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How Does Power Creep Affect MMO Games?

Em Stonham Posted:
Editorials 0

What do you think is the worst example of power creep in a MMO title? It’s a divisive topic that’s worth exploring as it can have a real knock-on effect in MMO or MMO-adjacent games.

Games with heavy power creep can feel hard to keep up with, especially if you’re a competitive player. It can also have a negative effect on a game’s balance and sense of fairness, too. Power creep is seen in the MMO world quite a lot, as well as in trading card games and other multiplayer games with competitive aspects. 

Here, we’ll take a look at what power creep actually is and how it can impact massively multiplayer online games in particular. 

What Is Power Creep?

Before we dive into the specific ways that power creep can impact MMO titles, let’s take a look at what the term actually represents. 

If you’re unfamiliar with what power creep means, it typically refers to when a game releases new content over a period of time that gets stronger and stronger each time. Over time, the newest content makes the older content entirely irrelevant and requires players to catch up quickly if they want a chance of playing in the endgame. 

This could be in a literal sense, with new weapons being more powerful than older weapons, or with lore instead. In terms of lore, an expansion may involve players defeating an even bigger and badder enemy than the enemy from the previous expansion. The same pattern is then followed in the next expansion or patch release. 

Power Creep in MMOs

It makes sense to see power creep in MMOs to an extent, as developers want to keep players coming back and to give them a sense of progression. It’s especially common in MMORPGs that have been around for a long time and with MMO titles that value vertical progression. 

That’s not to say that it isn’t frustrating as a player, though. From a gameplay standpoint, keeping up with power creep in an MMO can feel tiring and cause players to burn out. From a lore standpoint, the immersion and power fantasy of an MMO can start to wear off as content starts to get more and more inflated. 

Power creep can be seen in plenty of other genres, too, with digital trading card games being particularly notorious for it. Different MMOs have attempted different methods of dealing with it over the years, each with varying levels of success. 

How Does Power Creep Affect MMO Gameplay?

One of the main ways that power creep can affect an MMO’s style of play is with gear and abilities becoming quickly outdated. Weapons that you picked up in the base game will simply not be relevant in the third expansion of a game, in the vast majority of examples.

To an extent, this absolutely makes sense. 

MMOs, especially MMORPGs, need to provide players with a real sense of progression and the idea that their character is becoming stronger over time. Fire mages should be able to learn how to cause firestorms after spending several levels with a mediocre fireball spell.

This can start to feel frustrating if you’re dealing with legendary weapons/armor or abilities that take forever to unlock or obtain, though. Being told to grind out currency to craft the most legendary sword of all time will lose its meaning if an extra-legendary sword is introduced in the next patch and you have to repeat the process again. 

Getting stronger in a game should generally feel gradual and rewarding, and players shouldn’t have to dread the next expansion or patch for fear of losing all of their hard work. 

Using World of Warcraft as an example, the level squish in Shadowlands was a good move for preventing a ridiculous level of scaling and player gearing. If you’re unfamiliar, max-level players were at level 120 but were dropped down to level 50 in the pre-patch. 

This frustrated some players, as it affected DPS numbers and healing numbers too, but it helped to create a smoother and more enjoyable leveling experience for the most part. As enjoyable as leveling through Shadowlands could be, anyway. 

Another way that power creep can be seen in MMO titles is with imbalanced classes and specializations. This isn’t always the case, but with games that have multiple classes, specs, and factions, it is common to see power creep influencing wonky competitive scenes.

Consistently introducing new powers and strengthening classes is great, but if it’s not done with every single class in mind, it can lead to an imbalance with performance and power. If everyone in a game is going to get stronger with each patch, this should include everyone and not just new heroes, classes, or characters. 

This becomes even trickier when new classes or hero types are introduced into MMOs. The need to infinitely scale over time can be incredibly hard to balance out if your game is going from 6 classes to 16.

How Does Power Creep Affect MMO Lore?

While power creep is to be expected to a certain level in MMO gameplay - especially with MMORPG titles - it can throw up unique challenges when it comes to lore, world-building, and storytelling. MMORPGs with regular expansions are a good example of this, with World of Warcraft being the first example that jumps to mind.

If you ask a fan of vanilla World of Warcraft what they enjoyed about the original experience, chances are that they’ll mention something about playing with friends in their starting zones, spending ages trying to tackle low-level mobs or beating entry-level dungeons. Everything in the world felt scary and realistic, to an extent. 

Power Creep in MMOs

After all, taking down a wolf in real life would be tricky even if you did have access to a giant sword or magic staff.

Nowadays, the World of Warcraft player character feels infinitely stronger. In some ways, this is pretty cool. Power fantasy is a big part of the MMORPG experience, after all, and being able to find stronger weapons and spells is always fun. Dungeons and raids seem to have increased in stakes, and the enemies are getting bigger, badder, and bolder. 

It does mean that the story-telling and world-building starts to feel very different, though. The player character has gone from a roaming adventurer to an immensely powerful hero that has aided every major city, taken down enemies with the power to end worlds, and traveled into entirely new dimensions (including the afterlife) without a second thought. 

Being able to face off against the biggest and baddest enemies in the Warcraft world is exciting , but it does leave many players wondering what on Azeroth could possibly be next. It would feel a little silly at this point in the Dragonflight narrative for players to hop back to a Deadmines-level encounter in terms of lore relevance. 

It’s not power creep in the literal sense, but this nagging feeling of ‘what’s next’ is something that MMOs with a long shelf life will have to continually contend with. World of Warcraft isn’t the only example of this, of course, and it’s possible that the game will veer into another path with the upcoming expansions. 

Scaling the power level of players and the level of threat that they’re facing off against is, again, inevitable in vertical MMOs, but there does seem to be a point where it feels unrealistic and bloated as a player. Power creep tends to introduce new and more complex features over time too, which can make games hard to access as a new player. 

Final Thoughts

All in all, power creep is a tricky thing to mitigate in MMO titles. From a gameplay angle, it can make MMOs feel unbalanced and pointless, and from a lore angle, it can be entirely immersion breaking in some cases. 


Em Stonham

Freelance journalist and full-time nerd, writing for sites like Sleeve No Card Behind, NintendoLife, and IGN.