12 August 2018

Game Design: Vertical Progression in MMORPGs

I play both WildStar and Guild Wars 2 and I am aware that there are still many people playing World of Warcraft. I know both Guild Wars 2, WildStar and WoW - or other MMORPGs for that matter - have their disadvantages and advantages. Still, I see things wrong and things great on their progression philosophy.

Vertical Progression in MMORPGs

Vertical progression is progression by improving your character in strength. Regardless of which role you play:
  • A damage dealer will increase their offensive attributes to deal more damage.
  • A healer will increase its supportive capabilities to heal more.
  • A tank will increase its defensive stats to improve their survivability and durability.
Most often the vertical progression is implemented by adding new content with a higher level and/or increased attributes of their owns. To put it this way: new content means you play against enemies that had a headstart in gaining experience and gear and you overcome these to work your way onto the same level and to the new end-game.

Idea Behind It

The idea behind this is to keep the player engaged by having challenging end-game content since the player always starts weaker than the respective content. Additionally, the improvement of the character's capability and growth gives the player the ability to increase their strength along with the different challenges that lay ahead. Another idea behind it is to have a linear experience, in which you play the content level-wise or difficulty-wise which goes hand-in-hand with the difficulty curve. Another important point is that vertical progression came from RPGs where leveling and gear allowed the player to beat content by equalizing their skill with level grinding or grinding for better gear.

Elements of Vertical Progression


Probably the most common vertical progression in games is leveling. For this, the player needs a certain amount of experience gained from different activities most often from killing opponents though. Leveling can be seen as learning progress, however, if used in the end-game or throughout the whole game until the end-game it's vertical progression. Each level increases the player's stats or allows the player to become stronger and keep on getting stronger.


The second most common vertical progression is gathering better gear. For this one, the player will need to do a certain content or beat a certain challenge one or multiple times to be able to get better gear which will reward the player with higher stats and thus resulting in a stronger character.


Don't worry horizontal progression has disadvantages as well, but we'll take a look at those later so let's start with the more common vertical progression first.

Power Creep

So, if you never heard the term power creep then you're in luck now. Power Creep describes the increasing irrelevance of older content due to the increasing power of the player. If you ever played a game with vertical progression and you went back to the very beginning of the game you should know that fighting enemies there is probably close to one hit if not already. Additionally, the rewards are also interesting. What happened here is that you progressed through the vertical so much that the older content doesn't reward you anymore and additionally everything falls over by your pure sight. This is an issue as in MMORPGs there is no reason for you to play with your friends who are levels below you.


This works hand in hand with the power creep but adding new harder higher content to the game to keep players engaged in the vertical progression results in a throw-away-mentality for the game developer. New content, throw away the old, new content, throw away the old, etc.. It's the same for the player and their gear, the old stuff is thrown away the new stuff will be kept. The weight of this downside can be argued but it is a disadvantage after all.

No Clean Difficulty Curve

This applies to many games, but due to the varying quality of items and the varying level of your character, you may jump up and down between the difficulty curve. In RPGs, this was used for the player to be able to balance the game themselves (e.g. grind levels if they couldn't beat a boss) in an MMORPG this mentality doesn't work too well though. At least I haven't experienced it yet in my more or less eight years of MMORPG experience.

Weaker Player Progression

Additionally, since the gear and levels play a huge role, a higher level or better gear can balance the player's skill. This sounds positive at first but in the end, it's a double-edged sword. If your MMORPG is skill-based then this is a bad thing. Additionally, if you want your player to improve over time this could also hinder this progress. That's why I count it as a disadvantage here.

Final Notes

I want to mention here that vertical progression isn't perfect, neither is horizontal progression. Having a mix between these designs is not something one could come up with easily. Hence it hasn't been done. There are definitive disadvantages in both designs and solving these flaws would allow MMORPGs to enter a new area and a bigger audience, which MMOs need to thrive. The information I mentioned here is an opinion I have build from experience, questioning people and analyzing these games. This means that information may not be 100% accurate and that I may have skipped points or further disadvantages. Yet, even an opinion is worth reading through and to give a benefit of a doubt, because who knows. Maybe this is exactly what some people needed to come up with the next great idea.

Liked the post? Noticed an error? Wanna discuss the content or leave a comment*? You can join or check into the discord to do so! (*Note: Comments are disabled to avoid saving user data on this website.)
>> Join Discord

About Me

My photo
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.