17 August 2018

Game Design: Horizontal Progression in MMORPGs

A few days ago I made a post about the vertical progression often seen in famous MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. A different one is the horizontal-progression that has been seen in games like Guild Wars 1 and Guild Wars 2 for example.

Horizontal Progression in MMORPGs

Horizontal progression is something I often compare to "personal" development. I'm not talking about programming or making something new, I'm talking about development as in progress or improvement here. While vertical progression is compared to "player" or "character" development, meaning your character gets better and stronger as described in the vertical progression post.

So how do you as a person improve compared to your character?

Due to the best gear being capped rather early, all the bosses can be matched to this gear level. Since there's no change between content it's rather easy to balance the bosses to each other. This allows for a more precise difficulty curve.

There's no increase in the strength of the character from the end-game on. Without an increase of level, damage and/or gear for the upcoming content these factors cannot compensate for the player's lower skill. Thus generally resulting in an increment of the player's skill and capability.

Idea Behind It

Just like mentioned above a horizontal progression throws out the player's improvement through stats, leveling and gear grind and replaces it with more or less equally difficult but different content. Additionally, this prevents power creep in the end-game content any added content stays relevant. This also means you can play with your friends anywhere at any time, as the gear or level difference does not exist in the end-game. (Lower level areas in these games often work with downscaling resulting in more or less an equal strength allowing to follow your friends even if they're not in the end-game).

Elements of Horizontally Progression

Generally speaking, horizontally progression is something that's not vertical progression. If you remove the vertical progression you basically get horizontal progression. However, something that should be mentioned here is

Build Variety

One of the elements that are common to horizontal progression is to build variety. The reason for this is to allow bosses and areas to require the player to implement certain strategies and requiring the player to think and solve the problems thrown at them.


Vertical and horizontal progression are both plagued with disadvantages as well, this time we're gonna look at the horizontal progression.

The Loot Sucks

This is one of the biggest issues for people who are used to a vertical progression. The loot you will find will most likely be useless to you. Since there's no vertical progression the gear does not improve and at some point, you will have everything best in the slot. 

No Feeling of Being Overpowered

If there's no power creep you'll never feel overpowered. This is both an advantage and disadvantage but I'll list it as a disadvantage. If you like to feel more powerful than the older enemies to remind you that you have improved then I have to disappoint you. This is not a part of horizontal progression. The least you will get is knowing the enemy, mechanics and having experienced them often enough to know how to deal with them.

Seeking For Missing Character Development

Accumulating all the aspects you will notice one thing that's a big deal. You might not know what to do. Without better loot, no grind and no leveling, you might wonder what you want to do. This is often a reason these seem more like a sandbox MMORPG but that depends on the game's focus and balance in development.

Exponential Work For Developers

Add-ons to MMORPGs add new content and new areas to the game. The old areas need to be taken care of as well in horizontal progression oriented games. This means that over time the game will accumulate more and more content that needs to be taken care of. Thinking about it, this also increases the number of employees you need and thus will result in an exponentially growing cost.

Final Notes

Again keep in mind neither horizontal nor vertical progression are perfect. So far to my knowledge, no one came up with a diagonal progression based MMORPG. Mixing the positive aspects and fixing the disadvantage would result in a bigger game with a bigger target audience. The reason I'm so invested in this is that I have friends who prefer vertical progression and me, to be honest, prefer horizontal progression more. This brings a divide in the games we play. If people move from WildStar they either go to Guild Wars 2 or World of Warcraft (from my experience though there might be exceptions). Besides what's an MMORPG without a big MMO community? Keep in mind that most of the information here is from personal experience, reading a little upon the topic, analyzing the games I've mentioned that seem to implement these game designs and questioning people and talking over this topic. Thus I can't say for certain that the information is 100% reliable or that I might have forgotten information as well as further points and disadvantages. Still, it is important to share this information as it might help other game developers or people to come up with a solution or to better understand these systems and terms.

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I'm a B.Sc. Games Engineer and I created this blog to share my ideas, theorycrafting, thoughts and whatever I'm working on or doing.