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Catch-up Mechanics

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Something I love about WoW, and I grow even more fond of as time passes, is the catch-up mechanics. It's a brilliant system that allows people to never be too far behind the top-end gameplay.


Games Without Catch-up Mechanics Discourage New Players

I remember going back to play games like EverQuest 2 and realizing just how impossible it was to catch up to people who had played for several years. It simply was never, ever, going to happen. That's an awful feeling.

Why place an impossible barrier to entry between new or returning players and the current content where the majority of the long-term players are hanging out?

I like both ways WoW handles this.

  1. Every few months create a soft 'reset' on gear by raising the minimum drops from dungeons and quests, and introduce it with a new content patch.
  2. Release a new expansion once ever couple of years to do a hard reset where everyone is on the same playing field again.

Catch-up Mechanics Bring People Back Easier

In Battle for Azeroth I have witnessed this in action on multiple occasions. During the first season, several of the people in my guild got bored and quit. They returned two months later for season 2 and were able to catch up -- even pass me up -- with the reset on gear. We could play again together. Season 3 is about to do the same. BFA itself brought back someone who hadn't played Vanilla, and they're already running heroic raids and M+10 keys. That's pretty neat.

Catch-up Mechanics are Alt Friendly

I'm always wanting to try new classes, but I get really discouraged when faced with the prospects of spending months to gear up a character again. Catch-up mechanics help to negate this barrier by giving me an opportunity every few months to put in minimal effort to have a current-content-ready character.

Catch-up as a Standard for All MMOs

I get that some players like the idea of outpacing others. I also understand, and even feel this way myself, that working hard for gear just to have it trivialized a few months later doesn't always feel great. But I weigh those feelings against the other side and conclude that I'd rather have a healthy community of people coming in/back to the game. I'm also all about deflating the value to gear. The more we de-emphasize gear, the better. BFA has done a fantastic job of doing that, and while that chases off some of the 1%, it keeps me playing and looking forward to each new season.

I think this belongs in every MMO, in some fashion. I think about MMOs on the distand horizon -- like Camelot Unchained and Pantheon -- and I hope they're smart enough to consider (even in their "we're hardcore!" mindset), the added benefits of these regular 'resets'.

  • Personally I see them as one of the worst mechanics ever. Gear treadmill devalues content for sense of progression (which is fake, because your relative power in current content stays the same), catch up mechanics devalue progression for no apparent reason. It’s just a way to run 99% of the game in the ground, nothing else.

    • Some people enjoy “progression” simply to say they killed a boss and were able to rise to that challenge. Once it’s defeated, going back and doing it over and over again is often trivialized anyway.

      Allowing new opportunities for everyone to fight the next challenge still leaves a challenge. In the case of WoW, those truly seeking a challenge can always do “Mythic” raids, where less than 1% of the players will ever even participate at all.

  • You’re way out of date on EQ2, which has for several years provided superb catch-up mechanics. Recent expansions all come with a complete set of free gear that puts you at the correct starting point for the solo signature line. Completing that puts you at the correct gear point to move on to group content but you can jump straight there by buying Crafted gear from the current expansion, sold for very affordable prices by players. There are a number of other catch-up mechanics in addition to those.

    You also, of course, get a free boost to the starting point for each new expansion when you buy it, although you can solo from 1-100 in a matter of days if you prefer to get to know your class before you hit the more challenging content.

    The real problem in returning to (or starting for the first time in) most older MMORPGs isn’t catching up on gear, it’s catching up on systems and mechanics. Over years runing into devades most games become so dense with legacy processes it can be hard to fathom. WoW seems to deal with this by constantly removing systems and resetting the clock, which brings plenty of problems of its own. Of the two approaches I hugely prefer EQ2’s.

    • I’m sure my info is out-dated. It was still something I experienced vividly the two times I returned to play EQ2 during the first 5-6 years of its life. I’m sure they’ve done a fine job welcoming back players since then.

      Jumping back into a game with the massive legacy of systems to learn feels like jumping back into WoW at the end of a huge expansion. When I went back to play Legion, I was completely lost and overwhelmed.

      I think of last year when I tried going back to FFXIV and I was gated by dozens of hours of story quests that MUST be completed. I lasted a week before I got bored of having to do all sorts of old content just to get to recent content. I was watching someone stream the game last week and going through a similar process to get ready for the new expansion coming, so I know it’s still there.

      I’ll take the hard resets and new systems over forcing players to trudge through the old ones any day.

  • I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy between having no catch-up mechanics at all and having a “catch-up” every couple of months. I’m fine with having a stat reset every so often with the release of a new expansion or whatever, however the pace at which WoW resets your progress has been bordering on the absurd for years and was one of the factors that contributed to me losing interest in the game.

    It’s hard to have a sense of progression if everything you earn gets obsoleted within weeks. You basically have to be super-invested to always be able to collect the newest set of gear really quickly, or you can just not care at all and wait for the game to “progress” your characters almost automatically whenever the devs next upgrade the rewards dropped from dailies and dungeons. It’s not the top 1% that get hurt by that (they were always going to be done quickly anyway) but the middle-of-the-road players who like to progress but at their own pace.

    • I’m not sure that I follow you on this one. Where was the false dichotomy that I created? I like games with systems in place that allow new or returning players to jump in or catch up quickly. I think that this should exist in some fashion in every MMO.

      The pacing or method is strictly determined by the type of MMO, its systems for progression. In WoW, it’s every 2 years with an expansion and with ‘soft’ minor resets every 3-6 months for new content patches.

      If players have to run content sequentially in order to catch up, there will be players who decide not to return. EQ2 (the older days), FFXIV, and a few others come to mind.

  • On the other end of the spectrum, Guild Wars 2 has very little gear stat progression, meaning you’re pretty much always “caught up” gear wise.

    Yet it has a MASSIVE catch up problem where returning players are concerned in terms of knowledge, being aware of the nuances of multiple updates and tweaks to content and builds, which feeds into a noticeable performance disparity. Getting caught up here means a lot of research and knowedge work and time investment, a barrier that not even some existing players are willing or able to cross.

    As for the goal of getting “caught up,” which is presumably to be able to play together on a similar and level playing field… on the one hand, the game doesn’t really hardcode too many barriers especially in the open world where disparate performing players can play together and contribute in differing amounts… and on the other hand, certain player groups have devised entry barriers of their own to gate players who are likely to underperform.

    There are a lot of issues that are conflated into too simple a “gear catchup” idea. 1) How much does gear affect player performance? 2) How much does player knowledge affect player performance? 3) How disparate is the performance between players in the lower and upper bounds of gear or knowledge? 4) How high or low is the tolerance bar for disparate performance in hardcoded game content or as a softer culturally enforced obstacle among players?

    You could adjust any of these levers and hopefully nudge a population along that way. City of Heroes, for example, has a pretty high point 3 disparity, but because most content doesn’t enforce a high performance bar, most players don’t care and will group with almost anyone, trusting in the high number of team members to have it all average out in the end. Make it Dark Souls hard and you’ll see players becoming way pickier to fill a super optimized team.

    GW2 fixed point 1 and then promptly struggled with point 2. The answer to point 3 was always somewhat high and got higher as the build team kept responding to high end meta. And then they utterly shot themselves in the foot by allowing point 4 to creep up higher. Point 2 has to go up in response, and/or point 4 has to drop a bit if you want people to be “caught up.”

    The final question is, does it really matter if people are caught up? Maybe it’s better for a game to have people trailing behind and desiring to be further along (the ol’ aspirational goals argument.) How far can you string ‘em along before they get frustrated and quit? Or maybe they should be positioned such that they’re just a little behind the top so that it looks like an achievable goal to reach…

    • To your last point, I think it matters a lot if people are caught up to a point where they can participate.

      If a MMO forced me to play through every piece of old content sequentially in order to play the newest expansion, then I wouldn’t play. I’ve tried it, and trying to get groups in old ghost-town content isn’t fun.

      If people were PvPing for 2 years in a game and I would have to PvP harder for the next year or two to catch up and even compete, I wouldn’t even bother starting.

      If people’s characters attained a level of skill points that didn’t hard cap at a realistic level and I would never catch up to their skill point gains, then I would never even consider starting.

  • Assuming there is no in-between-expansion catch up mechanism, why didn’t I play in the first place? If the lower content was fun, I would have been playing it all along and wouldn’t need catch up. However, I may have stopped playing because it wasn’t fun and now there is a new XYZ luring me back in but I still need to play the content that wasn’t fun and had me lose interest in the game in the first place…catch up mechanisms may make this older content more fun…or at least shorter…and it gives me an incentive to play again.

    Towards the end of legion I came back to WOW and once I wrapped my head around all of this catch up content…I played the hell out of it…I may never have done it if it was just the same stuff that had me lose interest 8 months prior…

  • Catch-up mechanics rank right up there with cross server group finder as part of the devolution of the genre. I don’t see losing player and server identity as a good thing just to maybe bring new players on board. To do what? Get bored after a few months after they’ve caught up and unsub until the next catch-up mechanic is implemented?

    We used to have these things called “Guilds” and they were my catch-up mechanic back in the day. We had a guild event twice a week that focused on getting members missions, dungeons, and even raids done. This method takes more time but i think it’s much more rewarding than the current iteration of handing out free loot for logging in.

    I’m willing to be a bit flexible as i see the positives in some sort of gear reset when a new expansion launches. But gear resets during a current expansion should never happen. I’m sure this won’t be a popular opinion but i’m fine with that. I’d like progress, exclusivity, player reputation, and server identity to mean something again.

  • I think the goal should be to build a game where player success is based on 70% skill and 30% gear. Then you make a leveling game that is essentially a long drawn out and interesting tutorial (probably mostly story driven). use this time to gradually introduce all the mechanics and varieties of encounters and world experiences. (think pacing like in the God of War series) Pacing is something very overlooked in MMOs and it’s one of the most important things in games in general.

    The game would have to be sufficiently complex in order to keep players engaged the whole way through, but MMOs generally are, and i think this is the best way to do it. This way you can guarantee that all players at least have the knowledge required to play the game at a high level and everyone starts on an even playing field. Emphasizing game knowledge or mechanical skill, and de-emphasizing gear seems like a much more interesting game to me. gear should still be important, just way less so than in most current MMOs.

    If you de-emphasize gear, and emphasize game knowledge, then gear resets and catch up mechanics are kind of a mute point. as long as you make the core leveling/tutorial game interesting… and don’t make players go through it multiple times (i’m thinking one character that can switch between classes, but there are still class based tutorials you have to complete to level up the class so that it ensures you have a solid understanding of that particular class before you get to end-game).

    TLDR – the goal should be to try and eliminate the need for gear resets, not try and find a happy middle ground for how to implement them that pisses off the least amount people… but of course for games that already exist, they’re kind of stuck with what they’ve got.

  • I go back and forth on these types of offerings. It just seems like this is a variation of ‘give the players what they want’ theme, and what many/most players want, for whatever reason, invalid or valid, is the easy way up in every game made now. In this instance they’ve worked hard to get to level 100 once, why work hard ever again? I fear even our beloved K & G whom I agree with 99.9% of the time have finally succumbed to the external, and internal pressure. Some of this is obviously due to real life interfering and boredom of repetition for many players, dead lower levels, etc. I can understand. But I’ve got three characters 90+ on WOW that I haven’t touched for years, and I can’t imagine the game just letting me pop up a high level character just because I want it to. No, I don’t want to play every level again….maybe…..(though I continue to do so in EQ), but I’ve already got three to continue on with that have worked for their rewards. I see the point, but I just don’t agree. I promise if I ever win the lottery big time, I’m hiring the best programmers to write an old EQ/Camelot merciless grindy, trains from hell, sweaty hands on – every – single – pull, earn your rewards game that caters to those who feel that you get/deserve only what you work for, nothing more. No twinking either (blasphemy right?). Whether it has 100 or 100,000 subscribers makes no difference. It won’t be a silver spoon to anyone. Probably 95% of players would hate it. Fine. Eve isn’t for everyone either. 🙂