Progression & XP Inflation in MMORPGs
This month, I wanted to talk a bit about the challenges that MMORPG developers face surrounding long-term progression and how we are aiming to address that challenge with the design of BitCraft. This is a good way to build on last month’s blog post about skills, while providing some more information about our game.
I would like to hone in on the “RPG” component of MMORPG. As many of you know, RPG stands for “role-playing” game, which is to say a game in which you as a player inhabit a character in a game world. The genre includes not only video games, but also table-top role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, which usually emphasize both collaborative storytelling and the progressive improvement of your character’s “stats”. Although collaborative storytelling and “role-playing” remains an important aspect of many RPGs, the use of character progression through stats/experience points has come to define the genre, particularly in the medium of video games. RPG video games tend to rely heavily on stat progression to motivate players to set goals for themselves and give them a sense of pride and accomplishment when they finally achieve those goals, with varying degrees of success.
Progression in an RPG represents the accumulation of stuff. While that stuff is commonly XP, characters also progress by accumulating all manner of things (items, cosmetics, buildings, currency etc.) From a long-term game design standpoint, it’s important to be extremely thoughtful about anything which “accumulates”. Accumulation implies that something in your game is changing over time, which means that something about the gameplay experience is changing over time.
There are some genres where infinite accumulation doesn’t present a problem. For example in a single player game, the player accumulates progress as they move through the story. Eventually the progression stops when the game is over. That being said, even in single player games the game designer doesn’t want the difficulty of the game to change as you play, so consequently the enemies in the storyline typically get stronger as well.
There are also some genres which avoid accumulation altogether. For example, multiplayer FPS games and MOBAs limit long-term in-game progression between matches. Because these games are competitive multiplayer games, the player progresses by (theoretically) improving their knowledge, strategy, or mechanical skill outside of the game (collectively referred to as “player mastery”), rather than through character stats in the actual game. If there is room for competitive multiplayer mechanics in your game, this is a good option to keep your game fun while avoiding accumulation.
However, in an MMORPG we’re out of luck. The accumulation of progress is what makes the gameplay rewarding, so it’s therefore unavoidable, yet it presents a significant design challenge because the game takes place in a persistent and social world.
To illustrate the challenge, consider several problems that can result. 
- If the game has a story or a fixed amount of content you can design the progression so that either hard-core players finish very quickly or casual players never finish but not both, because different players progress at vastly different rates.
- Once the most dedicated players of the game finish the game, the developer needs to provide them with new content, but all content added to the end of a game will not be accessible to any players who have not completed the old content.
- If the game’s content is primarily combat focused and combat power/ability scales with progress, a new player of the game cannot easily play with their friend who has been playing the game for months or years.
These three problems all stem from the same underlying situation: disparity of progress relative to other players. In my mind, an MMORPG designer can choose to walk one of two roads. They can either choose to try to eliminate this disparity or choose to embrace this disparity.
It’s hard to understate how important of a decision this is, as each road will lead you down a path to vastly different gameplay experiences. I argue that many existing and popular MMOs choose to try to eliminate this disparity and in so doing compromise the very foundation of the player experience they originally sought to create.
One way classic MMORPGs have directly attempted to eliminate the disparity is through the introduction of an “end-game”. It seems obvious enough: “Let’s make the content easy enough that all players can eventually make it through the content, and players that reach the end will be kept busy with some repeatable end-game content.”
As soon as this solution is implemented though, the problems with it become clear:
- The end-game lacks progression, which was why the genre was fun in the first place
- Content added to the end of the end-game still is not accessible to new players
- Friends still can’t play together until both reaching the end-game
Our solution resolved the problem of giving dedicated players something to do, but it really didn’t fix much else, so what do we do now? You could say, “We should add a new form of progression to the end-game and allow players to reach the end-game as quickly as possible.” Somewhat shockingly, this is what several large game developers seem to have done, even though this pretty clearly leads to going in circles. I believe that we should instead take a step back and look at the problem more deeply.
The whole point of an end-game is to make it so players eventually achieve similar levels of progression, (i.e. eliminate progress disparity), but the fun of the genre is derived from players continuing to make meaningful progression (i.e. not eliminate progress disparity). This is an inherent unresolvable contradiction. Instead of recognizing this unresolvable contradiction, MMORPGs have attempted to have their cake and eat it too. They give players progression, but at the same time leech all meaning out of it by putting players on the Experience Hyperinflation Treadmill.
The EHT works as follows:
- New game content is released which players must progress through.
- Players complete that content at different rates. Some complete it and some never complete it.
- In order to ensure that all players are at the same level of progress when releasing new content, the developers make it extremely easy to progress to the end of the existing content, which devalues old progress.
- Go to step 1.
This systematic devaluing of prior progress is exactly analogous to hyperinflation. When you’re playing the game, the game is paying you in XP. Let’s say you’ve played a game for 1000 hours and you’ve been paid at 10,000 XP per hour. If the developers decide to “print more XP” and give it out at 1,000,000 XP per hour, your 1000 hours of grind are instantly devalued to 10 hours. We believe not only is this a betrayal of the players’ trust, but that it ultimately leads to a bad long-term gameplay experience. Why save up progress when it will be worthless later? Why not just wait for progress to be easier to obtain before playing the game? It is our belief that when you spend time grinding in a game, that establishes an implicit contract between you and the developer that the developer is not going to substantially devalue that grind in the near future or ideally ever. 
The treadmill does not resolve the contradiction, instead it eliminates true progression from the game and replaces it with the short-term illusion of progression. So, if that road leads us to an unresolvable contradiction, where does the embracing progress disparity road lead us? In order to truly embrace progress disparity, we must start with the basic assumption that all players must coexist together while at the same time having vastly different levels of progression (accumulated stuff).
In order to achieve that we must create a game that
- ensures players will be able to make true progress in a fun, meaningful way for many years
- ensures that players with different levels of progression can play together and collaborate
- ensures that new content is not only added at the end of the progression, but throughout the game
- is designed in a way that does not require all players to complete all of the content
BitCraft is designed from the ground up to achieve those goals. Let’s explore a few of the design elements which are critical in the furtherance of the goals.
If most of the content in your game is combat focused and the main way players measure progression is through combat level or combat power, you’ve already got a problem that you need to address. In this case, it’s not really possible for players with different levels of progression to play together. Either one player will be underpowered in combat or one player will be overpowered, which is not generally a fun experience. The obvious solution (and very common) is to have a mechanism of allowing one player scale to the progression of another player. However, in my opinion, this solution can be a trap even if done well. Either you scale the low level player up or the high level player down, but in either case, you’re removing the meaning from the progression in the first place. It’s not rewarding to progress if you are not able to take advantage of the progression.
With BitCraft we‘re taking a completely different approach. Instead of combat being the sole focus of the game, our game emphasizes practicing skills like fishing, farming, forestry, and smithing. Obviously less exclusive focus on combat is part of the pitch of the game, but it’s also critical to solving the problem of players at different levels of progress being able to play together. For example, when players work together to construct a new high level building, the building requires not only high level materials, but also a large amount of low level materials that can be collected by any player including a low level one. If the efforts of both types of players are needed, they can collaborate regardless of the disparity in their accumulated progress.
Logarithmic Level Progression
One way we plan to address the issue of the differential rate at which players progress is to scale level progression logarithmically with experience. The Pareto Principle applies to player dedication as much as it does to economics. The most dedicated players will play your game an exponential amount more relative to more casual players. Scaling levels logarithmically with experience allows casual players to make substantial progress and be relevant while still allowing extremely dedicated players to outpace them in level without them being ridiculously overpowered. You can think of this approach as a smooth infinite softcap.
We believe that time gating, if done well, can potentially feel immersive and rewarding. For example, while something like weekly login rewards can feel like a chore, having to wait for your crops to grow is both realistic and immersive. Rather than feeling like meaningless waiting, that kind of time gating requires planning and preparation and makes high level agriculture all the more impressive and meaningful. If used effectively, time gating prevents dedicated players from substantially outpacing other players thereby limiting the progression disparity, without removing meaning from the progression.
It should also be said that time gating, if done poorly, can make players feel as though they just have to wait real-world time to make progress. For example weekly login rewards can make players feel like they’re on a treadmill where they’re not allowed to have fun in a game because they’re waiting, but they also have to keep logging into the game.
We also believe that while waiting for any time gate there should always be meaningful progress to be made elsewhere, for example either by starting more parallel timers or doing active progression in a complementary domain.
Adding New Content Throughout
Rather than expecting that all players will reach some sort of “end-game”, we are placing more of an emphasis on the journey, rather than the destination. BitCraft is a game about building a new civilization. The process of building and constructing is what should be fun. Therefore, we aim to add new content to the game throughout all levels of progression, rather than just at the end of the progression. In BitCraft this new content takes the form of new biomes where players can create new towns, new items, new skills, new social features, and new places to explore.
Social Gameplay and Competitive Late Game Content
Progression is a powerful tool to motivate people to create goals for themselves which causes them to spend time in your game world with other players. Although it’s a core motivator in an RPG, in some ways the Holy Grail of RPG design is to give players other reasons besides progression to play your game. Few people play tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons solely for the character progression. They play DnD because they get to spend time playing a game with their friends. With the right type of gameplay (trading, building, etc.), even friends with vast progression disparities can still have fun playing and chatting together.
Our end goal is to design a world where people can spend time with their friends, make new friends, or even make new enemies. We see our job not as designing a game which progresses people through an endless stream of content, but instead to give people a reason to socialize, collaborate, or compete with each other. While progression is core to the feeling of accomplishment players get from playing BitCraft, it means so much more when you can share that accomplishment with other people. An MMORPG is a chat application, the progression just gives players something to talk about.
— Tyler (3Blave, Cofounder of Clockwork Labs)
 There are other smaller problems that can result, such as numbers becoming ludicrously large.
 Adding a new gear set that makes the old gear completely irrelevant is just another form of hyperinflation. Resetting progress is just a particularly egregious form of this, see Redenomination.