Monday, September 11, 2017

[WoW|A:HotS] Infinite Progress Bars: Gear, Artifact Power, Vertical Advancement

One of the earliest blog posts I wrote was on leveling and other advancement systems. And with it comes a fairly uncontroversial statement:
Leveling, among other advancement schemes, is at its most basic a reward for time. Play a little longer, grind a few mobs, finish a few quests, and ding! You get a level, and along with it things like new abilities, better stats, talent/skill points, or any number of other things. Developers of MMOs know intimately that if you want to keep players playing, you need to give them rewards.
RPGs definitely enjoy their progress bars. Progress bars are so good at player retention/engagement that pretty much every game genre has borrowed them. MMOs are arguably the royalty of progress bars--outside of clicker games of course. But what happens when your playerbase balks?

I've Got The (Artifact) Power

In the latest expansion, World of Warcraft has created an alternate advancement scheme of sorts with Artifact Weapons. Starting at level 100, and well past the level cap of 110, you gain Artifact Power to level up your Artifact Weapon and gain traits to increase your character's power. Once you've gotten 51 traits, every point after goes into an "infinite" trait with an exponential increase in Artifact Power required for each point. To offset that, over time players automatically get more Artifact Power from each quest/boss kill/other activity as real world time goes on.

"Concordance" is the infinite trait in the upper right. In this screen I have 7 levels of Concordance. It takes about 3.8 Billion points of Artifact Power to get an 8th level.
I'm glossing over the previous patches and focusing on the current implementation, as its more in line with their original vision based on their interviews. It's also important to note that WoW is far from the first game to have an alternate advancement system. Diablo III of course has Paragon levels, but much earlier there was the original Everquest with what they called "Alternate Advancement" (dun dun duuun! That's where the term was pretty well coined).

What this does is ensures that players who don't play for a while can catch up, while preventing players who play a lot from getting too far ahead of the rest of the player base. But it also ensures that even if you play casually, you're never really too far behind. I pretty much only log on for raids and the occasional quest run once every couple weeks, and I'm within ~5 levels of more hardcore players.

Which kind of almost feels like it defeats the purpose of the alternate advancement. We're basically just moving forward on Blizzard's very defined schedule. Not that's a bad thing necessarily, given most designers will make spreadsheets trying to figure out advancement timing and schedule. Nor is it that different from gear drops from a raid, given those fall within a specific power level. It just feels really naked now.

But by creating this alternate advancement, it makes it easy for the designers to parcel out Artifact Power as partial rewards. Instead of dropping a big piece of gear, or giving a bump to a reputation that has no impact on your character's power levels, they can give you something in smaller, bite-sized pieces that allows you to continue progressing your character regardless of the activity you're doing. Filling that bar, which is industry-proven.

The Gear Treadmill

While Artifact Power is new to WoW, the gear treadmill is not. Most MMOs with an endgame beyond leveling uses gear acquisition as a way to increase character power without bumping their levels. WoW extended this treadmill by allowing pieces of gear to roll higher stats (Titanforging) or different bonuses (Gem Sockets, bonus tertiary stats) randomly.

What this meant is that there's no perfect set of gear anymore. Or at least, it's not attainable within a human's lifetime, let alone a raid tier's lifetime. Previously raiders could make a list of gear they wanted (called "Best in Slot" or BiS), and aim to get that gear. What it does for players who're never going to get the best gear in game anyways (which is at least 95% of the player base) is occasionally you get a nice surprise. Like my Paladin's bracers that should've been 910, but rolled 940 the other day (yay!).

You're Never Finished

But interestingly, the more hardcore contingent really dislikes these alternate advancements. If you're running for World First, you need every advantage you can get, which means busting your butt to stay on the forefront of that Artifact Power wave in the previous tier. An impressive amount of work, really, given the minute advantages it brings, also given if they were to just wait a couple weeks, they'd be in the same place numerically as they busted ass to get now. And similarly for the gear, because the gear can proc better variants at random, there's no end to the gear farming if you're aiming for the perfect (or at least best-ish) loadouts.

Really, the issue is that there's no endpoint. No finish. A large part of it indeed has to do with wanting to have a life outside the game and still be on the forefront, I don't doubt that. Logically it follows. But I wonder if that's really the only reason, especially since that reason only applies to a very small minority of the playerbase, and the complaints seem to be coming from far more than that minority. Maybe there's another reason that isn't recognized by players or the devs?

I've been playing another game, Alliance: Heroes of the Spire, where the developers pulled a similar design decision. At some point, nearly every hardcore player had a good chunk of the good heroes, and people were pulling duplicate heroes that were a disappointment--they were a waste if you had already "finished" that hero. The hardcore players were effectively done, so to ensure further engagement and to make it feel like dupes were a good thing, the developers created a Rank II where you could power up an existing hero by merging them with a maxed duplicated hero.

Rank II heroes use a different advancement mechanism from 1 - 6 star heroes.
The hardcore portion of the player base reacted very negatively to it. Part of it was the timing of how it was rolled out and the communication around it, but a lot of it was ostensibly based on the fact that there's suddenly more vertical power creep that players had to jump through when they thought they were done. More work.

On the face of it, as a game dev myself, the extra vertical advancement complaint felt farcical in nature, given A:HotS is still relatively young, and every other game in its genre has a similar mechanic for vertical advancement. But the backlash felt similar to what I've seen in the hardcore WoW community.

Changing the Rules

What both WoW and A:HotS have in common is the devs changed the rules of advancement.

For a decade--literally a decade--WoW had a level cap, you got raid gear, then next expansion dropped, putting everyone on an even playing field, and the cycle repeated. Now with the gear changes and artifact power introduction, the rules of how to advance between patches has changed completely, and the playerbase hasn't yet figured out where the line sits between meaningful advancement for each individual player and cookie-clicker-esque busywork.

For A:HotS, the maximum a hero could be was 6*60 (6 star, level 60). That changed after people had already burned dupes, and had a stable of heroes at maximum. Similar to the Flying/Not Flying argument in WoW, many players in A:HotS felt those changes somehow invalidated their previous work and rewards. The system worked in a specific manner, and the system changed, and that can feel like a betrayal.

As I mentioned earlier, I wouldn't attribute a fear of change being the only issue. Each advancement system mentioned so far has cons (and I've explored those cons), and they may likely be a bigger reason for certain players than a fear of change.

The gear BiS problem in WoW, for example, is an issue that only affects Mythic raiders who can finish the current tier in a reasonable amount of time before the next tier drops. For the rest of the playerbase who'd never have gotten Best in Slot anyhow, it's not an issue that should ever crop up outside of theory. But what makes that scenario different from an Artifact Power bar that can never be completely filled? At an abstract level, they really aren't, but I've noticed Artifact Power affecting casual players whereas the gear proc thing doesn't even register, which is really interesting from a player psychology perspective. Again, maybe it's because the mechanics of Artifact Power are far more naked than gear, or is it because it's new so it's subject to more scrutiny?

And as I mentioned in my original post on advancement:
But WoW and other MMOs have the problem that they’re really two games rather than one: a leveling game, and an end-game. And what system is good for one of those games isn’t really good for the other, as Blizzard’s experiments have proven.
Except now I can identify a third game: the leveling game, end-game, and top 5% players who can actually finish the hardest content, and what's good for the end-game doesn't seem to be that good for the top 5%, and vice-versa. Can they be reconciled? And then there's the potentially blasphemous question: does it matter if they aren't?
#WoW, #AllianceHotS, #GameDesign