One of the reasons I believe that game design is the career for me is because of my love for creating games when I was younger. Of course, being young and inexperienced in most things, these games were either completely broken, held together by an honor system or they were so abstract that any amount of power gaming was impossible. One game that I remember fondly was a game known only as “The Power Game” which helped me understand the problem of power creep.
Ok first, what was “the power game?” Well it was a very loose set of rule for a sort of Live Action Roleplaying Game that I would play with my sisters. The original game had you pick two of six “elemental” powers (earth, fire, water, wind, mechanical and healing), one as your “major power” and the other as your “minor power.” The major powers had three tiers of abilities that were limited by how many times it could be used per in-game day. You started with only tier one powers that could be used an unlimited number of times, but after an arbitrary length of time everyone would decide that they leveled up and gain access the next tier of abilities. The minor powers were just to give a little more flavor and let you use a tier one ability from a major power, but with a limited number of uses.
What did this have to do with power creep? I’m glad you asked. I didn’t stop with those five powers, oh no. I created I created twenty more major powers, created new rules for “half powers” where you gave up picking a major power, but instead picked two half powers. There were “third powers” which also replaced your major power, but with three third powers. I even included things like enhancement’s which gave a benefit and tradeoff to your character, classes to specialize how you used your powers and epic powers for beyond tier three. After creating all of this content I quickly realized that something was wrong with how the powers worked. The stuff I created before was woefully underpowered compared to the stuff I made later on, especially since I had a hard time coming up with brand new mechanics for each power. This is what power creep is; content gets steadily more powerful as time goes on as options and ideas start to run out.
Here is a good example. The wind major power was one of the first I created when I originally wrote down how this game worked. Here is one of its tier one attacks:
Air Blast | Uses: Unlimited – You knock your enemy down.
Back when I wrote this I imagined that the air person would be the type to keep bad guys occupied while people like the fire user did a lot of damage, so knocking an enemy down for free seemed pretty fair, but compare this to one of my later powers. The major power Nature I created much later and here is one of its tier one attacks.
Water Splash | Uses: Unlimited – You shoot water at an enemy knocking them down and making them cough for a minute.
This attack is objectively better than what the wind power does. Not only does it do the same thing, knock an opponent down, but it also effectively removes them from the fight for a whole minute. To give my past self some credit, I realized this and felt that rather than editing the entirety of what I wrote to make it balanced I would take what I learned and make an entirely new game.
Once I understood what I did wrong I tried to fix it, even before I decided to start from scratch. There were two reasons why I let the powers in my game creep up in power. First, I didn’t have a lot of mechanics I could play with. Originally, all I thought of in terms of mechanics was the ability to do damage, knock people down, knock them back and stun them, which was it. With so little variety in the mechanics there was no way I could make all of the major powers unique. The second reason was the fact that I wanted to make the new powers cool and exciting and the easiest way to make something new cool is to just make it more powerful. I realized both of these issues, which was why I eventually made an effort to make new powers interesting for having a cool new mechanics or just having an interesting bit of flavor. A good example is with the storm and forest major powers. These powers were essentially the same as the animal power, which let you turn into animal, that I made earlier, but the storm power allowed you to transform into small storms like a nature elemental and the forest power let you transform into anthropomorphic plants like ents. Both didn’t really do much different, but they felt cool and different because of their themes. The other example is the universe power which had only one attack, but every day you got to reset different modifiers which allowed you to customize what it did.
In essence, power creep is a very common problem to have in games with increasing amounts of content. You have to pay close attention to make sure it’s in check otherwise you probably won’t realize until it is too late. Have a wide variety of mechanics to play around and use flavor to make things distinct while making sure that you also don’t go the easy route and make stuff better to make it more interesting.