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Vertical progression is everything that makes a character stronger:
The opposite of vertical progression is horizontal progression. That includes everything that gives you more options but does not make the character stronger; it just gives you more tools.
To remove vertical progression at first seems like a radical measure, but as I see it, it is just the ultimate result of a trend in game design that is already there.
Guild Wars 2 for example has already made vertical progression irrelevant in many aspects of the game:
As I see it Guild Wars 2 is already 3/4 there to be a MMO without vertical progression.
The only thing that is holding it back is the preconception that RPGs are somehow about vertical progression and leveling. But that must not be true. A mechanic that works well in single player games must not work in a game that has some thousand players playing at the same time.
I believe vertical progression only holds back the genre and is rather a leftover from the way how mmorpgs have evolved from tabletop rpgs and single player rpgs. There is not much roleplaying in mmorpgs either, even though it’s in their name. (Unless the players bring it into it by themselves) Removing vertical progression would just free gamers and designers alike from unnecessary ballast.
Now onto the 10 reasons why is vertical progression bad in a MMO:
1.) It keeps players from enjoying the game content:
Vertical progression reduces all game content just to a means to an end. You are not doing it in the first place because you enjoy what you’re doing but because you want the reward.
It creates this power leveling mentality, where nothing else is important than hitting the level cap as fast as possible. Developers sometimes don’t even bother to make the leveling content interesting, because no one will care and just rush trough it to get done with the grind. There is no time to look the story connected with a quest or experience the game at your own pace; you have to keep up with other players that are forced to rush through the game as well. Since when are we playing games just to get over them?
2.) It splits the player base:
Everyone likes to play with his friends, but you can’t do that if they are on another level then you. If there is no vertical progression everyone can join everyone else no matter how long he is already playing.
3.) It often leads to boring content:
I often hear that no one would do the content if the game would not force him to do it in order to level up. That is only half the story. The players would still do well constructed quests and interesting storylines; but no one would like to kill 10 of x for the 100th time, and that is a good thing.
The quest grind has made these vast amounts of samey quest necessary in the first place. If there was no quest grinding the designers would be forced to create content that is interesting on its own.
4.) It leads to linear content:
Having a steep vertical progression means that the player hast to take a predefined path through the game, always following the leveling content. A game without vertical progression would open up all content immediately and let the player choose in what order he wants to experience the game.
5.) It creates problems for pvp:
Because characters are so different in power there are almost never fair fights in world-PvP and there needs to be a system in place that keeps high level player from just going to low level zones and gank everyone.
Even in battlegrounds players have to be divided into groups according to their level. Guild wars 2 has come up with a better solution and just makes everyone max level for PvP.
6.) It lends itself to exploitive game design:
As you might know, many games rely on skinner-box-mechanics to force you to grind through boring content. If the developer wants to force the players to grind, this is done much more effectively when the player needs to level up to see the rest of the game, instead of having him grind for a skill that won’t make him more powerful and is not mandatory.
7.) Levelling up does not change the gameplay:
When you level up it may feel like you archived something, before you notice that the only thing that changed was that you now can pass on to the next location where you fight slightly stronger differed coloured mobs. The game has just switched some numbers around. Dealing 5 points pf damage to a mob with 20 hp, is not differed then dealing 10 damage to one with 40 hp.
Some people have told me that it is fun to them to go back to a low level zone and steamroller everything there. But c’mon how long is it fun, to torture virtual ants with a magnifying glass that don’t even run away, for 2 minutes maybe?
8.) It locks players out of higher level content:
Low level players can’t enter all the zones because they won’t last there very long. This helps to structure a storyline. The hero has first to fight the minions in the lower zones and gather xp and then he can enter the lair of the main villain.
I believe it is often not necessary to lock new players out of some zones; and if you think it is, there can still be a lengthy questline that takes you trough whole game world to complete before you can meet the main villain.
9.) It creates a Dragonball-Z-problem:
With every level the mobs you fight get higher stats, so they need to look more menacing too. Therefore the game starts as low as possible with lame opponents like rats and then makes the mobs larger and larger until you end up with dragons. And once there is an expansion the game has to come up with something like Super-Dragons and then Ultra-Dragons.
Or the high level mobs look just the same and are mysteriously much more powerful than their low level counterparts.
10.) It makes the game unnecessary complicated for players and designers alike:
As you see in point 7, levelling up does not really change anything. In the end the level is just a label that shows what mobs you should fight at the moment.
So if the level is not much more then an achievement, why not make it an achievement. Display it to other players to show how much you have already achieved in the game, but don’t have it change your stats.
If there was no vertical progression it would just remove one unnecessary variable from the game. The player would not have to juggle with absurd high stat values; and all the content would be the same level of difficulty for everyone and therefore easier to manage. Instead of high and low level zones there could be zones that offer easier or harder content.