In a live game, adding more and more powerful items tends to lead to the overall power level of the game to slowly creep up, eventually breaking the game’s original design assumptions.

Different games have approached this problem in different ways over the years. It’s a somewhat cursed problem – holistic solutions come with their own set of problems, and mitigating the problem requires a constant level of attention from the designers. I deal with this issue regularly on Fallen London. While this post is not about FL, it’s the product of thinking about this issue and surveying how some other successful ongoing games deal with the issue of power creep.

Not every live game runs into power creep, but it’s more or less inherent to any game where there are items. An “item” in this context is anything that players can obtain and use in game: weapons, spells, cards in a CCG, and so on. Once your game has items that players can choose to use or not, it will develop a metagame; some items are more optimal than others. Note that a purely cosmetic addition – a character skin, eg – is not an “item” in this sense.

New items have to compete with old items in the metagame; otherwise, many players will have no reason to pursue them. The continuous addition of new, competitive items to the metagame will cause power creep.

The null strategy: allowing creep

Before we talk about strategies for mitigating or managing power creep, we should ask ourselves if it’s even worth bothering in the first place. What if you just let power creep run its course? Release things into the game that are more powerful with each content drop?

Some games do things that look like this but are actually power scaling – a variant of rotation; see below. But if a game were to allow unchecked, true power creep, eventually the game would break down.

Every game is built around certain design assumptions, and turning up the knobs on the numbers will inevitably break these assumptions. Let’s use our two examples of Magic and Destiny here; I’ll be talking about them throughout.

Say Destiny’s designers stop caring and just put out guns that are increasingly powerful every season. In D2’s PvP metagame, a major metric players use to evaluate what they’re doing is time to kill, or TTK. A weapon’s time to kill is, of course, how long it takes to shoot another player from full health to dead.

Increasing gun damage means decreasing TTK. Eventually, TTK drops close enough to zero that weapon damage stops having meaning. PvP becomes a game of perfect peeking and aiming – you die if you are hit. At that point, not only is it impossible to further power creep on this axis, the design has entirely broken down.

In Magic, we can see what unchecked power creep does just by examining what happens if you let players build decks with no ban or restricted list. If you can use 4x any card from throughout Magic’s history to build a deck, then decks that can consistently win on turn 1 become the norm, and the game completely breaks down – the coin flip to choose who plays first becomes much more determinant than anything to do with player choices or skill.

Most games have a similar breakdown point past which either the game becomes unrecognizable or unenjoyable, or it becomes impossible to make even further power creep mechanically relevant.

The avoidance strategy: Boxing in design

The other basic strategy to power creep management is simply not releasing anything into the game that would constitute power creep.

What tends to happen then is that some items become metagame pillars: Perennial favorites that compare favorably to every new thing, because designers don’t dare go over their power level in new items. Often, things become metagame pillars because they were power level mistakes to begin with.

Metagame pillars aren’t all bad; they provide a sense of stability and a benchmark for players to compare new things to. They are also inherently worthwhile pursuits for players to chase after, if this is part of the game.

In Magic this tends to happen to older formats that allow cards from throughout the game’s history. Cards that affect these formats only come out rarely, because the defining metagame pillars are so powerful that releasing something that competes with them would be inherently destabilizing to other formats that use fewer cards.

Wizards nevertheless has found ways to continue releasing cards that are relevant in those formats without them becoming a problem in newer formats, but this is a tough needle to thread. Magic recently added a new non-rotating format, Historic, seemingly because the Modern format was becoming too settled – printing new, Modern-relevant cards was increasingly difficult.

Metagames dominated by old content are often beloved by a subsection of players but unwelcoming to newer players, who will usually have more of the newer items. And metagame stagnation in itself tends to turn off some players who enjoy the discovery aspect of finding out what they can do with new tools.

A mitigation strategy: Gradual ratcheting

Worth mentioning: Even if a game has no particular way of definitively managing power creep, it may be able to go on for years without running into problems.

Indeed, when designing a new live or ongoing game, it may not even be worth giving much thought to the problem of ongoing power creep simply because if you get to the point where you are running into the limits of your design, that’s a nice problem to have – it implies your game has lasted long enough to get there.

It is possible to extend the longevity of a system like this by carefully parcelling out upgrades and points of power creep, especially if the game’s design doesn’t require every new item to be a mechanical upgrade for every player.

Of course, this doesn’t mitigate the other downsides of power creep: Negative player feelings about having their existing items obsoleted, or the sense that any given new thing ‘doesn’t matter’ because something better is around the corner anyway.

A mitigation strategy: Qualitative versus Quantitative competition

I’ve discussed how every new thing you add to a live game is in competition with all past things for a place in the metagame.

However, there are two different ways in which things can compete. In quantitative competition, items compete on raw effectiveness. I’ll be using Magic for examples here because it’s widely known and cards are self-contained things.

Consider Shock and Lightning Bolt.

Lightning Bolt is strictly better than Shock; it costs the same, but does one more damage. There’s no reason to ever put Shock in your deck unless you can’t put in Lightning Bolt – either the card isn’t legal in the format you’re playing, or you already have the maximum number of lightning bolts and still need more direct damage spells.

This is quantitative competition; Lightning Bolt obsoletes Shock, and thus takes Shock entirely out of the metagame.

But consider Force Spike and Mana Tithe.

Those cards are the same, but they cost different colors of mana. It’s very debatable which is best. Mana Tithe goes into decks that normally don’t have access to counterspells, and cheap one-mana counters go well with some strategies that white decks use. But Force Spike benefits from being played in blue decks alongside lots of other counterspells and effects that traditionally synergize with counterspells. This is qualitative competition; those cards fight for a place in the metagame, but which is best is debatable and contingent on other factors. Players have a reason to get copies of Mana Tithe, but it doesn’t obsolete Force Spike.

Keep in mind, however, that this latter example is still power creep! When you add Mana Tithe to a format, the decks that previously didn’t have access to counterspells now do, and potentially they become more powerful. The bar for strategies that have trouble with these cards becomes higher, meaning that if they’re not powerful enough they will perish.

Also, trying to add new items that are qualitatively different from existing items yet still powerful causes its own problems. One is that adding a bunch of all-new effects to the game will over time cause complexity and entry barriers for new players to rise. The other is that it eats into design space, some of which maybe shouldn’t be entered. Arguably, Mana Tithe is already an overreach, and I think most people would agree that Magic doesn’t need Force Spike variants in the other three colors.

A more robust solution: Rotation

Rotation resolves the power creep issue by gradually culling some items out of the metagame.

This is the defining strategy for Magic, at least where it concerns the Standard format. Old cards leave as new cards come in; mechanical relevance is achieved easily, as the card pool doesn’t even contain a full breadth of possible strategies at viable power levels. Magic’s longtime head designer Mark Rosewater describes this as being like a set of Penrose stairs: the game is continuously increasing the power level of some strategies while allowing others to fall away through rotation, thus creating the sense of an infinite climb of power creep that nevertheless doesn’t permanently break the game.

The problem with broader applicability of this is that it’s very unpopular with players. Even in Magic, a lot of the more popular formats are ones that don’t rotate. Rotation creates mental overhead for players and stops them from getting attached to game pieces that they use.

Adding rotation to a game that didn’t previously have it is even more challenging; when Destiny 2 added weapon ‘sunsetting’, the response from players was so negative that the decision was reverted a few seasons later. Players didn’t like investing potentially many hours of gameplay to get a weapon that they wouldn’t be able to keep indefinitely.

However, rotation can be embedded in game systems in ways that will feel natural to players. Weapons in Destiny 2 have a numeric power level; for challenging endgame content, you have to use weapons that are at a high enough power level. But by default, you can sacrifice a high power level weapon to raise the power level of any other weapon, allowing you to bring up a weapon with you.

This meant that sunsetting had to be implemented by adding an extra restriction to this system – weapons gained a power level limit, and could only be infused up to that limit. This undoubtedly felt very artificial to players. But many MMOs have used a similar system, only much better embedded in the game’s mechanics.

Rotation as a mechanic: power scaling

World of Warcraft and various MMOs have used variants on this system. In a scaling system, items drop with a given item level. With each subsequent content drop, the level cap is raised, allowing items to drop with a higher level. At the same time, everything else in the game is scaled accordingly, keeping the mechanical parameters of the game roughly the same.

That is, weapon damage keeps increasing, but enemy mobs also gain increased HP. This feels like power creep, but it’s really not: a level 60 sword is no better at fighting against level 60 monsters than a level 1 sword is at fighting level 1 monsters.

Of course, a level 60 weapon will obliterate level 1 monsters. But who cares? They drop level 1 weapons!

The thing that’s nice about this system is that it feels, to players, like a motivated outgrowth of game mechanics. In a typical MMO setup, newly powerful weapons are intimately tied to newly challenging enemies. But, in actual reality, this is rotation with more steps!

After all, inevitably, some weapons will be more optimal and powerful than others at any given item level. Maybe your game world full of highly flammable mooks renders the +10 flaming sword noticeably more useful than the +10 ice glaive. Maybe some swords just have more optimal stat spreads that hit special breakpoints. Maybe some perk combinations are just overpowered. Maybe a sword is slightly bugged and does 10% more damage than it should.

While those powerful weapons can dominate in their respective expansions, they are then automatically obsoleted as the power cap is raised  – eventually, those bonuses will be overriden by the pure upwards march of the numbers. This is exactly what Bungie was trying to create in Destiny 2, a rotation system that can remove problematic weapons from the metagame and open up design space for new items.

But, in MMOs that use this scaling model, players perceive it as an embedded part of their progression and a natural component of game mechanics. Whereas in D2 it was viewed as an unwanted imposition.

In conclusion

Power creep is a luxury problem; if you have to address it, your live game is probably already pretty successful. As such, it’s pretty natural to launch a game without much of a plan to do so.

On the other hand, addressing power creep in an already-established game is much more fraught. Introducing rotation after the fact is challenging and gets more challenging the longer the game has run.

A lot of games will find themselves in a situation where no clear-cut solution is available and power creep has to be carefully managed.

There’s a shift that happens with any live game that sticks around long enough, where design moves from throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks, to treating design space as a precious resource that has to be carefully shepherded. But, again: even getting to that point is a win.