Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 01, 2008
Horizontal expansions to vertical games

Serial Ganker sid67 has a great post about horizontal expansions, the idea that you can add to a game by adding more stuff of the same level, as opposed to adding more levels. That inspired Cameron from Random Battle to compare WoW to Magic the Gathering, because in MtG all expansions are horizontal. Well observed. But then Magic the Gathering is a horizontal game, and World of Warcraft is a vertical one.

There are no levels in Magic the Gathering. If you buy your first cards and play against an experienced player, you will most probably lose. But you don't lose to him because he is level 70 and you are level 1. You lose because he has a wider selection of cards, and because he is more skilled than you through practice. You can even the card pool problem by playing in so-called "limited" events, where everyone gets random cards, and then winning or losing becomes a pure question of skill. Yes, playing more helps, but only because the more you play, the more you learn. You don't have to grind anything to get to a specific point. The game itself is horizontal, you can explore it and get better at it, but you'll never go up a level and start a combat with more cards or more life points than your opponent.

Now we add a new expansion to Magic the Gathering. The cards are ideally exactly as powerful as the old ones. But they are somehow different, have new special abilities, and allow new combinations with the old cards. The fun of the expansion is to explore the new cards, learn everything about their use, and advance in skill by doing so. The expansion is horizontal in the sense that the new content doesn't make the old content obsolete. But that doesn't mean that there is no character progress, because you progress by learning, not by accumulating some level or artificial points.

World of Warcraft is a vertical game: From level 1 to the level cap your power is mostly determined by your level, and not so much by your skill. Even at the level cap you still go up in what I call meta-levels, by increasing your stats further through better gear. Increasing your chance of success by learning how to play the game better does happen, but the effect is relatively small compared to the effect of levels and gear. World of Warcraft, especially the soloing part, is trivially easy if you compare it directly with a game like Magic the Gathering.

WoW being vertical makes it difficult to add completely horizontal expansions to it. You can add new races and new classes and new low-level zones to the game. But where a Magic the Gathering player can add some of the new cards of a horizontal expansion into his old deck, in World of Warcraft experiencing the new horizontal content means abandoning your old vertically advanced character. Blizzard wisely decided that you don't have to delete an old character in some transformation quest that turns him into a Death Knight. But nevertheless on the day Wrath of the Lich King is released you will have to decide whether you level your existing level 70 character, or whether you play the new Death Knight. In Magic the Gathering new horizontal content adds to the old content; in WoW new horizontal content disrupts the old content.

Of course in WoW new vertical content also disrupts old content, by making your old gear obsolete. This is in the nature of the game. You get to keep your old character, and get the chance to progress him further. But as progress is defined in this game as increasing your stats, your old methods of maximizing stats become obsolete. This is particularly harsh when you consider how much faster your power increases by levelling up compared to power increases by gathering epic gear. You spent over a year of several raids a week to get a level 70 epic which is worse than a level 80 green item common drop or quest reward.

And I don't see a way around it. Imagine in Wrath of the Lich King there were no new levels. Northrend was a new continent for levels 1 to 70, with playable penguin and walrus man races, and new classes. What would people be supposed to do with their old level 70 characters? Be forced to keep playing the stale old content or abandon them? Play in the new level 70 zones and dungeons and only get gear that isn't better than what they already have? There is no easy solution. Because the very gameplay of World of Warcraft consists of increasing your stats, a new expansion needs to offer more stat increases, or tell people to start over. You can't add a Magic the Gathering style horizontal expansion, because the progress in WoW isn't horizontal.

Some people already remarked that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is planned with a different style of expansion in mind than WoW. Again this is logical, because while WAR does have the levelling that WoW has, it doesn't have the continued increase of stats through items at the level cap. The WAR endgame is a horizontal one, where you beat other players in PvP by better organization and better skill (or with the less nice way of simply outnumbering them). You can add new "battlegrounds" and endgame PvP objectives to WAR endlessly. For PvE even WAR can't do anything but offering a reset with new races and classes. I'm not sure if WAR expansions will ever increase the level cap, it doesn't appear to be compatible with the current content. I sure hope they'll never put in a PvE raiding expansion, they should have learned from Trials of Atlantis that this doesn't work well with a PvP endgame. So WAR expansions can be horizontal, because the gameplay goes into horizontal mode already when reaching the level cap.

I find this an interesting experiment. Will players accept the horizontal endgame of WAR, or will they miss the vertical endgame of WoW? Will WAR players accept that shortly after reaching level 40 their characters will not improve in stats any more, and their only way of improving their chances in PvP is to play better? And will high-level combat in WAR be sufficiently complex that you actually *can* play better? I'm looking forward to trying all that out.
I, for one, perfer vertical content, but then again, I prefer PvE to PvP. It doesn't seem so logical just saying "Some games are horizontal and some games are vertical" but instead it seems more logical to say "PvP games are better suited to horizontal content and PvE games are more suited to vertical content"

A PvPer just wants to best the enemy player, and for the most part, it doesn't matter where this is taking place. Throw them some new places to fight other players every expansion and they'll be happy.

A PvEer wants to see their character grow. Characters won't grow in a horizontal game.

Each style has pros and cons but it just really depends on what you prefer.

The thing that is just going to annoy me is when fan boys on either side start arguing. "Warhammer is better because old content doesn't become obsolete." "WoW is better because there is more to do"
For me, it's more a question of whether I'm limited to a number of characters per account or per server.

If there's more vertical content than I can consume with one character (pretty safe assumption with 6 races - 20 classes - 3 regions) then I'm more than happy to "shift over horizontally" a bit and explore a different vertical path with a different character.

And if the lower tier areas are at all analogous to DAOC Battlegrounds, I can see myself turning off exp advances, just to stay in those areas. (Thidranki, anyone?)

So, I'd say that horizontal content can occur anywhere in an RvR oriented game - not just at the level cap. ;)
The trouble with horizontal content is that "achievers" get bored and run out of things to do.

I love the feeling I get when I improve my character, be it by leveling, getting a new skill, getting a new item, completing an attunement even.

The achievement system in Wotlk I don't think will scratch this itch because there is no improvement in my character (I think titles are dumb btw).

I play flash games on Kongregate, mostly so I score points and gain levels, even though those levels basically give no benefit (except to give early beta access to some new content), but because I like the feeling of progress.

I want hard work to mean something. I want my achievements to matter. I want a return on my investment.

If a game can scratch that itch correctly, then I keep playing.

Endless, pointless PvP may as well be a FPS zergfest.

There has to be some form of tangible progress so that others can witness my greatness.....
Some things such as housing, new crafts, expansions to guild mechanics, and new social or appearance options can expand a linear game horizontally and affect everyone. Even for acheivers you can add things like AAs or subclassing.

I personally get frustrated with games that only expand vertically.
I played WAR Beta, and the control of the game is terrible, and they have crappy programming; u will see units skip, wrong error messages, bad user interface, terrible controls, messed up animations.

it is a vertical/horizontal game, but a crappy one.
I played WAR Beta, and ...

"I played the beta" in the particular case of WAR is not a good argument, unless you also state from when to when you played that beta. I haven't been in the beta all that long, but even in that short time the improvements to the game were marvelous.

I believe you that you were in the beta last year and it had the problems you described at that point in time. I'm in the beta right now, and I didn't see any of the problems you are talking about.
At the beginning of TBC there have been a lot of comments by the data mining type of people who said item X gained in instance A is a "sidegrade" to item Y by instance B. Later on, Item Y from instance B was upgraded. Comparable situation was the beginning of Arena PvP gear vs. raid gear in TBC. Some PvP Arena 1 items proved to be quite comparable to Tier 4 or 5.

This is a rare example where Blizzard had - by chance - horizontal comparable items. Another would be Zul'Gurub back in classic WOW or crafting / Zul'Aman gear which is comparable to Tier 5 / Tier 6.

What did the players do? Complain. As always. Me, I love the variety. I want my character not to be always limited to one style, dependant on the best equipment but would prefer to have different sets, quite comparable in stats to change my look whenever I see fit. Hell, most people in WOW want the epics only for the looks. "Gimmmeeeee Shouldeeeeeers!" should be the raiders favorite warcry.

LOTRO - by the way - brings in a completely different horizontal approach at endgame. It does not better if you get the best crafting gear or the raid set, the stats are comparable. And if you don't like your outfit which has good stats? Just wear an oversuit as you see fit. I have some truly horrible, horrible hats but my loremaster styles himself in a flashy, daring hat with a large feather from an exotic bird plucked in. Yay!

That - compared to gear - is horizontal development. I see most people go through the level grind to the item grind in WotLK simply because Tier 7 looks better than Dungeon 4 (which will most likely be the same or a recolored version of Tier 3 I suppose).
Yea WoW is not a horizontal game, but it could be. Right now the PvE raiding is a straight line up, where you need to do the previous tier to enter the next. With more horizontal content you get more lines of progression beside each other, so that people don't have to play the same instance to progress further. Somewhat similar to the way SSC and TK are both available as a step stone into T6 content, but you don't have to finish both.

I guess some people don't like the concept of a horizontal game, simply because they haven't experienced that kind of game yet.

*cough* and when speaking of the beta, there is of course the rule that you do not talk about beta (NDA) ;)
*cough* and when speaking of the beta, there is of course the rule that you do not talk about beta (NDA) ;)

To what extent? If somebody comes and claims "I was in the WAR beta and the only playable race is the pink bunny" or similar falsehoods, I must at least be able to say "that is not true", as long as I don't reveal details about what exactly is true of the beta.
I don't know the extent you are allowed to talk about a beta, even if it's to prove something false. I think you are allowed to say there is a beta, and that you are in it?

I like it as much as you when someone is breaking NDA and spreading lies, but you couldn't you just have removed the comment? If breaking NDA is not a good enough reason for removing a comment, I don't know what is ;)
In everquest they manged to do both addons that increased the level and those that didn't, I think they were reasonably successful as well. On their second xpack it was SoV if I remember rightly, there was no level increase but a massive amount of new things to do and I still hold it as probably the best ever expansion I've seen to date.

They had dialed in the correct difficulty curve in the new encounters, they had fleshed out and 95% of the content was there and available right from the start.

So I think it shows that you can have an addition to the world without having to raise the cap to get to the new content, rather balance it around new gear gained within the new xpack.
A vertical CAN be expanded horizontally. You just need to add new vertical content such as skills, reputations, achievements, regions (maps and stories) and so on. Blizzard is doing this albeit too slowly for most of us who chew through that content quickly.

Guild Wars seems to have a interesting model where the level cap is intentionally low, putting everyone in a horizontal, skill-based environment. Players focus on getting new and different buffs and then choosing them wisely when confronting new content.
Hey, I've wrote a response to some of the comments here and the original article:

Mainly, I think your post is spot on, but I also think that the vertical game is inherently flawed. Sure the game can work, but it requires massive amounts of effort from the developers to continue to develop new content that essentially supplants old content. It burned me out from WoW. Hopefully you find my take insightful!
Although Everquest was able to do horizontal expansions, I think that was partly because it took forever to level up, most of which was grinding in a group. So the Velious expansion was not only gave more places to raid, but people who were "only" several months into the game had another 50-60 place to level up. New lower level areas (like Shadows of Luclin) was a great expansion for alts with new races and such. But that was a few years in when people might be on their 1st or second alt.

FFXI was similar. They did expand levels, but that was before the game hit the US. They mostly expanded the content (ie more places to grind) One interesting mechanic they created in one expansion was to de-level people for some encounters. You needed level appropriate gear. But, again leveling took forever, and you didn't play multiple toons, you just switched back and forth between classes.

So I think its the type of game WoW is (fast leveling, lots of alts, lots of quests, but not enough to support 6-12 months from 1-max) that makes it difficult to do this.

But do we want to go back? I don't think so. The things I liked about parts of Everquest (deep caverns of doom that help very little quest value, but was super cool to experience at least once) that make horizontal expansions fun wouldn't work in WoW because its more geared towards quests and accessibility. You want hard and interesting without much value? There isn't much value in that.
Athough the relative power between characters in WoW is dominated by vertical difference (level), the actual interest I had in continuing the game came from the horizontal additions of new powers every few levels. This increased options in the same way new cards increase options. Once I hit not even level 60 but simply the later levels (40+), my interest started waning as I wasn't getting new players, and I was almost entirely relying on explorer and social aspect to drive me on. And maybe talent builds. Free talent respecs would have kept me going a little further as they tweaked the trees and added stuff.
er, powers, not players
A vertical MMO has the potential to draw more people than a horizontal one. In a horizontal game, the limiting factor is skill. And that means that people will be distributed along a bell curve, and half the people will be "below-average". Most people think of themselves as above-average and will not want to be labeled as below-average, so they will quit. Who wants the shame of walking around Ironforge with a big "LOSER" label?

A vertical game allows people with low skill to simply put in time to succeed. Everyone can be a winner! This is why so many people can enjoy WoW. On the flip side, this is why there are so many idiots in PUG's and on the forums.

WoW does a nice job of including both vertical elements (leveling, battlegrounds) and horizontal elements (raids, arena). But it's hard to generate all that content for different types of people to consume, which explains why they can only come out with an expansion once every 2 years, instead of once a year.
Video games with persistent worlds are almost always "vertical" by your definition. It's not the player who advances, but the character. Of course, players do advance somewhat, but that is not really partial to the game it's safe to say that many WoW players will never really advance.

In MtG, the players advance. You get better at creating decks, knowing when to hold your actions, forcing your opponent to make decisions, etc. This is very similar to first-person shooters: the player himself becomes better as time goes by, learning to move quicker, dodge, aim better, etc.

It doesn't make sense for Blizzard to release much content that does not advance the character. This is unfortunate, because it puts so much emphasis on the end-game that the early parts are neglected and don't work right, since they were built for groups of people. Every time an expansion comes out, the content before it is passed quickly and awkwardly, since it's now just a trickle of solo'ers instead of a stream of groups.

Definitely a sticky problem.
I'm drafting up my own post on the subject. I'm especially interested in the pyramidal advancement we see in EVE. Of course I could just be biased since I'm looking to design something similar in SW.

A few comments to the posters here though...

A closed Beta... had bugs!?

Indeed their programmers must be bad. It's not as if every group of programmers have to put their products through some sort of rigorous testing to find bugs before release... oh wait.

Some good insight in your blog post. I was going to put up a comment over there, but I'm a little burned out on registering for sites.

There isn't anything about the persistence of the world that requires or even favors vertical over horizontal. Dwarf Fortress certainly doesn't have any sort of character level, and it's rather up in the air as to whether the way your fortress grows is vertical or horizontal.

Numerically driven RPGs are almost inherently vertical at the moment. Since most of the current crop of MMOs, at least, are based on RPGs it makes sense that they would be overwhelmingly vertical. As we get more genres in the game it should even out again. For instance PlanetSide was a fairly horizontal game and it was MMOFPS.
real time strategy games will not have the reaction/action that turn based games like MTG offer.

Similiar in WoW vs WaR, someone can "win" by having better gear and pressing all the same buttons whereas in WaR by choosing to take out catapults or avoiding direct pvp resulting in "win" coud be an interesting change of pace and bring in some strategy to character driven MMO's.

My biggest gripe against WOW when it comes to either vertical or horizontal expansions is that someone will always have an upper hand on me by having more time to play and when the game is dead in every zone besides endgame raid "INSTANCES" why is it stil called a MMORPG? Couldnt this raiding/bg/arena's simply be a different game altogether? Its a bad decision on blizzards part to try contain a very interesting lore series then as a finalstroke to the game's story put you in such a bland epeen battle of witless grind.

Horizontal expansion is all well and good, but the dilemma is where is the carrot if not for better stats and abilities?

It's the very reason that MMO's are more addicting and time consuming than FPS's: because you progress through them through character advancement, thus giving you a reason to play everyday. The goal being that your character is stronger than before.

Yet, the worst thing in WoW is right now I have NO reason to PvP or PvE cause I know in a couple months everything I work on is meaningless, so why play?

Very tough question
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