Monday 26 December 2016

Game Design #72: Power Creep + Special Rules -v- Stats

This is another "inspired by a PC game" post.  I've come back to Mechwarrior:Online after a hiatus of perhaps 9-12 months and really noticed the changes to mechs.  Or rather, the "power creep" of how newer mechs are better than/have obsoleted many old ones.  This primarily is in the placement of weapon hardpoints; high mounted guns are easy to peek/snapshot over hills/from cover vs low mounted guns which need you to fully expose your mech to enemy fire to shoot; where rounds often hit low outcrops and terrain instead of the target.  So if there are two 75-ton Inner Sphere mechs, and one has identical hardpoints, some very low (Cataphract) and the others high (Warhammer, Marauder) the latter are straight-out better.

This is not always on purpose (aka evil greedy money-grab forcing players to pay to "keep up") and can be done unconsciously - designers want to make new, cool(or cooler) toys and as MW:O was originally based on tabletop models, but now - several years on - designers now have a "feel" for how tabletop mechs work in a real-time FPS so they may unconsciously be optimizing them. That's what designers want to do, right? Make things better?

The problem with this is when the new shiny directly obsolete the old one. It's like many RPGs - for example in Terraria I was discussing with a friend how we have crates full of dozens of +1, +2 and +3 etc swords...  ...because I now have a +30 sword.  When items are functionally the same, the best version renders the old item(s) worthless.

I'm sure you've come across it in competitive miniatures games - a particular unit is taken ad nauseam as it is simply flat out better/replaces a rival unit.    It becomes a snowball rolling downhill; if x unit gets a +1 sword, then new units must be equally powerful or more so or no one will buy it - other units/factions will have to be buffed to compensate.  It seems an attractive idea from a sales point of view (make a new unit better, everyone will buy that new unit) but it reduces diversity in the game and can turn off players if it invalidates previous content.  It can cash grab in the short term - but there are long term risks....

Let's use me as an example: for a returning player... who maybe quit because of balance/p2w issues (clans) to come back to find all his old content (mechs in this case) worthless - will they be be inspired to start from scratch; or pay to catch up - or merely quit again, this time for good?  In addition, the introduction of more powerful items tend to make everything else in the game "creep" in power to keep up or be rendered irrelevant.

OT Rant: This topic reminds me of PC MMO games that focus on "endgame" content.  If "endgame" is so much better than the "grind" to get to the endgame...  ...then why isn't the rest of the game as good? Why do you have to play 69 inferior levels so you can be a special snowflake at level 70 and get to the good bit - the end game, the holy grail.  Shouldn't just playing the game be the "good bit?"  Why would you split the game and make the larger portion less relevant/viewed as a hurdle?  The designer is then trapped with the demand for more "endgame content" when the whole game should be just as fun.

Stats vs Incomporables (Special Rules)
If things can be directly compared - i.e. a sword vs a +1 sword, or let's say a model with stats of move 3" melee 4 shoot 3 morale 2 vs a model with move 4"melee 4 shoot 6 morale 4 - then it is easy to see at a glance that one model is better than the other.  Given the choice, players tend to pick the stronger, which is where point systems gain excessive importance and focus (i.e. correctly costing the superior vs inferior models so it makes both equally attractive. 

This is particularly easy with stats which can be compared against each other easily.  If it functions the same (i.e. a machinegun) and one has better stats (1200 dps va 1300 dps) then one is clearly better. The old one gathers dust.  It might as well not be in the game. 

I've heard the term "incomparables" used. This is kinda special rules in most wargames.  These are things that are not directly comparable because they function very differently.  Let's say we want to compare an AoE invulnerability shield to a teleport spell to a lightning bolt spell.  Unless they are obviously out of balance, often their value depends on the situation.   Which one is best depends if you are trying to stay alive, escape with an artifact, or the entire enemy army is standing in a pool of water within lightning-bolt range....

Warmachine is a good example of this. There are so many incomporables (powerful, unique special rules) that the game has a pretty wide range of what is balanced (I'm putting it nicely!) - there's simply so many combos of "overpowered" and unbalanced feats and powers (incomperables) that pretty much anything can be countered by some other whacky OP combo or special ability.

The problem with special rules is that they tend to introduce a higher load on the player/steep learning curve (Infinity and Warmachine for example have hundreds).  They also tend to be difficult to playtest properly, compared to stats.  I mean, if a baseline trooper is 4" move, 4+ to shoot, 4+ to melee, has a 4+ defence save and passes morale checks on a 4+ on a d6; then I can pretty much guess the comparative impact/value of a soldier with a 5" move, 5+ to shoot, 2+ to melee, 3+ defence save who passes morale on a 3+ with commonsense and math.  However deciding the value of troops with incomparable skills like teleportation, magic shields and lightning bolts respectively can be trickier.  I've always found indie games tend to emphasize special rules (many sets have abandoned stats almost entirely - which I regard not a clear cut "better option") which is ironic as playtesting is usually not their strong suit.  Stats are actually "universal" special rules everyone is familiar with (I mean, a MOVE 5" stat does not even need an explanation) which are actually simpler than 101 special rules aka "exceptions."

The steeper learning curve can introduce a higher skill focus (which can be good or bad) - for example I noticed newbie Warmachine and Infinity players tended to get slaughtered more ruthlessly by more experienced ones compared to many other games) but the concern is it is not always better tactics that prevails - but experience/memory to remember 101 special rules. In any case, it may make the game less attractive to casual players.

Anyway, just my musings on power creep/special rules - and may provide a counterpoint to my stats > special rules post in the link above. ....My kids have just charged out to play in the rain, so I better stop now and go supervise...   ...they've gone suspiciously quiet. Better get towels....


  1. Or it can make a game more attractive, presenting players with a challenge that will take them some time to master (ie learn & understand all the special rules well enough to win against a veteran). If a game is too easy to learn, some might decide rather soon they've gotten everything out of it. Complex rules, like detailed points-based army building, also give people a way to be involved with the game outside of actual play against an opponent.

    1. "Complex rules, like detailed points-based army building, also give people a way to be involved with the game outside of actual play against an opponent."

      ^Without an intro sentence, I'm presuming this is your key premise^

      If so, I'd suggest you may be confusing depth with complexity.

      DEPTH = meaningful decisions/conscious choices/possibilities you can get out of the rules

      COMPLEXITY = mental burden put on the player. Rules, calculations, data.

      Too much complexity can actually detract from the depth.

      Maximum depth from minimum complexity should be the aim of a good game.

  2. Nope, not confused at all. I do understand the difference between what you call depth and complexity. Personally I'm even inclined to agree that maximum depth for minimum complexity makes for a good game. But I've also met quite a few people who love complexity, as in lots of rules, tables, detail, etc. for its own sake both during and outside of play. Maybe it's a form of "slow gaming", where every step is drawn out and fussed over and games last hours & hours instead of the shorter, more intense games you get with more elegant compact rules. I don't know, it's not really my thing, but I do believe complexity can be a point of attraction & enjoyment.

    1. Ah, I get you. Explains why Starfleet Battles and Battletech have continued steadily in their niche.

  3. I feel as though Fantasy Flight's approach with games like Xwing and Netrunner is an interesting one- they actively engage in power creep, but it's a sophisticated form of power creep which enlivens the "meta" and keeps the game fresh.

    It's not for me personally- I dislike being forced to buy things to "keep competitive" (and am not that interested in being competitive at all really). I still think it's a far more legitimate business model than the Games Workshop "buy tanks because tanks now kill the hell out of everything" approach.