If you’re ever stepped away from your favourite competitive or collectable game for a while, only to be demolished by the new expansion content when you return, then you’ve felt the sting of power creep. Or maybe you were always bad at the game? But for today we’re going to assume it was power creep.
So what are we talking about when we use these dreaded words? For many the term has simply become a way of accusing developers for not keeping an eye on game balance, frequently seen between Massively Multiplayer Online games (and more recently, the MOBA epidemic) and more traditional card games. Is it really just every new axe that’s better than your old axe? Is it every card in a block that uses that broken new mechanic? Actually before it became a catch-all term the phenomena of Power Creep warned of a very specific problem that occurred usually over years of development on a particular game. The idea that as time goes on the ‘power curve’ that carefully maps out the value of something with its power will skew higher and higher, making low-cost tools even stronger and completely negating the more balanced content that came before.
For prime examples of this horror in action let’s look at one of the biggest culprits- online MMOs, particularly the competition crushing World of Warcraft. In WoW especially the progression of rewards has changed drastically with each new expansion, with new raids and dungeons granting more experience more readily than anything that came before, and item drops in the newest version charting standard weapons at an equal power- or in some cases greater- than old level 60 top tier drops. This practice is destructive for many reasons with the most obvious just being… nobody wants to see their gear suddenly become redundant. Why bother investing in treasures you know will be worthless in a few months time, or replaced by an equally strong drop that’s ten times more common? It is because of this that many people experience the ‘stranger’ phenomenon when returning to a big game like WoW after a period away from the game to find your in game assets are worthless and the balance of power is completely different.
One might argue with designers becoming more savvy to how long-term lifecycles work we shouldn’t be facing any more power creep problems in the future- but this honestly just isn’t the case. PC tends to stem from two major causes;
First, the mentality of cutting corners in designing new content for an existing player base who simply demand more. By pumping up numbers and making better gear more accessible the people crafting the experience can give an easy sense of accomplishment and power, changing around values and digits instead of putting in more serious work to establish new game rules and scripts that would be needed for true variety. This is most often seen in games (virtual and collectable) that have been sold off to new companies or otherwise pushed to market to fill a need. Take for example the Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game which launched with one of the most bizarre flaws imaginable… it wasn’t really a game. When the cards were first released they followed the design and rules of the television show, which in turn was based on the manga comics before it. The problem with this being the cards were only meant to be story driven, not an actual game with its own competitive ruleset. In fact it took three seasons before any actual rules were assigned to the card game at all, retroactively created to fit the existing design. Which is why one of the greatest examples of power creep in table gaming was not based on just upping the ante for new content, but trying to find a power curve that actually made the game playable.
Second, the accidental combination of features in a way that wasn’t foreseen. This is a rarer occurrence just equally as devastating. When new ideas are thrown together into the mixing pot the results may not go as planned, especially if a game has stacked up years worth of items, abilities, skills and effects under its belt. A fine example given by the show Extra Credits comes from the Tournament expansion of Hearthstone, the popular virtual card game. The culprit named here is a card called Astral Communion, a simple 4 mana card that grants the player a whopping 10 mana crystals (end game tier) at the cost of discarding their entire hand! Choosing to die rich and almost certainly lose the game. A tactic that’s well below viability it’s true, however it does open the door for accidental combinations down the line… what if a future expansion gives players an easy way to restore their hand, or draw cards at a cheap cost? Suddenly it’s ludicrously easy to get 10 mana at very little risk. To prevent this designers are creating codes of best practice to educate new creators on what should be avoided in future- with games spanning up to a decade in their life cycle it’s very common for the original creators to move to new projects and leave the property in the hands of fresh professionals who might not be aware of such traps. Games like WoW, Heartstone and Magic will all have best practice guidelines to ward against any of these sleeping landmines.
Adding to the dangerous horizon in gaming is that with greater monetization in our games, from micro transactions to player stores, the appeal of Power Creep to money-minded developers becomes even greater. After all what better way to sell new content to your players than simply making it better than what came before? Bigger, rarer, more expensive?
While this might mean short term gains for the publishers it also means people who don’t try to stay at the top of competitiveness in the game, or just take a break for a month or two, will find their hard earned collection has become worthless. This relates back to the ‘stranger’ complex we mentioned before, and here is where a large number of players will simple decide to leave the game. After all a lot of investment comes from your collection and if that collection is rendered worthless people might not feel there’s value in rebuilding only to have the same terror strike again.
So why do developers allow what seems to be a glaring design oversight?
That’s down to a little knock-on effect called the Possibility Space. Essentially any time content is added to a game it closes certain doors, and opens certain windows. Like a new cog in a machine the effect of new pieces can be far reaching, even beyond the intended effect. In its most basic example if you add a new piece of gear to a game that has good stats and isn’t hard to find then every player has to ask themselves “Is what I’ve already got better than that new gear?” If the answer is no then of course there’s no reason to use the older content anymore… but that’s not all. In addition the developers then have to compare all new gear added to the game with that new standard! After all why add new content that’s completely unviable and nobody will want? It has to at least be useful to somebody. That new baseline has changed the power curve we mentioned earlier, slightly altering the balance of drops in the future. Boom- Power Creep.
However this issue has been known to developers for years and they’ve brought out some tactics to help combat it (outside of simply being more careful with new content). Such remedies include Heroic Difficulties on older dungeons and areas acting as a hard mode with more extensive and rarer drops and much higher experience gain! A tactic shared by many other games trying to rebalance their older generation content by scaling up the rewards to the current level. Other games like Everquest and Runescape have fallen on the idea of releasing version specific servers that allow players to engage with the game in its legacy state before the addition of the new expansions and patches- meaning they can experience it exactly as they want to, and once they’ve beaten the older content only then will they get access to the expansions. This keeps a steady flow of progression without any of the newer, less balanced items slipping through the cracks and breaking the curve.
Many have adopted universal patching as their cover-all solution for power creep as well as maintaining balance. Particularly MOBA’s which receive very frequent new patches will re-evaluate the balance of not only new content but also their older content, in some cases completely rebuilding them or cutting out features altogether. By doing this they isolate the issues to a single version and can keep their power curve restrained to just a small sample of changes. Is the new champion too powerful? Does their synergy with an existing item break the game? Just patch it out and let players adapt their strategies to the new version since they know there will be another roster of changes coming in a month or two. This is a more fluid version of systems used in games like Pokémon (which have less frequent but wide ranging alterations) which will rebalance hundreds of factors at a time, adding dozens of new attack types, monsters and even changing long standing elements like the typing of a particular creature. These changes do not take power creep into consideration as it sets in motion the idea that if something becomes untenable in the future it can simply be changed retroactively… but what about when this isn’t possible?
To get a grasp on power creep in physical games a great case study is comparing the Pokemon TCG with the granddaddy of TCG Magic the Gathering. Comparing older legacy cards from Pokemon with their modern rivals is to look into two wholly different worlds- it would be insane to try and compete with the newer variants and with each new release, much like its fellow table game Yu-Gi-Oh, stronger and more valuable cards are released that become the new hot collectors trend. To put it simply if you don’t start collecting the newer sets you simply cannot stay competitive in these games. This is a simple example of a publisher embracing creep as a marketing mechanic, allowing them to promote better cards with each set to improve sales. By comparison Magic has established a system called Type 2- which determines that the only competitively legal cards for each season will be determined by the latest two blocks to be released, keeping the available choices (and problems) contained within a smaller window much like the global patches mentioned before. To ensure balance and prevent creep the designers will often allow the power scale to bounce around during the course of the two blocks, but at some point along this shorter lifeline the power will drop back down to a more grounded one-to-one value. This ensures that cards that follow this block need not scale up to whatever powerful cards might have come before or worry about game breaking effects. This also allows them to bring back older cards that might not have seen print and re-release them into the set with no changes to their original balance!
So we’ve talked about the various ways Power Creep can intoxicate both our virtual and tabletop favourites, but what’s the answer to this mess? How can we try to prevent the creep from ruining our fun in the first place?
The best answer we can really give is that Power Creep thrives on changes that have knock on effects for other pieces of the game. Change a number in place A and suddenly you’ve altered the value of B, and maybe created a combo with C that makes gamers cry. So the best solution possible is introducing features that stand as alternatives in their own right without stepping on the toes of existing content. Putting some variety on the spectrum instead of just ramping up numbers or mixing around values of copycat items and skills. If two viable options are incomparable but both useful then you have given your places something they want without shifting the power curve- such as making two expansion options the power of invisibility versus the power of teleportation. Both are interesting and useful things to have but so long as there is no numerical value that is shared between them one cannot objectively be said to outshine the other. If your previous expansion was an apple make the next one an orange- never invite mathematical judgements to come between your player’s options and their fun.
Keeping this direction we can also pluck one of the fruits mentioned already in this article, the idea of global restructuring and patches. Should the second cause of creep strike, the accidental shifting of the curve, they can always be brought back into line via patching or should the need ever arise older legacy content can be ramped up to remain viable alongside their kin.
When all is said and done building a game across a period of 5-10 years is a monumental task requiring thousands of hours of manpower and generations of developers stepping in to fill the empty space. Warcraft may be the heaviest example of the creep but it’s also a game that has maintained a steady flow of content for nearly fourteen years. We are in the toddler years for long standing games like this one, the birth of mobas and the rise of connectivity to make live patches a reality. What we conceive as being a permanent problem in competitive gaming today might just turn out to be the growing pains of a whole new genre tomorrow…
But my axe is still bigger than your axe.