Horizontal Verticals

I am beginning to question the conventional wisdom that horizontal progression in MMOs is less vertical than, well, vertical progression. Or that horizontal progression is particularly good for anything.

In terms of MMO game design, horizontal progression means two things to me. First, it means that you either quickly or immediately gain all the necessary abilities to succeed at all levels of in-game combat. If you have to have ability X to reasonably kill a raid boss, and that ability costs Y currency over the course of Z hours to purchase, then I consider the game to have vertical progression up until you unlock X. Same with PvP skills.

The second, related aspect to horizontal progression is that it allows you to experience a feeling of progression without necessarily experiencing power gain. This ostensibly takes the pressure off of skill choice by creating a lot of options/experimentation.

In my playing of The Secret World however, neither seems to actually be the case.

As you may know, TSW features an Ability Wheel with nine weapons that unlock a staggering amount of individual abilities and passives that you can mix and match to your heart’s content. The only problem is that if you screw up your selection, either by picking weak weapons with no synergy or simply realizing that a given play-style is not for you… well, you’re screwed. Ability Points come fast and loose in the beginning before tapering off at 40k XP apiece; Skill Points are gained at the rate of 1 per 3 Ability Points. While it is completely possible to unlock every Ability/Skill in the game eventually, the reality is that by the mid-game you are excessively punished for changing your mind.

See, your hit rating and such for attacks is based largely on your Skill Points in that weapon, while enemies are balanced in a zone upon given SP assumptions. SP requirements go up linearly (level 1 costs 1, level 2 costs 2, etc), so it is relatively easy to get the first few tiers in whatever. But about the time you start getting in the SP5 and SP6 range, a single rank up to match the enemies you’re facing costs as much as getting a new weapon to SP1-4.

This is my scenario: I’m tired of Shotguns. My whole thought process up to this point had been to unlock a certain Shotgun passive in the outer ring, and then enjoy all the synergies. As it turns out, an even better passive is in the outer ring of Chaos. But I kinda want to try Assault Rifle or Elemental. Except I can’t realistically do any of that because I already have SP6 in Swords and SP5 in Shotguns while my talismans have been languishing at SP4. So while I can certainly spend my Ability Points to unlock things I can’t even use on the way to Passives that I can, I can’t actually turn around and try those very skills I’ve unlocked because most of my attacks will glance/be dodged/blocked/etc.

So what have I been doing? Farming quests. Specifically, logging on and playing for 30 minutes and completing the first few quests in the starter zones (all quests are repeatable after a cooldown) that offer the quickest, easiest XP per effort. Sure, I would likely level faster just progressing normally. Then again, I would be progressing against tough mobs with a gimped setup that I begun to despise ten hours ago.

This is not solely a Secret World problem, although it is less pronounced in, say, Guild Wars 2. It can still be a tough pill to swallow though, when you dump a lot of points into an ability that looked fun on paper but ended up being useless in practice. Basically, all the negatives of vertical progression without the presumed benefit of being able to respec. And consider the best case scenario in which you picked 100% of the correct abilities the first time around: what then? The rest of your “progression” is really the equivalent of unlocking achievements.

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Posted on March 10, 2014, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Back in the day, when I was playing lots of single-player games with no-way-back skill choices, I used a hex editor as “respec tool”. Obviously, that’s not possible with online games…

    In the special case of TSW, it’s probably almost required to backtrack a bit to pick up new skills, mostly because the game doesn’t have all that much content. That’s the trade-off they did: most content is really good, but there isn’t a lot of it compared to other MMOs. Whether that’s a good or bad tradeoff, I cannot say.

    I agree, though: some limited way to respec at lower levels would probably be a good thing. Maybe two character-bound potions that you get when you start and that reset all your choices, but cannot be acquired in any way in the world. That still makes the choices important, but you have a way to fix early mistakes.

    • Having never played TSW, how would the ability to “respec” at will, or with some limitations break the game, or at least trivialize some aspects of ti that you think should be retained?

      • It wouldn’t break anything of consequence.

        I mean, there’s a potential scenario in which someone buys a bunch of the cheap abilities while leveling, and then respecs once they hit a certain AP breakpoint that lets them bypass some filler/boring bits to go deeper in certain trees. Remember WoW talent trees when you were 10 talents away for the cool stuff, so you raided the first two tiers for goodies in the meantime? That’s the “worst” that would happen. People use the excuse that permanent choices make you think extra hard about things, but that’s just dumb when it’s impossible to know if you’ll like the ability, or if it even does what it says it does.