How Ashes of Creation Can Succeed Where Others Have Failed
Part III – You’re a Class Act, Verra
Intro: The Hero’s Path
When I look back at my massive multiplayer online experiences, there’s two things that come to mind immediately. The first would have to be the relationships I’ve made – some of which I cherish deeply, others I wish I could bust out the mental sandpaper for. The second is the multitude of characters I created beginning almost a quarter of a century ago. It’s a sobering thought for a middle-aged gamer such as myself to reflect upon. While City of Heroes was a few MMOs into my nearly 25-year journey thus far, it is still the MMO that I recollect to be my most beloved experience with character creation. However, my first character connection started in Dark Age of Camelot, setting the stage for what would come later. For a community event in Dark Age, I wrote a short ballad that I “performed” on my minstrel – a bit of poetry telling an epic story of a minstrel banished to Albion over a true love’s sacrifice. I incorporated my different “instruments” via my character’s various skills, adding weight to each part of the story. I did not realize how emotionally attached I would be to this event, but that came through and my fellow players were equally overcome with sympathy for my character’s bittersweet tale. As I said, this was only the catalyst of what would come in my next MMO. City of Heroes gave me a golden opportunity to really dig into a character’s backstory – compelling me to write lengthy origin stories for two of my characters. Generous community members even helped me by creating fan art for them bringing even more depth. One of the characters was a dark-hooded, vigilante ex-cop hell-bent on swift justice and the other was a villain turned hero with the power of illusion. Not sure what either these characters say about me, but they were damn fun figments of my imagination. What inspired me to invest my time in building such elaborate narratives for these characters initially had little to do with my eventual gameplay experience. That isn’t a commentary of my enjoyment of the game but more related to the class design each character embodied within the game. In my mind, I imagined the progression path of my characters way ahead of creating them in the world. Being able to build a character that I envisioned in my mind started with what the developers shared about their design. I’m sure I’m not alone in this approach. There are many of us that follow games in this genre and invest countless hours mapping the direction our characters might take. Some of us begin well ahead of a game launch while others dig in when information is more plentiful. Regardless of the timing, creating online avatars has special meaning to each of us individually.
Starting the Voyage
I will go on record to say my tabletop RPG experience hasn’t pushed past novice so you can recognize the irony of what first caught my attention about Ashes of Creation. Of course, I would not be truthful if I said Creative Director and CEO, Steven Sharif, didn’t hand me the key to my imagination with his initial pitch during Kickstarter. However, what first compelled me to open my mind was the variation among the different archetype variants. It was so inspiring that I invested a great deal of time discussing this quite regularly in podcast content I created myself with my old WoW buddy, Tyfurious, as well as collaborated on with fellow community members, most notably my podcast brother from another mother, Simurgh. Before I go any further, I wanted to clarify something for those not familiar with the class design in Ashes of Creation. Ashes of Creation begins with eight distinct archetypes which take on various roles in an adventuring party. At some point, you’ll be able to make a second archetype choice which impacts how your character progresses from the base selection. Intrepid has gone on record to
say that the combinations created by grouping two archetypes is not a true “class” but more like a “variant” of the primary archetype. Before this gets too confusing, let me define what this means – a variant takes your archetype and alters it slightly enabling a larger variety of customization options for your character progression than one archetype choice alone would. If I had to speculate on a comparison, I’d say it reminds me how one can “morph” skills in the Elder Scrolls Online. You might impact something in the skill’s nature like range, status effect or damage type. The secondary choice represents horizontal character progression which I’ll discuss later in this article. Maybe what you’ve read so far hits you squarely in the feels as it did me or maybe you’re tempering your expectations until more facts are available. Either way, I’d like to share some specific points that I feel are important to discuss when considering character progression in Ashes of Creation – class fantasy, meaningful choice and group adventuring.
Honoring the Class Fantasy
Ashes of Creation has its roots in a home-brew Pathfinder tabletop campaign, so that intrigued me very much to start. Tabletop gaming is not necessarily a new foundation – many great games have been inspired by it for their intellectual property. When Intrepid released a full list of 64 possible archetype combinations, this is where my imagination was truly captured. The two words that kept going over and over in my mind as I read and reread the different names of the combinations was “class fantasy.” My thinking was a combination of excitement but also a bit of anxiety. What I mean is the concept of class fantasy is extremely important to me as a player. I expect I’m not alone in this thinking so I’m bringing it up as my first aspect of character progression that Intrepid must focus on before all else. In my opinion, class fantasy should be the cornerstone of their character progression design. I believed so strongly in this I devoted myself in 8 of my own podcasts to speculate on what skills would tie to the class fantasy of each archetype variant. Without a clear direction on class fantasy, the final product will end up being very muddled. One stark example of where this has gone horribly wrong was the paladin class in World of Warcraft. One could argue that it is a lot better now, of course, but for quite a long period of time, I personally felt like the vanilla paladin design was a combination of chewing gum and used pinball machine parts. For the record, most of my playtime in World of Warcraft has been with this class. I’m not saying it was all bad, just felt like a very winding road of design choices that never felt cohesive. While the idea of class fantasy can be subjective, it should be extremely clear as that clarity will help in defining the core design. If I had to describe the approach another way, I’d tap into my theatre and creative writing experience. The way an actor approaches a character they need to create on stage or screen, or how a writer brings life to a character on the page is by defining a set of motivations. Each of these artists begin with history, an origin story if you will. Next, they look at agenda, purpose or role that the character might have in the grander narrative. Lastly, they look at the actions driven by the character’s past influences and current intentions. I feel it’s that level of depth that will drive exciting class fantasy. That well-defined path will supply the necessary signposts to build upon. To bring it more specifically to character design – start with the history of the archetype and class variant in the world and define how the primary archetype and secondary archetype form a symbiotic relationship conceptually. Then consider the specific role this variant will play and what subtleties will define the balance between the primary and secondary archetype choice and how they would fill that role in the greater world. Finally, think through the core skills and skill variants that would best communicate the relationship between the archetype combination and outlined role. I feel a framework like this will help take class fantasy to the next level in this MMO.
Meaningful Choices and Compelling Horizontal Progression
Earlier in the article, I spoke about horizontal progression in MMORPG design. The best way I can think to describe it first starts with another form of progression – vertical. Vertical progression is gaining power i.e., achieving a character level or getting a higher item level of gear, while horizontal progression is adding something that compliments your existing skillset in some way. Many popular MMOs today focus exclusively on vertical progression – one I immediately think of is World of Warcraft. WoW has a laser focus on verticality in character and gear progression – every expansion feeds that beast. They have relied on a “borrowed power” design formula that is downright disappointing. While the latest expansion has them admitting this and looking to change it in the future, I remain skeptical. The biggest example of this type of design in their game I can think of is what happened at the end of the Legion expansion – players spent the entire expansion acquiring and customizing their artifact weapon only to end up with a stat stick with limited usefulness when it was all over. Battle for Azeroth tried to incorporate horizontal elements in gear progression but the overarching result was a high dependency on randomness (i.e., RNG) and uninteresting choices. It fell short of grabbing my attention and was one of the most frustrating parts of the content. Based on what we know now, I feel Ashes of Creation may have a leg up as they are building horizontal progression into the very core of their design through the augmentation system. It’s been said many times that the secondary archetype choice a player will make is a form of horizontal progression as this will allow them to change the nature of the base skills of their primary archetype. Right there, I can immediately tell that this system is most certainly not the throwaway systems of the past. Speculating I envision the system we get at launch may have a more preliminary number of choices, but over time more would become available through discovery. The horizontal options don’t stop there as augmentations could be sourced from other parts of the game besides archetype – social organization, religion or maybe even race. Additionally, depending on weapon choice, a player could also choose to progress those skills as part of their build. While this level of depth is great on paper, there’s a few things that Intrepid must get right. Players feel rewarded for achieving vertical progression so that should be a component that is balanced along with the customization opportunities with horizontal progression – not as easy as it sounds. The danger in having so many ways to tune your character as well is the paradox of the “orgy of choice.” What I mean is sometimes is that too many choices can lead to some choices lacking viability in any character build. Just as class fantasy needs a distinct path, the specific progression options should also have that level of precision. Of course, testing and evolution of the game experience is going to allow the developers to refine the product but less is more. Any seasoned WoW player will recall the huge skill purge that Blizzard did a few years ago (RIP exorcism). That said, Intrepid should focus on preventing skill bloat from happening before it starts. I think this could be accomplished successfully by giving the progression choices relevance and meaning. Quality over quantity, focus on making the must-have skills the best version of themselves and deprioritize the nice-to-have ones. A skill or augment needs to have a purpose in the larger design, reinforcing the class fantasy and the role a character will play. Far more player satisfaction will be gained by having meaningful choices than character progression systems that read like the control panel of the space shuttle. Foundationally, I see evidence this is how the design is leading as the developers have talked about risk vs. reward and specialization being major design components throughout the game’s various systems including character progression.
It’s Party Time
A discussion about progression in an MMORPG would be remiss if it only considered individual character advancement. The dynamics of group content and how characters of different types interact is extremely important to the conversation. I brought it up in the prior section, but it bears repetition – relevance and meaning. In addition to being a significant part of community building in an MMO as I
referenced in my prior article on the topic, character progression, as a function of group composition, must have weight. It is this significance that contributes greatly to a successful MMO experience and player satisfaction. Role definition begins with class fantasy, and it’s refined by the vertical and horizontal choices a player makes. However, the mettle of the system is tested in the synergies or lack thereof, in group content. Solo players, don’t get your pitchforks out yet! Individual power is also worth considering as I talked about in the previous section, but I’d argue that too much of a focus on individual viability in every possible scenario hurts the MMO design in the long run. It’s encouraging to see that Intrepid is aligned with that approach and focusing on balancing primarily for group encounters. I think the party size of 8 also gives groups more flexibility to customize how they approach the content. It’s also positive to me that rock, paper, scissors balance is how they are looking at individual balance. That speaks to the larger over-arching thinking that any situation has many outcomes – reducing the “I win” button design that has plagued other MMOs. At some point, there was talk about different archetypes having a way to have “combo” effects with each other. Not sure where that conversation landed and if it’s still on the table, but I hope it is. Having that cross-archetype level of collaboration would do wonders for class progression relevance in group situations. Good players should feel needed and useful in groups – it’s an integral part of character progression design. I’m not talking about 1 or 2 skills that are “meta” either, it’s about overall well-roundedness of the role of a class (or archetype and variant in Ashes of Creation’s case) in the big picture of the MMO. Anyone that’s put together a dungeon or raid group knows how big a role utility plays in being successful. The purpose of progression as a function of party design is to offer a wider variety of options for inclusion vs. exclusion of players. That’s how I like to party, don’t you?
Outro: Choose Your Path and Find Your Way
We all make choices in our lives we hope will put us on the right path and help us achieve our goals. Sometimes we lean on experimentation to help us figure out if our best laid plans will pan out or not. Character development and progression incorporates those two concepts and that is part of the appeal I’d gather. It gives us a safer environment to consider our options, make our decisions and move forward, hoping we learn from our mistakes big and small and achieve a level of progress that we are happy with. Possibly the idea of art imitating life is why I went so deeply into this topic or maybe I just want a damn solid MMORPG that I can settle into for the long haul. Regardless of the reason, character progression will be one of the factors that will make or break the next great creation in this genre. As always, I encourage you to reply and share your thoughts on this topic. Looking forward to hearing what you have to say about how character progression can rise above the ashes of MMOs past.
This is your Ashen Herald…wishing you the best.
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