Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Power gain per level

Klepsacovic plays Pirates of the Burning Seas and is positively surprised that he can group in a meaningful way with a player 20 levels above him. Why does that work in some games, but not in others? A big part of the answer is that how much power you gain per level is completely arbitrary, and varies a lot from one game to the next.

In World of Warcraft the power gain per level is relatively large. There is easily a factor of 1,000 between for example the damage per second of a low-level character and that of a level-capped character. As a consequence grouping with somebody 20 levels above you results in an experience which is probably boring for one of the two players. If you fight mobs appropriate for the lower level character, the higher level character just one-shots them. If you fight mobs appropriate for the higher level character, the contribution of the lower level character to the fight is minimal. And with loot being strongly correlated with level, it would be hard to find a target that gives useful loot for both characters.

But that is a design decision, and not inherent to MMORPGs in general. It would be totally possible to make a MMORPG in which your power went up by only a very small amount every level, so that a max level character is only twice as powerful as a level 1 character. In such a game it would be much easier to make meaningful groups with players of widely differing levels. And you could even design it in a way that the loot would be useful for everybody: With characters having less difference in power level, there would be less of a need to have level restrictions on loot.

A game with a lesser difference in power between levels would also lead to zones remaining useable for longer. Monsters in one zone remain challenging for a wider level range, and their loot remains useful for longer too. Ideally you'd get rid of the strong level restrictions on quests, so that any group can find a suitable challenge for themselves, regardless of how many players are in the group, and what their level differences are. A player with 20 levels more might still *want* to group with somebody 20 levels lower, because the lower level player's contribution would still be significant enough for the higher level character to be able to tackle a more difficult challenge than if he would solo. And although it isn't my prime concern, obviously a game with less power difference between characters would also be automatically much better balanced in PvP.

I do think that getting more powerful with levels is an essential part of RPGs in general and MMORPGs in specific. But it is the perception of advancement that motivates players, while the actual size of the power gain is secondary. It is great to know that if you have trouble with some mob, you can level up and kick his ass later. But the extreme power gain many modern MMORPGs have per level leads to nobody even considering to go back and kick that mob's ass, because it is now so trivial to be not even fun any more, and the possible rewards are useless now. Everybody just fights his "level-appropriate" fights, and as a consequence in spite of all that power gain you don't even notice you are getting stronger! In many games you actually *feel* weaker after leveling up, because the designers made it harder at higher levels. You run Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep with relative ease around level 20, and when you return at level 85 the same dungeon is now much harder in it's level-appropriate for 85 version.

Thus I do think that diminishing the power gain per level would be generally a good idea for MMORPGs. I hope developers of future MMORPGs stop the ongoing power inflation and hand out power gains much more sparingly. I think that would result in better games. What do you think?
I would agree with the basic premise. I would also say that this problem has gotten progressively worse in WoW as the level cap rises. Gear "inflation" in Wrath was particularly sharp. But as you said, this is a design decision. With each instance having a 10 and 25-man version, plus heroic modes, each "tier" was actually four tiers once you got to Ulduar which led to an "explosion" of gear stats. Blizzard even admitted this had become a problem once ICC was released.

The ability to improve one's character is fundamental to these types of games. I would absolutely agree with that premise. And the larger those improvements are, the more satisfying it feels to the average player. So the developer essentially has to make a choice. Do they want to increase that feeling of satisfaction by making it easier to see the "gains" your character can make? Or do they want to make cooperation easier and extend the life of content by making it more appealing for players to work together regardless of the level gap? Again, a design decision.

For me, I would prefer that they reduce the gain per level somewhat. As I said at the beginning, WoW has gotten particularly out of hand in this regard. And I can only speak to the MMO I am playing currently. In RIFT, the gain per level is noticeable, but not nearly as pronounced as it is in WoW. I have yet to reach level cap so I can't say if the inflation escalates at 50.
The "power" level of a character and the rewards gained from doing instances is completely artificial and some games have proved that it is possible to code an artificial raising and lowering of this level for grouping possible. Not only that but some games have proved that the rewards can be scaled as well.

Take City of Heroes/Villains for example, not only is it possible to be scaled up and down levels to group with friends but even the rewards that come from encounters are scaled as well. So a level 5 character will get level 5 rewards and a level 50 character will get level 50 rewards from the same encounter that they are grouping in.

To take it even further, CoH/V has also proven that it is possible to even scale an opponent in the same way. In that game, a level 5 character can do as much damage to the same monster as a level 50 but scaled again. This is some amazing coding technology and it proves that it is possible. Not only that but it has proved to be very successful in keeping communities together and playing in groups.

Why can this not be done for other MMOs? The argument used to be that such games do not have loot, this is no longer the case in CoH/V at all.

This type of architecture and coding technology allows people to play together at all levels and removes the whole race to the end level aspect of most MMOs where the casual player gets left behind and has to power level to "catch up".

It is possible, MMOs must just implement it.
Great post! A couple of quick thoughts:

-There are games out there with dramatically flatter power curves than WoW, and they seem to work fine. Eve and Wizard 101 may be examples. In Wizard 101 I fought one of the final bosses with a friend about 20 levels lower, and he did a significant amount of damage to the boss.

-I think one of the biggest problems is "to hit" rolls and resistance checks that depend directly on player level. In many games it's impossible to hit a monster just a few levels above you, which isn't much fun. Allowing players at least to hit (and cast spells at) higher level mobs would go a long way toward letting people of different levels play together.

-Even without huge vertical power increases, players can still develop characters horizontally by getting new skills. I've always found getting new skills more satisfying than small stat gains anyway. I think The Secret World is aiming at this sort of approach, and it will be interesting to see how it works.
Thanks for bringing up this interesting topic!

Allowing players to group up over a wider level span is a worthy end unto itself, but I think your other point is equally important – that slight feeling of impotence as you level up.

At the same time, though, I don't think it's only down to the power gain per level – surely it also depends on the roles one can take up in a group? Perhaps it is possible in Pirates of the Burning Sea to assume a supporting role (I haven't played it so I wouldn't know)? Big guy kills the frigate while the assistant mops up the survivors in the life rafts, so to speak...

One thing that struck me while reading your post was that while most single-player RPG:s nowadays have mobs that scale (more or less) with the player, thereby allowing a more open path of progress through the game this doesn't seem so popular in the big online games. Would that be a good idea? I can see the challenges to storytelling, and since the quest rewards would have to scale as well it would be awful for ZAM and the other reference sites (or... shudder!... maybe one would have an alternative system where quest givers would reward you with money instead and you'd have to go buy armor and weapons at a store. Of course, Nils wouldn't approve :P).
A few questions:

- Why is this problem so dominant on the bloggosphere nowadays in contrast to a few years ago?

- What are the general advantages of a high character power progression (CPP)? Why does Blizzard make it even more extreme with resists?

- Would a game like WoW even work with a (drastically) compressed CPP? Wouldn't people just only kill high-level mobs and skip low-lvl areas?

- What are all the advantages of a compressed CPP? (Playing together with friends, immersion, fairness, PvP, easier balancing, ...)

- What about diminishing returns?

- How much can horizontal CPP help? For exmaple by using a Rift-like approach, but having players work to get all the speccs of a 'calling' ?

- Would it make sense to transfer the Eve Online "class system" to fantasy worlds and how would you do it?
In Rift I can and do contribute in Rifts and Invasions way above my level. I did a high-30s event in Droughtlands with my level 16 yesterday.

I was there handing in a crafting quest because my level 16 is now a Master Weaponsmith (230/300 skill). Crafting is completely unconnected to adventure level.

That's on the server where my highest level character just dinged 30 yesterday. I gather all my own materials, too. When I log in, my level 30 has to go to Shimmersand, the 40-50 zone to mine the final tier of metal. If there's an event, he'll be able to join in, contribute and get rewards.

I choose not to join Public Groups or Raids when I'm that far under level to avoid leeching. If I wanted to, though, the game allows me to do so.

I think that MMOs that sell themselves on open-world "dynamic" content or public quests will need to be extremely flexible about allowing all level ranges to contribute.
Another way of progression would be gaining points that you invest in non combat skills.
Wow wants to make players think that they get better all the time. And because this makes players play more, it's a rather successful feature. Let's not forget Blizzard have even created the illusion of bigger numbers: Combat ratings from equipment diminish in potency as you level up.

Less sharp increases in power sound appealing to me: They could convey an overall sense of community and connectedness. As is, 10 level 2 players could hit a max level player nonstop without any results.

But in all honesty: I could imagine that, on average, wow players would play less than they do under the current system because that feeling of getting better and of being successful would be less common.
Blizzard has apparently done research into exactly how much "power increase" is required for a player to feel "rewarded." With too little power increase, players are not motivated by the reward, and are thus not interested in playing.

So if we say players require at least a 10% (random number I made up) increase in power per level to care about leveling, that isn't much in one level. Fighting with an ally or against an enemy 2-3 levels different than you is within reason.

But it compounds. In 10 levels, you are 2.6 times as powerful. In 20 levels, you are 6.7 times as powerful, etc.

What you really need are systems which allow players who are many times as powerful to play meaningfully with each other. The only good example I can think of is "sidekicking" in CoH.
Blizzard has apparently done research into exactly how much "power increase" is required for a player to feel "rewarded."

They certainly did! There's also the magic 13 itmlvl number between T-sets, they like to quote.
I am certain they have an entire metrics team dedicated to this kind of stuff.

But I don't buy it. When I play WoW, or Rift I just don't feel becoming more powerful. And of course, I don't. I just outlevel trivial content.

It hasn't always been like that. In classic WoW, playing a fire mage, I was looking at my crits and saw them increasing. It was great. But this way only possible, because I was casting 3s-Firballs all the time.

In today's games Cataclysm/Rift, the numbers zap by WAY TOO FAST! It's considered modern, twitch-based gameplay. Fast and furious.
Lately, I even switched all numbers off completely. They just clutter my screen. I just want to see whether I missed and whether I get healed by something (green text).

As long as you fight mobs of your level, which you do all the time if the themepark is a good themepark, you have no feeling of growing more powerful with every level. The only reason a raider feels more powerful are the dps meters (DD) and HP (tank). A healer always had problems feeling more powerful.

Conclusion: A too strong CPP forces players and designers to push players to level/gear appropiate content. The more they succeed at this, the less important does the strong CPP become. Especially if player switch off the numbers on the screen, because there are just too many.

But here's the good news: We, the players, are happy to find an upgrade to our characters. We don't really care about 'feeling a difference'. We already don't feel a difference!

And now have a look at all the magnificient advantages of a drastically compressed CPP ...
@Tolthir & Nils

"Level con" (reds being harder to hit, greens being easier to hit) serves two purposes for developers.

First, it is a psychological "trick." When you level, you may become only 10% more powerful. However, the monsters you were just fighting are now green to you, so you are actually 25% more powerful relative to them. So they can deliver 25% "perceived" reward, while only giving you 10% "actual" reward.

Second, developers are control freaks. If you are level 15, they want you in the level 15 zone. Level con keeps you in the "right" zone. Anything -5 or more is too easy (and no xp), anything +5 or more is too hard. It is similar to intentionally making older raids obsolete so that everyone will go to ICC, and no one will go to Naxx or Ulduar.

I'm not defending that this is good, only that this is how developers think.
One of the things that Blizzard's current system does is rapidly obsolete gear. This means that generally only the current tier of gear is significant for balancing purposes (at least the max-level balancing, which is all they really care about).

With smaller character power increases per level, gear effects would have to be toned down too. That means that it would be harder to make it essential to have the latest gear, which is part of the cycle that keeps people playing. In WoW as it stands, people replace their gear over and over, and it is a powerful motivating force. By compressing player levels, they would limit their ability to do this with gear.

I think a CoH-style 'sidekick' type system is probably the simplest way to implement multi-level grouping in a game similar to WoW. Compress levels too much and you have a different game - perhaps a better game, but certainly a different one. And changing the entire nature of a popular game under peoples' feet probably isn't a clever move. (Arguably, Blizzard have done this *too much*.)
"So if we say players require at least a 10% (random number I made up) increase in power per level to care about leveling, that isn't much in one level. Fighting with an ally or against an enemy 2-3 levels different than you is within reason."

This is creepily accurate. 15000 DPS is a good midrange for raiding max-level DPS players, 5 DPS is a good midrange for level 1 players. The 84th root of 15000/5 is 1.10000489. As I said. Creepy.
I think it's an area where what Raph calls "brain hacks" have triumphed over intelligent design.

If a player levels they are more excited if they feel more powerful. Most people have trouble differentiating similar looking numbers so going from +5 to +5.05 seems like a crappy advance, not worth it.

Over time the mudflation is increasing. Rift gives out power far quicker than WoW ever did.

This leads to games that damage themselves. A lot of the issues with Cata can be traced to the mudflation of healer mana in TBC and WotLK. Healers with infinite mana allowed dungeons to be zerged, which became the expected playstyle.

One possible solution is for the numbers on the items/spells to not reflect the actual increase in power. So what appears to be a shift from +5 to +6 is actually an increase from 105 to 106. The theorycrafters will bust you of course but that may not matter - it looks like you're giving people big power boosts when you're not.

Another thing I don't understand is why we have so many levels. I played DDO where max level is 20. It still felt like I leveled pretty fast. However at level 10 I could play with level 6s or level 14s - almost half the population.

Another area where the feel good factor of a ding has become more important than designing enjoyable enduring gameplay.
ffxi introduced "level sync" to allow higher players to gain xp with lower players. It's worked amazingly well and without unintended negative side-effects.

Equipment and stats are scaled down but xp required stays the same and you get the same xp as everyone else in the party.

Worked great for pugs and even better for grouping with guild friends.
I've said for a very long time that it's silly for gear to give such enormous bonuses. The difference between a newly dinged max level and a top geared player should only give like a 5% advantage or something tops. Then it actually gives you a relatively fair PvP environment. But sure, you can easily expand that same way of thinking to the leveling game also.
It's not just per level, in WoW it is also per tier of equipment.

It doesn't have to be that way. In EQ2, we were still raiding the previous expansions raids because there was some good lot there. It was a lot more pleasant, at least to me, to do three different raids a week instead of just going at the same one over and over and over again.
This only works if gear is not permanent, which is too much for casuals to handle. If gear is permanent, you shorten the time to get a BiS item considerably, and kill your content spread. Leveling out the power curve in WoW would nicely kill that game.

Like many themepark design decisions, this is something that inherently is flawed, but the solution only works if you also change the other 90% of the game. Not going to happen in the mass market MMO space.
I agree with Syncaine. The question is: "What is your central game?"

For WoW it is maximizing character power. Since it is all that (nowaday's) WoW is about, it has to be emphasized as much as possible.

But in a game that is about fighting over castles, or defending against PvE mobs, or building castles or *wildcard*, CPP doesn't have to be as extreme.
I generally agree that smaller advances in power would be ideal, and that the perception of advancement is what drives players - or at least is one of the driving factors.

However, while power advancement is currently way off the scale in most games, getting it 'right' would be the real trick. If a max level character were, as per your example, only twice as powerful as a low level character I think people would loose interest. Unfortunately a large part of perception of advancement is hubris: players want to perceive themselves as more powerful than X challenge, be that from another player or monster. Being just twice as powerful probably wouldn't cut it for most of today's MMO audience.

So, the balance would need to be a little more variable - especially in games with high level caps. But I believe you're right, it's possible to simulate a game whereby power advancement means players of widely different levels can and will meaningfully interact and benefit from that.
EQ's power creep was much flatter - at least until planes of power.

It wasn't uncommon to group with someone +/- 10 levels and have fun.

EQII seems to be overlooked - which is sad considering it had the first mentoring feature IIRC.
But I don't buy it. When I play WoW, or Rift I just don't feel becoming more powerful. And of course, I don't. I just outlevel trivial content.

I agree. I actually feel more powerful the first 20 or so levels than any other time in the game. I think that's part of the allure for some people of Alts. They get to go back to being able to one shot things instead of requiring massive combo attacks to bring the health bar down a notch.
"EQII seems to be overlooked - which is sad considering it had the first mentoring feature IIRC."

I think that was actually City of Heroes wasn't it? Which also has the option of either bringing someone up to level or going down to theirs.
Yes, a wow rogue with 150k health is a bit ridiculous.

I notice Rift seems to have a flatter curve in this respect. A level 40 character can not cake-walk low level dungeons like they can in wow. I'm sure though as the cap is raised they will inevitably encounter the same problems as level gaps between characters increase.

I much prefer low level caps with horizontal content (skills, situation specific talents and gear, unlocked regions, etc). ie. Guild wars.
So there is a saying that players dont perceive less than 10% power increase. So blizzard went bananas implementing it.

The problem is imho that player is becomes completely desensitized in the long run. He knows he will become insanely more powerful every tier .he also knows all the new mobs will be more powerful

The way I look at it 10% is worthy goal, but it should be difference between between full set of green and purple gear. Not the difference between just gloves!

Mid level mobs (and players) should still be a challenge in sufficient numbers to maxed out character.

Anticipation of increased power is the better mechanism ,instead of giving that power willy nilly
I'm not sure if levels even directly add any power in potbs. But they add something a lot more fun: abilities. These can end up giving a huge power increase, albeit erratically, such as when I recently learned an attack that makes grappling/boarding a lot easier. But even with that, it's not as if I can roll right over lower level NPCs. I like that.

As for the magical 10% or 13 ilevels, I'm not so sure about that. Just leveling itself provides plenty of skinner box rewards what with a number being bigger and a flashy graphic. Add in talent points and being that much closer to the level cap and I seriously doubt a 10% power gain is needed per level. As for 13 ilevels, that's a trained behavior. Trade a grey for a green and that's a big deal, even if it's only 5 ilevels. At a low enough level +1 is a big deal. Obviously that's going to fade somewhat when you've gotten to +50, but perhaps we're getting to that point too quickly anyway. On top of that, the focus on ilevel means a loss of the experience of earning/winning the item, something which can add more fun than 13 ilevels can.
In a lot of respects, the best MMO of all time may be Planetside... at least in terms of core game design. It had 25 basic levels, and those basic levels did not change anything about your character directly. Everybody had the same HP, the same survivability, and the same ability to engage whatever it is they want to engage.

However, a BR25 Planetside character had a lot more tricks in his bag, and could fulfill quite a few more roles. Where a BR1 might have a good gun and maybe an ATV for personal transport, a BR25 might have stealth capability, heavy MAX armor capability, and the ability to transport his squadmates.

In the end, though, people die the same, and the challenge curve is fair - perfect for a game that is all about the PVP.

World of Tanks is my current favorite "I'm not playing WoW right now" MMO - and it's lovely simply because the difficulty curve is similarly flat. You buy a tank, you play with its capabilities, it matches you against a nice range of tanks... win! (This is a great game!)

Actually.. y' know? I think I'm getting tired of the themepark MMO as a whole: they don't have any real challenge, and StuffQuest(tm) isn't compelling.

Stat inflation is my biggest complaint about the MMO genre. With every expansion my character increases by X% amount of power and the enemies also increase by the exact same amount of power. You are doing proportionally the same amount of damage and healing as you were, just the numbers are bigger. I think some people enjoy seeing bigger numbers regardless of the amount of inflation but I believe that the MMO community would accept a game that didn’t do it.

EQ was not only one of the first MMOs but it was the first to really focus on lateral content. While Kunark may be my favorite expansion of all time Velious was probably the most thought out from a character progression point of view. We got no levels or powers, just more content to kill. It expanded the game, instead of just raising the ceiling.

I’ve walked away from WoW during WotLK and Cata now because of this. I level a new character, complete all the regular dungeons, complete all the heroics then I’m ready to raid or do full time PvP. Then it dawns on me… the only reason to do BGs is to get more gear, so I can do more BGs but live longer. Then I can move into Arena, where it’s basically the same cycle. The same applies to Raids. I get in the easy raids then as I get more gear I do more raids to get more gear.

Back in EQ raiding was fun because I enjoyed the challenge. I honestly don’t find WoW raids fun. I don’t know why, I just don’t like most of the mechanics.
One bad side effect of WoW's scaling is that there are many high level creatures that just don't feel like they should be so powerful from a story sense. I can recall being in one of the Cataclysm zones and fighting a level 84 enslaved human and wondering how is it that this slave became so mighty that he could solo Ragnaros or Onyxia.
That has kind of been a MMO joke since EQ. We use to joke about Velks Lab in Velious that everything is full circle. At level 1 you fought spiders, now at level 60 you still fight spiders.
but then CoX nowadays tends to go in direction of WoW with Rare/Epic/Whatever level items ... and they make a big difference, so your downscaled lvl50 outdamages an upscaled character (maybe just 2-5x, but still noticable).

So maybe people actually prefer big differences between characters?
Um, Tobold?

Am I mistaken, or did I just read a string of comments that collectively could be defined as
"an intelligent discussion of game features without descending into tribal warfare"?

Fanbois Gone Wild on Spring Break?
There's a term in pen and paper gaming (it may be in others but I haven't come across it yet) for exactly what you describe: Power Creep. It means the difference in power levels between "new" characters and "capped" characters and also between "old" material (i.e. vanilla) and expansions.

It seems to completely stand that power creep increases the longer a system exists. Wow's no different, if you think about it. Tank HP in Vanilla raids, BC, Wrath, and now shot up incredibly with each expansion (though I admit maybe less of a factor between wrath and cata than BC and wrath).

I despise power creed in my pen and paper games as it means I either forbid expansion material, emphasize it during character creation, or risk having severely imbalanced PCs in my games. I feel about the same in WoW. What'st he difference between having 200k hp and 2k hp (assuming the incoming dmg was reduced equivalently) except that you get to add more zeroes to make it look cooler.

At any rate, great post.
CoH - 4/28/2004
EQ2 - 11/8/2004

Yes - City of Heroes was first - I have no idea if EQ copied the mentor system from sidekick or if they had it in development previously. Still a great system.
In FFXI, they added an amazingly innovative concept called level sync which lowered your level to a target in the party, and also scaled back gear. That's one way to approach the problem.
Great discussion. Just to respond to some of the comments:

I think Nils raises an important issue. If you reduce the importance of power gains, you need to add some other reason for players to play the game. Personally, MMOs have always been about immersion and adventure to me, so I'd like games to return to old-fashioned things like exploration, challenging encounters, socializing, roleplay, and so on. In other words, bring back some of the Explorer-Socializer fun rather than focusing only on Achiever-style fun.

Second, many people have commented on mechanics like sidekicking and mentoring that try to circumvent the effects of power differences. I think Guild Wars 2 is going as far as auto-adjusting player levels to content on the fly. The problem with these mechanics is that (1) they don't address the entire problem, and (2) they often feel contrived. For example, Warhammer turns players into chickens if they enter a level-inappropriate area. Every time you add a contrived mechanic like this, you make it harder for players to suspend their disbelief. Flattening the power curve seems like it would get at the core problem more directly and less artificially.
Am I mistaken, or did I just read a string of comments that collectively could be defined as "an intelligent discussion of game features without descending into tribal warfare"?

Let's say "very little tribal warfare". There were a few comments claiming Rift has less power creep, while others said Rift has more. But other than that it was relatively quiet. I guess this works as long as we discuss features that aren't thought of as being core features of any specific game.
I don't see why there is a need for much power increase in WoW leveling. I think Blizzard goes out of its way to devalue 1-84 so the main reason to level from 34 to 35 is not power but as a stepping stone to 85. There is motivation in getting 250 reputation, not because it adds any power but because it gets you closer to exalted.

@Nils: I think this is a much more common question due to Cata: I have four 85s and decide I don't want to raid (due to guilds falling apart and many of the reasons Tobold mentioned). Is it really good game design to have a game that rushes everyone along to a place that a smaller % want to be at since raiding is the overwhelming (the occasional PvP or achievement not withstanding) point of 85?
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