Perfect Ten: Why MMO progression servers are a brilliant idea

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been enjoying the journey through RIFT Prime, the game’s first progression server. Trion Worlds surprised and delighted many of us when it announced that it would be creating a slightly more difficult, vastly more cash shop-free shard that would take players through the entirety of the RIFT experience from vanilla through the latest expansion.

As I’ve reset the clock on my RIFT adventures, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the benefits of progression servers. With a lot of World of Warcraft fans wondering if Classic will eventually morph into a progression shard (which I certainly hope it does), and with games like EverQuest and EverQuest II repeatedly embracing the alternative ruleset, I think we could be moving into an era where older MMOs experience new life with this relatively simple move.

So why are MMO progression servers a brilliant idea? Here are 10 thoughts on the matter.

1. They generate enthusiasm for an older product

When an MMO starts to age, it becomes increasingly more difficult to whip up enthusiasm and press for it outside of its core audience. There are a few moves that can guarantee a wave of press and hype, such as a reboot, business model shift, or an expansion. But all of these require a great deal of work and time. While setting up a progression server is definitely more complicated than flipping a few switches, it has to be a much lower effort method of generating enthusiasm for an MMO than some of these other ways (not to mention being less disruptive).

With so many great MMORPGs already out on the market and maturing gracefully into their middle years, I definitely applaud any effort to draw attention back to these games and get players excited about trying them out again.

Speaking of which…

2. They introduce new players to an MMO

A progression server is an ambassador of sorts, introducing a game to a new group of players that hasn’t ever set foot in it to date. While playing RIFT Prime, I was kind of amazed how many people I saw mention that they had never tried the game before but had only now given it a shot because of all of the buzz swirling about it. I had assumed that a progression server would only be for the old crowd, including lapsed players, but that turned out to be short-sighted.

In short, never underestimate the power of a fresh start, because…

3. They give latecomers a chance to start on the same footing

I’ve both heard and expressed myself trepidation about trying out an MMORPG because of the feeling of “being late to the party.” It’s kind of depressing to be a new low-level player in a game where a vast majority of the established playerbase is sitting at endgame and has long since blown through that content. Leveling up through a population wasteland feels wrong in an MMO, and it’s here that progression servers come to the rescue.

By offering a new start for everyone and then artificially gating progress, latecomers can jump in without fear of being left far behind. True, they may not know the game as well as veterans and have a learning curve with which to contend, but it’s as close to a fair do-over as one could ask for.

4. They push back against obsolescence and repurpose old content

When it comes to MMOs, old doesn’t mean “useless.” In fact, due to the ever-changing and evolving nature of these games, old can become new again with a few tweaks and adjustments. Progression servers are a way for studios to push back against obsolescence and show off how much older areas have improved.

And I always applaud when studios take older zones and content and repurpose them instead of letting them sit abandoned. Players are itching for any good excuse to level back through these classic zones again, so why not provide them with that excuse?

5. They change the rules to make an old game exciting

Alternative server rulesets are low-effort, high-impact ways to shake things up and make a game exciting again. By disabling some crutches that veterans have used for a while to level or by refocusing players’ attention on different areas, these adjusted rules have a rejuvenating effect on players’ interest and attention. Plus, they shake us out of our ruts — ruts that we may have been in for years and never realized how bad it’s gotten.

6. They keep players bunched together

Progression servers not only start players out together but attempt to keep them (roughly) in the same parts of the game by artificially controlling what content is available and when new parts of the game unlock. Usually this happens via expansion openings, allowing the playerbase to progress through the game’s original rollout on a faster timeframe.

As there are benefits to keeping packs of leveling players together — for dungeon runs, open world content, landscape visibility, and shared discussions — it behooves these servers to unlock at the pace of the crowd rather than the cutting-edge world firsts.

7. They slow down the pace of progression

Along the same lines as the above point, the measured pace of the unlocks keep us from racing to the top. Oh, sure, there will always be those who will kill themselves to jet up through levels and grind XP through sleepless nights, but many more players feel the allure of being able to adventure without the undue pressure of 120 levels and six expansions to get through all at once just to be on par with the rest of the field.

If I know that no matter how fast I blow through content, I won’t be able to get to the next expansion before its time arrives, then I have a much higher chance of taking it easy, soaking up the details and lore, and enjoying the journey as much as the destination.

8. They give each expansion its own time in the spotlight

Once unlocks start happening, progression servers shine a spotlight on the MMO’s library of expansions, one at a time. Each expansion holds memories for veteran players to access and unique experiences for newbies going through it for the first time, and there is a strong allure in going back to a time where Expansion X is the core focus of the current playerbase. Sure, it won’t last forever, but it’s nice to have that time returned to us once more. And if you hate said expansion? Then you’ll have a shorter wait than the original players did for the next one to arrive.

9. They let us all be newbies once again

Wouldn’t it be great if you could bottle up that feeling of being a brand-new player in an MMO that you’ve been looking forward to for years? There’s something so powerful and thrilling about those rare moments, and players have spent years attempting to recapture the magic of those initial days.

While a progression server can’t wipe our memories and make us experience a game completely anew, it does seem to produce an acceptable knock-off of this heady drug. We can be newbies in our favorite games again, if just for a short while, and run around in the beginning zone with all of these other new characters, seeing the game from a new player’s perspective rather than from a jaded veteran’s.

10. They involve the community in its development

Because there is incentive to keeping progression servers relevant and interesting to the crowd over the long haul — as there are subscription dollars at stake — studios have a vested interest in keeping the community involved and excited past those first few weeks. By involving the players in votes for unlocks, cultivating feedback for server features, and holding different contests and special events, studios can create that “stickiness” that binds players to the experience for the duration. Each new unlock can be a launch day in and of itself. Each poll and decision can spawn discussion and hype.

Studios can’t just make a progression server, set timers, and then abandon them and hope they’ll be successful. They have to carefully cultivate them and be willing to adjust them as need be to keep as many players interested for as long as possible.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at justin@massivelyop.com or eliot@massivelyop.com with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”
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41 Comments on "Perfect Ten: Why MMO progression servers are a brilliant idea"

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kgptzac

I read these points as basically design flaws for games that “require” progression servers to jolt things up. An ideal MMO updates itself to give users across the experience spectrum a unified, good, experience.

For example, I stutter to imagine myself playing a less polished, less balanced, and a buggier Guild Wars 2 and Eve Online.

So yeah, if the party is good enough, then there’s no need to feel being “late to the party”.

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Ssiard

I played EQ and EQ2 this way. I totally agree with progression servers. Just because your game was released doesn’t mean I had time to play it!

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Fisty

I’ve replayed games like Link to the Past several times over the years and I don’t see why MMO’s shouldn’t provide the same opportunity sometimes. Is it nostalgia or just good game design that brings us back? Maybe a little nostalgia for good game design. Bring them on I say. If LOTRO, STO or even AoC did this I’d be likely to subscribe for a few months anyway.

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Bruno Brito

I don’t see the brilliant idea. I’m way more of the camp “Instead of selling a rehashed experience, completely REWORK your game to relive that yet with QoL”. Rift Prime proved that QoL isn’t bad, if it’s done right, and i can see that working for more “evolved” mmos, like WoW. Hence why i was always a proponent of the Pristine Server idea.

Stop levelgating everything, choose ONE level and stick with it, make the progression horizontal ( gw2 ), evolve graphics and such, and make the game a bit less linear.

Done. You relived the old days with new QoL.

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Toy Clown

Rift Prime is the first progression server I’ve taken part in and I’m enjoying the experience greatly. Sure, there’s been some bumps along the way, but they’re not even that evident when you shut off chat channels and don’t pay attention to some forum threads.

Rift was always confusing to me and taking breaks made it that much more confusing. Now I understand how the souls work, how you can switch them around, the dailies make more sense for the progression server, too. I’m enjoying that you can get Live cash shop mounts as dungeon loot on Prime, and I love finding dimension items from mob drops. It expands on why I love exploring.

I’m also enjoying leveling a crafter as I do, as it gives me more reason to hunt the mobs at my level for crafting supplies. I also love stopping to do rifts when I come across them.

This is the way I love to play MMOs, where I’m mostly doing things at my own pace and exploring the game world as I go.

I think I’ll take advantage of progression servers if they pop up on some old favorite games. I shy away from playing older MMOs because I’m so far behind everyone and any players I come across in my travels are already on alt #24556. It’s also nice knowing I can keep my characters when the progression server is closed.

serariron
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serariron

While I like progression servers, here is the thing, which game is truly left that needs one, that came after WoW? I specify after WoW because games that came out before would not attract new players even with a progression server because they are just too old so it would be just for the veterans and other than EQ most of those games have just a tiny playerbase left.

It benefits those older games the most that came out during the subscription era and released a few expansions that brought a chunk of endgame content all at once.

We will get a WoW one (or more specifically, I am sure we will get BC after Classic if the experiment is successfull) and have an EQ2 one. Rift we now also have. So, what is left. A Lotro progression server would probably be nice since it also has tons of dead group content but after that?

Warhammer Online? Gone. ESO? Too young. SW:Tor? Expansions were laughably small (compared to other games) and focused on story, don’t need a progression server for that. Star Trek Online? Maybe. Wildstar? *cough*

You get the idea. There just aren’t many games left that could benefit from one. The biggest one would truly be Lord of the Rings Online but that’s pretty much it.

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Life_Isnt_Just_Dank_Memes

BDO would definitely benefit form this. I can’t get new friends into it because they know how far behind they are from the rest of the population and that’s even with the PvE Olvia servers.

Then again, the gear progression system in BDO is so bad, progression servers are more a band aid than a fix because new players are still subject to the same garbage as the regular game. My bad.

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Alex Malone

I’m not sure if I’d enjoy a progression server or not.

I know if there was a classic LotRO server, I’d subscribe in a heartbeat as I loved Shadows of Angmar. But, I know that if it was a progression server I’d probably quit as soon as it progressed to Moria, which would make me less likely to bother with it in the first place.

I disagree with most of your points, but especially the point about pushing back against obsolescence. They aren’t a way for studios to show how much zones have improved. They are a way for studios to show off how zones used to be, but by the time they get to show how the zone has improved (by progressing the server to an expansion that improved the zone), that zone has now become obsolete again.

Also, how does it slow down progression? I know if I joined a LotRO classic or progression server, my progression would be loads faster than when I first did it! I already know where everything is, I’ve already done it a few times! What took me 2 months at launch would only take me 2 weeks on a classic server!

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Oleg Chebeneev

Sorry, Justin, I dont see any brilliant idea here. Its just a way for devs to make quick buck exploiting nostalgia. All I see is “been there, done that”. Also progression servers dont really bring a surge of new players. Seriously, how many new players are playing progression server of Everquest 1? They are mostly for old players who are nostalgic for early days of that MMO or displeased with latest expansions.

Those progression servers dont make any big splash in MMO. How many MMOs even have them? EQ1, EQ2, RIFT. Thats it? And none is very popular. Well, maybe RIFT’s atm, but only because its new. In several months, population will deplete drastically.

As for the points listed, you could as well make “10 proofs why lockboxes are brilliant idea”.

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Castagere Shaikura

This is what i have been saying too. All the hype around these servers are sounding like a broken record now. In a few months after they launch they fade away. They have done this every time. Its all just something to grab a quick buck with and game sites to have something new to write about.

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Fisty

But for us players, it is a chance for us to replay the content we fell in love with or the content that actually had challenge, required teamwork, better designs, etc.

Coolit
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Coolit

“With a lot of World of Warcraft fans wondering if Classic will eventually morph into a progression shard (which I certainly hope it does)”

If the only option in WoW classic is this I wouldn’t be interested in playing and I think it would be a disservice to everyone who fought to make Classic a thing. I’m not saying they shouldn’t do this just that there should be an option to stay and play on a permanent Vanilla server.

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Malcolm Swoboda

You’d think they would have the resources and will to do the following: 1)Keep Classic server up, 2)Allow transfer to a BC server, 3)Start up new Classic server (to merge into the first later)