Ladies, gentlemen, thy king doth come. Hello and welcome to another Acts of Terrorism, the column where I, Terrorking, speak about concepts, themes, theories and all that other artsy (but also often times mechanical) junk “nobody” else cares too much about. The “nobody” is in quotations because a lot of content creators actually think nobody cares about this stuff. Sidetracking aside, this column is perhaps the first I should’ve done since it is at the very core of most of my game design theories and complaints, but I wanted to get the mood of this column right, and no better way to do that than accentuating the negatives! Anyway, I’m hammering it out this week, which isn’t so bad, right? Of course it’s right; I said it is.
“Power creep,” is a term I’m sure you’re well-acquainted with if you’ve spent even a modicum of time on the internet’s video game (or games in general) forums or groups. For those that are not as entrenched (really, if you’re reading this you probably are), I shall explain what it is. “Power creep” is a term that describes the escalation in effectiveness of tools of a similar nature in games over time when compared to older tools. I know, that’s a mechanical and unfriendly definition, so here’s a few examples:
Magic: The Gathering: Let’s say in 2005 they created a 4/5 with Vigilance. Now let’s say in 2007 they create a 4/5 with Vigilance. That means they created an identical card, but the newer one is clearly superior to the older one due to being 1 mana cheaper to play. That’s power creep: a more effective card being printed.
Any MMORPG: Let’s say in a 2006 expansion they introduce some cool armor which you get when you purchase said expansion. Now, a 2008 expansion comes out, and when you buy it you get armor that’s better than the one from the 2006 expansion while filling the same niche. That is power creep.
Here’s a picture to help your brain:
That leads to the next point: why does power creep exist? The answer is simple: money, dear boy. Well, that’s the cynical, but still often times true answer. If you throw out the cynicism and assume only good will from the game designer, then power creep exists as an oversight in the design process, where something the designer undervalued ended up being way more powerful than he/she imagined. This is, sadly, a natural part of the design process. To create anything good, you have to go through a lot of bad (Luke Starkiller, anyone?), and as you’re focusing on refining these bad ideas, some things may escape your notice.
Do you see the main idea of the previous paragraph? It’s that power creep is inherently bad. It’s not something that anyone with good intentions (for the customers; not for their wallets) sets out to do, but is sometimes a consequence of good design, and more often than that money is the cause. Let’s tackle these two issues.
Design: This is why playtesting is key. Design is all about being creative, so go wild and come up with crazy concepts and implementations. Be unshackled and do whatever you want. But here’s the caveat, once designing something is done, that’s just the first step of the process. I mean, when you want to build a building, contractors don’t just hand you a blueprint and collect their money and go home. The blueprint is only the first step. Same for design and other creative endeavors, really. The next step is refining, and this is just as important as the creative step. You want to test everything you’ve put in and more importantly, you want other people to test everything you’ve put in. It’s impossible to get everything perfectly balanced, but your objective should be getting it as close to perfect as you can.
Money: Power Creep is an unsustainable model. Yes, if you push the power level for making monetary gain, you’ll do so in the short term. In the long term, players that invested (time/money) into your previous products will see that their investments are unsafe because the next expansion completely invalidates the older ones, which in turn may force those players to stop investing (time/money). In the long run, it’s a losing model. The impact of power creep on the game itself should not be ignored. If a gun deals 3% damage to your 100% health, then is superseded by one that does 4%, and so on, your health is likely still just 100%. That gradual escalation will invariably lead to shorter games, where there’s less room for interaction, which may lessen the fun your players are having. If a player isn’t having fun at your game, you’re losing money.
I know what you’re thinking now. That is, power creep shouldn’t exist and the power level of a game should be flat, right?
Well, no, and you probably need to reread the bit about design above. A flat power level is almost as bad as power creep itself. That’s stagnation, you see. It severely limits the design process because you’d essentially only do effects you understood 100% and never move out of that comfort zone. Try your crazy designs regardless of power level (but please, don’t forget to playtest and refine!), otherwise you’ll end up with every gun firing the same and doing the same damage, every card having the same effect—homogeneity, essentially. Further, and this might need to be its own topic somewhere down the line, you need certain elements to be subpar so the brilliant can truly shine. How do you know something is good? By putting it against something that’s bad.
In essence, power creep can serve a good purpose since it allows one to try new things and mold play experiences. The importance of alternate formats with their own rules cannot be understated, as they allow one to make a bunch of games/components/cards that vary in utility, but this might need to also be its own topic somewhere down the road. To sum up, the only constant thing about power level is that it should fluctuate.
The next image is super important, as it will show the model that works best. You see, you can’t think about power creep without also taking into account the power level of the game alongside it. “Does this card raise the game’s power level?” is the question you should be asking (more on this whenever I get to the topic about the importance of alternate formats). Like I said before, it’s impossible to have something be perfectly balanced and in line with the game’s general power level, so don’t set out to try to be perfect. Keep in mind that if there’s rises in power, along with pitfalls, it’ll eventually even out as long as the disparity from what is the baseline is not too large.
Now you have an idea of how I think of power creep and how I use the term. Keep this article near your heart as you continue reading Acts of Terrorism because power creep will be referenced. Probably a lot. Now that that’s out of the way, Terror 3:16 says “I just enlightened your ass.”