What do Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, Diablo III, D&D, Pathfinder, and Skyrim all have in common? If you said Magic, you’d be correct, but not what I was aiming for. What I’m talking about today is Character Progression.
In RPGs of the single-player, MMO, and tabletop persuasions, players get more powerful by progressing their characters. Sometimes you can substitute skill for numbers -- look at the disparity in gear between world-first raiders in WoW and what the average player actually is wearing the first time they beat the same fight -- but more often than not your character power is limited by the curve that the developers deliberately designed. Most of those games the curve is based on either character levels (and the powers that come with them), gear, or a combination thereof.
Sometimes you’ll see alternate progression paths -- an example is the original Guild Wars, which had a max level of 20 that you pretty much hit in the tutorial, and then progression was based on discover new skills and mixing and matching -- but mostly it’s levels and gear.
Tabletop RPGs such as D&D and Pathfinder often end when you hit max level, and the gear you get during your campaign is a calculated part of your power progression curve. +1 Swords at level 3, +5 swords at level 23. Video games aren’t much different there. Final Fantasy VI you had Mithril weapons early on, and later in the game you had Diamond Swords, or the Atma Weapon, on top of the levels you had gained, but the maximum level was 99. MMOs are a bit of a unique beast here in that often you’d hit maximum level, and the game continues. But since you can’t gain any further levels, it’s only the gear that changes over time.
So with that in mind, I find it a bit of an interesting point that folks balk at the idea of what is often maligned as “the gear treadmill.” The idea that gear is transient is something of a sticking point for many people, because they put in a lot of effort to get those purple pixels, and replacing it is anathema.
Now, this isn’t the case for every piece of gear out there. An example is the D&D 4E game I’m running. Pretty sure our melee characters will be wearing their level 2 boots that allow them to stand up as a minor action until I pry them off of their cold, dead level 30 feet.
But for MMOs like WoW, almost nobody complains about replacing gear as they level up, but once they hit maximum level and have to raid for a bit to get it? Suddenly the gloves come off. Or, well, they don’t come off, those gloves are gripped even more tightly because the player doesn’t want to replace them. There’s something about levelling versus gearing that once the two concepts are disconnected a switch seems to get hit in people’s brains that makes it feel like everything’s changed. You see this pretty well every expansion of nearly every MMO out there. Items get replaced, and people get upset because things in the first zone of the new area replace the stuff that the players earned over the past year.
Interestingly enough, Blizzard is attempting to combat this by having the final boss of the current expansion drop weapons that will scale to maximum level of the next expansion (though they will likely be replaced by the first raid drops of the next expansion), so I’m immensely interested to see how that plays out psychologically.
A hypothesis of mine is that levels feel cumulative, whereas gear, while cumulative in practice to a certain extent, feels wasteful. You don’t replace level 59 with level 60 and throw it away. The stats you gained for level 59 still apply, the skills and powers you learned are still (mostly) available, but for gear when you get that new sword, you end up throwing the old one away. Despite the fact that you probably needed your old sword to help you get the new sword (hence why gear is also somewhat cumulative), the act of throwing away the old equipment may feel like you’ve devalued your previous experiences. That old boss kill no longer matters.
My D&D players recently ran into something similar. In 4E, once you hit level 10, you start replacing some of your older abilities with newer ones. You don’t just keep getting new abilities, but the pool of available abilities that you can choose increases. But this still frustrated them. They had come to love and rely on those older abilities, and losing that ability, even though they were getting something new, rankled. You also see this on WoW forums when Blizzard takes away abilities, like Sentry Totem. Even though it was nigh useless outside of a few very niche uses, its removal was decried.
So as a game designer, what do you do? People love getting stuff. Getting new powers, new loot, new weapons, new armor, new levels, they all rock. People hate losing stuff. Replacing old items and losing abilities, they blow chunks. You can’t just add forever, because then you run into ability bloat and a bajillion buttons that you pretty well never use. Gear must get replaced eventually, because continuing to use the same copper short sword you had when you started your adventure running from the dragon at the end of the game is pretty lame, from both a narrative and a progression perspective.
I have no idea, but the first studio to figure this out will probably have a hit on their hands.