5 Types of Gearless Progression
by Tyler Edwards, March 20, 2014
Gear. In most MMOs, it is the center of the virtual universe. It is the be all and end all of progression, the proverbial carrot on the stick. It is the gate on accessing content, and the reward for those who complete content. But despite the MMO genre's tunnel vision on gear, it is far from the only potential form of progression. There are many other methods games can use to show the progress a character has made and reward players for their accomplishments. Some of these, like gear, are vertical, giving characters direct increases in power, while others are horizontal methods of progression, allowing players to grow out instead of up.
Leveling occupies an odd place in MMOs. It is both extremely important, and almost meaningless.
Leveling is perhaps the most archetypical form of progression in RPGs, and very nearly every major MMO has it in some form.. You begin at level one, gain experience from your adventures, and become an epic hero, with your journey finally ending at the game's level cap - usually around level sixty.
But most player power usually comes from gear. This means leveling is little more than an incredibly lengthy time gate on your ability to get the best gear, combined with a greatly extended tutorial. This creates a harsh divide between leveling and endgame. Many players thus feel leveling is just a chore to be rushed through, which further encourages developers to focus their efforts on endgame.
So many games now treat leveling as a bizarre vestigial limb of game design. It's incredibly time consuming and uses up a vast amount of developer resources, but is largely considered to be a waste of time prior to the "real" game.
Leveling does not need to be the red-headed stepchild of progression, though. Leveling could be designed to be a more meaningful form of advancement. Gear could be deemphasized, and developers could regularly update their game's level cap, making leveling the core form of progression. This would make advancement more egalitarian, since any activity granting experience would be a valid form of progression - though whether that would be a positive or negative is a matter of opinion.
While it's not an MMO, Diablo III has done a decent job of making leveling an ongoing source of progression with its Paragon system.
Cosmetic progression is less about making your character more powerful or capable, and more about the bling and the swag. It's about collecting swanky outfits, mighty mounts, and the most adorable of mini-pets. While other progression options are more about making you feel awesome, cosmetic progression is about making you look awesome.
In a strict technical sense, it's arguable whether cosmetics are actually progression. Aesthetics are a matter of personal taste, so it's not really a matter of upgrading to "better" cosmetic gear. It's more a process of collection - "Gotta catch ‘em all!" - than it is of expanding your character's power.
But it serves much the same purpose as more traditional means of progression. It's a carrot for players to chase. Not everyone cares about cosmetics, but those that do can be utterly dogged in their determination to achieve the perfect look. For some, it's an even better motivator than chasing gear with better stats. Powerful gear will always be replaced by something even greater, but a beloved outfit is forever.
It also serves as a method to show the history and achievements of a character. If a particularly spectacular helm only drops from the final boss of a game's most difficult dungeon, then you know anyone with that helm must be something of a digital badass.
Pretty much all MMOs have some options for cosmetic progression, but in most cases, it's a neglected feature, with most effort put towards more direct forms of progression. Guild Wars 2 is a notable exception - it made its focus on cosmetic progression one of its selling features.
There's no rule that says progression has to be on a per-character basis. MMOs can also spice things up and help create player loyalty by offering progression on an account wide basis, either by allowing alternate characters to benefit from the accomplishments of a main or by creating an entire system to benefit alts.
World of Warcraft has taken a step in this direction by making most mounts, achievements, and pets available to all characters on an account. The new pet battle system introduced in Mists of Pandaria also allows progression on an account wide basis.
Star Wars: The Old Republic took this a step further with its Legacy system, which allows players to connect all their characters in a family tree. As any character in the tree gains experience, they also gain Legacy experience that can unlock various bonuses, including the option to transplant iconic class skills between characters. For example, a player with a Sith main could give their bounty hunter alt the ability to Force choke enemies.
The key advantage to account wide progression is that it makes players invested in the game, rather than a specific character. If they decide to stop playing that character, they can start over with a new one in the same game more readily. This is good for both players and developers.
Of course, if someone only enjoys playing a single character, then account progression is fairly useless.
Alternate lines of progression:
You don't necessarily need to replace traditional forms of progression, like gear. You can instead supplement them with separate lines of progression that impact gameplay in other ways. Some games, like Vanguard, offer completely different lines of progression for non-combat activities, like crafting and diplomacy.
Crafting is probably the most prominent example of this, as nearly every MMO has it in some form, and it's usually separate from any other form of progression. It's also usually fairly shallow, but there are exceptions where crafting can be a meaningful and engaging progression system unto itself.
World of Warcraft's pet battles are another example of a self-contained system of progression. The player's character itself doesn't improve, but as their pets level, they're able to take on bigger challenges, capture more pets, and level their current stable even higher.
Player housing could also be looked at as an alternate form of progression. As you earn better plots, construct bigger and more beautiful virtual homes, and unlock better adornments, your in game house can become a living record of your character's journey - though this arguably might fit better under the banner of "cosmetic progression."
The nice thing about alternative lines of progression is that you can ignore them if they don't interest you, or save them for when you've burned out on other activities. Done right, they're optional diversions, not another box to check.
Skill based progression:
Skill based progression is about advancing your character itself, as opposed to their equipment. It's about improving passive skills and unlocking new abilities to build a better fighter, healer, crafter, or adventurer.
All MMOs have this in some form, but in most, it's a limited feature - a series of checkboxes to fill on your way to max level. It can be made much more integral, though, providing extensive options to build and customize a character throughout its lifespan.
Skill based progression works best in games without rigid classes. The need to maintain a class's identity means it can only learn skills appropriate to that persona, which greatly limits the options for progression.
The Secret World is a good example of a game with skill based progression. Its ability wheel offers over five hundred active and passive abilities to be unlocked, and rather than adding a treadmill of new gear ranks, its developers offer continuous progression through the addition of new sets of skills to unlock, such as auxiliary weapons and the augment system.
The great thing about skill based progression is that it offers a noticeable, meaningful improvement to your character's performance, but it need not be a treadmill like gear. An ability you have unlocked will never be replaced. It will continue to be useful whenever you find yourself in a situation where it might be relevant.
Gear progression requires regular resets, or else things start getting rather absurd. One hundred and fifty percent crit chance, anyone? Skills never need to be reset, so the hours you spend grinding for them feel better spent. They will never be taken away from you.
It also heightens the fantasy that your character, not their gear, is the source of the power you command, which can be more satisfying.