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.
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.
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.