Digging Deep with Power Creep

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This Time For Real!

A few weeks back, I wrote a pair of articles where I gave my thoughts on the basic game design of Yu-Gi-Oh, which you can find here (part 1 and part 2). I originally wrote those articles with the intention of providing a comprehensive look at the positive and negative aspects of this game from a design perspective.

What I discovered after posting these articles is that, although I called them “Deep Dives”, I was really only able to skim the surface. I simply had far too much material to fit in only two articles. I received a number of comments from readers saying that they wished I was able to give more information on important issues that I had only barely mentioned.

These comments helped me realize that I had made a mistake. I made a serious miscalculation when I thought that I could thoroughly examine a complex game like Yu-Gi-Oh in two 2000 word articles. Today, I hope to rectify that mistake.

This article is the start of a new series of deep dives. Instead of trying to examine an entire game, I am instead going to look at one single aspect of a game’s design. While this series can be considered a companion piece to the previous two articles, it is not going to be focused entirely on the Yu-Gi-Oh trading card game. Instead, I hope to examine game design concepts that can be applicable to any number of games.

For my first entry, I am going to be taking a look at one of the biggest and most common symptoms of bad game design and management – power creep. I hope to examine what power creep is, why it occurs, and finally how you can avoid it in your game designs.

What a creep!

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Before I begin, some of you may be wondering – “What is power creep?” For those who don’t know, power creep is referring to when games continually release new material that is more powerful than what came before it. This phenomenon commonly occurs in long-running games such as trading card games, MMORPGs and MOBAs, but can occur in any game where new material or expansions are released.

A classic example of power creep is shown above. La Jinn The Mystical Genie of the Lamp was released in Starter Deck: Kaiba, which was one of the first Yu-Gi-Oh products ever released in North America. La Jinn was a level 4 monster with 1800 attack points, which at that point was considered quite powerful and made La Jinn one of the best monsters released at that point.

Over time La Jinn became outdated, and was replaced with monsters with even better attack points. Fast-forward to 2007, and Gene-Warped Warwolf is released. Gene-Warped Warwolf is also a level 4 monster like La Jinn, but has 2000 attack points. This is a clear example of power creep – both monsters were the same level, but one had 200 more attack points than the other.

The ironic thing about this example is that it completely fails to show just how much the power level of the game had risen during the intervening years. While La Jinn was considered incredibly powerful when it was released, Gene-Warped Warwolf (an objectively stronger card) was so outclassed by the time that it was released that it was basically unplayable.

Why Be such a Creep?

Now that we have looked at what power creep is, the next question that comes to mind is “why”? Why do some game companies choose to keep releasing material for their games that makes their previous material obselete? The short answer to that question (as well as most questions involving the motivations of businesses) is to make money.

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Pictured: Hearthstone’s newest expansion

Power creep mostly occurs in games that have very long life-spans. These same kinds of games also tend to be the sorts of games that players become incredibly invested in, both financially and emotionally. When a player spends hours perfecting a deck in a trading card game or mastering a character in a MOBA, they can become attached. Why should I try a new champion when It took so long to learn how to use this one?

A new story, novel gameplay, great new art – all of these will attract certain kinds of players to new content. But the main reason why players are going purchase the latest expansion is because it is simply more powerful than everything that came before it. Sure, they could stay behind and play the same old deck as before, but if they do they will get beaten over and over again by the newer, more powerful content.

Power Tripping

 

While power creep is incredibly common in games, it can also be incredibly damaging. While it may seem like a good idea from a business perspective, power creep can quickly ruin a game’s reputation. Sure, artificially raising the power level of your game might be a way to get your customers to buy your newest release, in doing so you are basically holding them hostage.

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“Buy the expansion, or you’ll never win this game again!”

Raising the power level of the game can also lead to bad game design. As a game designer, I believe that the priority should always be to the health of the game. If you want your game to sell, I believe that the focus should be on making quality content. If your focus is simply to make your new content more powerful than your old content, this can get in the way of the main priority, which is the game itself.

Un-do the Creep

When left unchecked, power creep can severely damage the integrity of a game. Luckily, power creep is neither inevitable nor a death sentence. There are numerous things that can be done both in game design and game management to keep power creep at bay.

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In Space, No One Can Hear you Creep

One of the main things that can be done when designing a new game, expansion, or game mechanic is to try and measure it’s design space. Design space is basically the amount of unique designs that can be made without repeating yourself. The larger your design space, the easier it is to avoid power-creep because you can continue to make unique, original designs without having to resort to copying previous designs, but with better numbers.

How do you measure design space? Well, besides the brute-force method (try and make as many designs as you can and see what happens), the main method I use is to measure the number of “meaningful distinctions” that your design allows for. A meaningful distinction is anything that can be used to differentiate between two different designs without necessarily making one better than another.

I understand that that definition can be confusing, so lets look at an example. To show the difference between a design space with a few meaningful distinctions vs one with many, lets take a look at Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering.

On the surface it might not be obvious that there is any significant difference in the amount of design space between these two games. Once you look at them using the concept of meaningful distinctions, however, the difference becomes clear.

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Magic: The Gathering has a huge design space, and much of this is due the large number of meaningful distinctions that can be made between it’s different cards. Firstly, Magic has 7 different card types (land, creature, instant, sorcery, enchantment, artifact, and planeswalker) and each of these different card types has a unique role to fill in the game. Each of these card types also has numerous different sub-types, which further increase the possible options.

In addition to these 7 card types, nearly ever card in Magic can be categorized into one of 5 colors. These colors – white, blue, black, red, and green – each require different types of resources in order to play. This system of separating cards into different colors has numerous benefits to Magic, but the main one we I am concerned with is that it increases the amount of available design space. Separating cards into different categories greatly multiplies the size of the design space because it allows you to create multiple cards that are nearly identical to eachother except for color.

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Mmmm, color pie. Delicious!

Every card in Magic: The Gathering requires a certain amount of resources (called mana) in order to play. Much like the color system, having cards that have different costs to play greatly increases the amount of available design space. By having this type of resource system, Magic is able to have relatively weak cards that only cost a single mana, and incredibly powerful cards that cost 10 mana or more.

Yu-Gi-Oh, on the other hand, has a much smaller design space. The largest reason for this is it has a much smaller amount of meaningful distinctions. Firstly, Yu-Gi-Oh only has 3 different card types (monster, spell, and trap) as opposed to Magic’s 7. In addition, each card has much fewer factors that can be used as meaningful distinctions.

The problem is not that Yu-Gi-Oh cards don’t have distinctions, but that most of the distinctions don’t really mean anything. Let’s take a monster card for example. Every monster in Yu-Gi-Oh has an elemental attribute – water, fire, earth, air, light, or dark.

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Divine? Never heard of it.

The problem with these attributes is that they don’t mean anything on their own. They do not restrict how a card can be played, and are only meaningful if referenced specifically by other cards. This makes Yu-Gi-Oh much more limited because two monsters that only differ in their elemental attribute are functionally identical.

Yu-Gi-Oh has a level system, represented by small star symbols on it’s monster cards. This level system, much like the attribute system, is also mostly meaningless. While there are technically 12 different levels, there are really only three meaningful categories that help determine how a monster card can be played. Even this distinction has lost meaning over time, however, as there are now enough ways to cast monsters for free that a monster’s level means almost nothing.

While monster cards in Yu-Gi-Oh have very few meaningful distinctions, spell and trap cards have basically none. Spells and traps can all be cast for free, and the only real distinction that can be made between these cards is their sub-type. Both of these card types have a few different sub classifications, and besides this they cannot really be separated into categories.

The huge difference in the size of design space between these two games can help explain how these games have evolved over time. Because Yu-Gi-Oh has such a small design space it has been subject to extremely severe power creep over the years, while Magic has been much less affected by this phenomenon (although by no means immune to it). In addition, due to the lack of natural distinctions between it’s cards Yu-Gi-Oh has become much more focused on creating artificial distinctions.

The Content Carousel

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No matter how big a game’s design space, if it releases enough material it will eventually run out of new original designs. In this situation, game managers are faced with two choices – succumb to the temptation of power creep, or get rid of old content to make room for new material. While both of these choices are less than ideal, eventually a decision must be made.

Both of these choices have the effect of making older content unplayable, whether explicitly by removing it or implicitly by making it much weaker than the newer material. By deliberately removing older content, however, game designers at least have control over which content gets removed and what stays.

While removing content may be unpopular, it actually has a number of benefits. Firstly, it allows you to create a regular schedule where a certain amount of new content is created and, at the same time, older content is removed. The most common way this is done in trading card games is through set rotation. This is a system wherein when a new set is created, an older set is no longer considered legal. This system allows players to anticipate when content will be removed and prepare accordingly.

Regularly removing older content also allows designers to take more risks, because they know that if they make a mistake it won’t be permanent. It also helps conserve design space by allowing for the re-release of popular content that had previously rotated out.

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Welcome back!

Rotating content also has the benefit of reducing the total amount of content in a game at any given time. This can be beneficial because it makes it easier for new players to join the game by lowering the learning curve. It also helps reduce another, much more subtle kind of power creep – synergistic power creep. Basically, the more content that exists in a game the more likely it is for certain combinations of cards, items, etc. to work well with eachother. By reducing the total amount of stuff, you can reduce the power of these combinations which would naturally form over time.

Balancing Act

The final method of keeping power creep at bay is through a constant process of re-balancing the game. This method is mostly applicable to games such as MOBAs where changes can quickly be made and applied to old and new content alike. In League of Legends, for example, new champions tend to be slightly more powerful than average. This is because they want to encourage players to try out the new champions by making them at a competitive power level. They are able to keep the power creep in check, however, because they are able to adjust the power level of their champions over time to bring them to a (relatively) even level.

This method is much more difficult in other types of games, especially non-digital games. In a trading card game, for example, it is much more difficult to change the power level of a card or deck after it has been released. A few possible methods are through the use of errata (changes in how a card is worded), and through ban lists which remove specific powerful cards from tournament play.

Creeping Away

That’s all I have for today! I hope you enjoyed my deep dive into the power creep, and if you did feel free to like and share this post. If you want to see more articles like this in the future, please subscribe to this blog so that you receive an email notification every time I post a new article. Please also let me know your thoughts in the comments below – What can I do to keep improving this blog? And what game design topic would you like me to tackle next? And join me next week, when I will be talking about the importance of a good resource system. See you then!

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2 thoughts on “Digging Deep with Power Creep

  1. Pingback: A Re-Source of Pride: Designing Resource Systems in Collectible Games | Rempton Games

  2. Pingback: A Re-Source of Pride (Repost) | Rempton Games

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