Thursday, February 10, 2011

A MMORPG without Character Power Progression

Now, this is really just some brainstorming I do here. A MMORPG without character power progression (CPP). Is that stupid or brilliant? Let me explain the various reasons, for why I am interested in this.

(1) If you want to make a virtual world, you want players to play together. But CPP disrupts this. It's not much fun to play together with your friends if they are much stronger or much weaker than you.

(2) PvE content is much harder to create when you cannot know the strength of the player.

(3) Just slowing CPP down may be very problematic, as players are used to a wild running (exponential) CPP. In such cases it is for psychological reasons beneficial to make a clear cut.

(4) Good PvP games are way easier to produce without a CPP

(5) All those skill-based vs. class-based problems become much easier or even vanish when you remove CPP.

(6) By removing the CPP you stop distracting the players from the central experience you want to offer: Socializing and exploration.

What speaks against the removal?
(1) The skinner box has proven to be immensely powerful and addicting. Games like Diablo or WoW are unthinkable without CPP. They are all about it!


Look, the game I have in mind here is one with a vast open world, exploration, dangerous areas and less dangerous areas, trade, no fast-travel, item decay...
Just because you have no CPP doesn't mean that you have no character progression. You still have equip (that 'decays') and may be able to find the mystical stick that allows you to wipe out four enemies with one click. But that stick would be gone thereafter! Use it wisely!
You still have gold, your real estate and your social contacts!

The idea is to make an MMORPG that is an experience more than it is an (arcade) game.

By removing CPP, your game becomes very newbie-friendly (accessible). In fact, more so than any other MMORPG on the market. The reason to play this game would be to shape the (virtual) world, not your character. That doesn't mean that there cannot be a lot of solo content. There could and should. But this solo play would always prepare you for group play. Like, you mine iron solo to support your guild and thus gain (real) reputation.

While combat would still be important in such a game, it wouldn't be what you 'naturally do' while playing the game. Exploring a cave with your guild, listening to sounds inside, picking fights, looting treasures and carry them home into your self-built castle to sell them for gold in the nearby town to pay for the next tower of the castle. This is the experience I have in mind.

I fear that removing the distraction that is CPP, is a prerequisite for this kind of experience. What doesn't make any sense at all, in my opinion, is to have some get-to-max_level/max_skillpoints before you can play with your friends.


  1. Great minds think alike!

    I've also been thinking about removing CPP but in the context of a team game. In real life situations people can experience a tremendous togetherness cooperating against a common foe.

    So basically a team MMO without individual rewards, where a sword is just a sword more or less, and CPP is limited and resembles real world power levels. A knight in plate would beat a peasant with a pitchfork (probably) but would struggle to beat two of them and would lose to three.

    It really changes the dynamic, it's pretty much a completely different genre. No skinner box just the satisfaction of raising the English flag over Paris (or whatever).

    I have no idea how practical it is to try a game where if someone shoots at you you're likely to die as a massive experience. Maybe players would baulk at a game where half of the play experience is running back from the graveyard. Maybe you could go the whole hog and make it a permadeath game so you would have few battles that are incredibly significant. If a player general is out-thought by an opponent and gets hundreds of people on his faction permanently killed it's fairly epic.

    The question is whether it would be fun. I think it would be, but only to a niche - those who don't use rose-tinted glasses to admire their character.

  2. Thanks, Stabs. In some way removing CPP is a logical conclusion of thinking about about many of today's problems with MMORPGs.


    The game does something wrong if players die often. It does everything right if they die fast.

    Means: Allow players to have tools to avoid dieing, but punish them if they do. That is the essence of angst. And this very angst in a social environment can be one of the most powerful, and actually enjoyable, experiences there is.

    Of course this still applies. You still need activities that people can do when they log in solo for 30 minutes!

    Make no mistake calling this hardcore. If fact, it is rather casual in that you don't need to reach level 80 before you can play with your friends. You can join the game, they can give you some gold and you can start helping them doing whatever they do.

    I would never want to make a game for just a niche. But to think that the WoW model is the only one that could possibly attract a few million players to a social game is wrong.

    Hell, farmville has proven that wrong! And although I despise those cheap psychologial tricks, it proves that players love to play together and against each other if you just get the circumstances right. Would could possibly be more addicting than helping your friends building a castle and winning a against the guys from the classroom next to you?

  3. Something like Xsyon, perhaps? It's unpolished and the world's "theme" may not be to everyone's liking - but the potential of the idea is certainly worthy of consideration.

  4. well MMOs without CPP are of course tempting, but there are problems of course.

    f.e. the MMOG you're describing sounds pretty sandboxy - or to be precise "open ended", providing variety of choices.

    one usual problem with such games is how do you provide the initial guidance for players - how do you present them the choices in a concise and structured way?

    the first small challenge i see here is how a player would evaluate the challenge of an encounter with an NPC he or she met in the world? (you know - if they both have levels, the NPC will be color coded - white, green, yellow, orange, red; players can compare to one another by gearscore type of value, providing they have pretty equal general stats; but to compare to a mob on the field would be hard, if the mob has less equipment but different base stats)

  5. Thanks Onwuka!
    This sounds like a fun game, indeed. I think I will preorder it and have a look. It's a pity that these games are always so underfinanced :(.

  6. Firefox, thanks for raising some concerns. I agree that there are several. This is really justa first brainstorming.

    Such a game would require a really good way of making players join communities without pushing them. Not trivial. It must feel like their decision. It would need to eb a major design focus.

    I, personally, like separated tutorials. They are relatively cheap to make in contrast to 'easy tutorial-like starting content' and very powerful in equiping the players with the knowledge and the correct attitude.

    About your last concern. I would like to use a very simply way: If the monster is bigger than you, attacking it might be a bad idea. By forcing the aplyer to actually look at the monsters they fight, you also gain a lot more interesting decision making.

    I also would like to equip all players with powerful mechanics, like a stun on some kind of cooldown. This can be used to 'test' monsters. If they turn out too strong, stun and run away. If you feel bold, try to use the stun to defeat the monster, but know that this makes it much harder to flee .. an interesting decision.

  7. I love your idea. I love pvp and exploration and hate pve.
    I also hated when you went on vacation in Vanilla WoW and when you came back you were so much lower than your usual group that it made grouping impossible unless you put in major time to push yourself to catch up.

  8. I actually just stumbled on Xsyon recently. But after spending a little time digging through forums and reading what some long-term beta testers have to say, I think it really might be one of the only truly "fresh" mmo's I've seen in the last few years.

    The idea of a world with no NPC's - where all interaction is between players that can manipulate the world itself is intriguing. I'm not clear on how all of the mechanics will work long term - but characters that age, resources that can be permanently depleted, and the ability to physically shape the game world? That certainly isn't just more of the same.

  9. I completely agree, Onwuka.

    I am actually very sceptical about some of those things I read on the webpage: But the really important thing here is that this is something new. It is bold and seems to have just enough financial backing to perhaps pull it off.

    For the last 6 years the MMORPG scene was blinded by that one star that was WoW. And while WoW taught us many things about how to make a good MMORPG, it also prevented us from learning more.

    Slowly I feel that game designers become alive again and think. WoW's way is not the only way to make a good game that connect millions of people to have them play in a virtual world.

    Fortunately, neither biological nor any other kind of evolution stops with the first best thing. Otherwise there were only flies on earth .. or worms ;)

  10. Just to play devils advocate for a sec, one other advantage of power progression is that it provides an easy method to start the game out simply and gradually increase the difficulty and complexity.

    I bet most people would agree that it'd be slightly overwhelming for a brand new player to have access to all of his character's spells and abilities at level 1 rather than ~70 in WoW.

  11. Absolutely correct, Verilazic.

    Therefore a very good tutorial would be needed. But more importantly I wouldn't try to have the whole games' point be combat.

    This way you wouldn't need so very many combat buttons, like in WoW. Remember WoW classic? Way less buttons and still remarkably fun. At least several million people played it five years ago.

    I don't think learning a game requires CPP. It is certainly a nice tool to accoimplish that. But not the only one. And, honestly, if it is just about learning the game, some 6 days /played is a bit too much, in my opinion ;)

  12. I agree; my thought is at least have a very flat power progression curve.

    Actually, I wonder if the harder question isn't about how much power a player gains each level, but how much they can gain after they've reached max level. For instance in WoW, players distinguish themselves through their gear, often in how good or bad it is - because it has a strong enough effect.

    Without any progression, how do you appeal to the masses, so to speak? Or do you just give up on the masses, and focus on the people who don't have to have power as their main metric?

  13. Verilazic, this is exactly, why a very flat CPP might a serious problem. People would be angered that it is not more significant. I think you need to make a clear cut here, to be able to successfully communicate the design decision.

    (You can have a tutorial-like first 10-levels if you want, but I'd be careful even with that)

    Please recognise that players would still be able to earn gold (or any currency) to buy equipment and also get equipment by defeating enemies.

    This kind of power progression would still be there. But since I'd make equip 'decay' with use it would not be something permanent, waiting to be replaced by something better.

    Your equipment would be an investment with a meaning, but not so much of an emotional investment like in WoW. In WoW equipment isn't really equipment. It is a stat booster. It is you!

    I am in no way saying that you could rip CPP out of a game like WoW and it would be better. Of course, not. WoW were an empty shell without CPP.
    (Note that equipment in WoW is CPP, in the fictional game we are talking about it would not be).

    I am saying that if you can make a game that makes exploration and creating real estate and socializing fun, CPP would be nothing but a distraction.

    Without any progression, how do you appeal to the masses, so to speak?

    By not refering to WoW. This game might look similar and it would even use many of the lessons learnt with WoW, but it would feel completely different for the player. The goal wouldn't be to increase your itemlvl, but to make your 'guild' control a lot of land, fight other 'guilds', fight off monsters, explore new land, enhance your castle and villages to be even bigger and badder. It would be about the dignity and honour of your 'guild'.

    This wouldn't be Everquest or WoW. Not even UO. Perhaps a bit of EvE Online, but not much.

    The basic question were I start is: Can hacking away at a tree 500x times to become better at hacking trees be replaced by something more meaningful and more fun? I think, it can.

  14. People would be angered that it is not more significant. I think you need to make a clear cut here, to be able to successfully communicate the design decision

    I dont think there will be anger. UO, guildwars ,earl DaoC and AC didnt have runaway gear treadmills and people were quite happy playing them

    Its just in diku treadmills(EQ/WoW) there is absolutely no other goals . Gear grind is all the game is

    It also diminishes the importance of gear you currently have - its becomes obsolete every new dungeon release

    Many people would be happy enough if they could have their own unique set of gear without need to replace it every 2 months with better ilvl and look exactly like every other guy of your class.

  15. Tangentially, Puzzle Pirates is like this in a lot of ways. The avatars don't really progress in any significant way. They do have measurements that can progress (or importantly, regress), but those are purely measurements of *player* skill as compared to the rest of the playerbase. (So, dynamic skill measurement; if you're Ultimate at some skill in the game, you're in the top 1% or so of active players, not at the end of a leveling curve anyone can climb.)

    And yet, there's a robust social game, housing, guilds (crews) and alliances (flags), a great player-driven economy and even player (flag) ownership of islands. There's solid PvP and PvE content with a wide range of challenge, some of it dynamically adjusting to the players.

    Yes, you do lose some of that treadmill Achievement "Ding" addiction, but the most important progress you make in the game is personal, whether skill or social. It's still my favorite MMO, albeit a very different animal from the venerable DIKUMUD viral strain.

    So... yeah. *stamp of agreement* on this one. :)

  16. @Verilazic
    "Just to play devils advocate for a sec, one other advantage of power progression is that it provides an easy method to start the game out simply and gradually increase the difficulty and complexity."

    Power progression and skill expansion are two different things. A starting mage could have the one spell, fireball, that does 20 dmg. later, he learns many other spells from various places ... but his fireball spell still does only 20 dmg.

    His skill set expands horizontally, but does not grow vertically.

    At any given moment an experienced mage might have dozens of spells he could cast, but he can cast only one, and it does the same amount of damage as the same spell from a noob mage. The advantage the experienced mage has, with his expanded spell book, is that he has more counter-spells and situational dependent tricks up his sleeve. With that advantage though comes the challenge and complexity of choosing which spell to use when.

  17. For those who worry about lack of CCP being a barrier, just look at how popular the multiplayer portions of FPSs are with either no CCP (Call of Duty) or horizontal progression (Team Fortress 2, Rainbow 6).

    Some games like HALO (3) have cosmetic progression, which allow for that 'ding' experience without giving older players a stat boost.

  18. Definitely an interesting topic, Nils. I've been thinking about this aswell.

    The basic question were I start is: Can hacking away at a tree 500x times to become better at hacking trees be replaced by something more meaningful and more fun? I think, it can.

    One way that this could be done is to tie it into the equipment system. If you want to be better at hacking trees; get a better axe, if you want to be better at fishing; get a better rod, etc.

  19. Thanks for the many comments!

    Right now I am involved in a project, so the blog will become a bit more quite over the next weeks.

    But, I think, having this topic on the front page for some time is perhaps not even a bad idea.

    Feel free to comment any brainstormed idea you can find ;)

  20. I think that Power Progression may be hard to avoid. I understand the difference being drawn in Garumoo's comment, but more options is still more power. To translate it into familiar terms, people could still stand around and say "/2 LF Mage for Dragon's Lair, LF Mage, must know Spell X".

    I'm not saying I don't like the idea, because I do think that having no levels could really improve the entry into the world for new people. I do think that people want to see their character progress, however.

    I also think that you have to keep in mind that if there is no character progress in terms of combat ability but there is character progress in other things (such as crafting) then it elevates combat to a special status in the game.

    I do have to add that I don't like the idea of degrading equipment. Limited use items are fine, but I like the idea that I could get attached to a piece of equipment and have it with me through thick and thin. In order to facilitate this, though, you would also need character power to not be overly affected by gear. I also worry that in a degrading item system there will be a certain amount of grind just to keep replacing items.

  21. With regards to degrading equipment ... I regularly replace and update my personal computer gear, but not so the ratty old motorbike. I've just spent $3500 in repairs, when for $7000 I could have bought a brand new one.

    Bottom line, the sentimental stuff can work like a gold sink, which MMO design-wise is a good thing.

  22. I've been of the opinion that stat and gear progression is definitely a detriment to access and playability. Horizontal ability progression couldcertainly add a spin to gameplay. There are many ways to do this too; we've already seen the "tall-tree" approach to ability progression where there are a small number of main trees, that extend way up. The result is inherent over-specialisation. An alternative could be a far more lateral and more flat approach, where the player is given the possibility of being far more flexible. Synergies could of course still exist if one does wish to specialise in a very specific style.

    Naturally it's harder to balance 50 builds than it is to balance 5, but balancing 5 builds for every level and gear combination isn't easy either.

    The one issue I have with ability progression in general - vertical or otherwise - is my main frustration with every RPG (SP and MP) I've played: it still takes a long time to get to play a 'build'. In order to try build 'x' I have to grind access to all the related abilities. Build 'y' requires me to start from scratch again. In order to get to a point where I can fully realise a character playstyle is far overshadowed by the /played it takes while having just frostbolt and frost nova to play with.

    Perhaps the learning curve would be too steep, and maybe there wouldn't be enough room for an progression or development at all, but I don't think that's the case. I believe it doesn't eliminate the possibility of tutorials, there's still content, crafting, personal conflict (PvP rivalries) and many sorts of other things one can find partake and fun in.

    My final point has to do with attachment to character. In my mind, CCP *hampers* it. The entire focus is on stats and gear, not personification (the RP element) of the actual PC. Putting limited-use items aside, purely cosmetic gear, being able to collect "skulls" of PvP kills and other mechanics surely build on the character itself, ergo the player.