Progression-Based Regression #Destiny

Two unrelated things decided to coalesce recently, thus inspiring this (hopefully) inspired post. First, I have been reading about behavior economics because despite writing about the in-vogue subject of video games, I am still a true nerd. Second, the rather shoddy attempt of re-appropriating MMORPG mechanics to fuel a more addictive experience with Destiny opened my eyes to a true blight across all games: progression.

We can blame Call of Duty for starting the trend of FPS multiplayer that relies on progression – unlockables, either with gameplay value or just cosmetic – for its longevity. Progression-based gameplay for its own sake is a hallmark of the MMORPG genre, and it was only a matter of time for World of Warcraft’s success (as well as the success of non-MMORPGs such as the Final Fantasy series) to rub off their RPG elements on other genres.

I credit Destiny with the realization that a strong element of progression overpowers my want to play a particular game for its own sake. By that I mean that my reason for playing revolves a want to progress, to get new gear, to move up, etc., and not for the actual gameplay. Many of you will say that is obvious, but I feel like most ignore that truth, pretending like our enjoyment comes from a game’s intrinsic value.

Here’s where behavior economics kicks in: there’s a fun divide between social norms and market norms. The example used in the book mentions a delicious holiday dinner prepared by one’s mother-in-law. At the end of the meal, you get up and ask her how much you owe her for the meal. Given social norms, an offer of paying her for the hard work and food is rude because you are trying to apply market norms (the value of her time, work, and supplies) to what she likely did for the invaluable experience of having a proper holiday meal.

People look at things differently depending on which set of norms they are applying. One of the experiments mentioned in the book talked about asking people to do a menial task and how those who were getting paid did worse than those who were doing it as a favor. Most people will work for what they think they or the task at hand is worth, but if you can convince them that they are doing it as a favor, they will often work harder.

When it comes to grinding out progression in video games, I begin to feel like my efforts aren’t being properly recompensed. In a sense, I begin applying market norms, expecting that my work will be paid in full with sweet loot, new gameplay, or more interesting content. Instead of playing a game to enjoy the experience, I play it instead to be “paid” in a way that will result in a future, even better experience.

Leveling and progression are an exercise in delayed gratification, but rarely does the gratification pay off for long before you are progressing toward something else. Once upon a time, I played MMORPGs with progression in mind, but not as my primary motivating force. I was content experiencing an area for as long as it was new and interesting, then moving on. New gear, new abilities, or new anything else were icing on an already delicious cake. Nowadays, the only thing left to eat is the icing, and that hardly contains any nutritional value.

Despite the new ways that MMORPGs have found to make a more accessible, more entertaining experience for more people, I feel they have mostly regressed rather than progressed. There’s zero wrong with a grind, but the secret to a good grind is that the hard work you put in should be fun on its own, at least enough to justify the place you are trying to get to. Yes, MMORPGs have always been dangerously close to pleasure drip feeds and slot machines, but, more and more, they embrace those aspects with reckless abandon.

Destiny and much of the modern MMORPG genre have no substance; instead, they are a series of bars waiting to be filled by mindlessly repeating the same underdeveloped actions over and over again. Tell someone there is a reward for pushing a button every ten times, and they’ll do it until they get bored. Tell someone there is a reward given at random for every button pressed, and they will apparently do it forever.

Or at least until the button breaks.

 #GameDesign #Progression

I want to get horizontal with Garrisons and The Legacy System.

I won’t waste your time with a long rant about how I know exactly what I want in a future MMORPG (I don’t), but there are a few areas that I would like to see explored more, think could make for a compelling experience, and hope will be appreciated for the mental exercise rather than as a big slop of wishful thinking.

One of my favorite MMORPG design terms is ‘horizontal progression’. Rather than the ‘vertical progression’ we all know and love (see sarcasm) where we grind our ways up a lengthy ladder toward a preferably-steady drip-drop of new content, the horizontal kind tends to be far more incremental (no big leaps in power) and not nearly as rewarding because of it.

The most classic example of this design would be the original EverQuest’s introduction of the Alternate Advancement system. Essentially, players could divert a certain portion of their experience toward unlocking fairly innocuous perks and stat increases. This added an additional type of progression at the game’s level cap without inflating stats on items too much.

Though progression tends to always be associated with power gains in the combat system, I tend to think of Achievements, Housing, and Collecting as other forms of horizontal progression. To me, vertical progression is marked more by gaining access to new areas/content, while horizontal simply expands upon what is already in place. I think the latter is a fair way of looking at housing since adding the perfect furniture layout to your personal space doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve moved into a more expensive neighborhood.

It is difficult to make horizontal progression appreciable to a wider audience. MMOs tend to sell themselves to us on the basis of their combat and raiding, so anything that isn’t a juicy piece of new loot seems like a sidegrade – or worse nongrade – for many players. Part of the problem is a playerbase that hasn’t learned to appreciate what individual MMOs have to offer beyond their more Diablo-like elements, but also poor developer messaging about their games being more than straight ‘grind, loot, repeats’.

While I haven’t much experience with either, I am fascinated with World of Warcraft’s Garrisons and Star Wars The Old Republic’s Legacy Systems as pseudo-horizontal progression systems to bolster their content without necessarily adding much content overall. Garrisons offer a sort of additional set of progression goals offered while leveling which allow players to unlock additional perks/bonuses/quests/etc. by customizing a location with specific building and follower choices. The Legacy System gives players an account-wide way to link multiple toons under a single ‘family’ tree, earning additional perks and bonuses in the process, and rewarding players for leveling many characters. It occurred to me that something of a combination of the two might make for a very interesting basis in an upcoming MMORPG, though it would be a radical departure from most games in the genre.

To me, one of the primary reasons to embrace a healthy amount of horizontal progression in your game is to dial back on the destructive pressure of too much verticality. The more vertical a game goes, the more stat inflation you get and the more spread out your playerbase becomes. Additionally, vertical systems revolve around costly and timely content cycles which tend to invalidate older content.

I really enjoy progression that unlocks things account-wide, at least when it doesn’t invalidate the challenges it took to earn it. I hate needless repetition that feels unfun. That doesn’t mean I want easy mode everything for people, but I do want to feel like my MMORPG understands that I already have four max level characters and I don’t need to spend another twenty hours rocking through the portion of the level grind where I am still ‘learning’ controls and class mechanics that will radically change in another few levels anyway (when new combos and synergies more reflective of end game show up). These feelings are only exacerbated when I jump over to a MOBA which throws a new character at me with everything unlocked almost immediately – at least when compared to the timescale of MMOs – and yells, “Figure it out!”

So here’s my idea: a big open world MMO where your account is as much your character as any of the individual toons on your roster are. I imagine something akin to a medieval fiefdom where you build up your estate with new buildings, followers, etc. by participating and adventuring in the world with various heroes you’ve unlocked and outfitted. These heroes would function similarly to how classes do now, but there wouldn’t be lengthy level grinds to get them up to a playable level (fun-wise). Yes, they’d be a touch simpler than your average MMORPG class (no multiple specs for each one which allows you to perform different roles), but there would be greater opportunity for variety.

That’s the gist of the idea currently swirling around in my head. There are other areas you can expand it to. For instance, an almost RTS-like approach to designing your estate combined with outfitting it defensively and then going to war with friends and strangers in a duel of estates. You could even expand it into a way of bringing back the old player-run marketing systems of games like Ultima Online where players visited the homes of other players and purchased items from their vendors.

All the same, it’s still an attempt to bridge and combine many, typically divergent, playstyles into one single feature that serves to promote playing a MMO in a multitude of ways as the game’s primary purpose. The point becomes to advance your account, and you do that by leveling many heroes, going on many adventures, expanding and upgrading your plot of land, cornering the market without that silly “I’m a hero and a blacksmith tailor” everyman crap.

Just a thought.

#GameDesign #HorizontalProgression #Progression

Crit/Hit/Miss? The Muppets Most Wanted (Movie, 2014)


Damage Report: I grew up watching The Muppet Babies and reruns of The Muppet Show. Since then, I have become a huge fan of Jim Henson’s work, especially in the ’80s with classics like The Dark Crystal while simultaneously growing in my love and affection for all things Muppets! After seeing their return with Jason Segal and Amy Adams in 2011, I have been looking forward to this follow-up and it did not disappoint. The music is better, the cameos are funnier, and everything seems genuinely improved. It isn’t logical or worthy of a long-form essay, but I don’t care: it’s the Muppets and I fucking love them. SEE THIS MOVIE.

#TheMuppets, #Movies, #Reviews