How the Arms Race Destroys an MMO's Culture

Why the arms race in games hurts developers and players alike.

The Arms RaceIf you have played an MMORPG, you have probably witnessed the chain of events that happens in virtually every one of them. You fight, level up, get better equipment, and move on to a new area to fight. Rinse and repeat until you hit the max level cap, at which point only the end game content has any relevance. You might also have witnessed another progressive cycle. var adunit_index = 4000; if ((adunit_index != 1000 & adunit_index != 1001) || (adunit_index == 1000 && device_category != 'MOBILE') || (adunit_index == 1001 && device_category == 'MOBILE')) { if (active_ad_units_pw[adunit_index] != undefined) { console.log('Dyn Unit Legacy PW', active_ad_units_pw[adunit_index], adunit_index); googletag.cmd.push(function(){ var adunit_index = 4000; if (typeof(pubwise) != 'undefined' & pubwise.enabled === true) { console.log('Dyn PW'); pubwise.que.push(function(){ pubwise.renderAd('div-sjr-4000'); }); } else { console.log('Dyn Direct'); googletag.display('div-sjr-4000'); googletag.pubads().refresh([gptadslots['div-sjr-4000']]); } //googletag.pubads().refresh([gptadslots['div-sjr-4000']]); }); } } The game is released and the content played through, then an expansion is released that upgrades the level cap and introduces more top end content. However, at the interface between the old content and the new is a point where the gear being dropped is easier to acquire and dramatically better than that found in the old content, thus rendering the old content obsolete. As the game gets older, it becomes heavier on the back end because of the large number of top level players, so new players are either left in dead space or twinked so that they burn through the content as fast as possible in order to get to the top, often missing out on everything that the game really has to offer. This is what I refer to as the arms race.I have seen this cycle repeated over and over throughout a large number of MMORPGs. Some of the older games such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft are notorious for it. It is also an issue that has come to the attention of other developers, the most recent notables being The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 by either auto-leveling players(GW2) or removing levels entirely(TSW). Of these, The Secret World deserves an honorable mention for at least making a solid effort to get beyond that cycle, though only time will tell how successful they were at it.The problem is two fold. The first problem is that fans demand more content on a regular basis. The second is that developers still think of persistent world games as if they were standalone games, and try to treat them as such. The expansions often play like DLC content for your favorite console game; integrated into the storyline perhaps, but ultimately left feeling disconnected from the overall game. Why These Methods Will Still FailUltimately, while these mechanics are useful and certainly good in their own right, they will still fail to solve the issue of the arms race. They will fail because they do not address the underlying issues that cause the race to begin with. For example, though GW2 allows players to go back and go through old content and still get XP, the main thrust is still a fairly linear movement from level 1 to level 80, with each tier offering new kit that makes your old gear obsolete. TSW, by comparison, is in a slightly better position in that there are no levels and so no reason to rush to the top, but the loot tables at the high end of the game are definitely better than those in lower areas. Eventually, if it hasn't happened already, someone will map out the path of least resistance to get max skills and the best gear and that will be all that people do, bringing us right back to the core issue. The core issue is equipment. It is the armament of the game world itself, and the fact that the armament plays such a huge role in the efficacy of your characters. As long as the armament continues to play such a major role, then the arms race will still exist. There is a reason for the old trope, "Never bring a knife to a gunfight." Where the Problem Comes FromAgain, as I did in my article on the game community, I want to look at the world around us to find out how and why this problem exists. The simplest method is to actually look at what has happened throughout history. If we were to look back in the archaeological record, we notice that history shows the exact same trend. As new weapons and armament become available, those that have them supersede and suppress those that don't, so those that don't push hard to get it so that they are once again able to contend with their neighbors. It is a case of 'keeping up with the Jones' in terms of military strength, but also in other areas such as technology and creature comforts. This brings up two different issues to look at. There is a saying that "if everyone is special, no one is." It could just as easily have said, "if everyone is twinked then no one is." So there is the very real possibility of turning the game world into a flat-lined static area that destroys the whole fantasy of being a hero, which would be bad. Coming up with some form of equipment differentiation is definitely one aspect to it. The second area is in how to keep the content viable and relevant in terms of the game. Just like a civilization that is dramatically under-powered in real life becomes irrelevant, so does the content in games that is under-powered. If the equipment dropped and the experience acquired is not balanced among all areas of the same general difficulty level, then those areas that are lacking will quickly become ghost towns.A classic example of this was the entire area between Freeport and Qeynos in Everquest once the Luclin expansion was released. Because the experience and loot were so much better, and the difficulty so much lower, that one expansion managed to relegate an entire in game continent to a deserted wasteland. Areas that had formerly been hubs of player traffic became empty wastes of resources. While MMO's such as Rift and GW2 have attempted to get around this by adding in local events to draw players back, it doesn't solve the issue. GW2 in particular has had some limited success with this, though, because of their dynamic leveling system.How Can We Fix It?I cannot say with any certainty what the best approach to solving this dilemma is. Despite the rather simplified breakdown I have given of the topic, it is very complex and something that some of the most brilliant game developers of our time have been working at for years. However, there are some reasonable conclusions that we can come to based on what has and hasn't worked coupled with an analysis of the problem. First, we need to stop escalation. That is, we need to stop with the circular logic of making players stronger in order to compensate for the mobs that we made stronger because the players were stronger. There is not a system in existence that can handle that type of design. Eventually, it will always 'jump the shark pit.'  To take another classic example from Everquest, players eventually got to the point where they could solo the gods, and yet were not considered gods themselves. I am not really sure how that works, but I digress. Second, we need to stop expanding worlds that have already been defined. By this I mean, once you have defined a world and its boundaries, do not arbitrarily keep adding new continents and/or other absurd additions to the game world. Part of the suspension of disbelief is that the world must be internally consistent, which is impossible if the basic geography of the world is in a constant state of flux. Moreover, each addition to the game world is a huge investment for developers in terms of time, money, and resources. Those resources could be better spent continuously revamping the game world areas that are already in existence.That would accomplish three things. It would keep the game world fresh and give the illusion of a 'living, breathing world'. It would take much of the risk out of the investment, making investors much more likely to continue investing, which in turn keeps the game alive. More importantly, it would give the developers a chance to continuously tweak the balance to all of the world's areas to ensure that they stay relevant at all times while continuing to provide new content and experiences to the players. If new content must be introduced, introduce it in existing zones. Get creative with it. Perhaps an ancient temple was discovered underneath a modern city, or previously unexplored part of the jungle was opened up through the activities of a nearby city, and angered a group of unknown midget cannibals that are now feasting on kidnapped farmers in their jungle abodes. Lastly, reduce the overall impact of weapons and armor. Great equipment does not make an interesting character or a good player. There are literally hundreds of other ways to improve upon characters without resorting to giving them a bigger sword or a more explosive fireball. While having the flashy kit is certainly not a bad thing, it should be doled out only sparingly. After all, consider how hard it is to get your hands on a nuke or a predator drone. If everyone had one of these, then what would the police end up carrying? How much better would they have to be in order to counteract what your weaponry? Instead of making the weapons so much better, let's make the characters better. We need to break out of the old single player game mentality and start thinking of these play spaces in terms of worlds. Since they are persistent worlds, we can look to our own world for answers to troubling questions and creative solutions to long standing problems. The answers are out there, all we have to do is look.

Featured Contributor

I am a life long gamer with a BA in Game Design from UAT. Aside from a passion for games, I truly believe in game design as a mode for enhancing business, education, production, and other systems through the use of the systemic design and analytical tools in the game designer's toolbox.

Platforms PCPen & Paper Tags mmommorpg
Published Mar. 12th 2013
  • John_4549
    Is there a solution? I'm not sure. The whole idea in these progression games is to earn tangible things and do it with others. These tangible things players earn have to have a meaningful impact in the world or the players won't want to earn them. But to get rid of mudflation you'd have to make it so that everybody can play with everybody else (low levels can play with high levels and not be excluded) and new people can immediately find ways to compete with the oldest veterans without the need to grind through the lower levels. If this is so, what's there to earn that has value that won't infringe on these things? If there's nothing a veteran can earn or learn to make them clearly superior to new players then what motivation will there be to play in the first place? If everybody can equally group with each other no matter their equipment or skills then there're no meaningful levels or skills to earn!

    I tend to look at reality when I'm confused, since I think it's more than us.

    One interesting thing to note is that the BEST people in any field in this life are few and far between. There're only one or two Micheal Jordans in any time period. There're only a few Bill Gates'. The richest top 1% probably own a quarter of the world's resources. The lesson here is that our own reality is not necessarily friend to a "new player". The chances that a baby born in our world will be a Bill Gates or a Micheal Jordan is small indeed. From the getgo, lines are drawn and neighorhoods are sectioned off; the rich and poor; the smart and dumb. People cannot group with eachother in our reality and be effective without the right kind of training and the right kind of learning that has come from years and years of growing up and interacting with others. If anything, our world has lots of reasons to be mudflated.

    Reality isn't a game, but if it wanted to be then it'd have to find a way to get as many people together as possible so nobody feels alone or excluded and to ensure that every new person feels they have a strong chance to become Bill Gates or Micheal Jordan. If nothing is done, cognitive dissonance will convince people they never wanted what life has to offer anyway and they'll bow out. So if this world were a game and nothing were done, there'd be a lot of dead people probably. Then again, kids nowadays don't have to learn what they might have had to learn in the past and have it easier in a lot of ways. So maybe there's some mudflat8ion after all.

    But again... if removing mudflation means removing the things players earn and use as an indication of their progress then what will there be to motivate them to play? The very thing that motivates us seems to separate us and lead to inequality.
  • John_4549
    Making the character better (as a draw; a sign of progression) is not any different than making the weapons or equipment better. When you talk about increasingly inflationary weapons and equipment you're talking about a symptom of mudflation, not the source of it. In fact, I have to think you're pinning the blame on progression itself - anything that can indicate to a player they've made some solid progress.

    I also partly disagree with one of your early remarks when you stated that mudflation starts with large amounts of players at the top levels causing the lower levels to have to rush to the higher levels. The point I disagree with is that lower levels aren't being made to rush to the top because there're more players at the top. I'm not saying it's not a good reason to mudflate things. It's certainly not good to have a small low level population versus a large high level population. However, the primary reason low levels are rushed is because the absolute power of players keeps going up with each patch and/or expansion. If no attempt was made to speed up leveling then the time required to reach max power would continually increase. By the 5th year of a game, it might require a couple years of playing (plus an extra amount of time that has been added to it) to get max power. At some point, no player could ever dream of reaching max power because there wouldn't be time enough in the world for that. So the eureka moment happened when devs dynamically capped the max power so that it'd always be about 1 year. They did this by adjusting the time to level downwards so new players could reach the highest levels more quickly. So instead of the time to reach max power always increasing, it's instead dynamically capped so new players have a chance to reach the highest level content.

    Why does it matter whether players will ever reach the highest level content? Part of it, as you say, is because that's where a large chunk of the population is. Many players, even if they can solo perfectly fine, don't like to play in empty areas and they like the feeling of being amongst many others. Naturally, some players don't mind playing alone and can be happy that way, but probably most of them aren't like this. And that's a good reason. Another reason could be that players want a chance to compete with the best. If a (particularly competitive) new player feels they will have to slog through 5 years of content to compete with the best, they may decide to not even try.

    It's somewhat related to cognitive dissonance. If we see something that we want and we feel it's out or reach, we'll eventually convince ourselves we don't need it. For a competitive player this means logging in and thinking it'll take too long to play with the best and then convincing themselves they don't want it anyway and then they logout and don't come back.

    The overall point here is that a large high level population versus a small low level population is not the sole reason mudflation exists. You can have a small high level population and still have a need for mudflation, since competitive new players will want to compete with the top end and won't stick around if they think it's out of reach.
  • KonradGamez
    Featured Contributor
    Well said.
  • Alemary
    Featured Contributor
    To add to this line of thought, Professions in WoW suffer a similar problem. Whenever new content is released, new crafting mats and patterns are introduced as well. This new content makes the old crafting mats obsolete. Why not require the old mats in addition to the new mats to craft the new gear. This way there is still a demand for older mats and this would cause more people to go out into older parts of the world to get mats. Not only to level their profession but also to make the newest gear.
  • molleafauss
    I couldn't have put it better myself, bravo!
    In my personal opinion, it's ok if content and level cap are raised but only if older content doesn't become obsolete. LOTRO (Lord of The Rings Online) brought it to the extreme so that I never had the chance to experience some of the "endgame" raid (The Rift and Barad Guldur, to name a couple). And this, together with another 10 level cap raise while I hadn't completed my full gear set in Orthanc made me leave the game for good.
    Yes in LOTOR they are now scaling some instances to the max level, but the arms race (or the "gear treadmill" as I've heard calling the same thing) remains (and also devs have to scale again and again the instance for every level cap increase they do).

    How to avoid this? Two ideas here:
    1) items should drop for skin and not for stats. You want to look badass, you have to complete new content. But you still can run old content because the items there are of interest to someone.
    2) If content is level based, use GW2 scaling mechanism. I've done GW2 dungeons even as a fully equipped lvl 80 and they still are a bit challenging (GW2 instances have difficulty issues, but this is another kind of problem)
  • Capt. Eliza Creststeel
    Contributor
    Excellent stuff! It does seem that one of the game killers is everyone gets the biggest and baddest weapons and also have tweaked their skill set to best use those - so everyone ends up with similar sets and similar abilities because they've done the math.

New Cache - article_comments_article_1529
Related