Creep: Keeping your Elements Under Control

To keep a game interesting games will grow in complexity as you get a better understanding of the game by way of unlocking or reveling new mechanics. But can your game support that growth?

This is a cross post from here:

The golden days of World of Warcraft are pretty much over inspite of the soon to be released expansion. It is sad because it was, and still is, a great game but as it dies off slowly we should ask “What can we learn from it?”. The biggest problem with the game can be attributed to it’s incredible longevity (damn you success!), creep.

There are many kinds of creep and due to the fact that the game has survived for so long, has so many expansions that it has suffered from pretty much all forms of creep. The most obvious being power creep, where previously endgame content gets forgotten as the level cap is raised and new areas and weapons become no longer viable for grinding. The perfect armour becomes instantly worthless and previously interesting areas become deserted.

They addressed the lost content issue a bit with the addition of “Heroic” dungeons which were basically the same ones as before but harder. This allowed them to give players a lot of high quality end game content very easily. But biggest form of creep this game suffered from is skill creep. As the game has raised the level cap they have had to give the classes new abilities to satisfy the demand for new content, resulting in each class getting more and more abilities.

In the new expansion of WoW each class will have between 50-60 abilities. There are 3 big problems with having that many abilities: some abilities will have to be very niche (sometimes to the point of being basically useless because the 1-2 times they might be helpful you don’t have them in a ready to activate place), abilities will overlap even with other classes abilities causing classes to feel less distinct, and lastly YOU CAN’T USE THAT MANY.

Games that last a long time do so because they continually add content (competitive games are generally exempt from this requirement as the new content they add isn’t maps or weapons but an ever evolving meta-game though the games that do continue to add content tend to have larger player bases) and so when you first start designing a game you intend to last a long time you have to ask “In what ways is this game likely to grow and is that growth tenable?”. 

One game, or rather one game type, that seems to solve this problem of “How do you add abilities without overloading the number of abilities” is MOBA games (DotA, HoN, Smite, LoL) and they do this by adding new characters with specific kit of abilities and not new abilities to existing characters (typically 3 normal and 1 ultimate). I’m not sure if this model of adding new classes would of worked for WoW though as even if they could keep adding new classes the players who loved the old classes might of felt short changed that their class got no love. Though continually adding more classes would of gotten people to naturally re-use the old content in a new context which would’ve help alleviate the same problem Heroic dungeons were aimed at.

That is not to say that MOBA games don’t also suffer from creep. The makers of LoL have said that they are aware of the problem they are having with mobility creep. The problem is that as they add more and more abilities there are more and more abilities that allow characters to jump around and over terrain. There is one character called Jarvan who had the ability to create terrain and when the character came out there were not that many characters who had “jump” abilities that allowed them to get over the walls he creates, but as more and more characters got these abilities this skill got weaker due to the fact that it’s natural counter became increasingly frequent. The addition of the new content for LoL wasn’t just worrying in the context of overloading the player with choices or abilities but in the context of how does it maintain the balance with previous content, and indeed the makers of this game have had to go back and remake characters years after their release to balance them with the current metagame and characters.

Understanding how the game will scale and grow is an important consideration from day 1 if you want your game to have any kind of longevity, and while the problem of creep is most obvious in games that have a lot of longevity it must be a consideration even if the only longevity you are going for with your game is that they play the single player to completion. 

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