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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