Character Advancement

I touched briefly on the idea of character advancement in yesterday’s post, and I think it warrants further discussion.  Right now MMOs seem to have one common theme: Pick a class, quest to level, unlock all abilities, then do end-game activities to get loot to make your abilities better.  That’s the gist of character advancement.  If I were responsible for looking at how characters would advance, level up, improve, etc., in a MMO here’s what I would do.


Play-style should radically change based upon one’s chosen profession.  I use the word profession in its truest sense.  Wizards being blacksmiths, blacksmiths being thieves, everyone being everything, it just doesn’t make much sense to me.  Professions require extensive training, prolonged study, and practice.  I like when players need to specialize and choose a path.  Be one thing, and have the game be capable of supporting whatever choice you make by providing a unique and 100% fulfilling experience.


Blacksmiths should become better blacksmiths by making weapons.  Thieves should become better at stealing and moving about undetected by actually trying to do so.  Warriors wanting to increase their strength and skill with a blade should have to go out and slay beasts.  I like when I see that my character has become better at using swords because I have actually used a sword. I’m not a believer in universal advancement or “choose where your point goes” systems.  If you use a sword and gain a level, why should you be able to increase your armor value?  I’m not saying that everything should make perfect and realistic sense — it’s a game after all — but these things are capable of being great gameplay mechanics.

It’s not the ‘weapon’ that matters, it’s how you use it

Magical attributes on weapons are out of control.  We went from the days of Longsword +1, to named items, to items with +850 Strength, +50% attack speed, +284 Dexterity, and the ability to proc fireballs.  We long ago reached the point where our actual ‘characters’ are now our weapons and armor.  That ‘thing’ we control with WASD is just an empty shell.  Our ‘characters’ in today’s MMOS are randomly dropped or bought with tokens.

I believe the character you level and spend time advancing and specializing should make up 80-90% or more of the equation.  Weapons and armor are tools.  I’m all in favor of providing that carrot on the stick and desire to obtain more powerful artifacts, but not at such a high price.

I would remove the concept that skill = items, macros, addons, and rotations.  Ability should be based on how you’ve chosen to build your character combined with how well you control him or her beyond which the order in which you use abilities.  Ever group with a good healer in EverQuest?  Knowing when to heal requires instinct, anticipation, and understanding of each and every mob you encountered.  Conserving mana required forethought and efficiency.  Playing with a good Enchanter was like watching a master working his trade.  The way they orchestrate the fights and control every second of timing means life or death for everyone.  So you see, skill is not always based on twitch or rotation but in understanding and experience.

Effort and Reward

Advancement should take time and effort.  I know many of you reading will disagree.  I truly believe that for any character to have honestly advanced and not fall into the trappings of random advancement, universal advancement, or item advancement, there must be effort involved.  Effort can take time, and if a game is designed around the idea of legitimate character advancement then such actions will not feel like work or feel like they take time; You will feel like you are playing a game and building something, earning something, and as a result you will see and feel the rewards you’ve earned.

  • What you described in the last paragraph is the reason I am playing FFXI again.

    Ive been playing for 2 months. Ive gotten some gear, Ive made my character better. Yet im still not ready for majority of the end game content.

    Stuff takes time, it takes effort, I feel a desire to log in every day so I can inch closer to my goals. Never really feels like a chore.

    Where as logging into most themepark MMOs I know that in the end im going to hit a wall.

    And to be fair I would hit a wall in FFXI, but that wall is so far off (best weapon for a specific job, of which there are 22 of, takes 2-3 months) that it will constantly be moving back. I never log in and sit around wondering what to do, If I cant find a group for something I can do something solo, while still working towards an overall goal.

    Basically for me, FFXI, is and probably always was the game I have been wanting to play for the past 4-5 years.

  • No single MMO has really resonated with me in years but a few have had mechanics that I thought were steps in the right direction and they almost always involved real world time constraints. For example the way you learn skills in EVE. I love that and it is similar to the trait research in ESO as well. I think this is a wonderful mechanic. Crafting in Fallen Earth was similar. I remember playing that game in the early stages and due to the insane time and focus needed to make a motorcycle or interceptor no one had them for a while. The first time someone rolled into town in an interceptor it was a genuine big deal because we all knew it was a large task that took real time.

    Additionally I really like the classless skill system of The Secret World. There is something to be said for an MMO when I, the altaholic, can play a game for six months and only ever make one character. The fact that I could play in a desired fashion for two months and decide it was not really what I wanted to do any longer and just, as in real life, start to learn new skills was great. There was no imaginary barrier that said ‘NO! you can not learn to use a shotgun now since you have already spent time with fist weapons!’ That system also lead to some really cool sessions of experimenting with builds that I never got from traditional holy trinity class based MMOs.

    Finally, as you touched on in your post, I like the idea of using a weapon, skill or item increasing the characters proficiency in that thing… but not necessarily increasing the overall power of my character. ESO handles this well to a certain extent by allowing me to equip any weapon or armor and slowly level it up through use, though sometimes indirectly which itself does not really make sense. There are only so many hours in a day and if I use a mace 100% of the time it should follow that my skill with it will be more refined then someone that uses a mace 20% of the time and a sword 80% of the time.

    I guess I want to see some sort of hybrid system that allows me total freedom to go any direction I want with my character with the only restrictions being actual time and personal investment.

  • Everyone (it seems) likes to piss on SWTOR, but I feel they actually got ‘your character is not a dummy to hang weapons and armor on’ right(ish). That is, if you want it to be. My character may be a Max-level Tank with Glowy Foobar gear, but he’s also a loyal Republic soldier whose hatred of the Sith causes him to sometimes cross the line between justice and revenge.

    Sure, you can make up that story in any game (your Paladin can be a total ladies man) but in SWTOR I can actually make some sort of choices in conversations that make it feel like it’s not just entirely in my head.

  • Keen, I’m curious what you think about the skill system in EVE. It’s been years since I played EVE but as far as I remember in that game a character can theoretically be and do everything. That said, it takes copious amounts of time to develop those skills so realistically most players specialize in order to become adequately good at *something* in a reasonable time frame.

  • @Swarmodseals: I think EVE’s skill system works for EVE. I’d have to really dig in and understand it better before saying whether or not it could work with another game that doesn’t match EVE exactly.

  • With the idea that “Performing your profession makes you better at your profession”, there are a lot of things that could/should be taken into consideration. Doing Blacksmith work doesn’t only make you a better smith. It makes you strong, increases your upper body strength, increases your resistance to heat, etc.

  • I agree with pretty much everything you say but yet I feel like something is missing. What you describe makes sense but if we change the points you advocate, it probably would still not make much of a difference or lead to other problems.

    Specialize: I love the idea of specializing and some games try to say that you need to specialize…but often specializing means you do not have access to “other” skills etc. With true specialization, you really need to increase each characters power. A very specialized wizard, should be extremely powerful with what they can do. A specialized blacksmith may make something absolutely valuable…but we don’t see this…we don’t see the increase in “power output” (by power I mean…your effect on the game world). This is often not done for “balance” or fairness. Characters that used to specialize and do real well – likely had great tools at their disposal and maybe even powerful tools. I think it would also mean increasing the difficulty of the game immensely…instead of tweaking the difficulty at a threshold where most people can comfortably play – we would need to tweak it to a level where a powerful character can save his group or do extremely well but where things can go down the crapper really fast. It is an extreme up and down and not a set mellow standard (either for PvE or PvP).

    I think the idea of the character matters as opposed to the gear is totally reasonable but then again it is also just cosmetic. As long as characters have access to the same “high level” gear, everyone will more or less be the same. Just changing this aspect will probably not turn a mediocre game system into a great one…even though it might be better. It does bring up the question – if we include specialized blacksmiths for instance…how will they set themselves apart…I think cosmetic changes are nice but sort of bleh…it really needs to be more powerful weapons and armor…you can print stats on them or not but in the end…the idea will be the same. I could envision something like vanquishing items from UO…not the normal ones but the ones that were bugged…and did huge amounts of damage and made an average joe into a killer machine. While technically “unfair” there was a real drawback to using it…if you died someone else would loot it and then it is bye bye vanquishing weapon. I loved that type of decision making (which also goes back to character power levels).

    Character development should be a long term process and increasing character skill by using a skill makes sense. I do believe that the original Darkfall tried to do that and yes there was macroing but overall it still felt utterly boring…it was fine in UO. AC had a similar approach and I thought that worked reasonably well…

    Anyway, I like a high risk and high reward approach. I like the idea of powerful abilities and characters, In PvP that translates to a potential short time to kill but if it is combined with the possibility to avoid a quick death and where you are able to prolong the fight with skill and experience that is ideal. You need to feel like a boss but you can easily overwhelmed and things go down the crapper fast. I think that was the case with UO and AC (from what I heard…EQ as well). To some extent that was happening in DAOC too…you could be incredibly powerful and useful. Most games tone things down for the sake of balance – everyone is mediocre – everyone is the same…that is boring.

  • @Argorius: The MMO industry is so tied in knots right now that changing any one still is never going to be enough. While my changes would yield great results, they can’t be made alone. As you mentioned several times, UO had much of this but does not resemble anything like we play today.

  • @Table: Unfortunately FFXI isn’t the same game game anymore. It used to take years to acquire weapons and armor with their horizontal progression system but that’s all been replaced with ilevel and easy small group content. Hell, i worked on a relic weapon for close to 6 years with the help of an entire guild and never finished it. Now you can solo your weapon in a few months. The essence of FFXI is long gone, much like EQ1’s.

    As far as advancement goes with crafting in mind. I absolutely hate the direction it has gone with everyone pretty much being self sufficient and leveling every craft themselves on alts. I’d like to go back to only allowing someone with huge dedication and help to achieve the top crafting levels. It should be difficult but extremely rewarding capping a craft.

    The characters themselves have become so homogenized as well. I like the idea of specializing in one aspect but let me select that aspect. This nonsense of locking me into one weapon and play style really tuns me off to newer MMO’s. If i want to play a Shadowknight as a dps or support, give me the tools to do so and let me choose. Alternate Advancements are a great way to do this and should be given to players at early levels. Expand on the options, don’t take them away.

    I know this would be a balancing nightmare but that’s what makes the game complex and fun for me.

  • “I believe the character you level and spend time advancing and specializing should make up 80-90% or more of the equation. Weapons and armor are tools. I’m all in favor of providing that carrot on the stick and desire to obtain more powerful artifacts, but not at such a high price.”

    I don’t think I can agree with this. One of the main functions of gear in MMORPGs is nerfing content over time.

    It means that you can make it very difficult and over time people will gradually get better gear and thus have a better chance at beating the content. If you try to make gear that minimal, you lose that aspect and you lose what you yourself proclaimed:

    “You will feel like you are playing a game and building something, earning something, and as a result you will see and feel the rewards you’ve earned.”

    The alternative to better gear that gives a noticeable power increase is something like making the first 60 levels easy to get then have another 60 levels that are a massive pain to obtain. But this also means your combat system has to be able to handle the situation of a level 70 only being something like 20-30% stronger than a level 60. And it makes it feel like the leveling never stops or becomes a huge grind.

    Or something like “Talk to a trainer and receive a permanent boost to your stats” or something.

    You need character power increase in SOME form — and the great thing about gear is that it’s easier to reset. You can’t drop someone from level 120 back to 60 to “even the playing field” for a new expansion, but you can offer gear that makes their old gear obsolete relatively quickly. Gear’s advantage in character power increases is precisely how easy it is TO make the player get rid of it — it’s not a permanent bonus that persists down the line.