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?

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Promoting Social Play in MMORPGs

The biggest selling point for the MMORPGs is the “massively multiplayer” part of the acronym.  At the time that many small Dungeons & Dragons groups were gathering 3-8 players around the dining room table, folks at Essex University in the UK were creating the first text-based “MUDs” or multi-user dungeons that could have as many users all playing in a shared virtual world.

While on the surface it would seem that there is a lot in common between these two scenarios, they are actually quite different – the former has a small group of players sitting face-to-face and working through a roleplaying scenario using the standard rules of conduct of any public social interaction.  Sure, they may be playing in character, but because the person is sitting directly across the table, all the power of verbal and non-verbal communication is at the group’s disposal, making for an infinitely complex and memorable session.  In an MUD, the number of players was greatly increased, but there comes with that a great deal more anonymity, and none of the non-verbal methods of communication one can have in-person.  Communication was by text only.  It’s the difference between a small town where you know all the neighbors and a big city where thousands of strangers walk by without ever speaking to each other.  Ironically, while it became much easier to gather large groups of gamers in a MUD, it’s was still very difficult to produce the quality of interaction you’d get in a small tabletop roleplaying session.

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