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March 3, 2021

Transmission 05

Co-op events & progression

This post will again look at Co-op. While previously the focus was on a few ways to extend the mode – streaming integration, survival mode, and asymmetric 2v1 mode; this time I want to look at events and progression.

Daily Quests

These are quite common and have their advantages and disadvantages. A few good things that daily quests can do:

  • Encourage players to come back periodically
  • Guide players to try something different
  • Increase relative progression speed for players with less time
  • Finishing tasks provides closure
  • Reduce loss aversion if given enough impact

An extreme example of the last point can be seen in Fortnite. It has so many additional systems that winning the battle-royale itself starts seeming like a side objective. This effect isn't limited to daily quests.
"It’s not a game for the 1 winner. It’s a game for the 99 losers."Tevis Thompson.

★ ★ ★

Negative effects of daily quests:

  • Completing them every single day can feel like a chore.
  • It might feel like they are forcing you into something you don't want to do.

Some games partially fix the former by letting players accumulate and complete a certain amount of daily quests later. Adding an option to reroll the daily quest for a different one can help can help with the latter. But overall, I'm not sure if daily quests would be beneficial. I imagine they have a positive short-term effect on player engagement, but the long-term effect might not be good as players start to see the game as a chore. I would prefer a game that players want to come back to naturally, and have new tasks with weekly or longer intervals.

Daily rewards as seen in StarCraft II (on the first win of the day) is another valid approach. In StarCraft II it's mostly negligible, but it motivates some few players to come back, while others don't feel like they are missing out, and it doesn't force players into doing something specific.

Events

A different way how to break the monotony and lead to some excitement are in-game events that randomly appear while you are playing. This idea is solely for Co-op, think of Treasure Goblins in Diablo 3 that show up randomly and break the standard gameplay. Encounters with them can be quite exciting, and not just because of rewards, you might aggro several elite packs while chasing a goblin – resulting in a long chase and a battle spanning half the map. This can create very memorable moments. The goal would be to provide a similar feeling, but with an added restriction that the mission flow cannot be disrupted too much. That's not an issue in an APRG like Diablo but could be in a scripted Co-op map with controlled mission flow.

Few types of events that might work:

  • Destroy an enemy army or outpost (featuring special or heroic units; an army might patrol)
  • Catch "treasure goblins" that are traversing the map and get their booty
  • Summon (with resources and units) enemy boss and defeat it
  • Hunt things on the map, some could be dangerous, invisible, fast or all together
  • Repair and rebuild a structure, protect it once finished
  • Escalating events (e.g., "Destroy Baneling Nests", but once you destroy the first one, others will start to spawn Banelings and Scourge and place them around enemy forces).
Encounters with Treasure Goblins can lead to exciting chases

While events like this don't incentivize players to go back to the game as dailies do, they could be an exciting change of pace. These events would appear randomly every 2–4 missions, and I imagine they would be limited to more experienced players – we don't want to add complexity to new players that are just learning maps and commanders. Events would probably work as additional bonus objectives in the sense that they wouldn't make completing the main objective more difficult – preventing unforeseen difficulty swings. Some might replace bonus objectives when active, or require their completion first.

As for rewards, these events could provide experience or a currency depending on how progression systems are structured. Some could unlock other (greater) events as Treasure Goblins also do.

Greed's realm is unlocked through hunting Treasure Goblins

Greater Events

There are several events in Diablo 3 that unlock different events – Rifts unlock Greater Rifts, Treasure Goblins unlock Greed's Domain, and Keywardens unlock the Infernal Machine. In the same way, basic random events from normal missions could unlock "greater events". These could include raids, curated mutations, or other challenges.

I imagine these would be launched while in a party through a special queue. The party leader is choosing and unlocking the challenge for the rest, but everyone gets rewards. This could improve socialization as players might seek advice on how to beat a certain challenge and look for allies. Or a player might play in the random queue completing normal events and collecting unlocks; and then invite a friend to play greater events once both are online. Unlocks are consumed when the game is won.

Unlike with normal random events, here players can strategize before the mission, choose commanders, customize them just for the job, and try again if they don't succeed. This could help with socialization further.

Rewards should be better compared to normal events; some could reward minor sidegrade upgrades for commanders. If normal maps were reused, different lighting, weather, or seasonal conditions could make the atmosphere stand out (similarly to hero missions in Overwatch 2).

Repeating weekly mutations

Trying to beat weekly mutations with different commanders can be fun. Unfortunately doing that in StarCraft II provides even less experience than normal missions. The idea here is to reward this enjoyable experience but without encouraging grinding mutations.

Weekly mutation in StarCraft II with various mutators

The reward for the first win could be significantly higher, so players can be satisfied with a single win and don't feel like being forced into repeatedly beating it. Bonus XP would be provided only for few wins with unique commanders. Something along these lines could work:

  • 100% XP – normal mission
  • 125% XP – random mission (as in StarCraft II)
  • 500% XP – weekly mutation the first time
  • 200% XP – the next 2–3 wins with unique commanders on the weekly mutation

The math for bonus XP could get complicated when you consider different coefficients for difficulties, and players playing on different difficulties in various orders. But as in StarCraft II, completing on higher difficulty later could just add the difference – making the order irrelevant, and not punishing players for finishing it first on lower difficulties.

Co-op Progression

Finally, I want to touch on progression systems in Co-op. I agree with the comments that the system in StarCraft II was disjointed, especially after the addition of prestiges. They are a great addition, but they make certain masteries useless, and when players reach level 15, it's not clear whether they should prestige or go for mastery unlocks.

  • 1–15 basic leveling (high gameplay impact)
  • 1–90 mastery (low gameplay impact)
  • 91–1000 ascension (cosmetic)
  • 1–15x3 prestiges (sidegrade)

Despite the lacking cohesion, I think that these systems scale commander power with progression well. I don't think an unending power increase as seen in some games would be a good fit for RTS. Challenges like weekly mutations are more fun to discuss when players are on a similar power level. And more dedicated players want more challenge, not less.

I believe the game-wide progression system should be created first, and long-term progression in Co-op would fit into that. Because of this, I won’t try to propose a progression system here, and instead I will highlight some good things about the current progression system, and look at few other options.

Levels 1–15 have a the steepest increase in power. This is good as it serves as an extended commander tutorial and power fantasy.

Mastery leveling provides a space to experiment with the full commander kit. While masteries have a gameplay impact, they do not fundamentally change the commander, and so players can learn the commander's kit undisturbed. Another good thing about mastery points is that they are shared between all commanders. Players are free to switch commanders during this long-term progression. If the points weren't shared, players would burn-out faster, and likely quit instead of switching to another character without masteries.

Ascension progression does not further improve commanders and is purely cosmetic. I believe this is good; even if the level becomes meaningless, at least you see some result of playing. Though I don't think having a maximum level is beneficial. It encourages grinding to it; and once you reach it, the intrinsic motivation you might have had is weakened by taking away the extrinsic motivation. That's generally a good way to stop a person from doing something they intrinsically enjoyed before.

Ascension's cosmetic rewards were quite lacking. I did propose rewards like different commander loading screens and portrait borders, and in-game skins are also always an option. However, I wouldn't be opposed to having no rewards for ascension at all. It being just a single number discourages grinding, and it's more clearly just for a show or a statistic (which can be interesting as well).

Unit statistics for my Raynor commander (overlay)

Prestiges are more of a horizontal progression (sidegrade) where you can re-level commanders to gain a new way to play them. This sidesteps power creep, makes the game more difficult as you will be leveling without all unlocks and masteries, and adds more ways to play. I believe some sidegrade progression is good and could be integrated a bit more with other systems (progression, events, etc.). For example, some minor sidegrades could be quite rare and obtainable only from greater events.

Sidegrade upgrades in Heart of the Swarm campaign

The basic progression system (levels 1–15) doesn't have to be linear. Wings of Liberty campaign provides more freedom via spending credits on units and upgrades. A similar system could replace both basic leveling and other progression systems like masteries and prestiges. Some options could be unlocked from the start and serve as a tutorial. As players level up, more options would unlock and more credits gained. Players could also choose to unspec some of these basic upgrades, and do a more specialized build.

This gives more freedom for players, but it's harder to balance as you are not giving straight choices like with Kerrigan's sidegrades. If not balanced well, this can inadvertently lead to a dominant build and lower diversity despite players having more options.

Credits can be spent freely in the Wings of Liberty campaign

Age of Empires Online (now revived through Project Celeste) is an interesting example of several progression systems added for PvE RTS experience. This includes unlocking tech trees, items that upgrade unit types, advisors, and things like building your home city. Although it can be a bit confusing as some progression systems apply differently in different game modes.

I'm not a big fan of incremental gear upgrades for units in this game. The technology tree serves mostly as a basic progression and is fully unlocked relatively quickly. Advisors seem to provide the most meaningful customization of your civilization.

Gradually unlock a technology tree as you level up (Age of Empires Online)
Equipment for unit types (Age of Empires Online)
Advisors providing various bonuses in individual ages (Age of Empires Online)

Closing

Thank you for reading. There are a lot of ways to create progression systems, but the best approach will depend on how the game is structured and monetized. The co-op progression system has to fits in. I tried to highlight some good things about the Co-op progression systems in StarCraft II, and outline few other options.

I'm not sure about daily quests, but events and their bigger variants could provide a good change of pace with additional challenge and excitement. StarCraft II has weekly mutations, but that's only a few games per week at most. Greater events could also improve socialization.

It's interesting to look at PvE experiences in various RTS games, but we might be able to learn from games in other genres as well – for example Diablo 3, Warhammer: Vermintide, or hero missions in Overwatch 2.

For discussion check this thread on r/FrostGiant.

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