Monday, June 7, 2010

Character Progression Systems (CPS)

Character progression system (=CPS).

I'll try to keep it very abstract, so level-based talent systems (WoW) are covered as well as Ultima Online-like 'skill'-systems. Prejudices have shaped the divide long enough. We should start to focus on what we actually want from a CPS, instead of fighting religous wars.

Too often tools are mistaken for goals. We should first list what we actually want and only then discuss how to realize it.

-> The CPS should give players a sense of character progression.
-> The CPS system should be immersive. This is, it should make sense.
-> The CPS should be intellectually interesting.
-> The CPS should give as little incentive as possible to 'min/maxing the fun out of it'. (e.g. tedious, unimmersive, ridiculous spamming of skills just for the sake of training or advancing).
-> The CPS should not encourage macroing. Macroing should be (almost) impossible.
-> The CPS should prevent a small number of cookie-cutter speccs/skill combinations.
-> Accountability: The CPS should make players treat their characters as an investment. Something valueable.

-> Should the CPS encourage socializing ?
-> Should the CPS have a cap? Should it have diminishing returns and a cap (e.g. 1-1/x). Should it have DR and no cap (e.g. Sqrt(x), Log(x)). Should it have no DR and no cap (e.g. f(x)=x)?
-> Should the CPS also work as a tutorial?
-> What should be the difference between differently progressed characters? (e.g. 10% difference, 100%, 1000% .. ?)
-> How fast should progress be made?

-> Progress decay.
-> Delayed progress accounting (e.g. players become better in intervalls, instead of instantly).
-> Only a limited set of actions grant progression.
-> Only general 'points' are earned that can be invested into 'skills' by the player as he desires.
-> Any form of diminishing returns.
-> The EVE-system: Progress comes automatically with time.
-> Horizontal progression: New 'skills' are added all the time. Thus, there is a theoretical cap that cannot be reached practically.
-> Faction influence on skill gain.
-> Classes
-> Unpredictability: Players only know the rough direction that is required to become more powerful. They don't know specifics.

This is a living document.


  1. This is a topic I gave a great deal of thought, and within my imaginary game which is geared toward player driven content (I have the whole game design doc for it lol) it looks like this :

    CPS serves several important purposes:

    -accountability. e.g. you cant make throwaway alts to abuse game mechanics for your own purposes (be it gold spamming , player griefing or multitude of other ingenious ways multi-accounting is abused)

    Most robust prevention against this is gating abusable functions with real life time.

    The simplest example (which a lot of f2p use) is inability to use shout or global channels until reaching certain levels (and instead possibly assigning new players into "help channel" with dedicated CS staff and volunteers to help and police very important segment -newbies)

    generally I would design that 1 month is a time necessary to get to all functions. It would be more of a function of a real time than function of time invested.

    I have a lot of systems designed for accountability (as it very crucial for play driven content, to prevent various forms of abuse and destructive behavior), but a lot of them are reliant on not having throwaway toons. Well designed CPS is one of the cornerstones against this

    2nd function- is the power progressions. Well its a double edged sword as unlimited power progressions gives veterans unfair advantage and punishes newbies. the very thing one should avoid in MMO ,as ability to attract and keep new players is what makes it work long term

    But on the other hand giving something to work towards is what keeps existing players playing. CPS is one of those things

    With that in mind I would design a logarithmic curve with character gaining 90% of its power in first month, another 5% over the next 3 months, 3% toward the end of first year, and last 2% spread across subsequent 5 years

    That just for vertical progression (character power). For horizontal progression I would add a lot more options -titles ,badges , property ownership and so and so. Anything which gives players goals but does not directly raises his power should be added to the hilt as it the best kind of mechanic to keep old players in while not alienating new ones.

  2. I guess my wall of text was too long for blog post, it didn't let me post it :) . here is the other part:

    -> Should the CPS also work as a tutorial?

    I would design large part of CPS in theme park quest style with good story, fun quests and familiar mechanics. Very much WoW style up to the late mid of the CPS curve. That serves well to attract new players many of whom would be alienated if thrown directly into new mechanics.

    Then I would gradually start introducing elements which are core and unique to my game (which is player driven content) ,with a goal that toward the end of core CPS progression (which is 95% of power) new player seamlessly transitions to end game

    This is very important and I would put a great focus on designing tools and systems for that.Given the end game focuse of that imaginary game is player driven content (PvPvE - Dungeon master/monster play experience ,small scale non instanced pvp, and larger scale faction warfare) I would make sure new players are supported by in game system for that transition.

    For example typically organized pvp is mostly elitist type activity , requring you to be a member of a guild before you can meanigfully participate. I would introduce in game tools allowing better control and target assignments (as opposed to out of game ventrillo) - similar(but greatly extended) to ones found in modern team FPS (such as battlefield2). I would make the pvp goals and targets clearly visible and acessible trough in game maps, so participating in conflict would be as easy as just going there.
    Furthermore once new players arrived to the point of conflict he would be seamlessly integrated (auto
    grouped and added to raid) without asking for group and such .Players would be gradually introduced to such content trough in game quests and assignments progressing to wide and more aggressive types (kill the invader inside your faction territory, defend your faction outposts, raid enemy faction territory, conquer enemy outpost -etc.)

    Now other elements of CPS are important too - such as how the progress actually done , leveling/xp mechanics etc. but I wouldnt invent wheel there. gradual progression trough quests and xp, without any skill decay. With many options to choose from and as a consequence possible suboptimal choices new player makes (e.g. gimps) but with very easy respecs -so they are not punished , but at same time free to experiment.

    Gain of skill points seems like more interesting systems instead of granting abilities at fixed level ups, but it might alienate some people while not really providing any substantial benefits. I frankly think in this aspect WoW CPS system design is pretty close to perfect, I do not like the direction they steered it (from player decisions to premade paths) , but design is solid and with proper balancing would serve well.

  3. Another good post! Definitely agree with the goals that have been set. Going to throw out some comments for the questions, then maybe another post later after I get some sleep...I love night shift!

    -Should the CPS encourage socializing? I am all for "encouraging" socializing in MMOs, as long as there are options/choices available for players who want to solo. For example early Star Wars Galaxies let players teach other players skills they already knew, but if no one was around the player could learn the skill from an NPC trainer for a price. That price scaled up exponentially for the higher skills so there was some incentive to have someone teach it to you. On the other side the Teacher got XP for for students they taught that had to be spent to buy the very highest levels of skill, there was no trainer that could let you avoid that. The system worked out great for more common jobs, especially during the rush of leveling after release. It was much more difficult to find the XP if you reclassed later.

    -CPS as a tutorial. Of course, granted it's nice if there is an attempt to incorporate it into the story somehow, but the adventure's training/testing at the start of a game never bothered me.

    -Differences in Power. This is the one I'd love to see fixed the most. I don't want to see someone who has played for 3 years stomp all over the newcomer. I want them to be able to use the same equipment (of course the newcomer won't generally have access to the best equipment do to money issues and such). But the veteran should have more skills to work with. So while a new player could use a Sword of Death, they may only have access to two skills; swing and block. The veteran could have access to 12 skills, combo attacks, better forms, and so on. Does this mean the veteran is more powerful, it does in theory but perhaps they unlocked the skills without any real understanding of how to use them so the newcomer might have a fighting chance after all.

    -Speed of Progress. I'd like to see a game designed so that I didn't really notice/care how fast I progressed. It's like trying to lose weight, if you check several times a day you'll get discouraged because you'll gain weight throughout the day, but if you check every week or month you'll notice real progress.

    -Finally Progress Decay. I'm on again off again about decay, it would really depend how it was worked in. I like that not using skills causes them to decay, a little bit. A master blacksmith who goes on vacation is more likely to jump right back into it than I am as a first timer. But I don't like seeing players losing progress they have worked hard for. If the CPS was smooth enough not to notice the "grind" it's not a real issue. Also I think the decay should be based on in-game time and not real time. Oh, and is it a function of degrading a higher skill to make room for new skill points in a currently used skill because of a cap? I'll have to think on that one a bit more...

  4. Thanks for your insightful comments! I didn't think about accountability and I do agree hat progression decay is very tricky.

    The main point of this post, however, was to make people think about goals before they think about means.

    The divide between level system / skill system is stupid, because 'levels' and 'skills' are means, not goals. Though, many developers (not only the players) don't realize this and happily continue their religous wars based on UO and EQ/WoW.

  5. Progress Decay:

    Personal opinion is that decay should only occur in game-time, not real-time.

    If you leave the game for a month when you come back your character is the same as when you last logged off.

  6. Well, I've come up with some more points/questions/issues.

    1. What is the effect of gear in your game? In WoW a new lvl 80 and one who has been 80 for months or years are at very different areas of progression due to their gear. Is this something you want to focus your game on?

    2. What is the motivation for the player to progress? Is it like WoW where players race for the level cap because a whole new game basically starts. Is it like Star Wars Galaxies where players raced for certain skill levels so they could play the way they wanted, crafters would level up certain skill sets in order to make the items or buildings they wanted and then would level up at a more "reasonable pace" while enjoying their crafting skills. Or something different, where the players do what they enjoy and are rewarded for doing it by progressing....

    3. Does your CPS reward players for spending large amounts of time online all at once, or does it encourage shorter blocks throughout the week? I think ideally you want your players to be able to spend 30-60 minutes doing productive/fun activities in the game and log for the night feeling satisfied they have accomplished something. Allows for less costs on servers and such and keeps the players from burning out so they can stay longer.

  7. *cough, cough* Skills are not the only measure of progression in EVE.

    /me Slinks off before he gets lynched for repeating himself.

  8. @Mandrill.

    Nobody gets lynched on this blog as long as he writes something constructive.

    The blog post is about character progression. It is not about player progression. Now, there is probably no MMO, where your character only progresses with skills. E.g. most MMOs have a currencies, items/ships/equipment as well.

    Social progress of the player is not character-progress in my opinion and not part of a character progression system.

  9. What about income? Kills? Things manufactured? These aren't technically player progression as they don't have any relevance outside the game. I would say they were character progression.

    Lets take income for example:

    In EVE I may have the skills necessary to fly a certain ship, or fit a certain module, this does not necessarily mean that I can afford to do so. So my progression towards being able to fit that module or buy that ship is measured purely in terms of income rather than skills.

    One of my characters, who I fly the most, is no longer progressing as a character according to your limited definition of it but they are making money so that they can buy a ship which they trained the skills for months ago.

    So I stand by my statement that skills are not the only way to measure character progression in EVE.

    (I was only a littel apprehensive of being lynched as you're probably fed up with me going on about EVE by now, I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to strangle me :D)

  10. @Mandrill

    We shouldn't argue about semantics.

    I am thankful for you pointing out, that it is hard to define character progression.

    Kills on a kill borard can be considered progressing your character - without actually changing him much. In a sandbox you can earn some reputation. That's an example of non-character progression in my book, but player progression.
    But it really is a question of definitions here.

    We will probably have to agree that player progression and character progression overlap. It's hard to define a borderline.

    Perhaps the whole differentiation is superfluous:
    What counts is that players get a feeling of progression (change into a desireable direction) in a MMO. Typical ways are character skills, gold, ships, equipment, killboards, steady income, social contacs, ..

  11. Thanks to Bann and Max for the many good ideas!