On Horizontal Progression

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.

Tastes Change

I have a long history of playing RPGs in their many forms. From JRPGs to MMOs, I’ve dipped my toes in all of the sub genres and over the years some of those genres have died off or changed in ways that were incremental and not really noticeable at the time.

Snap judgement: I am not in love with Pillars of Eternity. I absolutely adored all of the Bioware/Black Isle games from the 1990’s; titles like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale took up much of my gaming time back then. The revival of the isometric real-time cRPG genre that’s been happening for a few years now with titles like PoE, Wasteland 2, and Divinity: Original Sin seemed like it would be right up my alley. I did of course play many of these games over the years, but as this genre moved forward into the 3D space with titles like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, I too evolved.

Because of this realization, I have uninstalled all of these titles that have been sitting in my backlog for ages that I would have believed that I would have liked but simply don’t anymore. My tastes have changed. The same could be said for a lot of other titles/genres, but this one in particular strikes me as odd. I know that with age comes changes in not only your body’s function but your mind’s as well, but I’m surprised to find myself writing these words.

I’ve been enamored with games like Shadowrun, Diablo, and some recent JRPG style games. It’s funny because Shadowrun and Diablo are both isometric like the cRPGs that I’m not longer into — but they differ because Shadowrun uses turn-based tactical combat, while Diablo is action combat and I seem to prefer both. The real-time coordination of multiple party members just doesn’t feel fun anymore. In Dragon Age or Mass Effect, the AI for your teammates can be programmed and always felt effective enough to where I could focus on my own character. In action RPGs you only have yourself to depend on so there’s never the added distractions. My tastes have clearly changed. Though I would have called Baldur’s Gate superior to Diablo back in the 90’s, my 35 year old self has flipped sides. I don’t know how to feel about this.

I do feel better about uninstalling all of those games. The backlog has shrunk and many of those games would have taken 60+ hours to complete. Gives me more time to focus on other games I would rather be playing. I’m not going to slog through something just because it *should* be something I’m into. If I’m not feeling it, I’m just going to pass. I’ve done this with other games but had this little sub genre up on a pedestal and I’ve now kicked that pedestal over. If it’s not fun, entertaining or holding my interest, it’s getting cut.

Time to dive into the games that are more appealing to the older me.

Pillars of Eternity: Blind Playthrough

Despite owning Pillars of Eternity for a long while, I’ve just recently gotten around to trying it out. I’m a big fan of isometric RPGs — both the action and party based varieties, and have been since the early days of Diablo and Baldur’s Gate. Obsidian was involved in the creation of some of these old school RPGs, and their experience shows! This isn’t the action RPG variety, but rather the party based kind, where the action is more strategy based than how fast you can mash buttons. Most gamers will know all about this sort of game, and most RPG fans probably ran through this title more than once by now. Pillars of Eternity 2 is already on the horizon as well, so this was a good time to dive in and try to strike one of the deeper games off of the backlog list. I have plenty more to go as far as the backlog goes, and plenty more to explore in Pillars as well. I’d like to notate that despite knowing about the game and knowing that it was similar to cRPGs of old (along with reading good things around the blogosphere) I’m basically going into this playthrough blind. I’m going to attempt to not look up anything and just play through naturally.

After firing up the game and watching a short into movie, I was greeted by the character creation screen, and I was surprised by how feature full it was. The cRPGs of old that I keep referencing made use of AD&D rulesets and so the character generation would reflect that and though this feels similar, there are races and classes that aren’t D&D specific. The stats and skills for each character feel fairly original as well, but that old school feel is still present. It’s just a prettier version of the tried and true, and sometimes that’s all the Old Guard needs. I was taken aback initially by the amount of race and class combinations possible, but assumed that it wouldn’t really matter as you tend to pick up a fairly balanced party in these types of games. I ended up settling on playing a Druid.

I went heavy on Intelligence because I figured if this game was anything like other modern RPGs I’ve played (such as the Dragon Age series), having a bevy of spells at your disposal is rather useful, and sitting in the back with your main character while your AI controlled party beats on things tends to be the best approach. However, it seems that the druid is more about shapeshifting into bigger animals (I chose boar form) and diving into the fray. Whatever the case, the choice doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference as I suspected.

The story unfolds in a similar fashion to most isometric titles, with some in-game dialogue scenes, and then other more animated cutscenes. The graphics are crisp and the animations tight and the lighting effects are excellent. Combat flows well, though I have to get used to only being able to cast spells a certain amount of times per day… but it’s such a throwback and tugs on the right nostalgia strings nonetheless. Apparently you’re a traveller who’s sick and trying to find out what’s going on, but there’s a shroud of mystery that has yet to be lifted. I’m still fairly early on in the campaign, travelling a modest distance to this point.

Earlier this evening I reached Magran’s Fork after being turned away from the Gilded Vale, but I did pick up a wizard buddy. We were clearing the zone when a pack of wolves overwhelmed us and I called it a night. Overall I’m really enjoying this title, it feels really good to have the nostalgic feel in a modern title that still shows its roots. The Dragon Age and Mass Effects were true to their roots in a similar way but still upped the graphics and brought the gameplay in the 3D realm so they were good but this is good in a different way.

It’s refreshing.