Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bigger numbers, bigger problems

Everything gets bigger.

This is an axiom that has held true for most games in the game industry but especially MMORPGs. Patches and expansions are rolled out in order to give the player more to do and to keep the money rolling in for those that design/create the game.

Everything getting bigger has held true even in the days of the old dungeon and dragons. I remember the days where we would flail around in small groups, slaying the occasional orc or desperately running away from the dragon's cave. I remember those days where level 15 was the ultimate goal and represented a significant portion of power for anyone involved in AD&D.

But it got bigger. In the form of extra rulebooks and other expansions and in the end the old power cap of level 15 was extended for everyone.

And with this growth of the power cap things became skewed. Combat tables and rulesets that were initially designed for level 15 and under simply didn't work anymore for players that literally outgrew the content and were well on their way to level 30.
The world initially designed for a modest power cap of level 15 was only able to cope with these new godlike players by throwing new godlike challenges in their face via supplemental rulebooks and yet more expansions.

How do you provide content for godlike players?
How do you provide content for those that have accumulated wealth far beyond what the game was initially designed for?

This is a conundrum that MMORPG designers have been fighting with for ages and thusfar the only answer they could come up with are simple reactive measures to structural problems of the game design.

If people are super rich... then we make stuff super expensive (remember the cost of black dye tubs in ultima online? or say... a wow mammoth mount)
If people are super proficient... then we raise the difficulty of their proficiencies (say hello to another tier of crafting, fishing, cooking etc.)
If people are super powerful... then we simply add creatures that are more powerful than them (I heard the lich king has between 2 and 3 million hit points, assuming we get to fight him)
If people have super gear... then we add gear that is more super (ok fine... better... ).

And once again things get bigger.

Both the designer and the player find themselves stuck in a cycle. The designer raises the power cap and this immediately raises the bar for the player who will always strive to get more wealth, more power and as a result will go out and slay the more powerful creatures that have just been added to the game via the patch.

That illidan chap? He's a pushover now... curator, prince, magtherion you name them... mere jokes that have been relegated to the realm of those that like to solo dungeons with the new gear that has been added in the latest patch.

And as things get bigger, bigger numbers start to cause significant problems. A game that was initially balanced for 60 levels will find it more and more difficult to cope with 10,20,30,40 additional levels and more stats to go along with it. A 10% bonus to stamina may have been insignificant at level 30 but is a huge boost at level 100 where the stats are much greater and percentile scaling goes through the roof.
The problem becomes exponential even with a linear increase in stats across the board and designers/developers will have to jump through flaming hoops to retain even the smallest sliver of balance.

What it comes down to is this: No game system can adequately handle players that are too far outside of it's initial design.

And that's not so far fetched... look at real life. If you apply yourself, work hard or just have natural talent that you can cultivate you may become an Einstein, a Sun tzu, a vincent van gogh but your potential is capped. You will never be a god (i.e. all-powerful) whereas most game systems will lead you from the ordinary to the heroic to true godhood in the end.

If you allow people to grow beyond the hard cap of the initial design you effectively turn a player into an unknown variable. You have no control over this player other than to satisfy his/her need for 'more' and the only way to keep the player happy at that point is to add new, more powerful, bosses and give the player the equivalent of a nuclear bomb to fight them with.

Without a hard cap on player potential you invalidate your carefully crafted gaming environment. People will stumble over themselves trying to get to the end-game ignoring whatever was between just to get to those new, hastily thrown together, bosses and instances that carry the most powerful equipment and yield the highest level of rewards.

As things get bigger, your game system starts to show cracks, glitches and weird effects like sudden problems with burst damage, 100% critical hit chances, massive resistance issues and problems that previously never seemed to be an issue.

Your players are leaving the ruleset, the boundaries of initial design... they have become too powerful, the numbers too large to control. I've seen it happen a dozen times ... games that ended up so skewed that players could do so much damage that an attack was either fully resisted and no damage taken whatsoever or the player was instantly pulverized when hit.
Now that's Epic...

I am watching the numbers increase and I can see the potential problems.

I'll give you one of many examples. Try not to nitpick it too much, it's an example after all: Resistances. With the new wotlk gear its easy for a paladin with a frost resistances aura and about 3-4 pieces of gear to become fully capped in frost resistance. With a little bit of creative gearing and some aura switching the same paladin can probably achieve full frost and full fire resistance at the same time.
Once you reach this point you'll probably have a lot of unhappy mages walking the world (I for one never heard a mage curse more than when most of their spells get resisted).

Certainly this comes at the cost of other stats, but it illustrates that bigger numbers will invariably lead to bigger problems.


*vlad* said...

When I used to play D&D way back, we had a level cap of 10.
Once someone hit level cap they no longer earned experience.

The whole point of it was to stop people getting too powerful. There should always be something in the world meaner than you.

wtfspaghetti said...

I agree with you. That is what happens to all MMORPGs. Expansion comes out and the developers are over-whelmed and end up ruining the experience for the players.

So the players quit and the company disappears. I will say this however. Blizzard did an excellent job of not getting over-whelmed and dealing with the changes that happen when you raise the level cap...atleast in TBC.

Only time will tell if the WotLK will be the same, but I have high hopes.

Esdras said...

Interesting post and something i have to say ive not really thought about it.

Im intreagued and will need to look into this more thank you haha.

2ndNin said...

WoW has to an extent solved some of these problems with ratings, at 80 in near perfect pre-raid gear I am less invincible than I was at 70 in my full raid gear (in fact I take like 2x the damage of my raiding self). The gear needs to stack rating to become the same level of power.

Things like resistances however are fixed, so as armour increases so inversely does the number of pieces you need to stack to get to the stage of being immune. This is a good thing, TBC immune fights compromised your roles, you stacked gear to be immune not to actually do your job.

The game does scale reasonably well, however there needs to be a third and fourth option in the game:

Normal: 5 man dungeons, 10 man instances

Heroic: 5 man dungeons, 10 man instances

Epic: 25 man instances

Legendary: 25 man instances, 5 man dungeons

(empowered is simply a way to differentiate 10 and 25 man versions of instances). Legendary mode should make the fights inside scale to your highest gear level, and award gear based on this (to a minimum of say ilvel max -26). So you can go back and kill Gruul on Legendary at 80 and get the same challenge as walking in in level 70 quest blues + some.

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