Creating The Illusion Of Power

When I were a lad and had just started playing Everquest, I used to dream about power. Not the sort of power that runs through wires and cables but rather the social and ‘physical’ power than one can acquire in an imaginary world. I wanted to be Tyromere The Beautiful, Strongest Warrior Of Them All or Optamus The Almighty, The Most Narcissistic Cleric Of Them All. I wanted to be loved, I wanted to be respected and above all, I wanted to feel the thrill of power.

Creating the illusion of power (an illusion because it has no real world benefits or implications) in video games is an interesting thing and usually a combination of relativity and extremes. Relativity in the sense of being stronger than the NPCs you previously faced and struggled against and extremities in the sense of getting bigger and crazier spells and abilities as you progress. Start a game with a puny little fireball and end it hurling gigantic volcanoes of errupting magma death.

Relativity Theory

In games like Everquest, where everything is almost always determined by a little level number, it’s easy to gain a sense of power simply by leveling up. Returning to kill level 1 bunnies in the Newbie Garden when you’re level 90 creates an obvious and strong sense of dominance to the player. My brother, the WoW Noob King, remarked on this fact not so long ago when he went back to Darnassus in WoW with his level 47 Warrior and started tearing the zone up. It’s a cheap trick but it works well. Relative power is also especially apt in MMOs because, unlike other gaming genres, not only are you comparing yourself against NPCs but also to other players, something which can be ego trip in itself.

Less well implemented examples of this relativity include the SRPG Oblivion and the original Star Wars: Galaxies MMO. In Oblivion everything in the world always leveled up as you did and thus there was never any sense of true power because, no matter how tough you got, that annoying little goblin you encountered within the first five minutes of game was always going to be just as difficult to beat. SW:G was also interesting because it didn’t have any level numbers at all and thus wasn’t easy for the player to determine how powerful they were. Without those visual cues it was hard to track, rate and compare your progress day-in and day-out.

Extreme Power

I’ll admit it now, I’m a huge fan of extreme spells and abilities in games. Some people like extreme sports, I like extreme magical abilities. I’m talking about those melee attacks that make you giggle like a child with delight and those magical spells that make your jaw drop in utter admiration and awesomeness. They’re the things that separate your character from being just a noob to being an awesome pro and make everyone else around you jealous.

Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking but Everquest for me had a great sense of extremes. Tanks were significantly sturdier than finger wigglers, DPS classes owned the damage meters, healers truly held the scales of life and death in their hands and Enchanters were simply Gods amongst men. Due to the risks and restrictions in the game world, the special abilities of classes were exaggerated and enhanced as a result. Wizards and Druids had the incredibly useful ability to teleport anywhere, Bards were the masters of travel and speed, Enchanters the crack dealers of mana, and Clerics the only ones who could reimburse 99% of your experience loss after death. There were gigantic differences between the classes and it created a wonderful sense of diversity, power and need.

Newer games, unfortunately, tend to opt more for balance than extremes. Everyone can travel quickly, everyone can regenerate quickly, everyone can withstand attacks and contribute good damage to the team and there are no harsh penalties to be saved or rescued from. This type of environment creates balanced, fair and casual gameplay but it also removes that egomaniacal feeling of power. Everyone is equal and everything is sanitized as a result.

Balancing The Challenge

World of Warcraft is a pretty slick and well designed game but it’s always had one factor which has irked me a little: the game gets easier as you level up. It doesn’t seem to matter what class you play but climbing up the leveling ladder becomes easier and easier and easier every step you take. Priests will die constantly and consistently from levels 1 to 20 and then a little slower after that until eventually becoming a dominating force in the higher levels. Even more traditional classes like Warriors go from being apt and efficient soloers to unstoppable, unthinking killing machines. At level 15, you cautiously take on one opponent at a time but by level 60, you run in and slaughter groups without consequence.

This seems an unfortunate side effect of acquiring power as you play through the game. As your avatar levels up and becomes tougher, opponents become easier and as you get better and bigger and sparklier spells, they become even less challenging. It’s a vicious cycle. Being able to dominate your foes rewards you with a sense of power but it also chips away at the challenge factor. The only way to fix it is to keep scaling your enemies and move you along from killing Giant Rats to taking on real Giants to taking on the ancient Gods themselves. At some point though, we’re going to run out of big, crazy things to kill…

I Want It All

Most themepark MMOs these days ooze relative power by the bucket load. Levels, Alternate Advancement points, Talents, Masteries, Deities, all of these little things are designed to make you feel more powerful than did you 10 minutes ago and trigger that little surge of adrenaline that keeps us all hooked. It all seems a little vacuous though and often lacks real feeling behind it. I wonder if this is something to do with the fact that they don’t create a sense of extremity like older games do because they’re often too focused on trying to keep everything balanced and everyone self-sufficient. By trying to make all the players happy, the games have sacrificed the things that make us truly powerful. We can’t be the ‘best’ and most powerful in the game because everyone else has to be just as good. For instance, DPS classes can’t blow away the charts because the other class have to remain competitive to them and the tanks and healers have to be given their fair chance as well. In a world of averages and mediocrity, no one stands apart.

I can understand all of these development decisions but I suppose the child inside of me still wants to feel that thrill of power which can only be achieved by having that unique something which others can’t offer and everyone needs. Whether it’s the ability to be only class who can tank the Dragon of Death or the only DPS class who can backstab for a billion points of damage, I want to feel special and I want to feel powerful.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that this sense of power is easy to achieve or balance with everything else in a game but then, fortunately for me, I have the ultimate luxury of armchair design and blogging commentary.

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17 Comments

  1. Wolfshead says:

    Another thought provoking article!

    Almost 5 years ago I penned an article entitled “The EverQuest Paradox Revealed” where I talked about the relationship of the power level of the EQ player versus their environment. In the article I stated that the most powerful character in EQ was in fact level one.

    The reason is that completely opposite to WoW, EQ got exponentially more challenging as the player leveled up. These increasing level of difficulty was in large part responsible for many great things about the EQ experience: 1) it forced players to actually improve as players 2) it made players seek out other players and form bonds of friendship. You can actually see how NPC power outpaced the player’s ability in a graph I made in the article:

    http://www.wolfsheadonline.com/?p=26#5c2c8

    The bottom line is that the player would always be striving to recreate that sense of power they had when they were in that golden age when they were low level newbies. It’s a beautiful and elegant system and the makers of EQ really have all the MUDS that went before them to thank for this perfected system that created a gripping and socially cohesive MMO experiences.

    Back to WoW though, if you read Jeff Pardo’s recent talk at the GDC in San Francisco he again speaks to the Blizzard philosophy of trying to make players seem more powerful than they truly are.

    http://www.wow.com/2010/03/12/rob-pardo-speaks-about-blizzard-game-design/

    Almost every aspect of WoW and other Blizzard products have this same “larger then life” Disneyesque feeling which I believe is a big part of their success. Real life is boring, video games and MMOs should be more fantastical.

    Blizzard has often admitted that they struggled with their first WoW hero class (the Death Knight) in trying to make it feel more powerful then it actually was. That’s the Blizzard magic: creating the illusion of power.

    Still, you are right when you say that WoW gets easier as you level up. Eventually players do hit the wall when they graduate to raids but it’s a very uneven and haphazard difficulty curve when that happens. In this respect Blizzard has failed and it seems there are really 3 MMOs in one with little in common with each other: the solo game (game…it’s hardly a game with zero challenge but I digress), the grouping game, and finally the raiding game.

    I’m glad that Blizzard isn’t in charge of the education system because using their approach they’d be sending children with only basic math as a foundation into university to do calculus. There’s nothing you do as a soloer in WoW that can possibly prepare you for the premiere content of the raiding game.

    Blizzard created WoW this way not because they wanted to make the very best MMO, rather they did this to appeal to the people who don’t have the skill to raid. These soloers who play from 1-80 and then start another tune when they max out are the people that subsidize the *real” WoW which is the hardcore raiding game (which Pardo admits as being the real WoW at GDC).

    In the end, WoW is the way it is because it’s all about Blizzard making compromises in order to make money. Don’t think for a moment that the designers who work at WoW (who are all hardcore raiders) would ever make the current easy version of WoW if they had their way and there was no financial reality staring at them in the face.

    Blizzard got a lot of things right but far too much of WoW is just way to easy. A good MMO should challenge you and make you strive to be a better player. You should always be prepared as a player for challenges that the game designer puts in front of you. Sadly, this happens far too late (at the level cap) and that’s really not good game design.

    • Gordon says:

      To me, MMORPGs straddle both online gaming and online virtual worlds. As a game, it doesn’t matter if something has depth or meaning because it’s just throw-away fun but as a virtual world, they need complex economic and social mechanics that invoke a variety of emotions and responses. The latter is definitely what appeals to me about MMOs. I love the fact that they are true escapism into anothe dimension. If I want mindless fun, I can just play a quick game on the PS3.

      With that in mind, Blizzard are definitely opting for more of a ‘gaming’ approach to WoW rather than a virtual world. It’s paid of for them (and I’m not disputing WoW isn’t a heck of a lot of fun) but it does leave some of us wishing for the more deep and complex mechanics and relationships offered by true virtual worlds.

  2. JC says:

    I disagree with what you said about the pre-CU SWG. To me it seemed that as soon as you got up in to a “2nd tier” skill tree that even the novice box gave a definite power increase, and by the time you hit master you were a god among mortals. And you knew it. And wanted everyone else to know it too, which is why even though it was silly in pvp to reveal your capabilities by flying it over your head, many (most?) did anyway. They were advertising “look how powerful I am!”

    Now I’ll grant that I didn’t know “exactly” when I’d be able to go solo AE kill Rancor nests in a bikini on my TKM as I was working her up (could at master, tbh never tired before then, but I got a lot of skill boxes on Endor), nor when I’d be able to go stand in the middle of a ton of gurrkats on . . um… Corellia’s moon (yikes, can’t recall it’s name. Started with a T?) and let my rifleman friend plink at them while I maintained aggro without being hurt, but I still felt I had a general sense of when I could and when I couldn’t. Beyond that, I think you definitely “knew” whether you could go to Endor or Yavin or Dantooine or if you needed to stay on Naboo, Tat, or Corellia. And once you hit the “harder” planets most everything was similar in difficulty, so generally if you could kill something close to the starport you were ok to go exploring too.

    And of course if you were in a group then you could go just about whenever you wanted becuz y’all magnified each other’s power too. I truly felt heroic in that game.

    I actually felt the con system in EQ2 where you could see if you could kill it or not by its color and whether it was “heroic” or not was absurdly easy afterward. Admittedly I’m totally used to it now and would probably have a hard time going back, but it’s not like SWG doesn’t use levels and con system now either, so…. kinda moot point, I suppose.

    • Gordon says:

      It’s been a while since I played the original SW:G so my memory may be hazey :) I just remember going down the Pikeman path and never really feeling a strong sense of power. I went to the Tusken Fort constantly (there was nothing else to do) and I didn’t feel like I gained much from when I started down the path to when I finished it. That might say more about the profession than anything else though.

  3. amcl says:

    Noob? When do I stop being a noob? :)

  4. Your articles always tease me to start to play EQ 1 again…

    Like always: Cant agree more with you! Classes tend to be totally the same. Just take the paladin in WoW. One can spec that class in 3 different ways (as every other) but if I want to I can be awesome healer, uber dps and mighty tank…That just sux! Thinking back to EQ 1 I can remember that I struggled to kill a mob far lower than me with my shaman because he wasnt able to deal enough dps! Still I earned a hell lot of money because I could cast SoW (Spirit of the Wolf) which people needed to travel at least a bit faster! :)

    Good old times

  5. boatorious says:

    I’d guess WoW doesn’t have you fail much in solo play because there’s such a punishing death penalty. Even though it’s less than other games you still have to figure out how to get to your body, run there, and hope you can rez while avoiding whatever circumstance caused your death in the first place. It’s not horrible but it is very boring.

    To take the opposite approach than another article you wrote recently, what if death penalties were almost completely removed but failure was much more common? I think I wrote a couple days ago that I’d love to see a “Horde” mode (like in GoW2) — a survival mode where you fight waves of enemies until eventually you die. You always fail, but are given better rewards the longer you survive. So you as a character fail more often, but it’s bearable because you receive positive reinforcement for staying alive for ten rounds, instead of negative reinforcement for failing in round eleven.

  6. Sharon says:

    The AA mechanic in EQ2 makes the sense of balance, content tuning, and how powerful you are in relation to the environment and other players seem far more fluid than it is in WoW. (I say that as someone who’s leveled six 80s in WoW.) Higher levels in EQ2 don’t always = more powerful, which has been a huge adjustment for me as a WoW player.

    Interestingly, despite AA, SOE has not gone out of its way to balance the classes and the content in the same way that Blizzard has with WoW, probably because of the difference in design philosophy and the lack of PvP. I agree with Wolfshead’s idea that WoW is really 3 MMOs in one, but I would add a 4th – the PvP game, which I think has forced Blizzard into balancing all the classes to the point of removing much of what made them unique initially. It’s a considerable challenge to make everyone feel more powerful than they really are when they’re fighting against other players.

    I understand how the Blizzard design philosophy plays out in the leveling game though. There’s a sense of dominating the content as you go through, “kicking Nass and takin manes” (to quote the Zul’Drak quest.) In EQ2, the “versus environment” factor is much stronger. Mobs don’t always spawn when you need them to, they take longer to die, and fights are harder. I don’t feel like the game is there to make me feel powerful. Instead, sometimes I think it wants to give me a good whupping and tell me to sit the hell back down.

    • Gordon says:

      I love EQ2 and I consider it the best themepark MMORPG out there. And I’m not saying that because I’m a SOE fanboy but, even after playing WoW for over a year now, it’s my honest feeling. It’s a fantastic game and underrated.

      And I completely agree with your point. SOE aren’t so worried about trying to make everything fit perfectly and every class to be balanced and great at everything. They’re happy with the traditional concept that tanks are tanks, healers are healers and DPS classes are DPS. It means they can perfect those classes at their roles and don’t need to worry about a Guardian maintaining the same DPS as an Assassin in raids.

      • Sharon says:

        It’ll be interesting to see if the recent addition of battlegrounds changes EQ2 in the same way that organized PvP changed WoW.

        I’ll admit that sometimes in EQ2, I think, “This *never* would have happened in WoW! Sheesh… What kind of game is this?!” ;) (Usually when I’ve waited for days for something to spawn, or when I’ve killed something for the millionth time and it hasn’t dropped what I need, or when I’ve been ganked by assassins while afk in a major city…)

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