The problem of (no) progression

I think GW2 has a serious flaw, and it’s one that I haven’t actually seen commentators discuss much. To wit: there’s not enough progression to keep one feeling satisfied during the levelling process.

The Swamp

It’s pretty well accepted that a feeling of progression is one of the strongest motivators for an MMO player; that satisfying “ding!” as you level up, gain a new ability point, or otherwise improve yourself. Many, many MMO players focus on the levelling experience and lose interest when they hit the level cap – or they roll another alt to do it all again.

When you start playing GW2 those dings come thick and fast. Every half-dozen kills you’re unlocking a new weapon ability, and there are plenty to unlock, from 28 unlockable weapon skills for the mesmer or thief right up to 64 for the elementalist. 1

Of course, that feeling of progression starts to slow down when you’ve unlocked all your weapon skills — but by then you’re well into unlocking slot skills, which open up at levels 5, 10 and 20 for your regular slot skills and level 30 for your elite skill.

By level 30, though, the future’s looking a bit less exciting. You’ve doubtless unlocked all your weapons by now. All your slot skills hotkeys are unlocked, and you’ve probably maxed out two of your five trait areas by now. And now there’s no more progression. No more cool abilities to come. Nothing new about your class – er, sorry, profession. You’ve seen it all; the gameplay you’re experiencing now is going to be the same for the next fifty levels. Call me hard to please, but level 30 seems a bit early to cap out on class mechanics.

Of course, there are still things left to do. There are more trait trees to spend points in. There are more skill points to earn, which you can spend on buying new slot skills. However, it’s my argument that these are fundamentally not very satisfying.

  • Traits are entirely passive modifications to existing abilities, so they do make you more powerful, but they don’t really affect how you play your character.
  • Buying new slot skills is diversification — horizontal progression. Any new slot skill you buy won’t be more powerful than what you already have, and it won’t be an addition to what you can do — it will, at best, be a replacement for one of your existing slot skills, which you might care to use in a different situation. (Provided you have the foresight to swap it in before you get into a fight, of course, otherwise it does you no good at all.)

To be fair, again, that last point isn’t strictly true; each class gets a Tier 2 elite skill which is probably more awesome than the Tier 1 elite skills. It’d want to be, as it costs 30 skill points and requires unlocking two Tier 1 elite skills at 10 points each. Either way, though, it’s just one last ding somewhere in between level 30 and level 80 (depending on how long it takes you to accrue the necessary skill points), and it’s still just a replacement for one of your Tier 1 elite skills — an alternative, not an addition.

The Swamp

And this lack of progression is compounded by the GW2 downlevelling mechanic, where one is always scaled downwards to meet the intended level of an area. Given the importance of dynamic events in GW2’s PvE world design, it’s certainly essential to stop high level players steamrolling lowbie events and making them meaningless for every other participant — however, there are other ways to do that 2 without making the player feel their progression is pointless. As Ashen said in the comments of a recent post at Blessing of Kings, “What’s the point of leveling up and me getting stronger if the game arbitrarily decides to throw that out of the window all the time?” 3

Levelling up still makes you objectively more powerful — new trait points give you passive boosts, and your attributes increase with every level. But subjectively, I don’t feel any more awesome now than I did five levels ago — I still have exactly the same experience fighting a level 25 mob at 30 as I did at 25. That, in my opinion, is a broken system.

Perhaps I’m missing something. Perhaps there’s progression lurking around the corner and it’s just in one of the game systems I haven’t encountered yet. I certainly hope so, because otherwise it’s pretty disappointing to think that, at level 30, I’ve already experienced everything my class has to offer.

  1. 30 for necromancers, 32 for rangers and guardians, and 40 for warriors, if you’re curious. The engineer is an anomaly at a mere 14, so let’s not talk about them because they spoil my argument.
  2. Such as giving higher level players the option to downlevel in lower level zones; if they choose not to downlevel, all mobs are green, they can’t do events, they can’t interact with resource nodes, et cetera. Kris came up with this one over dinner while we were discussing this issue, and it’s just one possible answer to the problem.
  3. This is, for instance, the same reason Blizzard had to make vehicles scale with player gear in raid encounters like Flame Leviathan – otherwise there’s no sensation of progression because the content never gets any easier.

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7 Responses to “The problem of (no) progression”

  1. Aether McLoud
    September 5, 2012 at 16:43 #

    Perhaps this time it isn’t about progression but about the fun of exploring the world and seeing the events?

    • September 6, 2012 at 00:08 #

      It doesn’t matter what it’s “about”; what matters is what kind of satisfaction and enjoyment the players are looking to get from the game. It doesn’t matter how tasty the burger is if what you want is icecream. Most MMO players, for good or ill, expect a feeling of progression and find it satisfying and motivating. Exploration ‘dings’ and map completion will be enough to replace that for some players (for instance, me), but I’m not sure that it’ll do it for most. I know a number of players for whom it definitely *isn’t* enough, and who are therefore finding the game a drag after about level 30.

  2. Imakulata
    September 6, 2012 at 18:55 #

    I find your definition of progression very narrow. You said it was all about getting more abilities to use; I don’t deny there are players who find it exactly what they consider progression but I am sure they are in a minority. After all, there is progression besides that, even if it doesn’t fit your definition. Getting new abilities to replace your current ones is an option, bigger number on gear and level is another, being able to access new areas (either maps or dungeons) or quests is yet another.

    An additional problem with your definition of progression is a can’t have your cake and eat it too one. There are people who did not like the ability bloat in games like WoW and are looking for games with less abilities. (I know that GW2 professions have more abilities on average than WoW classes but I’m talking about the number of abilities one can use in a single fight, which is about 15 to 25 for GW2 and more about 45-50 for Cata WoW. I haven’t counted it in MoP.)

    • September 8, 2012 at 01:12 #

      That’s actually not what I said; I said that a feeling of progression is one of the strong motivators for many MMO players. Perhaps I should have more clearly drawn the connection that levels without anything “new” attached to them feel a lot less satisfying than those where you get new stuff to play with, at least to some portion of the player base.

      I do understand that people dislike ability bloat (and it was particularly a problem in SWTOR, too), but I do think it’s a problem that at level 30, I’ve already seen all the mechanics my class has to offer. That’s not the case in any other MMORPG I’ve played, and frankly I find it a bit of a letdown.

      • Imakulata
        September 9, 2012 at 06:30 #

        I apologize if I failed reading comprehension, I’m sorry if my English isn’t very good. (It’s a foreign language for me and I’m far from being at the same level as with my mother tongue.) What I thought you had said (and kept saying) was not just that but also that said progression had to come in form of new buttons to press because the other ways of progression (such as the ones I named) did not feel like true progression and were considered inferior or even ignored by players.

        I agree there might be (and probably are) players who feel like this but I think they’re in minority and majority is motivated by other forms of progression as well – or exclusively. (The “exclusive” group is probably in minority as well.)

        I’m hoping I was able to explain it clearly to you.

  3. September 7, 2012 at 19:47 #

    As you only get a trait point per level after reaching level 10, how can you be maxed in two trait lines at level 30? I make it that the earliest you can max one line would be level 40, and for two lines, level 70.

    Other than that, I do agree with you. As an engineer, I unlocked my weapon skills by level 5 and I have half of my weapon/device kits unlocked already. I’m level 17. I’m not sure what carrot I should be chasing for another 60 levels.

    • September 7, 2012 at 21:50 #

      Oh, sorry, I meant maxed for the level. You can only put ten points into a given trait line until level 40, so you have to start something new after the first ten points.

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