25 April, 2011
One thing I’ve been considering lately is how focused MMOs (and CRPGs) are on raw numbers, generally stats. No, this isn’t the start of an argument to do away with numbers; I think numbers in RPGs are useful to give feedback to the players. But, it seems that they turned into a crutch.
Let’s take a look at numbers and how MMOs abuse them compared to other RPGs.
Building character in DDO
The MMO I play most right now is Dungeons & Dragons Online. My better half and a good friend play it with one of the remaining frequent players in the Massively guild that was formed a while ago. I’m having fun.
I’ve not been focusing on high end content, which means I’ve been rolling a variety of alts and trying out different builds. It’s interesting to see the design consequences of the 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons multi-classing rules, as interpreted in an MMO. But, one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the builds seem to depend on specific stats and skills. Rogues in particular seem to need to keep up with items that maximize their respective skills if they don’t want to miss a trap and doom the party, especially on harder difficulty levels.
A pen and paper background
I played a lot of D&D in college, along with other RPGs like Paranoia, White Wolf’s Vampire and Werewolf, etc. In fact, I met my GF of 16 years playing D&D. Our group played together for nearly 4 years, and some of us later played virtual tabletop RPGs and MMOs together. Now, we weren’t originally the most story-focused group; we often played Vampire: the Masquerade in the “fanged superheroes” mode rather than purely as the goth “oh my tortured soul” way. Personally, I liked Werewolf: the Apocalypse better for this style of play, but we did some good role-playing as well.
Playing DDO for a bit has put this into stark contrast. Despite being a fairly power-gaming heavy group, I don’t think I focused on stats nearly as much as I have in DDO. For example, in DDO, you have items that give bonuses to your individual stats. I might find some Ogre Power gloves that give +1 to +6 Strength. These items are pretty common in the game and increase in power with levels. In my pen and paper games playing 3rd edition for several months, we saw 0 of these types of items. That’s right, none. Even back in university playing power-gaming-focused 2nd edition we had less than a half dozen items that increased stats after years of regular play and multiple parties.
The problem with extreme number focus
Why is focusing so much on numbers a problem? Primarily because it takes focus away from anything not related to stats, like problem solving, playing a role, or simply exploring around where you feel like. The focus is on maximizing stats to the point where any challenges have to be suitably oversized. It’s like the munchkin groups that got lightsabers and therefore bored fighting the gods.
This also restricts role-playing options where there is any gameplay effect from choosing a class. Building a Half-orc wizard is no longer about flavor, but is viewed as picking a sub-optimal choice. This really kills a lot of interesting character options, as it’s usually the non-standard characters that stand out more from my tabletop days.
In some cases sub-optimal builds might even automatically exclude people from some groups because the stats wouldn’t be the best possible. I’ve noticed in DDO that there seems to be a bias against unusual builds. Twice I’ve had people scoff at my custom characters (a Monk/Rogue and a Cleric/Sorcerer). The argument seems to be that the character won’t be optimal for high level content and raids, therefore it is stupid to play it in the mid levels. I’ve played for nearly a year and have enjoyed the characters. The few times I’ve dipped my toe in with raid higher level content (with the Monk/Rogue), I’ve done just fine. But that hasn’t stopped some people from dismissing or even insulting my character choice.
Why is it this way in MMOs?
MMOs don’t have to be this way; as I said, a lot of pen and paper mechanics rely on numbers but you still have “real role-playing” away from the numbers. I don’t think it’s related to having a human game master. Role-playing didn’t require a lot of human intervention, and in fact a trend in ultra-modern RPGs is to have nobody be the official “game master”. I could ham up a role in a computer MMO just as easily as I did sitting around a table, really.
I also don’t agree that it’s merely customer expectations. Games influence those expectations, so there’s a reason why developers keep focusing on stats and not changing things away from the heavy stat focus.
There are three reasons I’ve considered for why there’s a heavy focus on stats in MMOs.
1. Stats are easy to develop. Computer do math, so it’s easier for developers to just focus on making numbers bigger than other abstract values like befriending a princess, etc. Of course, even befriending someone is ultimately about a number, though. Current MMOs just show you a bar you need to fill. Plus numbers-heavy systems are well-explored territory for MMO developers, and many tend to rely on the way things have been done in the past. On the player side, stats are an easy way to get feedback and a sense of advancement while playing the game.
2. Other people spoil the situation. Role-playing and social interaction are fragile things. It only takes one idiot to ruin things for everyone in many circumstances. One person not in the spirit of the moment can take everyone else out. Plus, RPers are great targets for griefers, as the RPers are more likely to scream in outrage. So, it’s just easier to focus on the mechanics than on the other aspects.
3. The sheer weight of all numbers. Our D&D group in university was about 10 people at its height. An MMO server with 3500 people is about 350 groups. That’s a lot of possible magic items found even if they are mathematically “rare”, so they’re going to seem more common. Players can feel slighted if that “really rare” item was given out and they felt they had no possibility to get it. This easy availability of items shifts the focus to make this more important. (This does assume the plethora of stat items is a mistake, but I think it’s probably a design issue related to number 1 above.)
What do you think? Why is there such a focus on numbers? Is there a way around it? Or is this the only true mainstream interest?