What is horizontal progression?

I was reading Gidorick’s post on the ESO forums:

http://forums.elderscrollsonline.com/en/discussion/192510/please-explain-the-desire-for-level-cap/p2

In which it appears that many people do not understand (including the proponents of the idea, or at least they have trouble explaining the idea) what horizontal progression entails. So I thought to myself “surely someone has a well written article explaining horizontal progression” after a fairly lengthy search I located the following article:

http://www.engadget.com/2014/02/05/mmo-mechanics-comparing-vertical-and-horizontal-progression/

It does an ok job (in my opinion) of defining horizontal and vertical progression at a fundamental level however it and many other articles I examined failed to clarify applied examples and explanation. In this post I attempt to explain the ever illusive idea of horizontal progression using concrete examples and finally I end with an example of how the champion system could be modified to fill this role. It is a bit lengthy and I apologize for how long the explanation for these two words [horizontal progression] ends up but I think that clarification will help everyone in eso (and maybe the developers?) To better understand what some players are asking the developers to develop.

First, a detailed explanation of what is Vertical Progression.

Vertical progression is any progression which increases the power of your character. Typically this includes levelling where your stats (hp, magicka, stamina, resistance. Spell power, weapon power etc…) increase as your character develops and progresses. This type of progression increases the strength of your character at a very basic level.

A quick example: I have a skill called “Jab” currently Jab does 25 damage everytime I use the skill. After 30 minutes of questing and killing loads of enemies with Jab, I gain a level. From the level gain my base stats are increased and now when I go back out into the world and kill the same mobs that my Jab was doing 25 damage to…it suddenly does 30 damage.

That is a quick simple example of Vertical Progression, it can include more damage, more armor, more resistance, more hp (hitpoints, health points, life etc…), more mp (mana points, magic points, magicka etc…), faster weapon speed, faster movement speed, faster blocking speed, higher blocking potential, more mp/hp/sp regeneration….heck in ESO the rider skills for mounts is even a vertical progression. A vertical progression might simply be defined as any progression that might cause two characters doing the exact same action to perform differently.

Gear Grinds are vertical progression, yup vertical progression isn’t limited to “levelling” an easy to grasp example of this kind of vertical progression is in the item quality systems commonly utilized in many mmorpg and even more classical rpg games.

Example: Typically item quality vertical progression includes white, green, blue, purple, gold tiers but different color schemes are also utilized in different games. These are where identical items are of differing “quality” thus a higher quality item provides higher stats. These higher stats improve our characters ability at various actions (such as making our Jab do higher DPS, by reducing the cast time for the skill Jab). Yup, decreasing the time to use a skill is also vertical progression.

Typically higher level requirement gear or any gear that can be “upgraded” is also a vertical progression of sorts. Vertical progression can come in many forms and can be wrapped in different packaging but at the end of the day it is any progression which increases your power when doing identical actions. Vertical progression creates a very good carrot on a stick for players to strive for and thus is a good motivator to maintain player interest.

Ok, I think that demonstrates vertical progression adequately and I think vertical progression is fairly well understood (at least at a fundamental level) by any experienced rpg or mmorpg player. However, if all of that is vertical progression then what in the world is horizontal progression? What is the point of horizontal progression if it doesn’t make you stronger? Why would any non-vertical progression be desirable?

These are all very good questions! Let’s move on to the second topic and briefly explore what might be considered horizontal progression and what would not be considered horizontal progression. Perhaps it is best to begin with some examples of what is not horizontal progression:

Achievements are not horizontal progression, horizontal progression requires progression of your character. Achievements are a shiny prize a reward for doing something….you get it you hang it on your shelf and it does nothing for your character.

Quests are not horizontal progression, quests are activities that your character does. A character may progress through a storyline but at the end of the day the character will not be any better after the quest (assuming, no vertical or horizontal progression is rewarded for the quest) than it was before the quest. The player may however get enjoyment from the quest.

Dyes are not vertical progression, dyes are cosmetic and aesthetic which might benefit the player but provides no benefit to the character.

Crafting is likely not horizontal progression. More often than not crafting is disguised vertical progression. You craft armor or weapons that are more powerful than you’re currently equipped weapons and armor or enchantments/potions/consumables etc…which increase your stats and make you stronger. This is vertical progression but it can also be cosmetic inprovement.

Player housing is not horizontal progression, it might be parallel progression? Parallel in the sense that you do progress by upgrading your house and by upgrading the interior of the house and maybe get your own npcs….etc…so perhaps you can progress and maybe even vertically or horizontally in creative application of housing but by itself housing is not horizontal progression or vertical progression.

Ok, so now we know what vertical progression could be and some things that are not horizontal progression but that doesn’t leave much to be horizontal progression…right?

Well kind of…perhaps the best way to teach the idea of horizontal progression is through an example. The best implementation of horizontal progression that I have every experienced was in the game “The Secret World” (TSW). Now TSW doesn’t have levels, your character never gains a level throughout the entire game. However it still has vertical progression through gear.

TSW also rewards points (similar to experience) when killing enemies or completing quests. These points, similar to experience, progress your character. However, unlike experience points these points do not increase your level or the basic strength or power of your character or your abilities. Instead these points are used to unlock passive and active skills/abilities.

Going back to the earlier example instead of Jab we might bow have Jab and Kick if we used the points to unlock “Kick”. The ability Kick functions in some unique way making it different from all other abilities that a player can get. It isn’t an upgrade to Jab where Kick is better then Jab perhaps Jab does 25 damage and takes 1 second to cast and kick does 75 damage but takes 3 seconds to cast. In three seconds both abilities are capable of doing the same amount of damage (75). However there is a fundamental difference in how that damage occurs (the length of time to cast). This difference could make Kick better in some situations and Jab better in others and in yet other situations they could be completely interchangable.

Example: Your player can stealth, from a stealthed posisiton you can Jab or Kick. Stealth is not broken until the ability is cast. In the case of kick you have front loaded 75 damage (3 seconds worth of damage) before the enemy has seen you and has the ability to react. This is superior to Jab, because using Jab results in you taking damage sooner.

Example: You are now out of stealth fighting an enemy. You can choose to Jab or Kick this particular enemy has an interrupt with a one second cast time. If you Jab the enemy they cannot react fast enough to inturrupt the abilot thus your 25 damage is very likely to hit. If you choose to Kick instead the enemy has 2 seconds to detect the animation and press the inturrupt button. If successful then the character will have completely negated 3 seconds of your characters damage. In this case Jab is the superior ability.

Example: Let’s suppose the enemy did not have an inturrupt but due to vertical progression you have 76 life and your enemy has 125 life. You brought Jab and he Brought kick and no one was stealthed at the beginning and you both begin fighting at exactly the same time. Your 5’th Jab will land 1 second before his second kick and you will kill him before he kills you. Had he been stealthed though you would have been at -74 life and him at 50 life…and if you had identical life at 150 and started simultaneously then you would both kill eachother at 6 seconds.

As you can see one ability can be better, worse or equal to another depending on the situation even if they do the exact same amount of damage. So spending points to unlock an ability increases the options a player has access to but it doesn’t increase the power of the player.  A player with both Jab and Kick can thus perform better in more situations than a player with only one or the other skill.

Example: You have 100 health, your enemy with 100 health has kick…you have Kick and Jab, You kick out of stealth and then Jab killing him before his first kick can hit you. Alternatively, you opponent begins to kick you and 1 second later you begin to kick him back (your reflexes were off today). Three seconds into combat you’receive at 25 life, at 4 seconds he is also at 25 life, you Jab while he is kicking again at the 5th second he is dead. Had you only had kick, like the enemy, then he would have won because he got the first strike but your horizontal progression allowed you to have superior options during the fight.

Ok, so horizontal progression is unlocking options? Well that is one kind of horizontal progression….kind of… I mean in this case it is more about who has unlocked the most abilites and can keep massive skill bars organized to use the most effeciently. This isn’t fun because it still provides the same problem as vertical progression….someone that has progressed further is better (obviously if I have unlocked two abilities, Jab and Kick, while you only unlocked one or the other then I have a clear advantage over you….expand this to me with 100 abilities on my skill bar and you with 25….). This is where a limited skill bar is useful. If we can both only pick 5 abilities and I can pursue abilities in any order I choose (not you must unlock abilities in a linear fashion, where every character unlocks abilities in the same order everytime). Suddenly my 25 abilities might allow for advantageous 5 ability combinations that you may not have in your 1000 abilities or maybe I am just more skilled at finding synergistic combinations.

Suddenly your character is allowed to progress but doesn’t get stronger (Jab and Kick still function the same 25 damage per second with 1 and 3 second cast times resoectively). This results in PvE players with better builds to perform better, and also with more combat sense to use their skills more effectively during the fight. This shifts the paradigm from what level am I and how great of gear can I have to push my power higher?…to…how can I improve my skill as a player and my character setup to maximize my capabilities? ….In other words instead of a mindless gain more power smash things better type game you suddenly have a thinking game where the direction you progress (which skills should I unlock in what order) and how you utilize that progress (should I put Jab + Kick on my bar or Jab + Inturrupt or Kick + Inturrupt?) Both before when designing your skill bar and during (when using your skillbat) the fight.

In TSW you could unlock over 500 abilities and you could use only 5 active, 5 passive, 1 ultimate, and 1 ultimate passive. This provided almost infinite variation and options for creativity and experimentation. There were literally millions of combinations of skill bars (some combinations were obviously dumb and you would never use but there were always undiscovered builds and since all players had access to this massive set of skill choices the endgame meta was always shifting. As builds became popular a counter would be discovered and that would shift the meta, and then another counter etc…

So in a short sentence Vertical = More power and mindless, horizontal = more options and intellectual. Striking the right balance of Horizontal:Vertical ratio is perhaps more difficult as you need some vertical options (or at least vertiacal variability) to allow specialization and min/maxing to provide give and take on different stats and thus allow for variability of skills based on different stats (producing more options). Once enough verotica variability is present then additonal vertical progression is unnecessary and really only serves to outdate gear and content where horizontal expansion allows all previous and future endgame content and gear to remain relevant….again increasing player options and fun instead of limiting top tiered players to only the very newest content released. Imagine if WoW had expanded from Vanilla in a horizontal direction instead of vertical…then all Vanilla, BC, Wotlk, panda etc….expansions all of that content would still be endgame content instead of something you do to reach endgame content. A new player can join, get to 50 and then have thousands of hours of enshame content avaliable. I guess it’s just a different way of thinking about progression and focusing on increasing options instead of decreasing then at a very fundamental level.

How could the champion system be modified to become a more horizontal type progression:

Well there are several things that might be done. First the passive buffs would need to be replaced. Currently they are vertical progression not horizontal progression. Perhaps they could be more skills on the lines of “more loot from chests”, “better loot from npcs”, “more gold from thieving”, “Reduced vendor prices”, “Reduced cost to refund skill points”, things which do not increase character power. I’m not really sure how you do combat focused passives that you can put 1-100 points in while remaining horizontal … this is am interesting idea and perhaps someone else can come up with that solution. The overall idea is to remove the power focused abilities and increase player options …. maybe as points are put into trees then CSP (champion skill points) are unlocked allowing the use of active abilities from those trees in builds, maybe we gain 3 additional ability slots on our skill bar and we can use 1 thief, 1 mage and 1 warrior ability at a time. Well for now that is my best solution to the current power creep crisis …not very good I know.