Levels By Any Other Name: Mastery Track Tiers

So a few days ago, the dev blog for the masteries system went live. Turns out that my own analysis and speculation cleaved too close to the existing WvW progression system, with specific tasks rendering points that in sum would give abilities. I’ll update it to reflect what I got wrong, while keeping the original text.

That said, I’ve got two particular bones to pick about the system as outlined in the dev blog: tier increases and needless expansion exclusivity. I’ve split them out into their own posts due to the length of each.

Levels by Any Other Name: Mastery Track Tiers

I realize that any progression system needs to have a way to measure time spent, skill displayed, and the like. Otherwise it’s not much of a progression system.

And I’m totally on board with the high-level intent of the mastery system: giving progression to specific areas by doing activities in those specific areas. That’s the promise of horizontal progression.

But I’m not seeing that in the dev blog. I’m not seeing horizontal progression. Before I get to why, some quick definitions:

Vertical Progression

Vertical progression is arbitrary goalposts, represented in Guild Wars 2 and many other MMOs by levels below the cap and gear tiers. Some make vertical progression even more onerous by spacing out the gains (escalating experience between levels, the infamous gear treadmill).

Horizontal Progression

Horizontal progression is specific and limited in scope. It can be as simple as completing an event in Orr to unlock a trait (regardless of the grindiness of the existing trait system, it’s actually an example of horizontal progression), or as complex as building toward full Luminescent in Silverwastes.

The scope is limited (this trait, that set of armor), and the goalposts are comparatively short and well-marked (complete this event, gather these items). It isn’t “do this laundry list of XP-gaining stuff and you get a level!”

The even more key difference is that most horizontal progression is optional*, allowing people to choose “more options” or “more cool looks/titles/bragging rights.”

*Oops, trait system kinda failed there.

Those said, there is one particular part of the dev blog that makes me wary about it:

The Quote in Question

Once you’ve unlocked a Mastery track tier with Mastery points, you can begin training that Mastery. Mastery tracks are trained by gaining experience while the Mastery track is slotted on the Mastery training bar. Higher tiers in Mastery tracks require progressively more Mastery points and more experience to fully train. (Emphasis added)

To rephrase that, higher tiers require outright more experience to train up so that the tier after it can be unlocked.

Changing some terminology around, and tiers are functionally levels, but distributed across at least 5 (the example count in the dev blog) different tracks.

So rather than the existing system of reaching the end of leveling and flat-lining for skill points, masteries give players several different experience bars, only one of which can be active at a time, with each level locked behind the investment of mastery points*.

*I don’t have a problem with mastery points being an unlocking mechanic, as evidenced by my original post. I was under the impression that mastery points would be the sum total of unlocking, though.

Not Quite Horizontal

I love the potential of the mastery track system to be a focused progression toward what a player loves doing, but it runs into a nasty interplay with the existing means of gaining experience. Consider:

  1. Experience gained is based on the level of the event.
  2. All experience gained is percentage scaled to the character’s level.
  3. All characters able to train masteries are level 80, so experience gain per event is fixed.

Now consider that the mastery track system is region-specific, but otherwise unbounded. You have a track slotted, experience gains happen to it as you complete anything. In other words, it’s non-specific.

But unlike the existing leveling and experience gain for level 80’s, tiers aren’t flat. It’s going to take more and more events and accomplishments to make it to the next level, er, tier. Referencing back to my definitions, it’s vertical progression, split from one major track to however many mastery tracks there are.

A Missed Opportunity

I think that executing the mastery system in this manner, as a diversified set of leveling, with the horizontal aspect of it only being acquiring mastery points (a homogeneous single-gain currency), is a missed opportunity.

While it’s true that there are no gear tiers, and that level 80 is still the cap, the abilities and bonuses are still gains that matter. It was outright said that mastery tracks are a requirement to play the most difficult content in Heart of Thorns:

Masteries will give you the tools you need to excel in these fights. Hunt new enemies, master abilities to defeat champions, and become more deadly against the new creatures waiting in the jungle. (emphasis added)

Rather than making a more narrowly-focused vertical progression system generally akin to everything everyone has done since Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition published, why not make it horizontal?

Crafting Masteries as Horizontal Progression

Back up to the two points that define masteries as vertical:

  1. All experience at level 80 is functionally static.
  2. Tiers require progressively more experience.

Change either of these points, and with the other aspects of the system it converts to a mostly horizontal experience. Going in order:

Experience changes based on the Event

Adopt the World vs. World system to Heart of Thorns (and other big-meta like Silverwastes Breach/Vinewrath, Dry Top, Tequatl, Triple Trouble).

In WvW, the experience rewarded drastically changes based off of what was taken or defended to roughly represent the effort required. With the emphasis on “challenging group content,” rewarding progressively more experience for completing Difficult Boss 1 to 5 makes sense.

Functionally, the “curve” flattens for someone always pushing to the top levels they are capable of, generating the feeling of horizontal progression.

(Disclosure: This is my preferred conversion to horizontal progression. More on why below)

Tiers Require Equal Experience

Rather than escalating the experience requirement per tier, each tier is “flat”, with the mastery points being the main escalating factor between.

This isn’t as attractive because it gives no incentive to “push further” like the first option does. However, it does fulfill turning the progression system horizontal instead of vertical.

Why Bother?

With my insistence that horizontal progression would be better for the masteries system than the current vertical progression approach, it begs the question “why bother doing that?”

Expansion Is Happening Anyway

One argument for a vertical tiering system is that the content needs to last for a decent amount of time. But the chief basis for the entire Heart of Thorns expansion is to put in place things that can in turn be expanded.

Masteries will be no exception, and structuring the system around making the original set “matter in the long term” isn’t really necessary. Let the long term progression aspect be that there will be more points to acquire, more tracks to level, and more tiers to unlock.

Rewarding and Challenging Players

If my first suggestion is utilized, it would make the mastery system reward skillful play in a way that doesn’t exclude people with less skill.

Someone who excels at difficult encounters (maybe even ones they don’t technically have the abilities to survive in) will gain mastery track progress faster than someone who is doing whatever. But they only get it faster.

And since skill and difficulty now have a say in how fast someone progresses mastery tracks, there is a direct incentive to play better, to challenge oneself beyond simply the rewards of the given encounter. Because with the ability/bonus gating of masteries, the faster you can acquire those abilities and bonuses, the faster you can play at a higher level of difficulty.

Very Low Development Time Required

Both of my suggestions require changing the numbers for experience values, whether an event’s reward or a tier’s value. That’s maybe an hour or two changing data entries, and functionally doesn’t touch the system at large.

Avoiding Hype Backlash

Pitching a new system as not being the same as other MMO expansions, then it functionally being the exact same thing, is bound to cause a backlash when people experience it. Delaying it just means that the hype has more time to blow out of proportion.

Borrowing a quote from the late Massively (support the crew on Kickstarter, they’re coming back!):

According to O’Brien, the goal behind the mastery system is introducing ongoing character progression that defies the regular expansion treadmill.

Numbers are going up, abilities and bonuses are required for attempting more difficult content, and the overall tier system splits out just like the regular expansion leveling. The only difference is the lack of gear to match. How does that defy the treadmill?

What would defy the treadmill is crafting it as horizontal instead of vertical, adopting one of the two suggestions above (or taking a third option), and being able to pitch that vertical progression stops at level 80 ascended gear.

Throwing Down the PR Gauntlet

Talk is cheap, and seeing the promise of “not the typical expansion” appear to vanish in the face of details that read just like another expansion erodes its value completely.

But switching masteries to mostly horizontal reverses that. If the chief means of progression isn’t structured like every other expansion ever with different names, then actions back the words.

And at that point, it isn’t just marketing speak and sound bites to splash on the front page. It’s a clear signal of “we don’t do grind in this MMO. Now, other developers, top us, if you dare.”

Conclusion

I disagree with the current progression approach to the mastery system, chiefly with it being structured as a vertical leveling system with different names. Yes, it’s possible to max out one track and ignore another, but to do the content that one track enables requires grinding out the track, period.

I see instead a good opportunity to craft it as a horizontal progression system, backing words with actions, and making Heart of Thorns genuinely “not the typical expansion.”

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7 thoughts on “Levels By Any Other Name: Mastery Track Tiers”

  1. I’m not quite sure I agree with your definition of vertical progression but whether I did or not, this is the type of progression we had with skills in Guild Wars 1 and no one I can remember ever complained about it or called it vertical progression.

    We had skills like norn skills, ebon vanguard skills, luxon skills, and to progress them in power, we had to grind points. But no one ever called it vertical progression even though it took longer and longer to get those skills more powerful.

    So maybe using the word vertical progression as a negative is a red herring. Because this is in line with what I thought most core players wanted.

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    1. Oh, I hated the reputation grind with a passion, and the blatant progression grind it was compared to the steady, horizontal progress of things like Skill Hunter and Protector/Guardian.

      And when they by their own words advertise “not the typical expansion,” it’s really hard to take them at their word when the systems they reveal don’t stack up like that.

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      1. So? The game is allright by itself, but so much of it never lived up to the hype created at launch, one more business lie really doesn’t make a difference any more.

        Also note that the loudest screaming portion of the players in the forum scream for “something to do” and demand progression. Unless ArenaNet is very careful on how they implmenent it (and thus fall way short of what the elitist portion of the playerbase wants), they run the high risk of locking out, disappointing and thus in the long run loosing a(likely much bigger) portion of the playerbase.

        Note that i don’t have numbers at hand, but my group of friends and me play very casually and have left several games already when they were “redesigned” for stronger progression. We then just left those games to the grind-loving players who have masses of time to burn and moved to games which like us casuals more. Since i very much guess that we casuals pay the bills in GW2 (just like in any other game) ArenaNet is playing with fire with this change.

        I will certainly check things out before buying the expansion and will only buy it if the changes do not turn out to be a huge grind, which unfortunately the “great news” announce it to be. So, my optimism here is limited.

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  2. Why Not to Make Masteries Expansion Exclusive? becouse players that dont have the new pve map wont be need of them, its stuff exclusive to pve(new map) and that isthe reason those materies are locked on HoT user content.

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    1. This is not true. There will be different masteries (and points) available in the base game. Are they as cool-sounding as mushroom jumping and pulling out a glider? No, but they aren’t purely in the new PvE maps.

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