The Soapbox: The problem with power creep and progression

The Soapbox Power creep! How to keep MMO progression fun and interesting
We've all seen it. You might not have put a name to it, but it's there. As MMOs get older, certain dungeons become obsolete. Or maybe that fantastic top-level gear you once had to have is completely worthless now and isn't even in normal gear progression anymore. That is power creep, the phenomenon by which content becomes completely worthless as a game ages. I can't imagine being on the developer's side when power creep starts rearing its ugly head. All that time a developer spent sculpting the content to be the perfect match of mechanics and story becomes wasted.

Power creep can't be avoided, right? Developers have to make new content to keep people interested in the game. And themepark games have to have a linear progression, right? We also don't want the disparity between the new players and the old players to be too great because it will discourage population growth. Then how in the world do we stop this never-ending cycle? How do we keep MMO progression fun and interesting without content falling off the end of the treadmill?

The Soapbox Power creep! How to keep MMO progression fun and interesting
Progression

I'm just an armchair developer, but from what I can deduce, developers conceptualize MMORPGs backward. If we take a hard look at the recent releases, from Star Wars: The Old Republic to Guild Wars 2, we can see that a lot of development time was spent on what a player would be doing as she attempted to reach max level. Most MMOs are like that. World of Warcraft exemplifies this design; in fact, the leveling process is so important to WoW that the developers reinvent it with each expansion. With this type of development, the endgame usually falls short. If I were to design a game, I would start with the endgame, where players will spend the majority of game time, and then develop how a player gets there.

For the vast majority of themepark-style MMOs, gear progression is handled incorrectly as well. As I mentioned at the beginning, gear and dungeons eventually become obsolete. They are no longer useful because newer gear and dungeons out-power them. Some newer themeparks like The Secret World are starting to recognize this issue and have implemented some mechanical ways around it, such as expanding the number of abilities or weapons that a player can use. My friends and I like to call this horizontal progression. At level cap, my strikes aren't any more powerful than those of anyone else at level cap, but I possibly have a greater number of abilities to call on.

By no means am I saying that we should turn a themepark into a sandbox with skill-based characters. If I were to design a themepark MMO, it would still have level progression. A linear or semi-linear story does keep a game interesting. However, once a character hits max-level, I would not increase the stat bonuses to gear but rather would grant bonuses to existing abilities or additional abilities based on which type of gear the character happens to be wearing. For instance, let's say a mage's fireball ability usually has a two-second cast timer, but with the complete set of Burning Aura gear, fireball changes to an instant cast ability. Each of the different sets of armor gained from different raids or dungeons would augment different playstyles or help assist in other content.

The Soapbox Power creep! How to keep MMO progression fun and interesting
Sidekicking

The power creep phenomenon makes content obsolete in other ways, too. Do you remember how difficult that first raid boss was to beat the first time you encountered him? Wouldn't you get the feeling of accomplishment back if your current gear didn't hit him for a bazillion points of damage now? What about that heroic dungeon at the beginning of the game? Wasn't that fun? Your friend finally joined this game; wouldn't it be nice if you could join him as he leveled without costing him XP or making the content far too easy?

I am completely surprised that more MMOs have not caught on to the wonder that is sidekicking. When I first saw this mechanic in City of Heroes, I was floored. Finally, a game developer is thinking outside the box; I can't wait to see this implemented in more games. That was about eight years ago. I'm just now seeing new MMOs release with a side-kicking mechanic. Thank you, Guild Wars 2.

If I were to build a new MMO, each zone would have an optimal level, and each player would be automatically bolstered to that level. Games like SWTOR would make this implementation extraordinarily easy. Each planet in SWTOR has a level cap. If a player lands on that planet, automatically set her level to that level, but base her XP gain on her actual level. This will allow higher-level characters to help out lower-level characters -- a mentoring system.

The Soapbox Power creep! How to keep MMO progression fun and interesting
Guild bonuses

I know I'm only scratching the surface of what can be done with a horizontal progression system. However, I would like to mention another system that should be implemented to help prevent power creep: guild bonuses. And I'm not talking about bonuses for which a guild or group does something once and never has to do it again, like gaining titles and achievements. Although titles and achievements are great, tying bonuses to them only increases power creep.

I suggest bonuses tied to weekly or monthly achievements. Your guild has defeated the Lich King in less than one hour, so you gain a crit bonus to crafting this week. Developers can even grant bonuses to guilds that finish specific content first on that server. Of course, there would have to be limitations so that one guild didn't dominate, but it would make the older content useful again.

There are so many different ways power creep can be prevented. I've touched on a few. What other things can developers can do prevent power creep from becoming a problem? What can be done in your favorite MMO so that you will revisit older content?

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

This article was originally published on Massively.