MMORPGs are a Flawed Genre and it's issues aren't going to be resolved without Radical Game Design Changes. I will try to explain the problems and consequences so that you can better understand the issues.
First of let's start with two things:
Content Can be Infinite.
Progression Cannot be Infinite.
A Sandbox MMORPG might be able to solve for the first one but it cannot solve the second one.
Content in the form of Procedural Generation, User Generation that will eventually be more sophisticated in the future, and with possible Player Created Cities or Player Created Dungeons, which is a shame about Everquest Landmark(Not Next) as it had a lot of potential for this if it were further developed.
Content as in various forms of PvP like Guild Wars or Realm versus Realm or Factions are also possible and it's pretty much the "Current Design Philosophy" for Sandbox MMOs at this time.
Even future forms of Social Gameplay are possible like you see in the recent Social Deduction Genre in the form of Player Villains(License to Grief), Player Monsters and various Player Roles and Social Hierarchies are also possible as Dynamic Gameplay.
However Progression as defined as the growth of Power and Agency cannot be Infinite as they are a consequence of Systems and Mechanics defined in Code. Even with Procedural Gear or Resources they are limited by the stats and formulas behind those generative systems and with time will eventually be optimized and maximized into the Metagame.
A hidden Corollary you might not realize is Challenge itself is directly tied to Progression as Mobs and Bosses have their own form of Power with their own Systems and Mechanics to match the Player Progression. This will be more obvious once we eventually have Player Dungeons, Monsters and Villains and Players will more directly understand that this is also Progression.
So to not have Progression is to not have a variety of Challenges as they will eventually be optimized into Meta-Strategies and Meta-Builds like you see in other Competitive Multiplayer Games and all other content will become obsolete anyway.
Themepark MMOs is the case where both Content and Progression are tied together. Every Expansion is another piece of Content together with another bit of Progression in the form of Gear and other Progression Gimmicks.
Progression has always been Limited, it is not just Content that was Limited and Sandbox MMOs Cannot escape from that no matter what they do.
So how do the various games Can handle the issue of progression?
One way is to follow in the footsteps of Themeparks and turn the Grinding up to 11 and add in new progression occasionally in updates and expansions. Those supposedly "sandbox" MMOs do sure feel like playing a Themepark, but without the actual "Content" of Themeparks. There is certainly no shortage of Grindy supposedly "Sandbox" MMOs.
Another is to not care about Progression and treat Endgame as Equal Playing Field for the various PvP forms of Content, which I guess is fine and what most PVP Sandbox MMOs "Theoretically" should be, although not many really are for some reason. And like I said before without Progression, Meta-Strategies would also solidify.
For further solutions we need to understand three additional concepts:
Permanence of Stuff.
Permanence of Character.
Permanence of The World.
Pick your Poison.
When you imagine what a "Sandbox MMO" is supposed to be, Full/Partial Loot PVP with a crafting economy with permanent durability loss for gear is the most likely that comes to mind.
You can even imagine Survival style Games with Base Building and Raiding and Destruction which can be thought of as User Generated and PvP Content.
The Granddaddy EVE Online certainly isn't shy in terms of the sheer Magnitude of Destruction of Stuff that takes an enormous amount of Time, Effort and Resources to Build.
But the Pure Destruction of Stuff does not really work that well to solve the fundamental problem of the genre, and it can also lead to an even Bigger Problem.
Progression can also be understood as a Power Difference so it can manifest with the destruction of stuff in two ways.
Either through the inflation of the gear economy making the overall power of gear average out, making the gap close. Or through Monopolies where the Rich Factions get Richer until they eventually become a world conquering empire that is stagnant and fossilized. Or both at the same time at two distinct levels.
What should be understood is Big Empires have a PvP Gameplay Value of Zero. While big magnificent battles between big factions can happen the timeframes for when that happens is enormous, this as you may have figured it out is the problem of EVE Online. The rest have to fight for the scraps and some can't even do that, the game just breaks.
The next solution that has been floating around in MMO discussions is that of World Resets like that of seasonal resets like you see in Path of Exile(which will probably appear in MMOs also as they can fit Themepark MMOs), new fresh server starts, and which Crowfall Indie MMO is based on with its temporary Campaign Worlds that eventually End.
Not that certainly solves most issues with progression, including economy inflation, and it really just has one small flaw with it:
The World Fucking Ends.
As the Ideal of a MMO is to be a Dynamic, Living, Breathing Fantasy World, a Second World to be transported to and experience. Killing off the World so readily means you aren't living up to that ideal.
Even for a game like World of Warcraft when it was first launched, the dream was that you could be a character and experience the world and be part of the story from Warcraft 3.
Whether its Middle Earth or Star Wars or Elder Scrolls, the appeal is the world.
Progression may be a Structural Foundation and Requirement for the good Functioning of the World, but we should not solve the problem by killing the patient.
Thus I am going to argue my case for Permadeath in a MMO is the best solution that hasn't been tried before.
Permadeath needs to do only Two Things in order to work properly for our purposes, one is that of a Power Reset and the other is that handling of Ownership of Stuff.
The Concept of Ownership is the Key to make something like a Dynamic Ever Changing World.
Your Gear is Owned by You and in a Bank that is unreachable by anyone, Houses, Ships, Cities, Guilds and even Empires are things that can be Owned.
To Own means to Accumulate and that is the slow poison that kills the game. Because You aren't the Only One that is Accumulating. Some are Accumulating things better than you and you will eventually be left behind and obsolete just like the content.
This should not be a mystery to you.
So Full Loot PvP? That doesn't go far enough.
With Permadeath you need to Sever the link of Ownership itself.
That doesn't mean I am arguing for having no Ownership or Individual Ownership, even if you die that doesn't mean your stuff ceases to exist. Things like a Bank isn't that hard to recreate with a Guild, but that Guild has a Leader who Owns and Controls the Functions of the Guild.
What I am arguing for is Ownership to be a Process with Death being a key component to it that can lead to interesting consequences.
In Life you have full Ownership, Control and Protection over your own stuff.
But in Death that should depend on your own Relationships and Trust for what Inheritance you leave behind and what Allegiance you have that you entrust your stuff too.
It can be something simple like leaving you Deed to your house to your friend. Or burying it as a treasure somewhere like a pirate. But there is always a Process and a Risk with it.
In Guilds and Factions that is where things can get even more complicated. Maybe you can Trust your Second in Command and Successor, but maybe he also targeted and dies at the time, and maybe there are factions within your own organization that have their own ideas leading to instability and civil war.
Anyone can Die and straightforward plans might not be as straightforward.
Now the second thing Permadeath needs to do is that of a Power Reset.
Honestly with the above Severing of Ownership of Stuff there isn't that much need to do this as Gear could work just as well, and Levels never had been that relevant in a MMO, like it's said "the true game begins at Endgame".
Something like reaching Endgame is a trivial problem for MMOs, so you might asking why Levels and thus the need for a Level Reset like in Roguelike?
You see Levels and its XP are a very flexible Concept that can make all kinds of Content the people want to do Relevant and Viable. You don't need to do the same Boss over and over again just to get the right gear.
Some Builds might be better to do certain content so there can be variation in content which would be important when Risks are involved. And with more Places being relevant and viable there can be more interesting Resources, Trades and Economy.
But what should be most understood is Permadeath with Level Resets is the most True Meritocracy where Real Player Skills, Decisions and Schemes are always relevant.
Not only the Pay 2 Win and No Lifers will be the only ones that can reach the top.
Permadeath would be the great equalizer.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that I am arguing to not have any form of Player Account permanent gain like you see in Roguelikes with Meta-Progression.
The Character Needs to Die, but he Only needs to Die as a Level Reset, every other form of progression outside of that are not affected.
Nor is it necessary that a Character needs to Permanently Die Immediately, a limited number of Lives can be permitted depending on the Class.
What is Necessary is for Permadeath to be Inevitable and eventually enter the Cycle of Life, Death and Rebirth.
What people don't realize about Permadeath in a MMO is the Great Freedom that hides within it.
In a MMO and even in all Competitive Multiplayer Games everything needs to be Balanced, Fair and Equal at a certain point.
With Permadeath that does not need to be the case as Risk already contains the element of Fairness, the Temporality of that Power through Death the Fairest of them All.
With Permadeath you can have the concept of Power Potential where not all Classes and Builds are Equal at Max Level.
A Level 1 would still be weak regardless of their potential and the higher tier classes might require more XP with greater Risks that can make them Vulnerable for longer until that potential is realized.
And Regardless of how powerful they are, Death is still inevitable.
1 vs 1
1 vs 6
1 vs 20
1 vs 100
1 vs an Empire
Giving the Player the Role of Bosses and Villains with the Agency to truly affect the World and all its Players.
Even Player Empires won't be able to hide behind their Armies and Walls when a Dragon shows up at their door.
And where there are Dragons, there will be Dragon Slayers ready to take their head as a trophy.
Is a Raid is something that should be hidden in the corner of the world waiting for players to defeat it? No, a Raid should be something that brings True Terror and Destruction upon the World with True Heroes Sacrificing their Lives to face it.
A King for a Day, a Moment of Glory, a Line of History written in that World with the Scars permanently Etched upon it.
Through Luck, through Effort, through Skill, through Patience and Persistence or through Schemieing, everyone should have a chance to reach that level, for a little while.
The Idea of Permadeath in a MMO I got from the story of the Jedi in Star Wars Galaxies. They had to Permadeath, and to use their awesome Power and Play as The Jedi means to be Hunted and Die.
I hear most people kept them hidden as a kind of trophy as it was not worth using from the amount of effort to gain them.
But what I was most fascinated by was the players that did decide to use them and have their moment of glory.
The Jedi could be powerful because they would Die. If the Jedi was just another class that people could select then they wouldn't be that special.
So this got me thinking, what if Every Character of every Player could Die. Wouldn't that mean every player could have the potential to be that powerful and have that experience?
Of Course not every player is that comfortable with that excitement and would want a more gradual and persistent progression, so I am going to propose here some elements of Meta-Progression.
The core idea behind this is various forms of Class Unlocks that can be achieved through various means, some can be permanently unlocked by doing various missions, achievements and requirements, some can be linked to your Guild or Community and some can be more random depending on the opportunities presented in the world like becoming a Boss Monster in a Story/Quest.
Every Class has a Maximum Level of 20 like you find in D&D and every Class would have their own Power Potential at Max Level with different Stat Growth and Unique Abilities,Skills and Traits per Class.
This has some very interesting implications, regardless of how high the difference between the more Basic and Higher Tier Class, the Power Difference would still Remain more Flat.
While the difference between a stat of 2000 and one of 4000 is substantial, it is still far from differences of thousands versus millions. A bunch of Max Level Base Classes could easily take a Higher Tier one if alone.
Furthermore if the XP requirements for Higher Tier Classes is substantially higher that would require doing riskier difficulty content or take to progress through each level much longer.
And no matter how strong the potential of a Class is Level 1 will pretty much always be defeated by a Level 5, a level 5 will always be defeated by a level 10. So there is a certain balance that is always maintained between potential and levels.
One interesting form is what I call Group Progression.
Imagine how in a RTS like Starcraft where you unlock new Units to Build through various Buildings, Facilities and Research. What that could be implemented for Classes in a MMO.
If a Player was given an Allegiance at the start of the game to some Town, Guild or Faction he can be integrated to be a part of that social group and its community. Maybe be Pioneers on a Frontier that is Dangerous and Underdeveloped with a few colorful and powerful high tier players as founders. And play a kind of Survival Game.
If you build a Church you would unlock a Priest Class, and if you manage to build a Cathedral you might unlock archbishops and a special cardinal slot where a player can be rewarded by the governing authority or community to play that special class.
What is interesting about this system is multiple players can invest in the group and share in the benefits, a form of progression that is not dependent on your character and thus your death as like with a RTS a Unit is ultimately Expendable.
This is great for more casual players without much time as even their small individual investments can aggregate into something bigger that they can see over time.
Ashes of Creation supposedly has something like that, but I want to see how without Permadeath how they are going to make that work.
Speaking of social groups, Space Station 13 can serve as a blueprint on how to create a cohesive player community through its various Roles, Authority and its Access and Controls. And here again the concept of Severing of Ownership and Inheritance is useful to make sure the community is not stagnant and prone to abuse.
There might be Leadership and have the Controls of the Organization, but if the community rebels and wants them to Die, they will Die.
For Class Unlocks that are permanently unlocked on the Player’s Account.
It’s goal is to serve as long term objectives for the player to complete and is the main form of individual progression the player will pursue as a kind of Collect them All, and what would be considered the “Endgame” of doing all the Challenging Content in another MMO.
The Idea behind it is the Player can experience all the Content and Playstyles the Game has to offer through doing the various Achievements,Quests and Requirements. And since New Updates and Expansions can add New Classes that might have as a Requirement unlocking a Previous Class the Player is incentivized to Unlock them All even if that Class might not be particularly powerful.
And if the Player is frustrated by the Deaths of the pursuit of the current objective they can try something else on another content.
With the variability in Goals that means the Players can also be more spread all over the World so players don’t need to farm the same most efficient location as the achievements and requirements can serve as additional modifiers and restrictions on top of Levels and XP.
The Third form is Class Slots that are limited and temporary.
Players through Luck might get the opportunity to become Powerful Bosses and Villains to make the world more interesting. There are also Prestige Classes where only the Top Skilled Players in their Domain can get and need to constantly maintain their positions. Some Class you need to Kill the Current Holder to take their Place. And Group Progression at the highest level of Top Factions and Empires also have their Own Powerful Classes.
So whether through Luck, Skill, Schemes or Leadership there is the opportunity to be The Most Powerful, at least for a little while.
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