A little over a month ago, I first jotted down some thoughts about the upcoming MMO Torchlight Frontiers, a game many of us thought would never see the light of day. I signed up for the beta, which we have no idea when will happen, but this also means being subscribed to their newsletter, and the first new tidbits of information have started to trickle through. The email I received linked to a post on the Arc Games website, which makes sense due to this being a game produced by Perfect World, and Arc being their launcher.
The article in question is about how Torchlight Frontiers will have “horizontal progression.” You can read the full story there, but I have cherry picked some interesting points because this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. In most MMOs, or RPGs for that matter, there is always a sort of vertical progression, in that you’ll gain levels of experience opening up new gear and new areas of the game, but this all comes to a screeching halt once you’ve hit the level cap. Then we’ll be subject to the developers’ ideas of what “end game content” should be. Sometimes these activities can be amazing, and other times things are too systematic and boring. In games like the original Everquest, the level cap stayed the same for a very long time, and things like Alternate Advancement points could be earned to still give a sense of progression, but without negating parts of the end game once a new expansion came out. In other titles like World of Warcraft, you’ll see things like Garrisons or Artifact Weapons being introduced just to be thrown in the garbage bin during the next expansion. Echtra Games is attempting to get away from this model.
We’ve come to call the approach “Horizontal Progression.” Horizontal progression is not a specific feature, it’s a way of looking at power growth that creates a great game for the long term. For each feature we think about how it will grow both vertically and horizontally. When this works, there are some big benefits:
- New content doesn’t invalidate past progress
- Players can specialize characters in a wider variety of ways, for a wider variety of content
- Players have fun reasons to play all over the world, not just the “end game”
- Players at different levels/progression have lots of ways to play together that are rewarding for everyone
These bullet points are key, and I think they have the right ideas when it comes to trying to build a world that has progression, but doesn’t throw other bits out the window just for the sake of a level cap increase. It sounds like specialization will equate to having some sort of alternate advancement system, most likely skill points in various trees. There’s also some scaling tech being used to help these systems to work and allow people new to the game to play with veterans.
We achieve this with the magic of dynamic gear scaling. It’s a trick I first saw in Guild Wars 2 and I loved how it kept the whole world interesting and rewarding to play in for me even at max level. In Torchlight Frontiers your high level gear is dynamically scaled down in power when you enter lower level zones. You keep your skills and affixes, but your stats come down enough to keep the gameplay entertaining.
Scaling is also used to reinforce the “different progression” feeling when playing in different Frontiers. Gear that drops in Goblin Frontier is aligned to that Frontier (you can see it clearly in the tooltip) and it scales favorably when moving around that Frontier. You’re a bit ahead of the monsters’ level.
Take that same gear to the Hyvid Frontier and it scales worse – you’re behind the monsters’ level. You have some useful stats, but it’s clearly better to start collecting gear from the local Frontier if you want to progress at a good pace.
Gear scaling is an interesting idea, but scaling isn’t something new. Clearly they have drawn inspiration from Guild Wars 2, but we’ve seen similar concepts in games like The Elder Scrolls Online. I like the idea of “Frontiers” which sound sort of like Diablo III‘s end game content, but where each is dependent on different stats and thereby different gear so each Frontier will feel like it has its own progression without needing to scale arbitrary levels. The post goes on to tease about other ways these systems will work together to fulfill the horizontal progression goal.
I mentioned earlier that there’s a bunch of big features and details about the game we want to share. At this early stage we want to get the vision for the game across so players can see where we’re going with things like “no levels” and Frontiers and dynamic scaling. The next few features we reveal will build on this foundation I’ve just laid out. We have so much more to tell you! It’s not just gear that we’re designing to support “different power”; we have lots more ways you’ll collect tools to help tackle the challenges of Torchlight Frontiers.
It will be interesting to see how this unfolds. I’m curious to see just what other features they are looking to implement, but thus far it all sounds very promising. This is also wrapped up in an Action-RPG package, and these games tend to be pretty addictive in and of themselves. My only concern here is if there will be enough to set Torchlight Frontiers apart from other successful ARPGs — Diablo III does feel like its nearing the end of its lifespan, but games like Path of Exile are still going strong and have dedicated playerbases. If they can find the right mixture of new features and exciting gameplay I think we might have a damn fine game on our hands. We’ll have to keep an eye on it.