The "power creep" still an unsolved problem for MMOs

April 13, 2007

The "power creep" still an unsolved problem for MMOs
By: Matt Eberle

As time goes on, power creep begins to create significant headaches for both developers and players

Everyone believes that the hardest part of creating a massively multiplayer online game is to have an idea, a concept, or a plan that will appeal to players and then to construct the entire game. The field of online gaming is littered with the titles of the fallen. Some games have been cancelled during development due to these challenges. Others have been released, only to be shut down as their fan base dwindles. While some of these failures might have very obvious causes, there are many things that can cause a game to suffer. Player burn out, lack of end-game content, and the infamous “grind” dynamic are some of the better known issues that developers and players have to face. These are the most obvious challenges that developers have to face, but there are several other challenges waiting in the background. The most common of these is something I call “power creep.” This elusive foe is one that the MMO industry has yet to find a successful way to prevent. It might seem like the most trivial problem, but the consequences of power creep can be immense.

What is “power creep” one might ask. Power creep is the slow increase in “power” that players have in online games. Developers are forced to add new content on a regular basis to keep the fans happy. Every time new content is introduced the most powerful players who have “maxed out” the game, reaching the highest levels and equipped with the most powerful artifacts, require that some of the content be even more powerful items that they can quest for. As those new items fall into the hands of players, the existing content becomes less challenging. The fans of EverQuest are familiar with this- bosses that were seemingly unstoppable without large groups have become trivial challenges to the same players after an expansion or an increase in the level cap. With the recent expansion of the Burning Crusade for World of Warcraft, WoW players are getting a crash course in “power creep.”

Power creep is a very simple problem at first glance. Its causes are easy to understand and the standard approach of the developers are also quite easy to understand. What makes this such a problem is that it is not as simple as it appears. When a game is first produced the developers have spent a great deal of time attempting to make the game as “balanced” as possible. How balanced they are, and how exactly they were balanced, is different from game to game. The game will be brand new, sparkling with new graphics, mysterious with new adventures waiting around every corner. Over time, though, the sparkle will fade. The more driven players will race to the “end game content.” They will plunge into the most difficult dungeons, explore the furthest reaches of the world, and make their mark.

Then, they get bored.

How many times can a player slay the same dragon? How many times can they meet the same challenge before it fails to be a challenge at all? Depending on the player it might be quick in coming or it might be slow. Eventually the fan base will get tired of the same content. That is when the developers will face another challenge – they will have to keep the players interested or watch their player-community dwindle. The best solution that the video-game industry has found is to release new content. An expansion will be announced, or a new area will be uncovered. With that new content will be new challenges, new enemies to defeat, and new rewards. This is when power creep will first sneak into the shadows.

Let us assume that the best weapon in the game, the sword Excalibur, does 100 points of damage a second to your opponent. With an expansion a new weapons is introduced, the sword Masamune, that does 120 points of damage to your opponent. In order to keep up, new monsters will have to be invented that can fight back against such a powerful weapon. They might have similar weapons of their own. But what happens to the previous weapon? Who would use it, if they could get better? This is often a problem in MMO’s because the strongest weapons almost always require extensive quests or high level crafting. Soon no one will go through the painfully difficult process to win their own Excalibur. Players who have taken the time and effort to win Excalibur will be frustrated that all their work has been “wasted,” and players who have not gotten their own copies of the legendary sword won’t bother trying to find it. Instead they will concentrate on getting their own copy of Masamune. 

As time goes on, power creep begins to create significant headaches for both developers and players. New items or abilities introduced to a game cause the overall balance to shift. Some times the adjustments are minor, but the rest of the time those adjustments create serious shifts in power. Those power shifts are what help create the so-called “flavor of the month” classes. As the balance swings out of alignment the developers have to make quick hot fixes. Those hot fixes open the potential for more problems as the “fix” might have further, unintended consequences. Players and developers feel the frustration brought on by the fast fixes as well as having their virtual worlds turned upside down. The pain that belongs solely to the developers is watching existing content be abandoned. New content must be created to replace the existing content to keep the player base interested, active, and enjoying their game.

Keeping content active is another problem that can become quite severe if power creep is left unchecked. Players only have so many hours to spend playing online games. We don’t want to waste our time trying to find the second best item, we want to get the best item. We want to get the best rewards for our time, however we define those rewards. Enjoyment of the game, increasing crafting skills, creating a larger circle of friends, or better armor and equipment are all ways that players might want to “advance” their characters. Players will not spend great amounts of time questing for lesser rewards. If an area does not offer the best that players can find it will quickly be abandoned. This is a major problem for developers because unused content simply does not exist for the fan-base. The intent for introducing new content is to expand the world and give the players something else to enjoy. If power creep runs rampant, though, the new content simply replaces the old and the game world does not get any larger for the players.

Many solutions to this problem have been tried over the years. Require players to experience the prior content in order to get quest items or equipment that can be turned in for an upgrade is one example. All of these attempts have been viewed by the players as a way of forcing them to do something they don’t want to do. It might be that this is one of the great problems of the gaming world that has no solution. Still, it is something that developers need to fear and players need to be wary of. Power creep seems like a simple problem at a first glance, but it has the greatest chance to change the entire game if it isn’t watched carefully. Chaos can be fun for players in a limited sense, but if the gaming world is being rearranged regularly it can quickly destroy the joy players once had experiencing an online world.

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