The lead designers were originally going to talk about this topic at BlizzCon, but it didn't really match the content of the rest of our "Intro to Pandaria" presentation, and seeing as how we finished our 90-minute slot with 93 seconds remaining, there wouldn't have been room for it anyway. But several of us did bring up the issue with players and media we talked to, and it even ended up in at least one FAQ, so we figured we'd go ahead and get the information out there. Note that unlike much of what we presented for the upcoming Mists of Pandaria expansion, this is not an announcement. It's more of a problem we'd like to address, and a couple of ways we potentially might do so. Feedback is certainly appreciated.
Big Number Syndrome
Hey, our stats are growing exponentially. If you look at everything from the Strength on a weapon to the damage being done by a Fireball crit or the amount of health the Morchok boss has, they look downright absurd compared to the numbers for level 60 characters in the original shipping version of World of Warcraft. It's not exactly a surprise that we were going to end up here, and we knew where we were going every step of the way, yet regardless, here we are.
The numbers grew so much primarily because we wanted rewards to be compelling. Upgrading from a chestpiece that has 50 Strength into one that has 51 Strength is undeniably a DPS increase for the appropriate user, but it's not a very exciting reward. Such negligible increases can drive players to do some weird things, such as skipping over tiers of gear or entire levels of content. This is particularly relevant when we're talking about a new expansion. We don't want level-85 players to have a reasonable shot at level-90 dungeons and raids (or PvP opponents) just because that content is balanced for gear that isn't much better than what the level-85 players have.
So we arrived at this point in a logical fashion, and we don't really think we should have handled things any differently. However, it's still a weird place to be, and it's about to get weirder. These aren't real items, in that we don't know for sure what the item levels will be in patch 5.3 and patch 6.3 (if only we planned that far ahead!) but they are reasonable guesses, and you can see just how ridiculous the items look.
So what do we do about it? There are two general categories of solutions. The first is to make the numbers appear more manageable and the second is to actually change the numbers.
The first solution could include changes like adding commas and the like to large numbers. We could also compress all of those 1000s to Ks and all of those 1,000,000s to Ms, much like we do with boss health today. Internally, we have been calling this the "Mega Damage solution" because instead of your Fireball hitting for 6,000,000 damage, it would hit for 6 MEGA DAMAGE (queue the Arcanite Ripper guitar solo).
If we can make numbers such as floating combat text and boss health and item stats a little easier to read at a glance, then maybe we can endure numbers increasing exponentially for many digits to come. Now there are some very real computational limitations. PCs just can't quickly perform math on very large numbers, so we'd have to solve all of those problems as well. Even today, tanks can hit the ten digit threat cap on some encounters.
Item Level Squish
The second solution actually involves compressing item levels, which is why we call it the "item level squish solution." If we can lower stats on items, then we can lower every other number in the game as well, such as how much damage a Fireball does or how much health a gronn has. If you look at the item level curves, you can see that most of the growth occurs at the maximum character levels for the various expansions. This is because we keep rewarding more and more powerful gear to make the new raid tier and PvP season in an expansion reward significantly better gear than the previous one. However, those huge item level jumps don't accomplish a lot once the character level has increased again. Very few players notice or care how much of an upgrade the Black Temple loot is over the Serpentshrine Cavern loot when their characters are level 80.
With that in mind, we could go back and compress the big item level increases that occur at level 60, 70, 80 and 85. The Mists of Pandaria gear would still grow exponentially from patch to patch, but the baselines would be a lot lower. Health could go from 150,000 back down to something like 20,000. The big risk of this approach is that players will log into the new expansion and feel nerfed... even if all the other numbers are compressed as well.
In other words, your Fireball will still do the same percentage damage to a player or a creature that it does today, but the number would be smaller. Logically, this seems like it would work, and it does. But it feels weird. When we tried this internally, everyone agreed that it just felt off throwing a spell for hundreds of damage when you are used to it doing thousands of damage.
I came up with an analogy -- even though I know logically that people drive on the left side of the street in the UK (we drive on the right side of the street in the US) and wouldn't be surprised to see it, it would still feel really disorienting if I was driving in the UK and had to make a right-hand turn.
So Now What?
As I type this today, we haven't decided on which if either solution we want to try. Maybe we'll come up with yet another solution. Maybe it's the kind of thing we can put off for another expansion so that players don't have to adjust to the new talent system and a drastic item level compression at the same time. Or maybe it's better just to pull the Band-Aid off fast and fix everything at once. Time will tell. I did, however, want to outline the problem lest any of you believe we don't think there is a problem. There is. We're just not sure of the best solution yet. If your answer is that stat budgets don't have to grow so much in order for players to still want the gear, our experience says otherwise, and thus these proposed solutions exist. Your thoughts on the matter are valuable.
Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street is the lead systems designer for World of Warcraft. The last time he used "Fig. 5" in an article, it related fish predation to estuarine hydrocarbon contamination.