For this first week my topic will be focused on what I call "Creeping Problems". So what are they? Creeping Problems arise most commonly on long running games or franchises and are really tough to deal once they are set in motion. These problems usually relate to an element of gameplay that is constantly pushed and enhanced in order to top the last. In today's topic I'm going to explore the three most common ways these problems happen and how one might avoid them.
Power creep arises with the problem of addressing the desire for increase in user's power with addition of new content to a game. In part, it is fueled by the belief that if the new expansion has no powerful items, cards or dungeons to clear old players will be reluctant to consume the new content or quit the game in disappointment.
While the goal here isn't to address the merit of these claims, it is important to realize the problem that the simplistic approach of just "increasing numbers" creates. For one, it can forcefully coerce players to buy into the new content; and in particular, if players perceive this move as a pure money-grabbing strategy they are sure to quit it, as evidenced by the death of countless digital CCGs and webgames.
This design pattern is really a design time-bomb waiting to set off on the day when players are no longer willing to put up with the rate of obsolescence of content. So how to deal with Power Creep?
Here is a short list of methods one might employ to address it. I've kept the list brief but I might consider expanding on each topic in the future. Also note that for any particular game some of these methods might not apply or even be counter productive. So without further ado, let's take a look at them:
Incomparables - Use elements in your game that can't be directly compared to one another. If a sword in the game deals 6 damage and its equivalent in the expansion deals 10 damage it will quickly be ditched in favor of the newer one. If instead one sword deals poison damage over time and another occasionally stuns the target, it is not clear whether one will be favored by another (provided both effects are balanced within the game's context).
The Escher Stairwell - Named after the famous painting of M. C. Escher, this technique basically entails increasing the power of certain elements in the game while simultaneously decreasing the power in others. This can create the subtle effect of making it seem that the new element is powerful as people tend to focus on the bigger flashier parts but later come to realize that it comes with drawbacks and thus must learn to strategize and circumvent them.
Artificial Incentives - Incentivize players to experience both new and old content by giving them a reward and/or desire to go back and playthrough old content. As an added bonus, this can have a rewarding effect for your long time fans that have already explored that content and can now revisit it while reaping new benefits.
Cyclical Patterns - Instead of creating a system that is additive, consider a system that is cyclical in nature. This alternative doesn't work for all kinds of design but can be extremely useful if you have a way to restrict players from using all content all the time. Power Creep arises from systems that keep adding elements into themselves; however, if these elements are allowed to go away (even if only temporarily) this creates the opportunity of new ones to come into favor.
Similar to Power Creep; this problem arises from long-running games who's designers and hardcore fanbase are well versed in the game's systems and mechanics. This ensues a creative push to design elements that are more complex or that build on top of previous ones.
The threat that this design pattern poses to a game's longevity is the steepening of the complexity curve discouraging new players when attempting to pick up the game for the first time. Without the maintenance of the player base older players will continue to gradually stop playing but fewer newer players will come to replace them, starving out the player pool.
We all want our sequels and new content to offer more depth and that is nearly impossible to do without some added complexity. But with that said here are some ways to help keep this problem in check:
Complexity Budgeting - Keep a complexity budget; set a reasonable amount of complexity in which any given expansion is allow to add to the game. This solution will help keep the problem in check forcing designers not to stuff the following expansion with all of the cool ideas under the sun, adding in the bonus to save content that couldn't fit in for the future.
Multiple Formats - Create different formats / ways in which players can come in contact with only part of the complexity of the whole system. Within this method you can segregate the game into simplified formats while keeping the intricacies and complexity on expert formats allowing players to choose where to draw the line according to their personal preferences.
This method can also have the added benefit for old players who might explore a part of the game that was previously occluded by other flashier more noteworthy portions of the game.
Lenticular Design - Named after the optical illusion, this technique revolves around introducing an element that is easy to grasp and understand at first, but as you change your perspective, it subtly becomes more complex as you acquire more in-depth understanding of how one could use it. While not trivial to pull off, this method can yield astonishing results.
Strive for Elegance - With every iteration, look for older elements in the game that could be simplified reducing the overall amount of the game's complexity without jeopardizing depth. Dozens of articles could be written on how to execute on this properly and, although not trivial to execute (especially on games that have already been doing this for long) it's a very compelling method.
Much like the other two previous problems, Spectacle is another element prone to creep up in long lasting titles and franchises. The idea is that, in order for a premise to be interesting, it has to be bigger, flashier and more adrenaline packed than the previous. Plot points can no longer be about the lives of a few individuals and the media has to "up the ante" and put more at stake.
Likewise this design pattern puts a higher stress on writers who, in turn, have less creative freedom and become limited to explore an ever narrower set of ideas within the confines of the piece. It is hard to include character drama and the overcoming of personal challenges when a character is tasked with saving the world. As a consequence we as players miss out on the opportunity to take a step back and be able to relate with the characters on a deeper level.
We certainly do want our characters to have a meaningful growth and, narratively speaking, it seems odd that a character previously capable of saving the world would be later unable to save a single city. Fortunately, since these problems are by no means exclusive to video games we can take a look on how other media has previously addressed this issue. Here are a few suggestions on how to mitigate it:
Focus Shift - If your story isn't centered on a character or element, but rather an underlying motif or sensibility, change the elements at play. Games and other media have proven to be able to do this many times at this point so it seems to be the easiest go-to solution. Unfortunately it is harder to apply this one to series wherein the story is based on a particular character (like most super hero stories).
Cleaning the Slate - Also related to the famous and well known "reboot". This solution allows writers to embed into the story a natural mechanism of closure and repeatability. Cartoons use this technique often as it makes for a structure that's easier to understand, wiping the slate clean at each episode. In games these patterns are best suited when they are brought into context of the game's design, be it within a match structure in which everything is reset before the next match.
Preserving Space - This one goes in hand with future planning and leaving room for the story to progress towards. As a designer, part of your job in a perpetual project is also to look for limited design spaces and make sure to preserve those so that they don't get filled up faster than they should. There is a common urge to stuff a project with all of the good ideas but one has to recognize that the product doesn't just need to sell now, but also sell in the future.