Sometimes we need to see certain things from different perspectives in order to understand the whole truth. If detectives listened to only one eyewitness, then the totality of the crime would be missing. They could head in the wrong direction, thereby letting a criminal go free and possibly detaining an innocent person. Although game design isn't exactly like busting a criminal, it is a lot like other parts of detective work. Designers attempt to determine why certain aspects of a game work or don't work. They gather data and design a balanced system, but the totality of success isn't seen until they gather eyewitness accounts from a number of different perspectives. This is why today I want to look at the positive side of the gear treadmill.
Star Wars: The Old Republic launches a new game update today -- Update 1.6: Ancient Hypergate. Along with new warzone and space combat areas, this update adds a new set of top-level PvP gear, gets rid of a PvP gear set, and makes the PvE gear progression shorter by giving level 50s a set of Tionese gear. This update pretty much defines power creep, and normally, I would say that this kind of thing should absolutely be avoided in MMOs. However, this week, I'd like to take the opposite approach and examine why this is a good thing.
As I mentioned last week, SWTOR Lead Designer Damion Schubert told players that although the team will not get rid of vertical progression, players will see it start to level off. My initial thought was, why not let it plateau and find other ways to entice players to continue the grind? But there is something to be said for climbing up a ladder. Some of us will continue to push the same button over and over just to get a specific number higher and higher. I admit, I am exactly like that when it comes to credits or gold in MMOs. I will continue to do dailies over and over until I have a certain number (usually one million). But then it doesn't exactly stop there; I have to push myself to see whether I can hit that next obscure number in the distance.
Don't get me wrong; I am not knocking that design at all. Setting up achievable, foreseeable goals is a hallmark of good game design. It's like a side-scroller with a flagpole at the end. You know you've hit your goal, and each level hopefully inspires you to jump to the next level. If designers don't give players a goal, they will flounder and ultimately fall off.
This idea certainly carries over to PvP as well. If designers don't give players a sharply defined goal for progression, they will not progress. And if designers do as I've suggested in the past -- expand the options -- then ultimately players will no longer need those options and only a fringe group of hardcore players will try out all the possible specs. Most players will find a set of options that suit them best and stick with that because that is the set that helps them win. To deviate from that set would mean either relearning how to play their class or losing. This also wastes designer time, as I suggested power creep does.
If vertical progression wastes designer time because of power creep and horizontal progression wastes designer time because players like to settle, what is the answer? Compromise, of course.
Star Wars: The Old Republic lends itself easily to compromise because of how its gear is designed. Each major piece of gear is composed of four slots: Armoring, Barrel, or Hilt; Modification; Enhancement; and Augment. Belts and bracers have three: Armoring, Modification, and Augment. Relics, Earpieces, and Implants carry their own stats but can be equipped with an augment. With all these options for designers to play with, there are multiple ways to give the progression players what they are looking for, and at the same time, give the horizontal players the options they are looking for.
Let's look at the top-level pieces first. Armoring gives the player his base defensive buff. Barrels and hilts give the player his primary damage buff. This also carries the set bonuses. In the system I would design (and hopefully, the one BioWare plans to implement), the stats in the armoring piece would be the only stats to actually grow linearly. The growth should remain similar to how the Elite War Hero gear progresses the stats: no more than 6% in any of the base stats.
Modifications and Enhancements will have the most fluctuation in my system. These two pieces will contain the primary and secondary stats.
The Modification pieces would focus on the primary stats like strength, aim, expertise, and endurance, but there would be a number cap for each stats for this piece. I'll make up a number to illustrate. Let's say the total point allotment is 30. Then expertise could be 15, strength could be 10, and endurance could be 5. But if you wanted a more defensive set, strength could be reduced to 5 and endurance increased to 10. However, from set to set, the base number of 30 would never increase, even if there were progression in the Armoring piece.
The Enhancement pieces would work similarly to Modifications, the difference being that Enhancements would focus on secondary stats like power, critical rating, absorption, and so on. Again, there would be a base number that would not change between sets or progression. Enhancements would also work similarly by focusing on one particular type of stat -- for instance, the defensive stats absorption and defense rating.
Lastly, Augments would remain exactly as they are. They cap out at level 22 and can contain either primary or secondary stats. They will also continue to be player-made, which I think is the greatest part of the Augment system.
OK, it's your turn. I have approached the argument from the other side and even proposed a compromise. I would personally like to see everything become completely horizontal because I'm not the type of player who particularly likes the grind, but I am willing to look at the other side of the coin. Where do you stand? What would be the compromises you'd make? Or do you think there isn't a good argument for the opposing side? We have two weeks left in this year; I promise this will be the last time I talk about gear progression until after the new year. But I still want to know what you think; let's talk about it in the comments.
The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!