Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
The further you go, the harder it is to progress

I was chatting recently with a reader about WoW when he made a good remark: "The further you go, the harder it is to progress". That pretty much sums up the whole character progression game from level 1 to full T6 epic gear. It includes my wife complaining how slow it is while she approaches the level cap for the first time in 3 years of WoW. And it includes much of the whole raiding discussion on this blog.

From a game design point of view, that kind of exponential increase of difficulty with progress makes a lot of sense. Instead of having a linear progression ending at a hard wall, a "game over" screen, you get a MMORPG that appears endless, because the closer you get to the end, the slower you progress, asymptotically, so you never actually get there. Given the fact that developers can't create content as fast as players can consume it, this method is the only way to keep the illusion of endless progress up.

The disadvantage is that everyone gets stuck on that progression curve at some point, but all on different points. It becomes difficult to discuss where you are stuck, or to advise people how to progress further. Just as example, there was a recent discussion going on in some thread of how important it was to spend a thousand gold or more to gem up and enchant your blue gear to be able to progress further into heroics and raids. For somebody playing a lot, a thousand gold is probably a reasonable amount to spend towards progress at that point. But a lot of players who are more casual, or on alts, find a thousand gold to be a hurdle as difficult to overcome as beating a heroic or getting into a raid.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that there are more than one path of progress, all with different difficulties, often changing with time, and sometimes not equally valid for every character class. Sometimes you can overcome a hurdle on one path by switching to another and progressing there, like when you get some PvP reward epics to progress in heroics or raids. But that isn't an universal recipe, other players might be better off to be helped by their guilds through Karazhan, or to grind materials for crafted gear. You need to know a lot about someone to be able to give him proper advice on what to do when he is stuck.

The most fundamental change to those exponential progress paths are the expansions, which completely reset it. The day before the expansion is released you were stuck somewhere and felt you couldn't progress any more with effort that was acceptable to you. The next day you're back on easy street, with 10 levels of fast progress ahead of you. And as much as that fast progress feels good after having been stuck, it also makes you question your previous progress. Why did you spend so much time getting that one epic item at the level cap, only to replace it with a green random drop in the new expansion?

Therefore it is important to overcome the illusion of progress and achievement, and to concentrate on the fun you have playing. Goals are important as check boxes, as temporary objectives. There is nothing wrong in wanting a specific piece of gear, or a specific level of equipment which opens up new content to you. It is fun to pursue some goal, and to clap yourself on the shoulder once you achieved it. But progress by itself in MMORPGs isn't real, and if going further becomes too hard for you, doing something else is totally viable. If you ditch your friends and guild just for the promise of more progress in another guild, you'll risk finding yourself at the start of the next expansion with just hollow progress and no friends, and burned out from the effort it took you. Maximizing fun is a better strategy than maximizing progress.
It reminds me of all the raiders who complain that all their gear has been devalued either by Welfare Epics or indeed expansions.
The actual fun had by getting those epics doesn't get remembered.

Sure, there is no fun (for me, at least), by grinding 100 fire motes, but there certainly is in killing every boss in Zul Aman. Yes, in a year's time, none of the ZA gear will be any use, but I don't care about that; instead I will remember the fun I had geting it.
Having been through the 1.0 to 2.0 transition, I'm already feeling like there is no point in spending the remaining time in 2.0 - probably six to nine months - in replacing good epics with better epics... for what?
I've pretty much done what I want to do already, and Sunwell seems to be dailies + instance + raid; what I saw last night was not compelling, and not 6 months' worth of new content from my POV.
I'm not gearing to raid MH/BT or Sunwell, nor will I progress far in the Arena ladder at this point.

Six months of grinding out an epic a month (maybe two if you raid & PvP both), then BAM! Reset!

So I'm already transitioning over to leveling interesting alts and topping out my professions at 375, while that remains interesting anyway.
Looking forward to WotLK already... :)
The problem with "Maximizing fun is a better strategy than maximizing progress" in the context of WoW (or similar MMORPGs) is how the game mechanics often dictates that progress equals a higher degree of time investment. More grind. Instead of higher difficulty or more challenge.

In other words: "the further you go, the harder it is to progress" with 'harder' meaning 'more time is needed'.

Raiding gameplay is definitely more 'difficult' (sensu stricto), but progress is often - all things being equal - limited by required numerical stats, such as gear and what not. Which forces you to spend time on trivial stuff.

In my opinion, a maximizing fun strategy is impaired by the game mechanics, as WoW is a game of character development i.e. numerical progress.

You can be a happy camper and fool around in WoW (and similar MMORPGs) having 'fun', but ultimately that's not what the game mechanics reward.

A work-around solution is to actually enjoying spending time on (trivial) gameplay like grinding, levelling, and so on.
And luckily lots of players still indulge in these activities...

The joys of low-challenging, comfy relaxation :)
I think the problem is that they don't try to set up what most consider a reasonable "grind" or climb to begin with. People -the top 5% get thier goals and fight towards them and for most those goals never get met. Content gets nerfed and they have to switch gears and move on and just dump thier dreams in the sand.

This causes a lot of Angst for us poor casual players. It still bubbles on the forum occasionally with someone complaining they never got a shot at BWL or NAX. ANd most will never get a shot at the BC raids. THey'll just bypass them and move on. Then they'll hit the hard stuff bog down and then be stuck till thier goals are pulled out from underneath them and they get bypassed.

Honestly I think they should quit adding artificial blocks to the hardcores and balance thier content more realistically. Let the HardCores drop out and come back next patch or expansion. Its only what 2 percent of the populace?
Your last paragraph sums up my approach, Tobold, and Coprolit's workaround (just enjoying the grind) is how I used to play WoW. I put a lot of time into that game, and may yet. My highest-level toon is 63 and I'm fine with that.

The only success I achieved in connection to the game is a bundle of memories.
"From a game design point of view, that kind of exponential increase of difficulty with progress makes a lot of sense."

You mean from a financial point of view.

Game design is balancing act between providing quality content and making enough money to stay in business (or, if you're ambitious, to expand your business). The exponential increase you cite is the result of developers sacrificing quality for the sake of profit.

The exponential model isn't the only profitable method. Eventually, we'll see models that don't sacrifice quality so much. And if Metaplace and similar efforts turn out well, we'll see small indie developers consciously sacrifice financial gain for the sake of quality.
I agree in a sense with what you are saying. However, to really enjoy MMOGs I make goals to keep me motivated and achieve a sense of accomplishment. But with the way the game changes so often now, the time required to achieve those goals is not worth it considering how often it is replaced, ie 3-9mths by new gear.

Therefore, instead of someone happy about all the changes, additions of gear, etc... i laugh at it because it just makes me glad I quit 1 year ago. I've saved what will probably be $200 and a week after the expansion comes out I'll have the same gear as everyone else. Sure I missed the "fun", but my fun was leveling up my first guy to 60, then my 2nd to 70 beating every instance up to kara.

I'm all for more seeing the content and if that is 100% then great, but I won't resubscribe to see what every other person will see. I will come back for WotLK and see all the new stuff then. But they will probably make it 2% only for the first 9 months like they did BT lol. That is ok too as I'll may never leave WAR.

ps, thanks for removing login...i never can find or remember the login
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