Guild Wars 2 and the Plea for Horizontal Progression

With the concept of vertical progression firmly entrenched as an industry standard in MMOs, ArenaNet’s darling has been doing all it can to buck the trend – but have they succeeded?

Start at level one, and work your insignificant self all the way up to a world-renowned champion. That’s been the shtick for RPGs since time immemorial.

With character development and progression put front and center, it’s no wonder that the majority of the genre’s inhabitants relegate character progression and achievement to pushing a number value ever-higher.

As simple – and “refined”, some may argue – as this approach is, it has proven to have some viciously detrimental side-effects. The notion of a “gear treadmill” has been one that has plagued the MMO industry since the likes of Everquest and Ultima Online.

With a very visible ceiling to how far a character can progress, players often see the limit of their progression as the goal. And it makes sense – after all, we’ve been conditioned from a young age to view the “end” of a game as either the credit sequence, or 100% the game to full completion. After all, what is there left to do when you’ve done it all?

The problem, is that this approach is inherently cancerous to MMOs. An MMO is not meant to be played, beaten, and discarded – it’s meant to be lived in. As such, developers have been trying to come up with new and exciting ways for their players to engage in new activities over the years – to varying degrees of success.

The most common approach tends to be to incrementally raise the ceiling by way of patches. New content comes out, players farm it to the point of burnout, said players hit the cap of progression once more and twiddle their thumbs until the developers release more content down the pipeline.

This approach sees a very present ebb and flow to the nature of the title – players leave when they can’t go any further, and come back when the gates to greener pastures open once more.

But is there any way to remedy this? The persistence with which this design has persisted in the MMO sphere would make one think that there is no other alternative. Yet one studio has been pushing with all their might to do things a little bit different.

Since the original Guild Wars, ArenaNet has always done things that seemed to go “against the grain”. The first title in the series featured a level cap of 20 – an incredibly low number that many MMO veterans would balk at.

Yes, the design principals seemed “simplistic” and “dumbed down” to many outside eyes, but it gave the studio an opportunity to focus less on fervently placing down the train tracks before an ever-moving engine in the way that traditional game devs must cater to the players’ ceaseless appetite.

As a result, ArenaNet have been able to fashion an MMO that focuses on horizontal progression, rather than vertical. Through all expansions that they released for both games, the Washington-based studio has given players more variety in the way that they play the game, rather than more zones through which to do the same old hum-drum rotations through.

With the newest expansion – Path of Fire – on the horizon, ArenaNet look to give players even more varied options in how they traverse and interact with the world of Tyria.

Mounts are being added – but they won’t be just dressed-up speed boosts like in many other games. The expansion boasts four beasts atop which to cruise around on, each with a unique movement system that will afford the residents of Tyria to access new and exciting areas of the maps.

The trademark focus on horizontal progression returns as well. With the studio diverting more resources to zone, encounter, and weapon/armor design, players will have more than the average quantity of vanity items to hunt out and farm for.

Alas, Guild Wars 2 is not without its problems. Some may argue that without an ever-growing gearscore cap, the game has no sense of progression. In a way, they’re right. Your character will roughly do the same amount of damage in one year as they will a year later.

In effect, the numbers game doesn’t change. The playstyle and manner in which those numbers pop up on the screen might, but their values stay more or less locked.

And this is where players really need to think about what they value more: watching numbers grow larger until they reach ludicrous values – or meaningful and impactful changes in quantity and manner of ways in which you’re given to interact with the world and its denizens.

If you’re for the latter – do yourself a favor and dip your toes into the world of Tyria.