Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

25 April, 2011

The focus on numbers in MMOs
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:51 PM

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?

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  1. Just a tangential thought… I’ve wondered for a while now if there’s a good market for MiniMOs. As in, online RPGs that you play effectively as private servers when it comes to gameplay itself, but with a “massive” back end economy. If multiplayer interaction is limited to transactions *except* for whitelisted players, perhaps we’d still capture the sense of a larger community in the background but keep the RPG bubble intact. (So long as you’re playing with people you trust, anyway.)

    …then again, maybe it’s too late again and I’m not thinking straight. *shrug*

    I think that you’re right, that numbers have become a crutch for too many. I’m just not sure that we can stuff that genie back in the bottle as a general thing… though we can support those who want a different experience.

    Comment by Tesh — 25 April, 2011 @ 11:47 PM

  2. I agree. By steablishing a culture of following a single goal (maximizing item levels), MMORPGs, lead by WoW, have run into a blind alley. It is the result of first order iteratations, instead of holistic game design.

    Comment by Nils — 26 April, 2011 @ 1:46 AM

  3. It’s all about numbers was Yahtzee’s conclusion too:

    I think there are alternatives to number augmentation/dopamine stimulation as fun. SWTOR has gambled that story will prove as interesting, layering a Bioware choose my own adventure lattice over a diku framework. It’s incredibly high risk but just possibly the money they spent on it will provide its own momentum.

    Scott Hartsman provides very interesting insight into Rift:
    Clearly they aimed to provide fun by giving gamers the unexpected due to a dynamic game engine. However since the early vision the game incrementally became more and more like the standard diku until now some commentators (eg Tobold) have tried it and found it indistinguishable from WoW. They are moving back along that diku-dynamic axis towards dynamic gameplay again with new multidimensions and crafting rifts promised for their May patch.

    One of the most interesting things about the numbers is they have not been planned. WoW, for instance, keeps breaking its core mechanics as people get bigger numbers than the game was designed to handle – the infinite mana issue of WotLK being one example.

    I feel diku MMO is a soap bubble about to burst into dozens of different types of games. The only thing holding it together is the feeling you have to add every feature to attract every type of player (eg WAR crowbaring in a rudimentary and ridiculous form of crafting, mocked in the latest Kiasacast, when they suddenly worried about not appealing to the crafting sub-market). There are many game elements that just don’t work together any more – open world gameplay conflicts with instancing, battlegrounds kill rvr (the losing side just queues for honour on a plate rather continue with asymmetrical conflict).

    It’s a good time for games.

    Comment by Stabs — 26 April, 2011 @ 5:23 AM

  4. I seem to remember that there were impassioned debates about roleplay vs rollplay in pen and paper games long before MMOs really took off, it’s very much about a narrative GMing style vs a simulationist GM style. For example, debating whether players should be allowed to roll vs charisma to see if they can seduce an NPC as opposed to getting them to act it out. People who preferred the former argued that if they were forced to always use their ‘real’ abilities then they would always have to play characters who were like themselves, whereas part of the fun of the game is being able to pretend (Bioware style :) ) that your character is a charismatic uber hero.

    It’s also that computer games lend themselves more to simulation because they can do all the complex calculations very quickly, and would be a nightmare for true narrative GM-ing style because they can’t really subjectively judge a player’s roleplay.

    Comment by Spinks — 26 April, 2011 @ 8:53 AM

  5. Since I never see Blogger trackbacks, I’ll add this one manually:

    Crunch and Fluff

    Comment by Psychochild — 26 April, 2011 @ 5:41 PM

  6. From someone who might be in your team, stats = capability. If they don’t know you and are only interested in the successful outcome of the next raid (or whatever) they do with you, then stats are the ‘first impression’ of the character’s ability. Plus there are always a very vocal group of number crunchers in any MMO who make stat optimisation (and picking up dev-implemented discrepancies) into a vocation.

    From a dev point of view, stats are a ‘hard’ system, whereas fun is a ‘soft’ system. You can play around with stats (in the general sense) down to the nth degree and it is something you have control over. Fun is a lot more nebulous.

    On top of which, D&D is famous for its focus on stats, especially for games that are dungeon crawls (which reflect a lot of MMO experiences).

    The way around it would be to take the focus of MMOs off combat and towards things that players have more control of, so you either put more importance on social elements or player skill. However, purely socially-oriented titles are fairly untested as a MMO experience afaik (Seed springs to mind, but, well…) while a segment of the MMO base still flinches away from the idea of ‘twitch’.

    Comment by UnSub — 26 April, 2011 @ 6:56 PM

  7. I’ve long felt that all youd to do to solve the problem is hide the numbers sufficiently. Fighting games don’t tend to show HP, but a health bar without units does the same job. Of course the HP still exist, but not as a tangible number you can go munchkin on. Would say more, but typing on mobiles sucks…

    Comment by unwesen — 27 April, 2011 @ 5:38 AM

  8. @unwesen – I’d be curious for someone familiar with the competitive community for fighting games to chime in on this. Is it because the numbers aren’t available, or is the game design more biased away from the specific numbers?

    I’ll ask around my friends who are in to fighting games, but from what I’ve seen of them, the focus is largely on dealing damage without taking damage, and they most definitely did go down to the exact number of frames before a move caused damage, or how many frames it made you invulnerable for. Maybe this has changed?

    Comment by Lighstagazi — 28 April, 2011 @ 3:07 PM

  9. Perhaps this is a bit off topic, but on the point you were making about DDO and puzzles: I Loved the Pit quest/dungeon in DDO. I don’t know if it’s still there and, if it is, if you’ve done it (most people absolutely hated it), but I thought it was a perfect dungeon for puzzles, map creativity (it was very vertical in nature), and the like.

    Comment by Stubborn — 2 May, 2011 @ 3:52 PM

  10. Yes, I think it’s a shame that MMOs are about stats, and in turn about gear. I remember trying to take a character in a non-traditional direction only to find the gear did not exist. You wear cloth? You get intelligence. You wear leather? You get a dex bonus. I say let odd gear drop and let the players decide if it’s vendor-trash or not.

    I don’t know if there is any way out of the number trap, as they help to keep skill out of the equation and keep it mostly on time spent in world.

    Comment by Rik — 4 May, 2011 @ 1:30 AM

  11. Its the same issue that we have in real life since the internet. Too much information. It’s actually harder to sort through all the available information than it used to be to gather the tiny bit available. So people in wow misuse things like the Armory. Remove the player ability to inspect anything but gear and I think the game would become more fun. people would have to play with people instead of having am MMO “credit report” available on them.

    Comment by sam — 4 May, 2011 @ 6:29 AM

  12. I agree that the stats control MMO games and it is the most considerable aspect in developing and playing. Also I totally agree on the first point that about stats in development of game. The easiest way to determine and ‘fix’ the balance between classes would be done by ‘+ number’ or ’ – number’.

    Back in Diablo 2, stats were something that players can distribute on their decision. Still, classes had ‘efficient’ or ‘better’ stat for each. There has been always ‘recommended’ or ‘preferred’ stat distribution or combination (maybe not Monk/Rogue) made by users. Maybe numbers are the closest and familiar way that players can determine and evaluate of game elements. – Stage, character level, item level, stats, etc. Players attached to those high numbers to be competitive with others. One of huge characteristic in MMO, which is competitiveness, made the situation more number orientated. Players need higher number of elements than others to compete. Why compete each other? They want to show off. They want to receive compensation of their effort and time by showing off their number of character levels and items to ‘others’. And the number would be an easiest way to express.
    I think players are also the major reason that made ‘number focusing’ in MMO.

    Comment by Boncheol — 5 May, 2011 @ 1:19 AM

  13. The problem goes deeper than players simply relying on stats to judge each other’s value.

    @sam: It’s easy to say the problem would be solved if players were simply unable to check each other’s stats or talent. But what if a player puts one or two points in a healing tree and decides that makes him a healer? And he goes to a raid as a healer and can’t carry his weight as he is mostly specced for dpsing and not healing?

    As long as it is possible for the entire group to repeatedly wipe on content because one or more members are not carrying their weight, that makes it everyone’s business what their fellow raid members’ builds and gear are. The issue comes when some elitist wannabes carry this to an extreme and take issue with slight deviations in build, or differences that do not affect performance at all. (Wannabes because you’ll notice the people who do this are never from the world first guilds.)

    Comment by ellori — 21 May, 2011 @ 9:15 PM

  14. The story of a high level character

    [...] could go into all the lovely stats and figures (6d6+6 sneak attack damage on each hit!), but that's the focus on numbers I lamented previously. But, an MMO seems to engender that focus. I'll talk about that a bit more [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 24 September, 2011 @ 4:54 PM

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