On MMORPG Design: Why Games Should Scale Horizontally Instead of Vertically





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Published on Apr 19, 2012

"Vertical scaling" is the de facto way that most MMORPGs are designed: gamers level a character up to max level, then they grind out tiers of gear in PVE or PVP. And if you roll another character, you repeat the same process.

Here are the issues with the vertical scaling:
1. It's grindy
2. It creates brackets. You can't do content with other players unless your character levels / gear scores are sufficiently close
3. It causes power creep. Content is initially too difficult, but once players obtain the gear to do the content, it becomes progressively less difficult until it's trivial
4. It creates dead zones and content. This happens when the bulk of active characters are at level cap and whenever expansions are released with new content

I believe that "horizontal scaling" -- where new characters have a baseline set of necessary tools and progressing your character is about broadening your capabilities instead of centering on gear acquisition -- would provide a much better solution for both gamers and developers.

Here are the benefits of horizontal scaling:
1. There are no brackets due to level or gear score. You can roll a new character and immediately group with other more-experienced characters
2. It levels the playing field in PVE and PVP. Performing well isn't about your level or gear score, it's about your ability to play your character effectively and work in a team
3. Content (zones, instances, etc) stays relevant forever

Here's how would progression could work in a horizontal scaling system:

1. Take achievements to the next level, so that the game tracks performance at a granular level...
- What's my fastest time-to-clear for this instance (because this instance is never outdated)?
- What's my fastest TTC for this boss fight?
- What's my fastest Huttball match win ever?

...and then have these stats feed into Leaderboards...
- Which players / guilds have the fastest TTC for this boss for this week / the past x weeks / all-time?
- Who had the highest DPS on this boss fight this week / month / all-time?

So doing content for competitively-minded players is about excellence in execution, not getting geared up.

2. Support customization of the character's look (armor / weapons / clothing) and guild heraldry based on achievements and performance

3. Have weapons with different capabilities, so that "gearing up" is about building up a collection of weapons that you can use in various situations or to support particular playstyles. So you acquire a Cinderburn staff if you want to buff up your Mage's DoTs capability, or you acquire an Earthbind staff if you want to buff your Mage' earth-based CC capability. But you just have to acquire each weapon once. There isn't a +1 Flaming Sword, +2 Flaming Sword staff, etc - there's just a Flaming Sword

I believe horizontal scaling would create a much more fun experience for gamers and also provide better ROI on content for game developers.

Let me know what you think!

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