9 Nov 2011

The Gates of Compelling Rewards

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re somehow missing something when you read a particular piece of news? That’s how I felt when I was reading over Ghostcrawler’s latest blogppost where he talks about item stat inflation and the problem it presents. While it’s a great article that hints at some difficult choices ahead, I’m not sure we’re seeing the whole picture.

The big clue for me was in the phrase “we want rewards to be compelling”. Think about this for a moment as I’ll be coming back to it later.

The problems around itemisation extend far beyond just deciding what numbers to put in the tooltip. There’s also ramifications across the game, from how we experience levelling through to the performance of the game client on our machine. Get it wrong and there could be a whole world of problems. It’s why the Squish versus No Squish argument is more complex than just what kind of number we want to see.

Before I get into the meat of this I just want to get the engineering problem out of the way. Warcraft was designed to run on 32-bit PCs, which introduces a set of limitations. The most fundamental is the size of the numbers that you can efficiently play with. In this case it’s plus or minus roughly 2.1 billion. You might think that gives Blizzard plenty of headroom but it’s something that those who hit the old gold cap know all about.

But while you can do tweaks to lift the cap (probably to 922 trillion gold), it’s much harder to do that with numbers that need to be crunched efficiently on the fly. Smaller numbers are more efficient to process, with 32-bit numbers being the hard cap for a 32-bit processor. Without taking a serious hit to in-game performance there needs to be a way to bring those numbers down.

The more fundamental question is why has gear itemisation become so important in Warcraft? What’s the fundamental reason behind having regular gear upgrades and why are they needed? It’s this kind of question that needs to be addressed if we’re going to have something that works for both the playerbase and the greater game.

Enter The Gates

At the most basic, gear upgrades are a form of content gating mechanism. We get better gear in order to take on more challenging content, which then allows us to get better gear and so on. It’s a cycle that you see running through the raid tier system, the PVP season system and so on.

There’s also the prestige effect of gear. Your big yellow numbers become even bigger and more yellow. You attract knowing glances from other players as you walk around in your armour sets. You have slain the dragons and saved the world, and have the rewards to prove it.

When Ghostcrawler talks about making rewards compelling, he’s talking about encouraging players to upgrade their gear. But if we reverse the statement, there’s the corollary that states that harder content will require upgraded gear. Tier 13 raids will need gear equivalent to tier 12 level and so on. If the stat inflation wasn’t in place, someone in 5-man heroic blues would be able to walk into the Dragon Soul raid and succeed. After all, there’s no other stat based gating in place.

Well, not at end-game.

The other stat-based gating system is about a character’s level or personal power. This is a different form of content gating – you need to do the easier content in order to gain more power and take on the harder stuff. Rewards are mixed as well – there’s gear from quests, gear from dungeons, gear that drops from creatures and gear you can craft. All this gear is intended to smooth the ride so that you don’t hit a wall that your character’s innate power can’t overcome by itself.

An easy thought is to say “Right, we’ll just give characters tons of innate power”. But then gear becomes meaningless – you might just as well vendor it or turn it into gold. Besides, with new abilities and talent points being trimmed right back, interesting gear is about the only reward on offer. Gold is boring.

You then run into the problem with how to make end-game content progressively harder without having an increase in character level between tiers. Introducing new fight mechanics only gets you so far, as skilled raiders with years of experience will just breeze through it.

The Consistent Challenge

The current stat inflation problem is directly related to the need to provide players with a constant challenge, both while they level and once they reach level cap. The hand-over from level-based gating to gear-based gating is proving to be the hardest. In Vanilla it was possible to up the ante by increasing fight complexity, but that’s not just the case once you have an experienced veteran playerbase.

Normally at this point I’d suggest a solution about how this could be fixed, but in this case I’m not sure there is one. The split-persona of MMOs between the levelling and endgame has led to this, and I don’t think there’s a fix that wouldn’t pull apart vast swathes of the game. It might be elegant, but it just wouldn’t feel like Warcraft any more.

I think this is where game design probably becomes hardest from my limited experience as an armchair designer and half-brain pundit. While the easy solution is to just devalue all the stats, damage and so on it just delays the problem rather than fixing it. The harder solution of overcoming stat inflation while retaining the feel of all our character abilities – that’s much more challenging.

I wish them luck.

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