Dedication or Diversity? (Part 1: Caps and Curves)

My past couple of posts have been very Death Knight-centric, which is all well and good, because, well, I play a Death Knight as my main class in World of Warcraft. However, this piece, while still very much centered around a specific topic in WoW, is something that affects gamers from all walks and all sorts of different games. That’s because I want to talk about player power derived from time invested. This is going to be a series, friends, so I hope you’ll stick with me.
What this means, for you non-gamers that might be reading: How much should you be able to increase your character’s effectiveness (strength, ability to heal, ability to defend against damage) purely by playing the game for more hours compared to someone else?

Now this is a controversial topic. All sorts of people play games. 9-5 office types, kid gamers on school schedules, college students who go to a couple classes a day, graveyard shifters, the temporarily (or long-term unemployed), bored housewives, bored house-husbands, etc. Some people have a lot of time they can invest in playing games, and some people, well, don’t. The burning question here is, how do you satisfy the people who want to spend their available time playing the game, and have scads of free hours to play, while also allowing people with limited schedules to also enjoy your game?

How Do Game Designers Combat This?

Game designers fight the player power:time ratio in a variety of ways. Let’s look at a few.

Caps

One way games combat this is by having caps. You can only perform certain activities, or gain certain currencies at a specific rate over a specified time period. (Usually a week, but depending on the pace of the game, caps can be daily, or monthly). For instance, in some previous expansions of World of Warcraft, you could obtain a currency called Valor Points for completing some activities within the game. You could only gain these points up to a specific point cap per week, and you spent them to buy pieces of gear from an NPC that were of very good quality. You would get specifically stronger each week as you built up your points and reached the cost of the next piece of gear you wanted.

Theoretically, everyone could reach this cap by playing an hour or two each day, or less depending on the efficacy of your play. However, your ability to increase your power by playing the game more is completely stifled by a system like this. It was possible to reach the designed cap within the first day of each week, if you played the game enough. As a matter of fact, the cap was not something that was designed to take an entire week’s worth of measured play.

Even worse, once you reached the cap (which generally involved raiding, thus locking you out of another activity that increases player power), there was essentially nothing you could do to increase your character’s abilities that week, even if you were just barely on the cusp of being able to afford a second item, you had to wait for the next week in order to obtain the points required. This leads to player boredom. Players that have lots of time, are relegated to filler activities that do nothing to increase player power. This satisfies the players that have limited time, because they don’t get left behind in efficacy by the people that have more time to play, but disenfranchises those with time; they have no reason to continue playing this week.

And if you couldn’t play for a week? You ended up putting yourself behind a curve you could never catch up to. Because you didn’t get your points, you didn’t progress linearly, and you fell behind everyone else irrevocably, because you could never regain those missed points. If the point cap is 4000, and you miss one week out of the month because of a family vacation, everyone else has 16000 points worth of items, and you only have 12000. And unless everyone takes a week off, you are behind forever, at least until everyone has the best possible gear available. The social pressure of meeting a quota like this becomes astounding if you play with a group focused on improving week-to-week. It’s like being on a sports team and not showing up to practice for a week.

None of these things make caps a Bad Thing™, necessarily. Caps allow players to progress at specific rates. They create methodological and measured forms of gameplay wherein you know exactly the schedule on which you might get specific things that you want. And this is positive in its own right. The other thing that caps do, is allow you to put games down once you’ve reached a specific goal for the week, and do other things, like play other games, or get out of the house without that nagging feeling you aren’t doing something you COULD be doing to get better at your game. (This may be viewed as unhealthy, but it’s behavior that’s observed in workaholics as well).

Exponential curves

In the middle ground, you have Exponential Curves. This rewards people who have lots of time, with the ability to get measurably stronger than their time-restricted counterparts. One example of this is the initial implementation of the artifact power system in WoW. At first, each point cost multiple times what the previous point cost, leading to a compression of power not awfully far ahead of those people with limited time. It was as if, just ahead of the average player’s ability to gain points, there was a zone of sticky mouse traps that hindered you from getting too far ahead. There was also a scaling system that increased the amount of points you gained from every activity every few days, pushing that zone a little further out. You could grind infinitely if you wanted, but eventually you would reach a plateau where the amount of points you could obtain from each individual activity were essentially a drop in the bucket, so you would be somewhat obligated to wait for the scaling system to increase, to make the next point goal more reasonable.

With a system like this people have choice. You could grind out that next point, pushing against the low point gain to get to the next point, but you would always reach that plateau where infinite time still isn’t enough to gain enough points to get to that next level. (Getting 250 points per activity when you need 300,000 would take a long time, right?) you also reach a point where some people just don’t want to do that much work for a power increase. BUT, you also have the ability to set your own goals. “Do I want to push towards this specific increase in power? How good is it? Is it worth that time I’ll need to invest”

However, this system has its own flaws. It removes the player boredom of not having caps, and replaces it with player malaise. Players that feel like they want to be as strong as they can be, have no absolute limitation on where they should stop playing the game. Instead, the players with infinite time continue to play and push the limitations of the sticky plateau by banging their heads against the wall.

This is partly a community-created problem: People want the strongest characters and players on their teams. Therefore, if you are not the strongest or the best, you are, by definition, bad. This feeling of obligation to constantly increasing your power as far as you can leads very quickly to player burnout, as players repeat the same activities for hours on end, farming points to try and break through that plateau. And worse, you bring in one of the problems of caps: you reach a point where even if you played 168 hours for the whole week, you could NEVER get enough points for that next increase, forcing you to essentially put the game down because it’s spiting you.

Players want to play the games they love; they don’t want to be artificially induced into stopping or playing other games. But that feeling of obligation isn’t fun either.

With the next post in this series, I’ll be looking at some of the systems in WoW and other games that are positive and negative examples of addressing player power:time ratio, as well as discussing a couple of other ways that game designers go about attacking this problem: RNG and Unlimited Progression.

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