The No Numbers Concept

The fact that a traditional RPG is essentially a numerical simulation has spawned a number of very annoying trends in player behavior.  Most of these types of behavior can be subsumed under the term "numbercrunching."  Also called "min/maxing," numbercrunching largely involves the study of the game’s numerical systems and figuring out how to use it to the player’s best advantage.  Therefore, becoming a better fighter is more a matter of allocating your points appropriately, instead of logical considerations like developing advanced tactics, using terrain effectively, and personal bravery.  The player character is reduced to little more than a spreadsheet, and players become obsessed with watching their numbers increase.  Unfortunately, the game system eventually evolves to accomodate this sort of player with provisos like high-xp farming areas, repeatable activites to raise use-based skills efficiently with a macro, etc.

It is my firm belief that the axiom "most players are self-centered bastards who will ruin other players’ experience at the drop of a hat" is greatly exacerbated by this numerical obsession.  Why do players steal kills from other players?  Because doing so will help their numbers increase.  Why do players exploit bugs to kill monsters (or players) with relative ease?  Because doing so will increase their numbers.  Why do players use cheats and plugins that give them unfair advantages in the game world?  You get the picture.  Sure, some of this activity stems from a desire to simply ruin the game for other players, and some people gain enjoyment from this, but there is no way to deal effectively with this sort of player except to quickly identify and remove him from your game.

Now consider the effects of a use-based skill system where the numbers are effectively hidden from the player.  This means he cannot see his exact strength or hit points, he does not know that his sword does X amount of damage per hit, and wounds are represented graphically only, either status bars, hit location indicators, or ideally an actual change in texmaps reflecting damage to specific body parts.  The player will have a pretty good idea that he is decent with an axe, a novice at archery, and completely unskilled at alchemy, but he doesn’t have a number to refer to as his "skill."  Once in a while, he may receive a system message telling him that he has learned something new about pottery, but these messages should be unreliable and ambiguous.  He may even be able to compete for titles in various contests of skill, but this is only an indicator of prowess, not a measurable figure that you can watch increase as you fight your eight millionth orc.  Sure, there are players who will still go camp the goblins for "skill," but he can’t really be sure it’s doing him all that much good, and if the designer has been building his system holistically, it’s not.

What happens now is that with visible numbers unavailable for scorekeeping purposes, plyers become less interested in keeping score.  This puts more pressure on the developer to make sure there is plenty of interesting stuff to do for the player, once the possibility of spreadsheet tweaking is removed.  Such a system requres more diligence and work on the part of the developer, in many ways, but the payoff is immense.  With numbers removed, your environment becomes more immersive.  With spreadsheets removed, you remove a great source of annoying player behavior.  And you may be able to reclaim some of that market that abandoned computer-based gaming for more logical paper systems.

6 Responses to “The No Numbers Concept”
  1. Unfortunately, their is a difference between what people say they want and what they really want. People claim that they want to roleplay and interact with others, that they want an interesting crafting system, that they want individual skill to matter, but they really want the “I win!” button. Fundamentally, everyone wants to be special, and a game gives you the chance to play a character that is special. If skill is the deciding factor, however, then a few people will rise to the top and the rest will not be as good. Since nobody wants to be a supporting character, this will drive people away from the game. To be successful, the game must be able to be manipulated – and to do that you need to have access to the numbers. This is why WoW is so successfull – any one, regardless of their intellect or coordination can go to any number of websites and find a template for a successfull character, view maps showing which quests yield the fastest xp and quickly powerlevel themselves to the top, thus becoming the most powerfull guy in the world, just like everyone else.

    If you were truly going to take away the numbers, you have to provide some other, easily manipuable method of keeping score so players can judge their success. City of Heroes has an ingenious system of Badges which begins to address this, but even then people are still obsessed with numbers.

    Perhaps the bigger issue here is that we need to go back to the pre-Internet social model. Games or social groups were aimed at small groups of people with very specific interests. Now a game must be aimed at the widest possible audience. It would be refreshin to see a company make an active decision to aim at a smaller group and say “We are going to make money, but we are not looking to have the next great worldwide hit. We are going to make a game for the hardcore roleplayer and anyone who doesn’t like our game doesn’y have to buy it”

    Or maybe somebody could talk Mu into writing his own persistant world. He could probably do it with the NWN 2 engine…

  2. The problem is people crave structure, a way to show them along the path. In a game with the design you talk about here, many of the players would feel uncomfortable, and lost. They need that number system to make them feel as if they are doing something correctly.

    Now, with this number system you claim that with it there is no skill, that everyone can “be the best” no matter what. This is simply not true, and WoW can be an example of this simply because of it’s endgame content. Yes, I know, it is very easy to reach level 80, but raiding is where skill comes in. If you have the skill to co-ordinate yourself with 25 other people in a boss fight that sometimes is difficult by itself. It took months for Algolon the Observer to be killed, and less than 1% of the WoW population has killed him. ie. It takes SERIOUS skill to down that boss.

    Sure, eventually the numbers grow as the game comes out with better gear and blah blah blah but by that time new boss encounters are made. “hard modes” was one of the best additions to WoW, it let the truly skilled rise above the norm, using only their ability to play their character well and be completely aware of everything going on around them and simultaneously manipulating the mechanics of the boss battle around them.

  3. City of Heroes used to hide a lot of the numbers from people, so that people couldn’t min/max that way.

    The numbers were reversed engineered and 3rd party tools written to monitor logfiles to report them.

    Eventually the numbers were put into the game and shown using the standard client.

    People want numbers. They will get them, one way or another.

  4. An interesting thing to notice:

    Though StarCraft shows you the numbers, they still get the players to value skill above all else.

    Maybe one could copy some of their ideas into the MMORPG space…

  5. I doubt hiding numbers actually helps ’cause numbers are still there. After all you are still giving them some indication that they numbers are growing. Sly players will eventually figure them out and post them all over forums. Them it’s back to square one.

  6. All of the design theory pages are great! Mind blown after each article. I’ve read through most of them and will continue reading all of them.
    I think complexity is the key.
    Let player’s attributes interweave and let there be hidden attributes that the players can’t see directly meaning even players with the exact same visible attributes will have different results, let attributes and skills that are unused for a time deteriorate, let weapons do not only damage but different damage types, speeds, manueverabilities, materials, weights, sizes, ranges and so on, let damage be things like bruises, cuts or stabs with varying degrees of seriousness located at different parts of the body affecting both the damaged area and the body as a whole, let pain, shock and morale affect combat and make learning more complex! You should be able to become great at a skill by doing it all day: after cutting down trees or making fires for a few hours straight you simply won’t learn anything new; instead you will have to spend something like two hours every day in order to increase your skill most efficiently. Also you can’t become a master at metalsmithing by making a dagger over and over again; you can become great at making daggers but not much more than that. In order to become great at crafting an item you have to craft that specific item over and over and crafting items take lots of time so if you spend too much time crafting one item you might start to forget how to craft another one! Also you can’t become a great fighter by battling goblins all day long; after a while they simply won’t yield you any experience any more and you will have to battle a stronger foe in order to gain experience. With a system like this players really will have to battle every enemy and do every craft to become 100% and even then will continuously forget the skills they don’t use making it impossible to actually become 100%.
    I really can’t see a regular person figuring out a system of great and unexpected complexity. I guess backwards-engineerers and hackers are inevitable but if you make things complex enough players will have to both read long articles about how calculations are made and learn the dozen of values for each weapon in order to decide which one is the best. Hopefully this would mean advanced players would tell newbies “this weapon is simply better” instead of everyone knowing the exact numbers. Also how effective hunting a certain monster would depend a lot on player attributes, how much they already have hunted the chosen monster, their exact equipment and so on so eventually no guides would ever be able to be very precise. This could cause powergamers to all play the EXACT same way in order to be able to follow eachother’s guides, but with a vast world with endless possibilities I think doing so would take away so much fun from the game that people wouldn’t want to do it and instead train the skills they want, do the quests they want and get the equipment they want not caring that guides will be less precise.

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