The Soapbox: Powercreep in MMOs sucks – so how do we solve it?

    
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The Soapbox: Powercreep in MMOs sucks – so how do we solve it?

We all love multiplayer, persistent world online games, don’t we? Players stay for the familiarity, nostalgia, and potential for years of enjoyment. Studios love the playerbase stickiness, ability to build on an existing environment, and potential for years of a consistent, predictable revenue stream. But there’s at least one issue that long-term multiplayer games face that single-player, one-shot games typically don’t need to consider: powercreep.

I’ve been playing two online games fairly consistently, one in a PvP capacity (World of Warships) and one with more of a PvE focus (Elder Scrolls Online). Each struggles with the difficulties of powercreep, but it seems to manifest in a slightly different way. I’ve also been playing a single-player game recently (Assassins Creed: Odyssey), so I’m reminded that powercreep is not an issue for this type of title. I harken back to AC: Brotherhood, which invented a story element that completely wiped out all tools, perks, and progression that Ezio Auditore gained in the preceding game. It’s easy to get rid of powercreep by erasing all progression.

Continued progression, however, is an integral part of nearly all, if not all, persistent-world game design. In older MMOs like classic World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, player characters progress themselves right out of lower-leveled zones (barring the use of toggles and items to stop that from happening). Since both enemies and player characters are assigned levels, the only real “fair fights” are those that occur between characters and mobs of the same level. This type of progression system greatly limits the areas that players can explore, as visits to higher-level zones often end in a massacre while lower-level zones pose little to no challenge.

ESO is among the many MMORPGs that have attempted to avoid this issue by making all monsters and mobs the same level (CP160) and then auto-leveling your character to meet that of the enemy he/she is facing. This works from the standpoint of giving players the freedom to play any zone in the game (including brand-new chapters and DLC), but it is still subject to powercreep once the player exceeds 160 champion points. As players have continued to increase champion point bonuses, mobs in older areas have become easier to defeat, resulting in newer areas requiring more difficult bosses and mechanics in order to maintain some level of challenge.

In other words, ESO is right back in the same boat as old-school WoW and LOTRO, though to a lesser extent. In fact, most landscape adversaries (and even some dungeons) in ESO have become so easy to defeat/complete that ZeniMax has stopped raising the champion point cap with each major release and has promised a major combat revamp over the next few years. Minus further details, it’s impossible to gauge whether powercreep will be addressed. But the champion point freeze indicates the devs are at least aware of the problem.

In World of Warships, powercreep occurs slightly differently, but with the same end result. Wargaming has built a robust battleship free-to-play arcade game that relies partially on players spending money on premium ships, even though free ships are available to play and earn in the tech trees. Premium ships are typically slightly better versions of the free ships that earn bonus loot in the form of experience and credits. It stands to reason, then, that over time newer premium ships contain things that previous ones didn’t. Wargaming needs to do this to entice players to buy the new ships. Who would buy a ship that has the same or worse capabilities than one that is already owned?

It's a boat, I suppose, I don't know if it's actually any different.

Thus, entire lines of ships (German destroyers, American Battleships, Japanese cruisers) that were once formidable are now threatened with obsolescence. Not a day goes by that some video or Reddit post goes up mentioning how some of the older lines have suffered from the ill-effects of powercreep and are in need of a rework. And if the older lines are re-worked, will they once again power-creep the ships that once power-crept them? How is the vicious cycle broken?

What I’m wondering is this: Can a persistent-world game be designed to give the player a sense of progression without also dragging along the baggage of powercreep, even unintentionally? In the “old world” of pen and paper RPGs (from which many modern MMOs draw), leveling progression was built into the game without concern for powercreep. This is due to the fact that players rarely re-visited old campaigns, and if they did, they’d likely do so with a new character.

But the “new world” of online MMOs carries with it a sense of nostalgia that beckons longtime players to return to the lands they once explored anew. Unfortunately, MMO players are typically limited by the number of character slots and the reality that deleting a current character means surrendering all progress and per-character items already obtained. Players often wind up revisiting those areas to find that they are not nearly as fun nor challenging as the memories they hold.

I’ve seen a few proposals for solving this problem. For example, the genre could return to MMOs that are not level-based at all but skill-based or simply experience-based, akin to older MMOs like Ultima Online and Asheron’s Call. Experience in such games simply represented activities experienced by the players as they move through the game. Powercreep could still exist through other systems (such as gear), but it wouldn’t be baked in to character progression by default.

And how about achievements? They’re usually seen as an adjunct to the current mode of progression, but they could also be retooled as the primary goal of gameplay. Guild Wars 2 attempted a version of this with its vanilla design of filling up hearts across the map. Players perform a certain number of tasks in an area (kill ten rats, collect ten apples) to fill up hearts in that area. ArenaNet combined this experience-gathering gameplay design with level-scaling across map zones to make levels themselves almost entirely irrelevant.

One thing that occurred to me is that single-player games do not have to worry about powercreep because when you finish a single-player game, it’s over. What if more MMO designers borrowed from games like A Tale in the Desert and made the bold choice to design MMOs that actually end in some way, even if it’s just campaigns or arcs?

They could even go further: What if they came out at the very beginning with a five-year plan and two annual content updates, but after year five, they actually finish development? That’s not unusual for other multiplayer titles, but would core MMO players even consider paying for an MMO that they knew was going to stop providing new content after a few years? Would MMO executives sign-off on a game that may not provide an endless stream of subscription or cash-shop money until it slowly fades into irrelevance? Perhaps not, but it’s worth considering if it might make the gameplay and power balance of the first years more palatable.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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Schmidt.Capela

Power creep isn’t an issue with single-player games because my character’s power, or lack of, don’t negatively impact anyone else; for example, when playing Fallout 4, the fact someone can exploit conveyor belts to max out all their stats before even talking to the first NPC, and then abuse a trade glitch to get some of the best gear before even starting the main quest, doesn’t negatively impact anyone else’s enjoyment of the game.

The same can’t be said about any game where there is competition between the players, even if indirect — and just about all MMOs have the players competing in one way or another. Thus, you can’t really use single-player game features to avoid the negative consequences of power creep in MMOs because the very core of what it means to be an MMO precludes that answer.

For MMOs, if you want to keep some measure of progression, the only way to avoid power creep is to have progression that doesn’t increase the character’s power, be it from the start or after a certain point.

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Dystopiq

Maplestory has INSANE power creep.

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T

Um… yeah. Th idea of out-levelling things extends beyond just MMOs, it’s baked into the design of what inspired MMOs, specifically Tabletop RPGs. I mean, the enemies that were a threat when you were starting characters are jokes when you level up, but the entire idea is you progress from low level threats up to massive monsters to big threats to even beyond! To put it bluntly:

That. Is. The. Point. Of. Playing. An. RPG.

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Kickstarter Donor
Nordavind

No.

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Schmidt.Capela

That is only the point of playing an RPG if you equate RPGs to just statistics-based combat and character progression. Which, for tabletop RPGs, is basically throwing away everything that makes the RPG, well, a role-playing game, and retaining almost only the elements they themselves copied from wargames.

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Bruno Brito

Except…Vampire has no levels. Call of Cthulhu has no levels. A brazilian system called 3d&t had no levels.

That’s an extremely narrow way of seeing RPGs, and tells me a lot about the quality of your RPG gaming.

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Adam Russell

EQ1 has added a few reasons to go back to visit old content.
1. Once a year for a season certain old dungeons are revamped with higher level mobs with better loot. Some of it you cant get anywhere else.
2. Some evolving items require doing stuff in old zones. Collections, hunter, traveler, or challenges have to be done before the item can level up.
3. Some quests require visiting an old zone where a higher level mob will spawn just for that quest.

And then of course there are the alts.

kjempff
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kjempff

As others said, I don’t buy the premise that power creep is a problem that needs solving. In some cases (games) the power curve is not well designed, rising exponentially or too steeply, but as long as this is under control, power creep is mostly a non issue.

Of course to take this view you will have to accept that progression is the heart of a mmo/rpg, and that it is ok to outlevel content – Which is then not being utilized as much, which is more like a developer bean counting issue.
And this is the actual deal; it is a developer problem rather than a player problem. The developer wants to maximize the use of all their content (obviously for financial reasons), so they want players to use all content equally.
This is why scaling was invented. And the problem with that is that scaling messes with the core of the mmo/rpg (progression). I hate scaling with every fiber of my mmorpg heart.
Horizontal “progression” sort of have the same problem, in that it is in its pure form non progression. Of course most of the mmorpgs that claim to have horizontal “progression”, have just added other forms of (well “vertical”) progression systems to make up for it.

So to sum it up, power creep is more or less a non issue for players who like mmo/rpg because progression is why they play these games. The ways to solve this non issue, by scaling for example, is almost entirely solving a developer problem of content not being used enough (and therefore doesn’t make good financially sense).

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feleran

I feel powercreep is a serious problem as it leaves older raids at first less interesting and later totally useless.
Probably most bigger game developers could address this by making all new raids with roughly same difficulty but then it would be harder to sell new expansions because people could use their old gear forever.

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Utakata

Play nakid…

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Bruno Brito

Devs have to start thinking laterally. GW2 had a good start on that, by not having vertical progression, but they let themselves get lost into powercreep with Elite Specs, since those ESpecs ended up making use of mechanics that were limited in nature for windows of burst, and made those mechanics a specific mechanic of that spec. Examples is Alacrity, and Superspeed. Both are extremely bloated mechanics and should NEVER be the core mechanics of an entire spec.

WoW’s problem is the gear treadmill. Put everything on the same endlevel, stop building xpacs with a vertical focus, and add more lateral systems to the game that aren’t raiding, and you’ll see the casual pop happier and less forced to ONE activity.

I can’t speak for ESO. I don’t like the set farming, which is what i think ESO’s main issue is ( gear is stronger than skillset ), but i don’t play ESO for group activities, i’m a solo player. Which means i kinda depend on that powercreep to actually solo everything in a pace that doesn’t make me wanna gouge my eyes out.

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Knight Porter

GW2 would have worked better if they hadn’t gone all “baby out with the bathwater” in on getting rid of the MMO “trinity”. gutting party tactics stacked with the stat leveling to make everything into a samey mush.

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Bruno Brito

GW2 would have worked better if they kept GW1 mechanics and class system.

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AGx-07_162

For those that don’t see this as a problem
For me I like what FFXI did in that most areas had kind of a layered difficulty. As an example, the Aragoneau region was kind of a mid-level region, in that you hit it about halfway through the cap. There were open world monsters that varied in level, usually within a 10 level range or so and then there were structures like Garliage Citidel you could enter. The ground level was harder than the open world but each level down got harder and harder. Quests would send you back here periodically and deeper in. These were also grind spots. The region would also have a beastman stronghold which likewise got more difficuthe deeper you go in. There were also stronger versions as well as world bosses that would spawn.

Power creep was still a thing but the game have you a plethora of reasons to re-visit areas and even at cap, those deepest parts were still hard.

Note that these areas were not your typical dungeon. There were entirely seperate areas that were more like what you think of as a dungeon.

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Rndomuser

Why would you want to solve this in any way? I mean, some people play those games just because it brings them pleasure to see the numbers for their stats grow and see how that growth affects their DPS in a way where they see that they can now insta-kill some monster which used to take a couple dozen of seconds to kill before, or the way the monsters who used to aggro and quickly kill you are not even reacting to you or aren’t able to damage you. Let those people enjoy this type of gameplay, and you don’t even have to do much effort to keep those people entertained in terms of content – just create “infinite dungeon” with constantly increasing damage values from monsters on each floor and the gear which can be constantly upgraded after each floor, with slight layout changes between each floors and slight changes in number and type of monsters, and let people who enjoy this type of grind to do this for as long as they can.

This type of powercreep does not affect people who enjoy the story (for them killing stuff faster is actually a good thing and unless you have amnesia there is no point to ever go through same story again) nor does it affect people who want to socialize with each other through various activities like mini-games or social events like festivals or concerts or through various RP activities, it also does not have any effect on well-designed PvP game where p2w does not exist, and even in games like World of Tanks which I do play and which has “premium tanks” this is not an issue because non-premium tanks are still fun to play and because most of the fights in World of Tanks depend on team communication and working together and not on who drives which tank or which shells this person is using or which perks this person selected for commander. So why “solve” something that is not really an issue for majority of people?