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.