Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

But I Like Advancement

There have been so many interesting posts this weekend that I’m having a tough time deciding what to comment on first. If in doubt, respond chronologically I suppose. Evizaer, always the game design analyst, posted about his quarrels with vertical advancement in competitive games of skill – i.e. Global Agenda and Command and Conquer 4. He is of course correct in assessing that vertical advancement reduces the influence of skill on the outcome of a fight and further disadvantages the new player. I can also find advantages in such a system though, and they aren’t just related to helping a company to make more money.

Look, I just got enough points to buy the trench upgrade. (image: makemymood.com)

Imagine a game of chess in which you only get to play with rooks if you’ve previously won a few games with an all pawn army. That would be quite terrible, especially if you fight other players who already have rooks available to them. The newer player is put at a disadvantage that is very hard to overcome with skill. If you’ve ever tried to start playing competitive PvP in World of Warcraft late in an expansion you will know how this feels: Everyone you meet has better gear than you do, beating them becomes very hard, and the fights feel unfair. Clearly, games of skill should allow for equal opportunities for each competitor and vertical advancement should therefore never be included. Or should it?

Advancement adds purpose to your gameplay, and that can be highly relevant. Personally, I like feeling as if I have accomplished something after I’ve played a game for a while. I’ve never been a big competitive RTS player, simply because once a game was completed, nothing had changed. Playing a couple of matches of Starcraft was fun, but I could never muster the amount of commitment needed to play many games in a row. The same goes for the custom Wacraft III map Defense of the Ancients. I liked the game, yet I never played it a lot. League of Legends, on the other hand, I play a lot – and it is as similar to DotA as a game can be. The difference is that LoL offers a form of advancement, both of the vertical and horizontal varieties.

Playing matches in LoL earns you two types of points, called experience and influence. Experience points slightly increase your character’s power in a variety of ways, while influence points allow you to purchase new characters (and also items that increase your character’s power). Quite obviously a player at the maximum level of thirty has an advantage over one at level one. That problem isn’t a huge one though, because the matchmaking system takes these differences into account. It tries to pair off players of equal level against each other and balances the teams so that no side has a significant advantage.

One of many characters in League of Legends. (image: lolfs.com)

Now, one could say that such a matchmaking system takes the meaning out of advancement. Just as automatic monster scaling takes some meaning out of levelling up in an RPG, choosing your opponents to match your power does the same for a multiplayer title. Still, as a player I get the feeling of advancement and I get introduced slowly to the character customization options available to me. By giving me a single skill point at a time, the game allows me to slowly but steadily learn the importance of those points and their meaning. If they were all available right at the beginning, the whole experience would be a lot less friendly to new players.

The other interesting idea we can take from League of Legends is that of horizontal advancement. There are a lot of different characters available to play in the game and they are all of roughly equal power. When spending influence points to purchase a new character, one opens new forms of gameplay without actually gaining an advantage over other players. The problem with horizontal advancement is that an increase in choice often means an indirect increase in power as well. In League of Legends this effect is dwarfed by the one that comes from direct vertical advancement, but when trying to create a game with just horizontal advancement one has to be careful.

Obviously the LoL system isn’t perfect either. If I want to play with a friend that hasn’t played as many matches as I have, one of us will be out of his league. (Assuming equal skill levels.) Just as in your garden variety MMORPG, players who play less will feel like they are at a disadvantage if their friends play more. But then, I’m also at a great disadvantage in a match of Counterstrike (or whatever you kids play these days) because I haven’t played the game much. Sure you could put that down to skill, but it’s also about map knowledge and game mechanics. I could be as good at the manual parts of playing a first person shooter as my opponent; if I haven’t played a particular game as much as she did, she will have an advantage.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to miss elements of advancements in my games. If that means that I have to play themepark MMOs forever, so be it. If other games can give me the same feeling and have better gameplay than those MMOs, then that’s even better. Games that reset to full equality after each match on the other hand won’t hold my interest for long. Games designed this way might not be fair and are surely somewhat problematic as an e-sport but that’s what I enjoy – and many others too or vertical advancement wouldn’t be tacked on to most games these days.

  • I like horizontal advancement better then vertical advancement since having to spend a lot of time to be competitive is annoying for me. Its nice to advance based on your skill though if you have to have it. If a player plays far above his level just grant him 5 levels instead of the tiny bit he usually gets since he probably knows what he does anyway. After playing a lot of beta in LoL its annoying to be stuck in the lower levels again with very limited time to play many games. I also like the idea that you can spend money instead of time to advance like in LoL since I got more money then time at the moment (at least on that scale ;))
    Of course that does not work in games like wow where people play to get shiny gear/mounts/pets and the game itself is rather boring… if you could buy that gear it would just be boring and all the achievers would stop paying subscriptions 😉