Monday, November 7, 2011

Killing the zeros

A recent blue post addresses the issue of constantly increasing the stats in a game like WoW. It is a subject I have pondered myself, trying to figure out a way to navigate around it or preferrably solve it completely, since with each new expansion it feels like the numbers are ridiculous and bloated. What bothers me about it is that eventhough I get 100 more strength from one item to the next, I know that my character hasn't actually advanced at all, when compared to the challenge offered by the surrounding. In fact, to keep us interested, Blizzard have to make it look like we take a step forward, and invisibly in the same time make sure we take one step back. Because if we really only took steps forward, as the gear make it seem, we would soon own everything we see just by looking at it, kind of like going back and soloing Karazhan as a level 85.

So eventhough we get better, so does everything else. No progression is really made. We only get new content and the impression that we constantly overpower content. We are overpowering content, but only current content. Until it's not current anymore and we have a new threshhold to climb. And we do this over and over. Like I said in my old post;

"Cataclysm will have my character just as good/bad compared to the npcs as all the other expansions have. In fact we're rebooting ourselves. Come Cataclysm even those with über ICC gear will have to start out fresh again and start dressing up in greens, struggling in instances and become overjoyed when some "cool" blue item drops. Doing the first raids and getting that first really good epic item, until we're all epic geared again and start replacing epic items with epic items and... Wrath and BC all over again. "

I don't mind it, it is what makes the game still fun after six years, to constantly feel like there still is some challenge in this game and a reward for overcoming it (which isn't just glory, but pretty purple pixels as well). The sense of progression, however imaginary, is clearly a very strong motivator that keeps us interested. But there are casualties of this war, of this constant battle of telling us we're moving ahead when we're really moving back and forth. And the bloated stat numbers are one of them.

If you had told a new WoW player in early Vanilla that characters would once be able to level up to 100 (if we get there) and wear gear with stats that valued up to the tenth of thousands he'd have laughed spittle all over your face. Because everytime there is a new expansion and the new gear is announced I find the new stat values crazy. And those items are usually just the first, measly greens of the expansion. Then we have the epics and whatever item that comes towards the end of the expansion. In fact, I chuckle at my own psychic powers when I guessed what stats we'd be having in Cata in the post I wrote a year ago;

"What can we expect to have in Cataclysm? 10k spellpower? 100k hp on a caster? It might sound ridiculous now, but I'm quite sure these are numbers we'll be working with soon."

We quickly grow accustomed to the new values, but practically there is no difference between an item that has 1000 strength and one that has 10 strength, as long as it is used in current content. The things you fight now will somehow magically take as long and be as difficult to kill as the monsters of the previous expansion. We wouldn't want to have it any other way. So do we just accept that the numbers must increase?

Blizzard tell us they know about this problem (it's kind of hard to miss, so I wonder if anyone thought otherwise), which isn't just aesthetical, but practical as well and they offer two possible solutions - although of course they tell us these are just examples of ways to handle this. Both solutions are similar, and aesthetically close to identical, they do however have different practical values.

"Mega Damage
The first solution could include changes like adding commas and the like to large numbers. We could also compress all of those 1000s to Ks and all of those 1,000,000s to Ms, much like we do with boss health today. Internally, we have been calling this the “Mega Damage solution” because instead of your Fireball hitting for 6,000,000 damage, it would hit for 6 MEGA DAMAGE (queue the Arcanite Ripper guitar solo)."

"Item Level Squish
The second solution actually involves compressing item levels, which is why we call it the “item level squish solution.” If we can lower stats on items, then we can lower every other number in the game as well, such as how much damage a Fireball does or how much health a gronn has. If you look at the item level curves, you can see that most of the growth occurs at the maximum character levels for the various expansions. This is because we keep rewarding more and more powerful gear to make the new raid tier and PvP season in an expansion reward significantly better gear than the previous one. However, those huge item level jumps don’t accomplish a lot once the character level has increased again. Very few players notice or care how much of an upgrade the Black Temple loot is over the Serpentshrine Cavern loot when their characters are level 80.

With that in mind, we could go back and compress the big item level increases that occur at level 60, 70, 80 and 85. The Mists of Pandaria gear would still grow exponentially from patch to patch, but the baselines would be a lot lower. Health could go from 150,000 back down to something like 20,000. The big risk of this approach is that players will log into the new expansion and feel nerfed… even if all the other numbers are compressed as well.

In other words, your Fireball will still do the same percentage damage to a player or a creature that it does today, but the number would be smaller. Logically, this seems like it would work, and it does. But it feels weird. When we tried this internally, everyone agreed that it just felt off throwing a spell for hundreds of damage when you are used to it doing thousands of damage."

We either have the Mega Damage or the Item Level Squish. Aesthetically they both do the same thing in that they devalue the numbers. Instead of a lot of zeros, you have either no zeros or hide the zeros behind the name "Mega". Practically it differs between actually removing those zeros in the calculation or keeping them.

When I first read about these two propositions I thought it was ridiculous that one would feel better than the other. Would adding "mega damage" to the end really make all the difference? Would it bother me if I did 100 damage or 100 Mega damage? I'm not sure how much I'm concerned with the numbers of the skills I do. I want them to be good, but good compared to what? Compared to the numbers I did with this character before I switched weapons or compared to the numbers everyone else around me are doing? I'd like to think the latter, in which case the size of the number in itself is irrelevant, as long as it is on par with what everyone else is doing and as long as it gets the job done. would I feel weak doing 100 damage with my Eviscerate if I knew 90% of all the other rogues only did 90? I'd like to think not.

But I shouldn't underestimate the power of progression and especially the power of suggestion. Getting a bigger power than what I had previously suggests that I have improved - in a way I have, only so has (or rather will) everything else. It is quite possible I will think it is completely horrible that my renews only tick for 50 health, although the tank only has 6k hp. On the other hand, I do remember Blizzard actually devaluing stats before, half way through Burning Crusade they revalued the spell power numbers (or healing power as it was called then for healers), making us end up with roughly half of whatever we had had before. Fortunately, as I recall, it didn't nerf our healing output with half, but it did nerf us somewhat. I was freaked at first when my numbers had dropped by such a significant amount but I quickly got back into rythm when I realized that I could still do my job. And I'd like to think that eventhough people would be freaked at first, what really matters is whether you're winning against the evil guys or not.

I have been pondering whether it would be a good idea to scrap the whole value-based stat system all together. Blizzard initially started out with solid numbers - say, 2% crit - on items, but quickly realized that as they gave better items more stats, it would eventually lead to everyone having 100% of everything. So in a sense they did scrap the value-based stat system when they implemented ratings, a system where the value is completely dependant on your current level. I was writing about something along those lines already in my other post;

"What if gear worked like inverted BoA - the further away from it's required level you are, the less stats it gives. That means only the gear with the right level requirement for you will be really good. So level 60 gear will be really good, but only around those levels and then you have to switch it."

This is actually kind of like how ratings work, but we still have value-based stats, like spellpower, strength, and all the other primary stats. Maybe the next step would be to make those into a sort of rating as well, giving us 15 agility rating which would be valued less or more depending on level. The problem is, ratings aren't there to solve the bloated numbers issue. As it is now, Blizzard can shove as much rating in our faces as they want since the usefulness of the rating usually diminishes the higher level you get, which explains why I actually become less and less good from level 80 to 84, eventhough I have the same gear. The drop isn't proportionate to the increased skill of the mobs, but actually goes downward. Ratings are there to prevent us from capping our secondary stats, not to prevent us from having lots of zeros on our gear. And like I said in my previous post;

"It is clear we need something to differentiate good gear from bad gear. And some sense of individual progression is obviously a really important part of mmorpgs. Maybe numbers really is the only way to make that in an easy to understand way. 10 strength is better than 5 strength (or in WoW rather; epic color is better than blue color). Easy maths. "

It seems whatever idea I come up with it always ends up with numbers somewhere, because it is difficult to show why item A is better than item B without using some kind of value which always ends up being some sort of numbers. Maybe we are simple minded and can only understand "more is better than less", so maybe numbers indeed is the only way to go about it.


  1. I'm quite dubious about compressing numbers and damage figures, because of an experience playing an RPG where this happened (I think it was Paper Mario?) In that game, you started off dealing 1-5 (usually 2-3, I think) damage, it was a very low-scale game. However, due to the game's scaling, these numbers never really changed, even after leveling up and becoming stronger.

    It felt...really anticlimactic, to still be doing the same amount of damage visibly, even if it was no different than dealing twice as much damage to a monster with twice the health. It was very jarring and really put me off the game, so much so that I lost interest because it didn't seem like I was making any progress.

  2. Both "solutions" concern me. As a soloer, "item squish" seems like it would be a nerf. As things currently stand at 85 I can solo most TBC content and some WOTLK content. I'd expect at 90 to be able to solo any TBC content (ie sunwell) and most WOTLK content (easily kara 10). I dunno if squish would harm my ability to do that.
    Mega damage is dicier. Large numbers give you a variety. 1-20 gives a larger variation than 1-2 x 10. And if they're just rounding or truncating or however they're knocking off the 0's, I don't get how that will make things easier to calculate.

  3. Anon hits my own counter musing right on. Bigger numbers add more variety but also leaves more up to chance. It really is a question of how the rounding would be done. 7mega damage could range from 7000000 to 7499999 (or even up to 7999999) depending on rounding. The question stands though as to whether rounding is to be done on damage at all or if it is just a cosmetic change.

    Actual rounding on mega damage values is the same as a devaluation but then the important part wouldn't be how much mega damage you did... It would become an hunt for fractions of damage.

  4. Its really just about how eye pleasing it is. I agree with Zinn as far as as long as I can heal the target I dont mind the changes in numbers.

    I had to use an old laptop when my computer had crashed last year. I had to turn down everything to minimum and I turned off all the numbers to rty and save on performance. I couldnt see what I healed a person for, but they didnt die so I felt okay with it.

    DPS would actually be the ones most affected as in general they love to see those numbers rolling and when they top out a new max crit...they almost want everyone to break out the wine to celebrate.

    As the Anon post mentiones the older instances can now be handles easily, so I guess you would have to retro teh entire game or basically make it impossible fore the newer "stronger" toons would nto be abel to handle the older runs. So basically a lot of re-programming.

    I can undertsand you have to have some representation of an upgrade persay, but they really created it themselves by making them upgrades number wise so big.

    Cata in particular had HUGE gains in not only stats with lvling, but the gear was outragiously marked up.

    They should have kept it smaller, make a point be worth more persay. Basically cmake it so that your toons attributes are treated like secondary stats on gear. have it take more STR, INT, etc to affect your damage/mana/regen and such.

    But as I said you make each poiint worth more "rating" wise. Smaller numbers with more meaning.


  5. I don't see why we even have the numbers anymore - with all the normalization, they're generally static calculations based on item level. At this point, what all those numbers really say are

    Primary Stat = Item Level * X
    Secondary Stat 1 = Item Level * X of Type A
    Secondary Stat 2 = Item Level * X of Type B

    They could just as easily state that with

    Intellect, Haste, Crit - Item Level 359

    There are some minor variations. It's not always Secondary Stat 1 = Secondary Stat 2, one is often increased by a certain amount. That could be indicated by doing something like

    Intellect, Haste+5, Crit - Item Level 359

    Doesn't really matter what the + number is, since all you care about is whether item X (Haste+5, Crit) is better than item Y (Haste, Crit+5).

    If they did that, they could squish, stretch, skew, skedaddle, and supercalifragilize the numbers all over the place, and nobody would care, because what we'd see remains static.

    For health, damage, and healing numbers? Just make those static. For example, your health is always 1,000 + HP boosts from items. Damage done/taken is based on relative level/power, so against an 85 monster, your L85 might take 100 damage, but your L20 might take 20,000 damage. (Dead is dead.)

    I like the solution far better than squish. At least then, my stats aren't going to abruptly plummet. (And potentially make low level content much harder.)

  6. Really interesting read!

    Will go over it again once I get home (on iPhone).

    New subscriber now! Found your site on The Daily Quest (From WoW Insider). Seems like a right cool blog you have here,

    - Jamin

  7. I agree that what worries me would be how any change would affect older content. It's clearly not an easy issue to solve, but honestly I would love to see one as the ever increasing numbers are kind of scary. But maybe WoW will be put into retirement before it goes too far.

    Thank you!

  8. A lvl 1 character has a health pool of 100.
    A lvl 85 character has a health pool of 150.000 fully equipped

    How on Azeroth is that possible? Your "health pool" should not change *that* much with your experience, it should stay pretty close.
    I mean if we start with 100, at max level we should at most get something like 200 or 300. My "life bar" can't be 1500 times bigger than the one of another human/elve/orc/...!!!

    On the other hand, armor stats could go crazy, let's just suppose that our lvl 85 armors are heavily enchanted with the strongest protective spells, and this should be the reason that we'll only take a fraction of the damage a boss/mob.

    DPS. Same as with health, if I stick a sword in you it should basically inflict roughly the same damage if I'm level 1 than if I'm level 85. Maybe a bit more as I'm experienced and I know where and how to strike for maximum pain, but the difference should not be between 2 dps at lvl 1 and 22k dps at lvl 85.

    Same for bosses: Onyxia's stats at lvl 60 should not be much different than Onyxia's stats at lvl 85. Her health pool should be about the same, her dps too. The "only" differences being the level of the encounter (your level and her level). Killing a lvl 60 dragon should be about as difficult as killing a lvl 85 dragon (which is true when the content is current).

    Basically I'm in favor of a system where your level is the main criteria used to determine if you can hit a target, but your health pool and dps remain relatively constant.
    If the target is the same level as you are, you have a 80% chance to hit. If it's 1 lvl higher than you are, 75%, 2lvl, 70%, 3 lvls 60%, 5 lvls you won't be able to land a single blow/spell. If you're trying to kill a creature 5 lvls lower than you are, you're pretty sure not to get a scratch (but no xp either).

    And the gear should really have constants stats all across the leveling. A tanking weapon for example could always have +15 stamina and +20 dodge, the trick is that your character would have to match the weapon's level. Let's take an example:

    Vanilla sword of deflection (lvl 40): 2,3 speed, 25 damage, +20 stamina +15 dodge
    If your character is lvl 40, then you get 100% of the benefits of that weapon, ie +20 stamina and +15 dodge.
    If your character is lvl 41, then you get 95% of those stats benefit
    If your character is lvl 42, 90%
    lvl 43, 85%
    lvl 44, 80%
    lvl 45, 75%

    Cataclysmic sword of deflection (lvl 85): 2,3 speed, 25 damage, +20 stamina +15 dodge (notice that this is exactly the same weapon except that it can change name and icon, but otherwise quite the same apart from the level requirements)
    If your character is lvl 85, then you get 100% of the benefits of that weapon, ie +20 stamina and +15 dodge.
    If your character is lvl 86, then you get 90% of the stats benefit
    If your character is lvl 87, 80%
    lvl 88, 70%
    lvl 89, 60%
    lvl 90, 50%

    Greens: +10s useful stat
    Blues: +20s useful stat
    Purples: +30s useful stat

    We could explain this easily. The further your character progresses, the more sophisticated the weapons he can use. Did you ever use a practice bow? It's relatively easy but not very precise and you won't be able to shoot very far. When you progress, you'll be able to use more and more sophisticated competition bows that are much more demanding in terms of expertise but a lot more accurate and powerful.

    That's the system I would like to see implemented, dunno if my explanations are clear enough?