A spider web you say? Yes, it’s relevant. Continuing on the theme of power, we’ve seen how it works and how it’s distributed. Now it’s time to see how it interacts with other game systems – hence the web.
In most RPGs you will have some sort of customization option, be it feats in tabletop games or talents in MMOs. This provides an extra set of variables of power and a flavor option for players. It would be unbalanced if a character could play defensively, do as much damage as another character and also be a great healer – all at the same time. Games use these systems to “slot” you into a specific role and balance you around it. Of course, there’s always the illusion of choice. With WoW and SWTOR, if you’re in a specific role for your class, you’re going to have to select 75% of the same things as everyone else. Great for devs and if you think you had a choice, great for you. In games like Rift or any sandbox game, devs have to balance against an imaginary baseline and ensure that all possible variables can reach that baseline. Lots of work! That’s why in those games, you rarely have multiple choices for tanking or healing characters – or at least their play is practically identical.
These talent choices might include bonuses to your power stats or new skills and through this comes additional power weights. If all of a sudden your talents give you 10% critical chance, then it becomes less powerful (in a diminishing returns system) to have it on your gear. If you have a powerful spell that only triggers after a critical hit, then it becomes even more attractive to stack on your gear. These trigger effects (or procs) can reach huge damage potential for characters and unbalance the game. If you get a boost of power every crit and your chance is 10%, it’s almost a 10% power boost. If you have a 50% crit chance, then it’s a 50% power boost. Developers counter this with hidden caps, so that a given item can only proc a certain amount of times per minute (PPM). WoW Rogue poisons are a good example of this as is TOR’s Sage skill set.
An artificial limit, diminishing returns and stats through talents give developers more knobs to fiddle with to try and balance characters. If there was but one path to power, any change would be massive in scope and near impossible to test to ensure other characters were not affected. With more options to fiddle with, you can target specific activities of a given class and get smaller changes.
The final item I want to discuss here is resources. In all games you have hit points – a measure of when you live or die. The other stat is for your power moves, be it energy, mana, rage or what have you. Hit points are affected by the power moves hitting you (attacks or heals) and aren’t so important other than as a safety cushion for errors. Power though, has a huge impact on performance. If you’re out of mana, you can’t do anything.
In many games, DPS characters have auto-attack abilities with their weapons and don’t require power. Magical ranged characters have this as well but the damage is usually pitiful (wands mostly). Regardless, these abilities take the full impact of your power stats and have no adverse effects. In fact, for some characters in some games, this might be one of the major sources of your damage. This should be the same for all characters in a game though – otherwise it becomes a balancing nightmare.
In a power system, power stats have a significant impact on your damage potential. If you cast more often (through speed boosts), you go through your power reserves more quickly. Sometimes the speed boost will impact your damage over time attacks, providing an extra boost of damage. These systems have “magic numbers” to target, if that damage is significant.
In a variable power system (mage mana), where you can increase your power reserves, the power drain can be compensated for, to a degree. In a closed power system (rogue energy), this means that you will reach a point where you will be staring at your screen waiting for more power. In some systems, there is a rhythm to the power balance (out/in) that allows you to perform specific chains of attacks and keep neutral. If you increase the speed of those attacks and don’t increase the power regeneration rate, then you change the rhythm and break rotations. Rotations mean you can look at the game instead of your keyboard, waiting for things to become available. The game is more fun.
Let’s look at WoW’s Rogue, a character with a fixed power pool. They have auto-attacks that take full benefit from power stats. Their damage over time attacks gain benefit from power stats as well. Their energy regeneration rate is also affected by their speed rating. This provides a system with a rotation, at any given power stat rating, and a fallback damage option (auto-attacks) when things go really wrong.
Now let’s look at SWTOR’s Imperial Agent, another character with a fixed power pool. There is no auto-attack, so if you want to deal damage, you have to press a button and skip over a power move. Damage over time attacks gain a benefit from all power stats but speed. Power regeneration rate is not affected by speed, so the more you have, the less abilities you can use over a period of time, even though they might activate quicker. This means you usually want to avoid all forms of speed boost.
Rift has rogues and warriors with fixed energy systems but they avoided adding any speed mechanic to their game. It makes it easier to balance, even with less customization.
In the end, the more power stats you have and the more variables there are on your given character path, the more the need for simulation becomes apparent. Years ago, you could estimate the power potential of a character in WoW with a simple spreadsheet as the mechanics were simple. Today, you need a simulation tool to get an idea of your power potential. Rift, with a lack of speed mechanic, simplifies this a lot since you can figure out damage potential fairly easily. This is of course offset by the fact that you have hundreds of possible character possibilities. TOR has a complicated power stat set (power, force/tech, main stat, crit, surge, accuracy, alacrity) but 2 of them are useless for 90% of the playerbase. This makes modelling very simply and you can find spreadsheets telling you exactly what works best.
When it comes down to it, the choice of game mechanics is up to you. WoW uses a simple to learn hard to master approach, Rift provides an extra layer of choice for players and TOR really just let’s you play without worrying about numbers at all. Options are plentiful.