Thursday, July 31, 2008

Horizontal expansions to vertical games

Serial Ganker sid67 has a great post about horizontal expansions, the idea that you can add to a game by adding more stuff of the same level, as opposed to adding more levels. That inspired Cameron from Random Battle to compare WoW to Magic the Gathering, because in MtG all expansions are horizontal. Well observed. But then Magic the Gathering is a horizontal game, and World of Warcraft is a vertical one.

There are no levels in Magic the Gathering. If you buy your first cards and play against an experienced player, you will most probably lose. But you don't lose to him because he is level 70 and you are level 1. You lose because he has a wider selection of cards, and because he is more skilled than you through practice. You can even the card pool problem by playing in so-called "limited" events, where everyone gets random cards, and then winning or losing becomes a pure question of skill. Yes, playing more helps, but only because the more you play, the more you learn. You don't have to grind anything to get to a specific point. The game itself is horizontal, you can explore it and get better at it, but you'll never go up a level and start a combat with more cards or more life points than your opponent.

Now we add a new expansion to Magic the Gathering. The cards are ideally exactly as powerful as the old ones. But they are somehow different, have new special abilities, and allow new combinations with the old cards. The fun of the expansion is to explore the new cards, learn everything about their use, and advance in skill by doing so. The expansion is horizontal in the sense that the new content doesn't make the old content obsolete. But that doesn't mean that there is no character progress, because you progress by learning, not by accumulating some level or artificial points.

World of Warcraft is a vertical game: From level 1 to the level cap your power is mostly determined by your level, and not so much by your skill. Even at the level cap you still go up in what I call meta-levels, by increasing your stats further through better gear. Increasing your chance of success by learning how to play the game better does happen, but the effect is relatively small compared to the effect of levels and gear. World of Warcraft, especially the soloing part, is trivially easy if you compare it directly with a game like Magic the Gathering.

WoW being vertical makes it difficult to add completely horizontal expansions to it. You can add new races and new classes and new low-level zones to the game. But where a Magic the Gathering player can add some of the new cards of a horizontal expansion into his old deck, in World of Warcraft experiencing the new horizontal content means abandoning your old vertically advanced character. Blizzard wisely decided that you don't have to delete an old character in some transformation quest that turns him into a Death Knight. But nevertheless on the day Wrath of the Lich King is released you will have to decide whether you level your existing level 70 character, or whether you play the new Death Knight. In Magic the Gathering new horizontal content adds to the old content; in WoW new horizontal content disrupts the old content.

Of course in WoW new vertical content also disrupts old content, by making your old gear obsolete. This is in the nature of the game. You get to keep your old character, and get the chance to progress him further. But as progress is defined in this game as increasing your stats, your old methods of maximizing stats become obsolete. This is particularly harsh when you consider how much faster your power increases by levelling up compared to power increases by gathering epic gear. You spent over a year of several raids a week to get a level 70 epic which is worse than a level 80 green item common drop or quest reward.

And I don't see a way around it. Imagine in Wrath of the Lich King there were no new levels. Northrend was a new continent for levels 1 to 70, with playable penguin and walrus man races, and new classes. What would people be supposed to do with their old level 70 characters? Be forced to keep playing the stale old content or abandon them? Play in the new level 70 zones and dungeons and only get gear that isn't better than what they already have? There is no easy solution. Because the very gameplay of World of Warcraft consists of increasing your stats, a new expansion needs to offer more stat increases, or tell people to start over. You can't add a Magic the Gathering style horizontal expansion, because the progress in WoW isn't horizontal.

Some people already remarked that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is planned with a different style of expansion in mind than WoW. Again this is logical, because while WAR does have the levelling that WoW has, it doesn't have the continued increase of stats through items at the level cap. The WAR endgame is a horizontal one, where you beat other players in PvP by better organization and better skill (or with the less nice way of simply outnumbering them). You can add new "battlegrounds" and endgame PvP objectives to WAR endlessly. For PvE even WAR can't do anything but offering a reset with new races and classes. I'm not sure if WAR expansions will ever increase the level cap, it doesn't appear to be compatible with the current content. I sure hope they'll never put in a PvE raiding expansion, they should have learned from Trials of Atlantis that this doesn't work well with a PvP endgame. So WAR expansions can be horizontal, because the gameplay goes into horizontal mode already when reaching the level cap.

I find this an interesting experiment. Will players accept the horizontal endgame of WAR, or will they miss the vertical endgame of WoW? Will WAR players accept that shortly after reaching level 40 their characters will not improve in stats any more, and their only way of improving their chances in PvP is to play better? And will high-level combat in WAR be sufficiently complex that you actually *can* play better? I'm looking forward to trying all that out.

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