Vertical vs. Horizontal Progression: Can one ever really exist without the other?

Horizontal vs vertical progressionI was thinking tonight about what to write tonight (I’m suffering from some massive writer’s block) when I decided to catch up on the Camelot Unchained videos that released while I was moving; Mark did like 5 of them in one day.  I watched the video where Mark talked about character progression and how he wants Camelot Unchained be a game all about horizontal progression with very little, if any, vertical progression.

The knee-jerk reaction these days is to immediately think that horizontal progression is the way to go.  So many people are tired of the gear grinds and this constant desire to chase the carrot upward.  Vertical progression is this horrible monster that makes characters stronger the older they get, and lets them one shot new or ‘less vertical’ characters.  While true, that depiction chooses to demonize the worst aspects of vertical progression while ignoring the upside.  Horizontal progression isn’t perfect.  I get really bored when I feel like my character isn’t progressing in strength.  Being able to do things ‘differently’ isn’t always as satisfying to me as being able to do something better.  Achievements are boring.  Relying entirely on the skill of the player and teamwork can only take me so far before I feel like I’m playing an arcade game or Counter Strike.  Sometimes I don’t want the playing field to be perfectly equal.  Sometimes its not enough that my fireballs are green and yours are red.

Dark Age of Camelot had vertical progression.  Realm Ranks were almost like an experience system for max level players killing others in RvR.  You kill a player, you gain some realm points. Those realm points earn realm ranks, and with those realm ranks you can unlock abilities to make your character stronger.  That is vertical progression.  A RR8 character had abilities that a RR2 did not have, and as a result that RR8 had an advantage.  Was the advantage huge? No, in fact a bad RR8 player would still be killed by a good RR2, but the RR8 was technically elevated above the RR2.

Emphasizing horizontal progression, or making your character different from others, is fine if you can truly create a game where players can be different without gaining power, all the while not creating a completely boring experience.  I have never played a MMO offering me the ability to truly seek after ways to make myself different from others in such a way that I feel like I have truly PROGRESSED horizontally. Choosing a different starting configuration is not progressing horizontally.  Dying my armor another color isn’t progressing horizontally.

I’d say I want to expand the breadth of my abilities, but can that really be done without it being at some inching towards moving vertical?  If I unlock more abilities that others won’t have if they haven’t unlocked them, isn’t that vertical progression?  If I have more tools in my tool belt than you, with everything else held equal don’t those abilities become an advantage that an older character will have over a new one?

No one should be quick to dismiss vertical progression. I truly believe a game relying solely on horizontal progression is destined to lack depth and become boring.  At the same time, if vertical progression is emphasized at the expense of horizontal, then an equally boring game about nothing more than chasing the next tier with absolutely zero depth will be the result.

In the end, it appears that what I’m really saying is horizontal progression should be more vertical, and vertical progression should be more horizontal.  Maybe, in an ideal state, they should be the same line, minimizing the power gap while still creating some room for growth.

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Argorius - April 29, 2013

I pretty much agree and some vertical progression is needed. I know MJ said that it may take 2-3 low “level” guys to kill a high level opponent. That seems to be on the right path. I think less damage, less accuracy is ok to deal with – the only thing that is a problem is if high level means…you dont get hit or just for like 1 point etc. If there was no vertical progression it would mean that whatever you get horizontally doesnt matter and is meaningless. On the other hand, if you get horizontal abilities that do things different and if that is in any form superior then it is a form of vertical progression. It is the balance between reducing the skill gap and keeping things from being meaningless. I think it is best to err on the side of keeping things from being meaningless…you can always level and catch up and close the gap…you cannot reverse a feeling of “this is pointless.”

Zachdidit - April 29, 2013

I believe a game with mostly horizontal progression can have a ton of depth if it involves player skill. Some of the most classic games of all time are entirely horizontal. Chess for instance. It always starts as a leveling playing field and you win entirely based upon your skill. I’d really like to start seeing games depart from Avatar strength and start challenging the players to really become more skilled at interesting mechanics given to them instead of a leveling treadmill and endless rotations. This is the reason why games like DOTA 2, Planetside 2 (yes it does have vertical progression and I enjoy the design when it’s used in doses like this), and other that challenge me as a player instead of asking me to spend time or money on artificial satisfaction.

Fuzzy - April 30, 2013

I don’t know any RPG that has entirely horizontal progression as shown on your diagram. There’s always some vertical. It’s simply a matter of how much of one or the other you favour, and that’s really a matter of personal taste.

It’s also constrained by other aspects of the game design. If you don’t separate newbies and veterans physically (as in put them in separate instances or otherwise restrict where high level players can go), then you can’t have much vertical progression. For example, in Camelot Unchained, which will be quite open and give players free reign over the battlefield, too much vertical would destroy the game. New players would arrive, get completely flattened by the high level players and quit in disgust.

Even without those limitations, I prefer my progression more horizontal than vertical. Not only is it more realistic, it allows the feeling of achievement to continue indefinitely without destroying game balance. Vertical progression has to end eventually. Horizontal doesn’t.

bhagpuss - April 30, 2013

Dying your armor a different color may not be progression for you but you should play with some of the people I’ve played with over the years! Different strokes and all that.

Other than that, of course you’re right. We need a balance of new things to do and ways to do the things we already do better. It’s finding that balance with the resources available that’s the difficult part. I guess most Dev teams would love to do both if only they had the people, the time and the money.

John - April 30, 2013

that “player skill” is overrated and is very “catchy” nowdays…vertical progression does not exclude skill players. There are many skilled players who also like their character progress in strength depending how much time they devote on them.

From the other side, Horizontal Progression exclude players who want the traditional RPG style of play, to see their characters grow stronger. 90% of the people who dropped GW2 was not because it is a bad game but because they felt that they have “beat” the game, that they have “finished it”.

From the other side, vertical progression must stay true and not reset every 3-4 months (like blizzard does with the patches and the “easy catch up” mechanics). What you achieve in the game, should not seem worthless in 3-4 months or be easier to achieve from other players.

John - April 30, 2013

I would also like to add to the my first paragraph in my previous post, that even in vertical progressions it is very often to find players of the same progress to fight each other, where skill matters.

Green Armadillo - April 30, 2013

The problem with vertical progression has nothing to do with fairness or advantages. The problem is that every number on your character sheet is an argument that the other player who just walked up to you is not an appropriate companion. I get that persistent character progression is the only reason we play games that have “RPG” in the end of the name instead of playing games that do not have progression (e.g. most shooters). I’m just saying that many of the things that mainstream MMO’s have broken badly in recent years can be blamed not on developer who don’t know what they’re doing, but rather on a desperate attempt not to have their progression system break their communities.

pixelrevision - May 1, 2013

It seems more relevant to me to look at how a game actually effects progression rather than think about what type of progression the game is using. The problem with most MMOs it people now want to just infinitely progress forever without making hard tradeoffs or loosing anything. With either angle you end up with a mess. Vertical just keeps climbing creating a separation between players and horizontal runs a dev dry of fresh ideas leaving players feeling bored.

DOTA games are becoming very popular and PvP focused games would do well to look at what’s making them work well. They tend to have both vertical and horizontal baked in and people people play very competitively for many hours. On the vertical side your character is always getting more powerful, but you all start a match at the same base level and work your way up. On the horizontal side you’re unlocking new characters that give new strategies and compositions to work with. Then there are the ladders which are more important from a progression standpoint altogether.

It seems like the games that people really felt were truly great had something to offset the progression somehow. GW1 with the flexibility and tradeoffs of deck building, eve with stealing and loosing ships, or everquest with item loss and level loss. I think when people hate the idea of vertical progression what they really hate is the idea of progression that never ends and no way to actually get on the same playing field without a billion hours of tedious time sink and frustration.

Roq Marish (@Roqsan) - May 1, 2013

I’m going to lose at chess to Magnus Carlsen, even if he gives me a piece. But, with vertical progression it would be me that was giving him a piece. So that is clearly nonsense. Vertical progression is a fun mechanism for PvE single player games, but Camelot Unchained is going to be a PvP multiplayer game and so vertical progression makes no sense, unless you can isolate new players in a different game play experience until they are able to progress.

Sanz - May 2, 2013

I have been a kickstarter of CU since day one at the $180 internal testing tier. I thought this was probably way more than I should spend on a game, but I was caught up in the excitement. So yesterday, when Mark posted the new Storm Watch tower tiers for $3,500, I went way more crazy, and pledged for one of those. Of course my $180 internal testing slot was snatched up immediately.

I rolled around in bed all night wondering if I should just stop contributions into my retirement account for a while to fund this crazy purchase. I fired up the KS and the pledges were well above 2 million, so I just decided to get out now while I still could. Pledge cancelled.

I’m still looking forward to playing this game when it comes out, and I may regret my decision, but hopefully you will post interesting things about this game to keep me entertained for the next two years.

Also, if you really think about it, funding this way is sort of the ultimate F2P years in advance of the actual game. The people with money buy up all the shiney, cosmetic, non game breaking items. In CU’s case he gets the best of both worlds. F2P cash in advance and a subscription at release.

ledgerhs - May 19, 2013

Sanz is on the right track. The only reason linear progression is broken in today’s MMOs is that there is no counterbalance anymore. Devs feel like it’s unacceptable for players to lose progression. It’s a kin to playing chess with no losing condition. Eventually the pieces on the board run out and players expect the game to go on, but it can’t. Without intervention.

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