Master of All; Experienced in None

My first MMO was Star Wars Galaxies. One thing I really enjoyed that I haven’t truly seen in any MMO since was the idea that I was getting specific experience for doing what I did. Every game since has just given me generic experience as a solitary progression mechanic.

In SWG I would gain pistol experience for using a pistol, carbine experience for using a carbine, etc. I enjoyed this as it felt like a real world connection which can help connect new players to MMOs — a reason I think many games start with Kill Ten Rats (rat infestations are something you don’t want no matter what universe you are in). In SWG I saw that I needed pistol experience to progress in the pistol tree for my starter class. Naturally I went out and used my pistol to get experience with it and thus gain Pistol Experience. Experience = Experience. Easy.

Another reason I like this progression was that from a role-playing perspective it just felt right. I have never seen myself as being anywhere close to being a role-player in any community, but I still look at my character as being a person living in the world he (or she) inhabits. Without this progression I could level up my rogue type class with a bow all the way to max level then switch to daggers and be a master assassin without ever having equipped any daggers previously.

The Secret World’s Ability Wheel

This type of progression however, wouldn’t work in every game. Imagine having to level with each equip-able weapon type individually in World of Warcraft. The Secret World on the other hand would have been an excellent game to implement this progression into.

The Secret World’s ability wheel functions as an ability tree with separate trees for each of the nine available weapon type. There are pseudo levels that award points to unlock these abilities as well as points to unlock skill points. Skill points are used in an unlock progression that is much more like a track than a tree. Both of these points are generic use when gained, meaning you get the same points no matter what weapon you are using and likewise can be used on any tree.

At the beginning of the game the player selects his or her starting weapon. All this does is unlock the first two active and first two passive skills available for that weapon. This also means that there are none of the skills unlocked for the other weapons. If A player wants to start using a different weapon than he or she started with, then the player has to first use the starter weapon to gain ability points to unlock the first skills for the new weapon before it can be used.

What I would have liked to see in The Secret World is the first couple skills unlocked for every weapon from the start. Then as a player used a weapon they would gain experience and eventually ability points related to that weapon. The player could then use these weapon specific ability points to unlock more abilities for the weapon.

If there was a phrase for the state of MMOs at the moment It would probably be ‘Play the way you want.’ This is one of the problems with this type of progression and why it would not work with every game. I might not be able to play the way I wanted should I want to switch to another weapon since the new weapon would be too noob compared to where I was at with my first weapon. The game would need to be designed with this kind of progression in mind.

The Secret World looked and felt like it could have used this progression, and with the lack of levels I feel it could have benefited from it. One thing this system would have done is help specialize people into tiers allowing for players to advertise themselves as ‘Tier 2 Blade’ or ‘Blademaster’ upon completing the entire tree. Someone could advertise those as it is now, but there would be the question of if they know how to use the abilities or if they got the points for Blademaster by using the pistol and are just a max level noob. There also wouldn’t be as many players using the generic points testing out all the weapons and becoming a jack of all trades, though that would still be possible for those interested in doing so.

Another concern is that a player would have to re-level if they later decide to use a new weapon. Within this this there are two concerns: I would need to play a weapon all the way through that I don’t want to play and that it would take a long time to pick up a new weapon. The game should be designed so that leveling a weapon would only benefit that weapon. There shouldn’t be any general passive ability that would be advantageous to a separate weapon type, which was something I thought was done well in The Secret World from what I saw in my limited experience with the game. With this design a player would only need to play with a weapon if they want to play with that weapon.

The second concern would fit in with subscription based models since it would be another grind to keep players subscribed. Again, if you don’t want to play a weapon and the system is designed well then the player would never need to play that weapon.

Guild Wars 2 adds a simple version of this system with the way that weapon skills work. The first time a player equips a weapon type all the skills are locked for that weapon save for the first skill. As the player uses that weapon they unlock the remaining skills for the weapon, something that does not take long and serves as more of a learning curve than a sign of progression. While not a progression system, it shows a way to include this system in games that it would not normally work in.

The Elder Scrolls series of games might be one of the most well known games to use this system. In these games you progress your sneak level by sneaking and progress your archery skills by using your bow. The MMO version of the game due out next year will presumably retain this type of progression since the single-player games are able to combine both this progression with the more standard level progression seen in many other MMOs.

What I would like to see tried is a mastery system that implemented this weapon progression system. Rift’s Planar Attunement is a good example of this since there are multiple trees available to each class and there is some weapon bonuses in different trees. The difference is I would like there to be a different tree for each weapon that a player can use. The player would gain points to fill the tree in by using the weapon, for example gaining Dagger Levels in the same way they would gain normal progression levels. Each Dagger Level would then give a Dagger Point to get something from the Dagger Tree much like talent trees in other MMOs. The tree would then be filled with bonuses specific to that weapon. For example, the dagger tree might have a ‘+5% damage with daggers’ and ‘When daggers are equipped, +1% movement speed 1/5’.

Also unlike Rift I would like to see this mastery available to start training around level 10 to level 20 without having any effect on the natural leveling progression. That way the player wouldn’t need to spend lots of extra time at max level if they focus on a single weapon. Additional weapons trees could then be completed as an additional progression path for the player if they want, add more time spent for players on subscription based games, and all without giving an advantage to players who only want to level one weapon. A player with only one weapon maxed would be just as viable at anything in the game as someone with five weapons maxed would be, the player with more weapons maxed would just have more endgame options of which weapon to wear into battle. With this system a player could still level to max with a bow before switching to daggers, but they would no longer be a master assassin, just an assassin.

Author: Mattsta

I recently earned a BS in Game Art and Design and write for including my weekly Guild Wars 2 column The Scrying Pool.