Last time, we talked about the how game designers fight player power:time ratios through Caps and Exponential Curves. Today, we’re going to talk about two of the more hated ways that designers combat this issue: RNG (Short for Random Number Generators, which is gamer slang for anything that’s randomly assigned or obtained in game and can’t be controlled), and Unlimited Progression.
Randomness can be fun. It’s why people love gambling and slot machines.
In games, typically the items that you gain from defeating a powerful enemy or boss are randomly chosen from a list of pre-determined items. Fellow gamers, you all know the drill. However, when the most important aspects of your playtime and your actual ability to be effective are determined by items that can be obtained virtually anywhere at random on a tiny percentage chance… you can all understand how frustrating it might be. Imagine if you were on your way to work one day and you were the 100th employee to walk through the door, and you got a promotion. Now imagine how angry you’d be if you were 99th or 101st? That’s a small taste of the hatred generated by RNG.
Gamers mostly can’t stand RNG, and yet, oftentimes we almost worship it, hoping for that one-in-a-thousand chance to strike, for us to get exactly what we want. We even have something of a religious messiah, RNGesus. (Well, there go my religious readers. Sorry, I blaspheme.)
RNG is a lever used by game designers to skew the apparent availability of certain powerful items, in order to draw players in so that they continue playing the game for this proverbial future reward. It’s very handy because it plays on our inherent belief that eventually something good will happen to us. And every game leverages RNG to some extent. Even Mario Kart.
Currently World of Warcraft has arguably one of the worst implementations of RNG reward that many players have seen in some time: The Legendary system. Random items, available from a wide variety of activities, on a VERY small chance. However, the problem is that these items are randomly selected from a list available to your current class and specialization, and some are tremendously powerful while some are complete duds. To bring us back to our previous analogy: Imagine if you were the 100th person to walk through the door and you automatically either got demoted to the mailroom or a VP promotion based on a coin flip.
The changes in efficacy that these items can provide create a massive gulf between those who were lucky and those who were not. The RNG system is good, on a group basis, with items that drop from a boss that you can return with the same group and kill until everyone eventually has what they want. However, when something so vital to your personal power is tied to something you can’t do anything to affect, this creates problems. Even more so when a less skilled player, is suddenly more powerful than you are, just because they got lucky and you did not.
Like the other systems, RNG does have its place. However, it should not be responsible for wild swings in efficiency due purely to luck or the lack thereof. It utterly disrupts the player power:time ratio by granting gigantic power boosts that can come anytime, anywhere. It is a poor method of control precisely because it is random. It disregards effort for luck, and while the great Kakashi Hatake did say luck is a skill, it doesn’t feel very fun to get left in the dust because someone else got luckier than you did.
Finally, we come to the last and worst offender. Unlimited Progression. With this model, time is power. If you have the most time, you will, no ifs ands or buts, have the most powerful character available. Most games with a system like this are typically very difficult to get into on the ground floor, as there is a ton of work that must be done in order to “catch up” to the highest levels of play.
Typically the players that have been playing since day one of launch will always be ahead of you, no matter what you do, unless there is some sort of level limit. Sometimes the level limit is tremendously high, and it’s nigh impossible to reach without a serious time investment. Nevertheless, if you don’t have hours upon hours per day to play? You should probably not even think you’ll be able to reach the higher echelons of play.
One bad example of this, and something it seems Blizzard is looking to address with some upcoming changes, is World of Warcraft’s Artifact Power system. After reaching a certain point, instead of remaining on an exponential curve, the artifact power growth system flattens out and the point difference from one level to the next barely increases. Worse, the scaling system that slowly increased the amount of points you gained from varying activities caps out as well. What this means is that there is no longer a growth rate, but a flat rate that you gain power and with no compelling level of compression, leading those with more time to dominate in terms of increasing their power relative to those with less time to play the game.
This was not the only game to have such a problem. One other notable offender was ArcheAge, a game made by Trion Worlds. In that game, you could own and build houses or gardens or orchards, or whatnot, on specific plots of land. You could take over the property another player owned if you were there when their “lease” expired. The times at which this happened were predetermined based on when the current owner had last paid their rent, could be seen by any player who walked by, and could literally happen at any time, day or night. This led to people literally logging onto the game at all hours of the day and night to snipe land from someone else to keep or sell to others at their leisure. But imagine telling your girlfriend that you can’t go to her birthday party because you need to be home to snipe your in-game neighbor’s land so you can put up an orchard next to your own house.
Now, like all of the other methods, Unlimited Progression does have its place. Having something to do in the game whenever you might feel like logging on, and for however long you choose is a great feature of any game. World of Warcraft definitely used this method well in the implementation of the World Quest system, which gives you a wide variety of activities to choose from, with a wide list of possible rewards that are available throughout the day and night. There are some problems with this system as well, but we’re focusing on the positive. However, when it comes to player power:time ratios… this is the worst, because it only caters to one end of your playerbase: Those with a LOT of time on their hands. And yes, with a limitation (i.e. a cap) eventually those players with tons of time will hit that wall and reach the same problems there are with caps: Player boredom, and people leaving the game to do other things.
None of these, individually, make a great system of managing the player power to time ratio. Some are finicky and grant massive rewards with no time investment, or artificially limit the amount of time you can invest in a game, and others force you into being unable to do what you want to do at any given time, or cause you to play the game in totally unnatural or excessive ways just to gain an advantage.
Typically a combination of these methods is often best. Exponential curves offer a soft curb to playtime. RNG makes you want to keep playing. Caps give you a hard stopping point, and unlimited progression gives you something to do. Blizzard is making strides in these areas, reducing some of the RNG, giving players more sources for the legendary items that have caused so many issues in Legion, changing the artifact power system back to an exponential curve methodology. However, some of the problems with this expansion have arisen from trying to use too much of these levers in the wrong areas, while not using others correctly.
Now, I’m not a game designer, so I can’t speak to what is right or correct in game design, but as someone who has been on both sides of the player fence, I can say that there are unique social pressures on either side that don’t make them pleasant to be on. Many of the negative social views about gamers stem from these social pressures, and you can see which ones are the culprits often by the behavior of a given gamer. A gamer who is constantly playing is a victim of too much unlimited progression, or too much RNG. One who plays a variety of games may be suffering under caps in his games, or from boredom with an exponential curve.
For you non-gamers who may be reading, we love our games, much like you love your pastimes. And some of these problems can apply to any given pastime, I could write analogies for hours, so I won’t even start. But sit down with your gamers. Have a chat. Figure out what works. Just don’t let them sit feverishly at their computer at 3:36am in the morning, feverishly clicking on that “Build” button. That orchard is not worth it.*
*It’s totally worth it.