What is Horizontal Progression, Really?

Last time, I talked quite a bit about endgame, and how games might be designed to avoid “grinding” for progressively more powerful gear once the character has reached “max level:”

Use a skill-based, horizontal progression system rather than a level-based, gear grind system.  Give us a huge pool of options and gear to buy, but let players find their own right combination of skills and gear.  Place an upper limit on the most powerful gear in the game, but provide lots of it—variety of abilities and gear should be the progression for players who play for epic achievement.

More players than ever are starting to demand horizontal over vertical progression in their games.  Recent dust-ups around Guild Wars 2’s introduction of a new gear tier brought to light how much emotion there is on the issue – thousands of posts protesting the decision on the forums after the announcement.

But what does horizontal progression really mean, and how does vertical progression conflict with it?

Think of it this way: a golfer of Tiger Woods’ skill is always going to be good at golf, no matter the quality of the equipment he’s using on the course.  That said, it’s in his interest to use the best equipment money can buy.   Conversely, a really bad golfer, such as myself, could use the best equipment available and still have a crummy game.  The equipment in and of itself does not make you better; it’s really your skill, combined with the quality of the equipment that enables a player to excel.

Gear as Goal

The problem arises when the equipment becomes a goal in and of itself.  We’d think it strange if Tiger Woods didn’t care as much about winning the green jacket at the Masters as a winning a new set of golf clubs; or that he could only obtain the best clubs available by winning the Masters.  Obviously, the achievement is winning, and the green jacket is the real reward.  But what many games and players have done is make the clubs the focus of the game.  It would be as if the judges at the Masters had a secret powerful set of golf clubs that no one else had access to, and you had to win the tournament to get them.

Masking Skill with Gear

Another problem is that skill at playing a character in some games is sometimes masked by the better equipment.  Think of me going up against Tiger Woods, but when given the magic set of golf clubs, I am able to beat him.  It simply would not happen.  And yet in some games the player with better gear can best a player of higher skill.  This is the problem that many players have with vertical progression—the game becomes about finding that next piece of gear that will make you “the best” rather than focus on understanding your character and playing him well.

Nullifying Content with Gear

Finally, there is the problem of obsolescence.  Once you’ve obtained the most powerful equipment, suddenly all the older content becomes null, simply because you are now too powerful to be challenged by it.  Again, it would be as if, after winning the magic golf clubs from the Masters, suddenly it would no longer be worth playing in the U.S. Open, the PGA Tour, or the Ryder Cup, because the magic golf clubs made playing in those tournaments too easy.

Apologies for the long focus on gear progression; it is only a piece of the equation when it comes to horizontal progression, but moving away from that focus has been a challenge given all the attention it has been given in more recent MMOs.  For arguments sake, let’s assume that attaining a piece of gear is only part of what can happen once you have achieved high-level success.

Horizontal Progression Options

What horizontal progression does is recognize that there is an upper limit on equipment quality and expand the playing field at the high end of the spectrum.  What many game designers point to  is something called “non-comparables.”  For example, finishing a difficult quest or mission might unlock a new set of abilities for the character to learn.  These abilities are not necessarily more powerful than other abilities, but might work well in tandem with others to provide a beneficial effect.    Comparing one ability to another is really comparing apples to oranges—one isn’t inherently better than the other, just different, and if implemented well, very useful.

The key here is to expand the pool of items, abilities and systems that are useful and interesting during the endgame.  So gear is one item that has been the traditional focus of progression, and expanding the different gear properties is certainly one way to progress horizontally—again, more types of gear, but not necessarily more powerful; one set might be especially good for fast movement, another protects well against fire, another especially well armored but slows you down.

But again, to move beyond gear, what other areas could be expanded?

Ability Progression

I spoke of this already, but abilities are second only to gear as a method of character progression.  Here, a whole new universe of skills could be made available at high levels in the game.  These skills could augment the existing skill set to provide powerful combinations that may only become apparent with research and experimentation.  Again, these abilities don’t nullify previous skills, but build on them.  The best implementations would reward players who do the work to find synergies and dynamics to build such combinations, and it would take time and effort to attain all these abilities.


Allow players to discover legendary crafting recipes that can produce some of the best items, effects and features in the game.  The ingredients would be a challenge to find and prepare, but the results could be comparable to running the most difficult content.  All crafting systems – mining, blacksmithing, cooking, woodcrafting – would have these legendary recipes, so there is room for great variety in the items that could be created.  It would take time and effort to both find the recipes and craft the items they contain.

Political and Trade Systems

Here, we move into one of the less-explored areas of progression, and that is of influence and negotiation.  At high levels, characters have gained some reputation, and may be able to move in the circles of power within the various trade guilds, cities, kindgoms or worlds.  These could be combined with a questing system to give options for dealing with various conflicts to achieve a desired result.  Players could decide which faction they back, and be given a number of goals to achieve, and then work to influence the outcome, always with some element of the unexpected – combat as frequent a possibility as diplomacy.

Successes would provide gains in influence for future negotiations, possible guild benefits, discounted purchases, even access to content, materials or knowledge that might not be attainable without the proper status.  Setbacks could lead to reduced status and even outright war – players and MOBs of a particular city might change from neutral to hostile, making it difficult to travel in that part of the world without disguise.

In a mature form, the political/trade could even work in tandem with PvP, giving players a reason to fight with another faction or group, and perhaps gain rewards as a result.

Player Economies

In addition to the NPC seller and the auction house, introduce a system where players can run their own shops or stalls, and offer to sell items direct to other players.  Marketplaces can help drive prices, and perhaps even compete with auction house prices.  It would be interesting to see supply and demand work its way back into the system by introducing limitations on the availability of a particular commodity.  Perhaps there are only a limited number of wolf pelts on the market and there is an extra high wolf population – you’d have lots of people hunting them and taking advantage of higher prices.  Conversely, when the wolf population dwindles and the demand is still high could there be things done to allow the wolves to recoup?  Could items deteriorate over time and need to be repaired or replaced?

Player Created Content

Another common sandbox request, the ability for player to create their own adventures.  Much has been discussed of this, but it goes back to augmenting the developer stories and allowing players to create their own.

Exploration Zones

Another idea floated on the forums as an alternative to raiding is the idea of unexplored territory.  These would large uncharted zones that have no known established cities or countries, but require grouped teams due to the hostility of the environment and danger there.  So instead of a large group “raid” on a dungeon boss, instead it would be a large-scale out effort to explore, map, and possibly settle in unknown territory.  These areas have lots of opportunity for challenging team play, player-vs-player matches in a disputed areas, and even roleplay as groups play through their reasons for setting out into the zone.  Hidden items, knowledge, fearsome monsters, and hidden ruins could become available as players forge their way into the unknown.  These could also feature places for the characters to build their own settlements

The Long Conspiracy

Throughout the game, hide little snippets and clues of a threat that will ultimately come down on the world.  These clues are innocuous, are not highlighted in any way, and in and of themselves do not amount to much.  But players who pay attention and collect these as they go will be able to piece together the mystery of what is really happening and must decide what to do with the information once they figure things out.  They might need to employ various pieces of the system – gain the trust of an official in the political system, make a trade with a particular faction, participate in a stealth mission, obtain a particular artifact and then at a critical juncture, provide a key piece of the puzzle, which then unlocks a major event and content.  This returns the game to a place where players must use their real heads to progress along with their character stats.

Diversions and Fluff

Lots of things have been done independently in other games, but they can be combined to make for lots of fun once players have progressed through much of the game:

  • A music system, that allows players to play instruments in game.
  • Roleplaying hubs and tools, such as theaters, pubs, and city plazas making places for players to exercise their inner thespian
  • Player and guild housing are a traditional sandbox wishlist item, allowing players to decorate their abode and invite friends over for socials
  • Clothing decoration and skinning, giving players a chance to create their own clothing designs and colors, then sell them as needed

Until more ideas come forth for ways to increase horizontal progression, there will continue to be a tendency to revert to gear-based, vertical progression.  These are a few ideas to get things started, but I’m sure there are many more.  Add your own thoughts to the list!

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