Category Archives: End Game

Stepping off the Treadmill: Alternatives to Gear

Honesty time: I have had enough of gear. The concept of continually acquiring new and better equipment lies at the heart of virtually all MMORPGs, but I’m just sick of it. It’s an easy way for developers to provide a carrot for players to chase, but I don’t think it’s healthy for the genre in the long run, and I for one am simply bored with the whole concept.

A high level character shows off their gear in World of Warcraft

Gear as a vertical progression system works well in single-player games because eventually you’ll have the best gear and be done with it. In an MMO, that can never happen. Regular gear resets are a necessity, so gearing becomes a treadmill where you never really get anywhere. Today’s best in slot will be tomorrow’s vendor trash.

It’s also a terribly binary form of progression. Either the item you want drops, or it doesn’t, and your time feels wasted. This can be mitigated with currency systems, where if gear doesn’t drop a currency that can eventually be spent on gear does, but even that only lessens the problem, rather than solving it entirely.

And of course it creates terrible inequality between players. There is inevitably a large power gap between those with the best gear and those without, fostering elitism and excluding many people from content.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are other alternative progressions systems out there, and while none are perfect, many can avoid the pitfalls of the gear treadmill.

Continued Leveling

In most MMOs, leveling is little more than a time-gate. It’s something you work through before getting to the “real” game, which is usually where the gear treadmill kicks in.

But it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way. Leveling is something that can continue indefinitely, providing players constant, incremental power increases. You can see examples of this in Diablo III’s paragon levels and Elder Scrolls Online’s champion points.

A necromancer character in Diablo III, a game where leveling never ends

There are some disadvantages to such a scheme. In the long run the constant small stat boosts can add up and begin to create balance issues or other strange behaviors, and as with gear, you risk creating a large divide between the haves and the have-nots, though that can be mitigated with catch-up mechanics.

Endless leveling does have some major positives, though. Because pretty much anything can give XP, leveling is a progression system that offers incredible freedom to the player. Any playstyle can be therefore be meaningfully rewarded. Add global level-scaling as seen in Guild Wars 2 or ESO, and your options become almost limitless.

You can also say goodbye to play sessions where nothing is accomplished because what you wanted didn’t drop. You’re always going to be earning at least some XP. And while it’s still vertical progression, it’s not a treadmill, because the levels you’ve already earned are never made irrelevant. You’re always moving forward.

Non-combat Skills

Not all progression needs to be about helping you kill stuff faster. Progression can instead take the form of various non-combat abilities and buffs. Perhaps players can gain new movement skills, or learn new languages to access quests from isolated NPC races, or gain more incremental buffs to things like movement speed or gold find.

The masteries introduced in Guild Wars 2’s Heart of Thorns expansion are one example of this, and some of ESO’s champion points and Diablo’s paragon levels also offer non-combat improvements.

Horizontal progression such as this is good because it side-steps nearly all of the problems with gear. The gap between veteran and newcomer is largely irrelevant, since both groups maintain roughly the same power level where it most counts. There is no treadmill, as the bonuses you’ve earned are always relevant. Like endless leveling, it’s also a good opportunity to reward all playstyles and make every session rewarding.

A character in Guild Wars 2, a game with a vocal but not always successful commitment to horizontal progression

The downsides are that non-combat bonuses don’t always have the same “sex appeal” as doing more damage or having more health, and it can be difficult to design non-combat boosts that are useful enough to be appealing but optional enough to not break the game.

Non-combat progression likely works best as a supplement to other systems rather than the core progression model of a game. It can be something to help you achieve your other goals, since not everyone will find it a worthy goal unto itself.


Progression doesn’t even necessarily need to be about gameplay. It can also just be about bringing the flair. There are already plenty of people throughout the MMO community who will pursue gear purely for its looks, rather than its stats. Some wily developer could capitalize on this and put cosmetic progression front and center.

In theory, cosmetic progression was supposed to a key part of Guild Wars 2’s design, though it never seemed to quite work out that way. I don’t think it had enough different looks to choose from, at least at launch, and limiting the transmutation charges needed to a change an item’s appearance was a mistake. If you want to make appearance items a core progression system, it needs to be easy to create, save, and swap outfits at will. Otherwise you encourage people to find one look they like and stick with it forever after.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has a very good outfit system that allows you to save multiple looks and swap between them whenever, wherever. It’s certainly encouraged me to horde a massive amount of cosmetic gear. Also, while it’s not an MMO, Overwatch seems to be doing quite well with a purely cosmetic progression model, so I definitely think it can work.

I think the trick to a really strong cosmetic progression system is to have a wealth of options. Not just the usual gear slots we’re used to, but also visible jewelry, dyes and accessories to modify your clothes, and perhaps unlockable hairstyles or idle animations.

SWTOR is a good MMORPG for cosmetic progression

Make it so no two characters ever look alike, so each avatar is a visual record of that player’s accomplishments. Then move it beyond avatars to also include non-combat pets and mount skins. Even spells and abilities could potentially be reskinned, with more unusual effects reserved for the greatest in-game accomplishments.

With some creativity, the potential for cosmetic progression is almost limitless. The only real downside is that, like gear with stats, cosmetics don’t lend themselves to incremental progress very well. You either get the item you want, or you don’t.

Earning Abilities

Another option for horizontal progression is to continually earn new abilities. These abilities are not necessarily more powerful than what you already have, but simply add new options. This is a more niche option, but for me personally, it’s the most appealing form of progression.

The main example of this I can think of was the late, lamented ability wheel of The Secret World, wherein players constantly earned ability points that could then be spent unlocking hundreds of active and passive abilities. Only a few of these abilities could be equipped at a time, making for careful strategic decision-making and allowing for true horizontal progression. Leveling up different jobs on the same character in Final Fantasy XIV could also be considered a version of this progression model, though a very watered down one.

There are a lot of obvious advantages to this. It greatly narrows the gap between the haves and the have-nots because veteran players simply have more options rather than being directly more powerful.

It also eliminates the treadmill issue. Your old abilities are never invalidated. They will always have uses, even if they’re niche.

The Secret World was one of the best MMOs for horizontal progression before its reboot

The downsides are the potential balance issues caused by endlessly adding new abilities and the design challenge in keeping the new abilities meaningful and interesting, but I don’t think those are necessarily unsolvable. TSW may have had cookie cutter builds for certain situations, but there were no builds that dominated every aspect of the game, and almost every ability was useful in at least one or two circumstances.

These new abilities could be earned through traditional XP farming as in TSW and FFXIV, but developers could also get more creative. There could be lengthy quest chains where one learns new abilities from a master, or defeating a powerful boss could grant the player permanent use of one of the boss’s powers.

Mix and Match

Ultimately, no one single alternative to gear will work for everyone. It would be best to combine a few to achieve a broad appeal and add depth to the experience.

But really, that’s to be expected. Even games that do rely on gear for vertical progression often include at least some elements of other systems.

What is clear is that the gear treadmill is not the be all and end all of MMORPG progression. Developers like it because it’s easy to design, and players like it because we’ve been conditioned to, but the genre can and should do better. There are alternatives out there. All we need is a developer with the courage to try.

BlizzCon’s WoW Announcements Are Very Encouraging

Back in September, I discussed how I was worried about WoW’s future direction, despite a relatively strong start to the Legion expansion. Now BlizzCon has given us a glimpse of what the future holds for WoW — at least over the next several months — and while my worries haven’t been entirely dispelled, the road ahead is looking quite promising.

The Tomb of Sargeras in World of Warcraft: Legion

BlizzCon offered all sorts of juicy details on Legion’s next major content patch, 7.2, but in addition to the wealth of new content you’d expect from a large WoW patch, there are a few particular changes and additions that stand out as indicative of a change for direction for the better.

Dungeons for all:

One of my biggest complaints about Legion to date is how it’s handled five-man content. Blizzard sold this as an expansion that would finally give dungeons their due after being neglected for years, that they would be a viable alternative to raiding.

Instead, what we’ve gotten is a situation where dungeons are pretty much turning into raids, only with fewer people. Two of the dungeons released at launch, the Arcway and Court of Stars, were limited to mythic difficulty and locked out of the dungeon finder.

Matters escalated with the announcement of the new five-man version of Burning Crusade’s Karazhan, a massive nine-boss mythic-only dungeon. In Karazhan the apparent effort to make dungeons exactly like raids reached its peak. Long, difficult, inaccessible, and time-consuming, Karazhan was intended to be progressed through over many days, and it was essentially out of reach for the sort of casual players who tend to be dungeon fans.

In patch 7.2, however, all this will change. Karazhan will no longer be mythic only, but gain a heroic mode that can be queued for via the dungeon finder. To make it more manageable for those with limited schedules, the dungeon’s heroic version will be divided into two wings that players can tackle separately.

Karazhan isn’t the only dungeon getting love, either. Both Arcway and Court of Stars will become join the dungeon finder, allowing players to queue for groups normally rather than relying on pre-established groups or endure the often toxic environment of player-made PUGs. While I haven’t heard it said in so many words, I assume this means Arcway and Court of Stars will gain heroic modes, while the mythic versions remain non-queue content.

Attumen the Huntsman in the revamped Karazhan in World of Warcraft: Legion

I haven’t heard any news about the attunement quests for Karazhan and the others, but I would assume they’ll no longer be a requirement come 7.2, at least for the heroic modes. It wouldn’t make any sense to make these things so much more accessible in every other way but maintain one major barrier to entry.

There’s also a new dungeon coming in 7.2, the Cathedral of Eternal Night within the Tomb of Sargeras, and it’s stated to be launching with normal, heroic, and mythic difficulties, making it a good choice for players of all stripes.

This is a huge course correction for Blizzard’s dungeon design in Legion, and it’s very encouraging to see. I had despaired of Blizzard’s ability to learn from their mistakes, but here they clearly have, and quickly, too. Of course, 7.2 likely won’t launch for several months yet, but by Blizzard’s glacial standards, this is a remarkably fast change.

Taking flight:

The issue of player flight has been a storm cloud hanging over World of Warcraft since Warlords of Draenor. This endless source of drama has not been entirely resolved by the announcements for 7.2 , but at least progress is being made.

Flight has been confirmed to return in 7.2 for those who have completed both the currently available Broken Isles Pathfinder achievement, and its second half, which will arrive with 7.2.

We don’t know exactly what the second Pathfinder achievement will entail, but it will focus on 7.2’s new outdoor content. I’m expecting it to center on a great deal of rep grinding for the patch’s new faction, Legionfall. Having been pretty burnt out by the Suramar grind, I’m not really looking forward to that.

A druid in flight form in World of Warcraft: Legion

But at least we now have a clear picture of when we’re getting flying back. They’re not going to just string us along endlessly with vague non-answers as they did back in Warlords of Draenor.

It’s also heartening to know they won’t be waiting until the end of the expansion to give us the use of our flying mounts back — 7.2 has already been confirmed not to be the final major patch.

I still think restricting flight in the first place is a spectacularly wrong-headed move, and I still resent the grind needed to unlock it, but all things considered, things could have been much worse. Blizzard has at least learned there are limits to how far they can stretch our patience.

Solo love:

It’s a small thing, but one other thing I found heartening in the announcements was the news that the new artifact appearances in 7.2 will come not from the group content or even from the new reputation grind, but from challenging solo scenarios tailored to your specialization.

I feel strongly that rewards should be based more on skill than on grinding, so having a prestige reward that is purely skill-based is good news, but what’s even more encouraging is that some love is being shown for solo players.

Soloists have generally not gotten a lot of attention from Blizzard, and even when they do, it’s usually in the form of mindless grinding with poor rewards. That they’re getting something challenging with meaningful rewards is a welcome change of pace.

An outlaw claims the Dreadblades artifact in World of Warcraft: Legion

This further strengthens the impression that the developers are trying to offer something for all playstyles in 7.2, something they’ve traditionally done a very poor job of.

What does this tell us?

A few months ago I was saying that Blizzard hadn’t learned from their mistakes, that they were still relying on faulty philosophies that would likely lead to another disaster like Warlords of Draenor sooner or later.

Now it’s looking like they might be turning things around after all —  at least a little. Their course change on dungeons is very encouraging, and bringing flight back sooner rather than later is… better than the alternative, anyway.

This isn’t quite the mea culpa I’d like to see, but it does show humility and a willingness to change. That’s encouraging.

Crafting Deserves Center Stage Attention

All too many MMORPGs are quick to list crafting and gathering as a key feature, when it’s really little more than an afterthought. Weaponsmithing, armorsmithing, alchemy, fletcher, engineering, cabinet making, pottery, flower picking, ant farming, whatever. These crafting (and gathering) skills are rarely used for more than a stopgap in equipment, some quirky fun items, or for a handful of actually useful consumables. They are secondary minigame for players to indulge in but can almost always be safely ignored. Even more rare is the MMORPG that allows crafting players to devote their entire character to the role. Ultimately, crafting vastly underwhelms players for a variety of reasons.

It’s pretty rare that MMOs integrate crafting so that in order to wear the best equipment, interaction with crafting in some manner is necessary. The problem is that people going out to instanced dungeons or questing expect top tier loot.  Even most crafting MMOs cater more towards the adventuring type than those who “stay at home” to build something. And it’s understandable that developers appeal to these types. We as MMO players want the instant gratification of improving our character’s equipment when we successfully dismantle a dungeon’s inhabitants. There’s a few solutions I can think of where crafting can take center stage without ruining the fun of rare and exotic drops. And it would be good for the community as well, something that’s become sorely lacking in recent MMORPG releases.

Here are some thoughts on what developers could do to change the typical MMO anti-crafting mold.

1. Instead of top tier gear as equipment, players receive top tier crafting materials. This gets us away from the bind on equip/pickup in MMORPGs. It encourages players to interact, through the auction house if nothing else. But for the most rare materials to craft the most rare weapons and armor, adventurers would seek out a crafter. That rare piece of adamantium requires a master blacksmith to fully utilize, and that blacksmith might be willing to lower his price to work with such a rare specimen.

Crafting types will also be free in this instance to play a pure crafting role. Adventurers can now provide crafters with rare materials to make their fancy equipment. The crafter buys the raw goods for a price, produces the improved equipment for the masses, and then sells it for some level of profit. It would simulate adventurers risking their lives for smiths and enchanters, who would be compensated fairly. A real economy then develops as players settle into their roles of supply and demand.

2. To maximize gear, crafters are needed to perform upgrades or customize equipment. This allows adventurers to still have their fun in finding fancy loot. They will need to seek out crafters directly rather than playing an auction house game, but I’m a fan of increased interaction in multiplayer games. Certain crafters could be skilled at different types of upgrades or customization. For example, perhaps one path for enhancing equipment is devoted to survivability. That player could add hit points or defense to weapons and armor that players discover. Perhaps the stats people look for is the ability for items to be customized in certain ways, rather than having the stats inherently. The big downside is it might be a pain to find someone to maximize an adventurer’s gear every time new loot drops.

I suppose one solution is that players could sell enhancement kits on the auction house. But where do the resources come from to create these? In that case, I think we end up back with how MMORPGs currently handle things. Crafting would become a secondary profession because there’s not enough of a focus on integrating crafting with the economy that it could stand alone.

3. Equipment degrades over time, but adventurers can find enhancements which can be swapped between equipment. This is sort of a twist on the above two ideas. First, equipment degrades meaning that crafters will also be needed to outfit players. Players could potentially repair weapons and armor, but the durability would still degrade over time. This means that equipment is less special. Otherwise people would get pretty testy over what would feel like “renting” items. That’s not to say that all crafted equipment will be created equally. Rare resources that adventurers could seek out for smiths could still play a part (such as in suggestion #1). However, enhancements that players find would fulfill the primary desire for “phat loot”.

These enhancements could be something like runes that can be swapped between weapons and armor at will. They would have no degradation and would comprise a large portion of the strength of equipment. With these runes, even more customization options are opened up as more than just the base weapon/armor must be taken into account. I think this is probably my favorite option as it builds a healthy dynamic economy where players must interact to optimize results. But while crafting becomes a central cog in the economic engine here, adventuring still has it’s place to reward dungeon delving.

More Than Gear

So far all of the examples I’ve listed deal with equipment – weapons and armor. I think that’s the biggest problem that needs to be fixed with crafting. However, consumables like scrolls and potions need their place too. This is a bit simpler though as I feel there’s no reason not to make them crafted only. Most MMORPGs sell potions or offer them as quest rewards. There’s little reason to interact with others in the case. In my opinion, alchemy and the like should be handled by players and not the game.

Crafting Matters

Crafting creates community, something that I feel is being stripped away from MMOs piece by piece. We keep moving towards a solo oriented world, and I find that not healthy. We need more interaction with people and creating a living, breathing economy is one means towards that end. Yes, this forces interaction between players. Yes, this makes us reliant on others. But symbiosis is a beautiful thing. It’s not something we should be afraid of. On the contrary, it’s something that we should embrace.

Crafting should take center stage instead of being the afterthought it currently is.

Black Desert Online’s PvP and PvE Cognitive Dissonance

Black Desert Online is set to launch on March 3rd.  Considering how many people are tuned into Twitch just to watch other people play, it’s pretty clear the game has some hype. And on paper a lot of it sounds really good. There’s a sandbox element for players to level up via “life skills” like fishing and more typical crafting skills. The open world has no fast travel elements and is set up in a way so cities will always be crowded by new and veteran players alike. There’s not even a level cap so theoretically one could constantly progress and level up in Black Desert Online forever.

It has come under fire somewhat for the lack of a typical end game. I don’t like that end game has become synonymous with high level raids. In all honesty, I don’t like the term end game at all. MMORPGs (like any game) should be fun regardless of where one is in progression. Perhaps the heralded MMORPG action combat in Black Desert Online will truly make for an exciting leveling experience regardless of the activity. But the end game right now is squarely designed around guild vs. guild warfare, castle sieges, and territory conquest. And there seems to be some cognitive dissonance when it comes to that end game because grinding PvE is the only way to get there.

black desert online pve grinding

Step 1: Grind all the mobs (PvE)

I have not played Black Desert Online yet, but as I’ve read more about it I was struck by this strange design decision. In order to PvP effectively, one most PvE. And when one is “done” with PvE, primarily PvP remains. And the potentially infinite leveling only compounds this level of cognitive dissonance. Black Desert Online employs a soft level cap of 50, which can be reached in about 20 hours if desired. No problems there. 20 hours is a lengthy tutorial, but there are a lot of skills to pickup and master. After that though, each level will take between 25 to 100+ hours. And the way to get that EXP is through grinding mobs in PvE, even though level 50 is when the heralded PvP is supposed to begin. And it’s important to keep up in levels and gear because otherwise players can become nigh unkillable with too much of a gap. So players who want to legitimately compete in PvP have to engage in an activity other than PvP to do so effectively. It doesn’t really make any sense.

People who enjoy PvE and grinding in Black Desert will be treated to a different problem. While many people may find the combat and leveling experience fun, there is very little to test one’s PvE mettle once the 50 level “tutorial” is finished. Here’s a game where players initially get treated to a care bear experience of an MMORPG with a focus on killing mobs as quickly as possible. And the continuation of that isn’t raids or challenging content as expected, but a handful of world bosses to down from time to time and… lots of PvP. This level of cognitive dissonance in an MMORPG is especially strange because of how hyped up gamers are for Black Desert Online. People who want PvP have to PvE and people who want PvE will eventually run out of combat content without turning to PvP.

Because of the heavy grinding nature of leveling up past 50 and the impact that those levels and silver gains have, it seems like there is a limited long term audience for Black Desert Online. Players need to be dedicated enough to repetitively grind monsters and mobs and in doing so, their reward is to wipe the floor with opponents without reprieve. That’s a recipe for disaster for casual players, the lifeblood of any multiplayer game, as they will find they have no real chance to compete individually. There’s safety in numbers though and one’s choice of guild (which seems almost necessary to join to progress) will certainly play a large role in Black Desert Online. Still, an arms race of those who can grind the most likely won’t be appealing to the masses.

Black Desert Online PvP Siege

Step 2: PvP – your second life

And this mentality of forcing players to engage in both PvE and PvP is fairly unique to Black Desert Online. Other MMORPGs with both PvP and PvE content allow players to focus on either PvE or PvP exclusively. For example, in Wildstar players can gain EXP solely through arena and warzone PvP. And there’s end game challenges for PvE fans to engage in after leveling up.

Mandating players to engage in both PvE and PvP activities as Black Desert Online is doing could be a recipe for disaster. But even if it is a problem, the game still has a lot going for it with top notch combat and a wealth of non-combat activities to engage in. I don’t know that this mix is really going to cause a major issue. But it will take some adjustment because there is going to be a sense of confusion over the relationship between PvE grinding and PvP end game in Black Desert. Regardless, it will be fascinating to watch as casual PvE fans reach the level 50 soft cap and discover what awaits them.

Almost as fascinating as the PvPers who thought they were done grinding after dinging 50.