Path to Power

Back to gaming!  The next few posts will go over the mechanics of RPGs, specifically the increase in power and the multiple paths that it can take.

Since the Pen and Paper (P&P) days, characters have faced adversity and through it, gotten stronger for the next challenge.  This is true in life, for the most part.  When computers came out, essentially large calculators, this process was shadowed somewhat by the adventure.  In today’s world, you can easily play any RPG game and ignore the behind-the-scenes calculations for power.  The game usually does a pretty good job of showing you what is an upgrade – in a linear fashion as well.  Only if you want to play at an elite level do you need to worry about min-maxing (a term that means minimizing your weakness while maximizing your power).

In this first post, I’ll look at the particular mechanics of that path and the various ways games get you to the top.

Power is gained through 3 main methods.  Acquiring new skills, more damage or more speed.  Certainly there is a mental aspect in performance but that’s for another post.  In RPGs would get new skills with new levels.  Batman doesn’t get his grapple gun for a while in his games, for example.  You get more damage either through numerical input from new equipment (better stats) or from leveling and improving the baseline of the skill you are using  (a level 60 backstab is stronger than a level 10).  More speed is really split into two sections: getting more efficient (the mental aspect) and accruing more numerical speed – usually through some haste metric.

The leveling aspect of power increase is linear, easily controlled and available to everyone.  At maximum level, every character should have access to their most powerful skills.  Some games in the past (Vanilla WoW, Everquest, etc…) made you hunt for these skills, giving players who had them a huge advantage over others.  In today’s game, that is gone.  EvE (and Glitch) is a little different in that the skills are available but time limits your ability to get them – you need to train for months.  From a developer’s standpoint, this is a fairly easy way to measure and control player power.  It also gives them points to balance classes.

Next is the increase in numerical power.  There are many variables here: level, attack power, critical chance, critical multiplier, base statistics, equipment.  Take a typical MMO.  Your fireball damage is based on the level of the skill, your intelligence modifier, your spell power boost, your chance of it hitting critically and the amount of damage that critical hit deals.  At lower ends of the numerical scale (say 100 damage) an increase of 10% overall damage is significant but not overly powerful.  At the higher end of the scale (say 100,000 damage) an increase of 10% damage is massive.  In WoW, characters can hit for that much or more and 99% of all characters in the game have less than 10% of that amount in hit points.  If you continue to add a linear amount of power, this soon gets out of control through compounding.

Compounding is where you continually add in percentages – just like a bank.  If I put in 100$ and it gains 5% every year then: year 1 = 105$ (100+5%), year 2=110.25$ (105+5%), year 3=115.76 (110.25+5%), etc…

If I say that each item adds 1% damage, people who have 60 items have an extraordinarily large advantage(81%) over those with 30 (35%), let alone 10 (10%).  Where someone should be 6 times more powerful, they are actually 8 times because your baseline increases continuously.

On top of that, since you have 5 or more variables that affect your power increase, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage and keep balanced.  If you were to make one method unattractive, people will go for another.  TOR has this problem where Critical Chance and Critical Multiplier are excessively powerful when compared to other methods.

The final increase is from speed.  The basic damage formula is called Damage Per Second (DPS).  If you’re able to get more attacks in per second, your overall damage will go up.  In shooting games, a fully automatic weapon will shoot more often than a sniper rifle but do less damage per hit.  Most of the time, the sniper rifle will have a higher DPS rating but the mechanics of the item make it hard to use consistently.  So let’s say the automatic hits for 20 damage every 0.5 seconds (40DPS) and the sniper rifle hits for 150 damage every 3 seconds (50 DPS).  If I were to increase the rate of fire by 10%, then the auto goes to 44DPS and the sniper to 55DPS.  It’s a linear gain for each but the sniper rifle gained more power overall.  Some games give a 50% boost to speed and in that instance, the sniper rifle gains 20DPS over the automatic.

You can see again how a compound gain of speed will benefit damage.  In many RPGs you reach a point where speed “caps” at a point where the game system can no longer handle the input (global cooldowns, energy, mana resources, etc…) but on the whole, more speed is good.

In the next post, I’ll go over how games balance these various power stats to ensure that people who have gone through a lot of hoops are more powerful than others but in a balanced fashion.  I’ll also go over how a complete lack of balance in some games puts an artificial barrier on gameplay.

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