Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Literature and Power Creep

There’s an old problem in literature (especially in the Fantasy and Science-Fiction genres) with powerful characters. As it turns out, it is really hard to make a story interesting if your protagonist is a wizard or owns a piece of powerful technology. Video games can have the exact same issues. A game is really boring if your main character is much more powerful than the foes she is facing but many will also consider it boring if their character doesn’t have special powers. Below the fold I’ll talk about a few ways that books (and movies for that matter) handle this problem and how those solutions apply to video games.

The anti-hero

Let’s start with the simplest solution first – just don’t give the protagonist any special powers. Books and movies have made quite an art out of this, often exaggerating the whole idea to a point where the protagonist is a lot less powerful than anyone around him. Terry Pratchett’s Rincewind comes to mind, but there are endless other examples for anti-heroes. Translating this concept to video games outside of the adventure genre is quite hard, as players don’t play games to feel mediocre (or even worse than that).

Adventures are one of the few genres in which anti-heroes can actually work

Sure, the game can start out the game as an ordinary Joe, but it’d better allow you to kick some ass before long or you’ll be disappointed. I feel that the anti-hero as a general concept isn’t very well suited to gaming and can probably be ignored. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t parts of it that one can adopt – players won’t mind so much if they get to play someone that’s really lousy at most things but absolutely excels in a special field.

Power creep

Power creep can be seen very well in prolonged series of books or movies (or TV-series). A new power or gadget is introduced as an interesting solution to a problem but then needs to be prevented from being a solution to each and every following problem. Especially in stories that dominantly feature combat does this become an issue. When the heroes manage to scavenge a new form of shield technology just in time to save earth from inevitable  doom at the hands of the evil Morlocks (or would that be evitable then?) things are all good. The next invaders, however, will have to bring more powerful, shield-breaking weapons to keep things interesting.

Power creep is a phenomenon we can see in many games that allow character advancement and even in some games that don’t like Magic the Gathering or (arguably) League of Legends. The concept is simple: offer strong abilities to the player and then throw even bigger challenges at her to keep things interesting. Role-playing games do this by increasing the strength of enemies as the player becomes stronger. This can be done dynamically (as in Oblivion) statically (as in World of Warcraft) or in a mixture of both those ways (as in Dragon Age: Origins). I wrote about monster scaling some months previously if you are interested.

Magic the Gathering applies the same concept differently. Broadly speaking (with some very well-known exceptions), modern cards are stronger than older ones. While that somewhat throws off the balance of the game in formats that allow you to play with all cards ever printed, the logic behind it is quite simple: in order to interest people in buying more and more cards, one has to make the new cards exciting. And what is more exciting than getting stronger?

Power creep is dangerous and should be avoided if at all possible. Once you fall victim to it, it is really hard to stop. A sci-fi series I used to read when I was younger did a couple of pretty much full resets (very ugly) over the course of its existence and still didn’t really manage to get rid of the problem.

Do check out The Dresden Files if you get a chance to, they make for quite an enjoyable read. (Or listen! Just don't start with the TV series.)

Take Away the Toys

In Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (a series of books I’m enjoying quite a bit I might add) the hero Harry Dresden has to fight quite a variety of supernatural monsters whilst being quite a formidable wizard himself. Instead of allowing for power creep that would sooner or later lead to the obliteration of mankind through a single misdirected sneeze of the protagonist, the author keeps on finding ways of weakening Dresden. This way, enemies can stay at roughly the same power level while the protagonist is mysteriously kept from using the tools he used before. Other examples of this include splitting the party in Lord of the Rings (Fellowship: Hey, we have a powerful Wizard, a couple of extremely strong fighters, an invisible guy, and a cook. Nothing short of an army can hurt us now. Tolkien: Let’s see, let me put that Wizard all by himself, let the fighters do something pointless and send the invisible guy on ahead alone. Oh no, that would be unfair. He can have the cook as well.), and introducing the skinjobs in Battlestar Galactica.

What is mildly annoying or even somewhat amusing  in the books can really break a game apart if not handled correctly. One of the reasons that we see so little (read: no) permadeath in modern games is that players absolutely hate having their stuff taken away. Things get even worse when they realize that tools are given to them exactly to solve certain problems and then taken away or made useless. Not that that would stop developers from doing it anyway…

I call this the Zelda-trick, simply because Legend of Zelda was one of the first games I played that did it. Put player in front of insurmountable obstacle, have player acquire tool to beat obstacle, place player in front of new obstacle that the old tool can’t be used on. The Zelda-trick can be used in varying degrees to suit your needs. World of Warcraft implies a toned-down variant by giving players certain very powerful abilities (like stuns for example) and then making every relevant enemy in the game immune to those.

Personally, I despise when this happens openly. Well-designed games should be able to apply some degrees of the Zelda-trick stealthily without the players noticing and I’m pretty sure that that would be a good thing. Just make sure to cover your tracks damn well.

I’m sure there are more methods around, but I’m spent for now. Go wild in the comments 😉

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