why players will go out of their way to get perfect outfits, rare pet skins, interesting titles, and any number of other things that do nothing more powerful than make a distinct impression. Some players want to be acknowledged at a glance as being very skilled, and they typically don't approve of being expected to grind to distinguish themselves. That's understandable. I'm the guy who ground out a Kurzick title in GW1 for no other reason than to prove how much I like Kurzicks, and I would be thrilled to do the same thing for any number of factions in GW2. The obvious choices are the three Orders, but it'd also be wonderful if we could pick up Brownie points with groups which don't already allow us to join, such as the Seraph, the priesthoods of the Six, or the Zephyrites. Players often ask for the chance to be more morally ambiguous, and while coding that into the personal story might be prohibitively expensive, faction reputation could be a good place to let us flirt with the Nightmare Court, pirates, or other groups of jerks.
As always, I recommend taking a look at the CDI thread and participating or at least checking out this handy summary for topics and developer responses. Even setting aside the potential impact on GW2 itself, it's a valuable exercise for anyone interested in MMO development. I'm no industry insider, but I'm pretty sure the questions the devs ask of players in these threads are similar to what they ask their teams to brainstorm on when developing new content.
I'm off to try the Winter Wonderland jumping puzzle again because the holiday season is all about falling headfirst into a chasm repeatedly. How do you feel about GW2's progression? Do you prefer horizontal, vertical, or some combination of the two? What do you think GW2 has done well in that area? Let us know in the comments below, and I'll see you in the Mists!
Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's weekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at firstname.lastname@example.org. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.