The Obsession with Math and Numbers in MMOs

A few nights ago while playing my paladin in the Wrath of the Lich King beta I overheard a conversation in General Chat in the Borean Tundra. There were two rogues discussing the DPS (damage per second) of one talent build versus another talent build. The debate lasted a few minutes and other people joined in with varying opinions on the “correct” talent builds that a rogue should have. What I found strange is that people were not talking about their experiences adventuring in the newly discovered continent of Northrend. Rather, they reminded me of two physicists debating competing theories and equations. Welcome to the World of Theorycraft!

These days massively multiplayer online role-playing games have been reduced to the pursuit of mathematics and numbers. The constant and continual deconstruction of the inner workings of MMOs has come at a great cost: players are no longer focused on the spirit of adventure, the art of role-playing, the thrill of exploration or the joys of community. Instead all they seem to care about is the finding proper talent spec and attaining the highest amount of effectiveness with their damage or healing output. Contrary to Blizzard’s claims about World of Warcraft that “it’s not a game, it’s a world” the player that dares to dig a bit deeper soon finds that the underlying premise of their MMO is that it’s really just a clinical numbers game.

Due to the fact that most MMOs today lack the capability to be changed in any appreciable way by the player it has had the effect of limiting the avenues for player freedom and expression. This restrictive environment forces players to express themselves in the only way that is possible in the game world environment: via character attributes. Players quickly learn the best way to improve one’s “numbers” is with better gear that gives one better damage, better heals and so on. The bigger the number the better: level 70 is better than level 1, 100 DPS is better than 90 DPS, 50 armor is better than 40 armor and so on.

As players it becomes all too easy to tie up our notions of self worth and value into the gear we wear and the talent builds we’ve chosen. In today’s achievement oriented world players routinely can walk up to another player and inspect them and determine if they are “worthy” or not. We can also determine a players class knowledge by viewing their Armory profile and talent build. It is because of this peer pressure that the drive to self-actualize your character has never been greater.

A Language of Numbers

As we look around in virtual worlds we seem to have forgotten to notice the beauty around us. Things only have worth if they have the right numbers. It’s not enough to be wielding the Sword of Kingly Might and know that it’s powerful, heavy and is adorned with rare gems. Now players must be told that the sword does 120 damage, has a 90 damage per second rating, has a speed of 3.20, gives the player +25 to their strength and procs a lifetap of 50 points of health .05% of the time and can only be used by warriors and paladins. The language of MMOs has become dominated by numbers.

Despite the natural curiosity of players it’s foolish to let players in on the inner workings of your game to the extent that Blizzard has done so with WoW. Just as most automobile drivers have no clue on the inner workings of the internal combustion engine in order to drive their car down the block, players should not need to know the inner workings of how their MMO works in order to have fun.

Theorycrafting and Elitist Jerks

Just look at the most of the MMO class discussion forums these days and you’ll soon realize that it’s all about players trying to arrive at the best winning formula for their chosen class.  Players talk less about lore and adventure and more about talent builds and gear. We even have a dedicated website for WoW theorycraft gone wild called Elitist Jerks; there the minutiae of every talent build, statistic, weapon and class is analyzed to death on a daily basis.

As mentioned previously, players are judged by the quality of their talent specs. Individualism is frowned upon by the experts on the various class discussion boards. Woe to the player that fails to research their class and damage output of their talent build! Even worse, is the fate of a player that chooses the “wrong” talent build. That player is quickly labeled a “noob” or a “scrub”.

The Legacy of Dungeons & Dragons

The origin of numbers, statistics and calculations originated from pen and paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Although numbers played a significant role, they were subservient to the themes of adventure and role-playing. When researching this article I went to the official D&D website and was shocked at how much MMOs like WoW have deteriorated when compared to the vision of D&D. Here are a few paragraphs taken from their website:

D&D is an imaginative, social experience that engages players in a rich fantasy world filled with larger-than-life heroes, deadly monsters, and diverse settings. As a hobby game, D&D is an ongoing activity to which players might devote hours of their time—much like a weekly poker game—getting together with friends on a regular basis for weeks, months, or even years.

Players create heroic fantasy characters — mighty warriors, stealthy rogues, or powerful wizards — which they guide through an ongoing series of adventures, working together to defeat monsters and other challenges and growing in power, glory, and achievement. The game offers endless possibilities and a multitude of choices . . . more choices than even the most sophisticated computer game, because you can do whatever you can imagine!

The possibilities of D&D (listed above) echo the potential that MMOs once had but a few years ago. No powergamers, no min-maxers, no farmers, no powerlevelers, no calculators, no spreadsheets. Clearly, we have fallen very short from the original ideals that were the embodiment of those classic role-playing games. If anything we need to restore those venerable ideals back into their rightful place in MMO’s. But, in order to fix the problem we need to see where it things started going off the track.

Enter EverQuest

Our current fascination with expending the minimum amount of effort for the maximum result probably came about from the grim reality of survival in pre-WoW MMOs like EverQuest. During the first few years of EverQuest we can see that a certain segment of the player base realized that mastering math was in fact the way to “beat” the system. The penalty for death was so harsh that people would do all they could to avoid it and it created a survival of the fittest mentality. It was all about reducing risk and staying alive at all costs.

Those that took the time to crunch numbers and optimize their behavior were rewarded with access to tougher monsters and better gear; those that didn’t fell behind. Players would do all they could to maximize their return on investment of their time.  So the min-maxers and powergamers were born. Richard Bartle in his famous essay entitled Players Who Suit MUDS called them “achievers”.

The Most Unusual Suspects

In a terrific post on the Fires of Heaven forums, EtadanikM lays the blame squarely on the heads of the developers for the current obsession with number crunching and optimization. (Note: This is one of the best posts I’ve read on the current sorry state of MMOs and I encourage everyone to read it). Here’s a small excerpt:

Regrettably, the verdict is that the founders are guilty. It was the original MMO players who began this descent. Yes, it was inevitable. Yes, the devs encouraged them. Yes, it was part of a general trend in gaming (and some would argue society in general) that was more or less unstoppable. But still, the ones who brought the elitism, the obsession with gear, the power gaming, the trivialization, etc. into MMOs were all there at the beginning: Rob Pardo, Jeff Kaplan, etc. on the devs side. EQ veterans who rushed to raiding and building sites like Thottbot and AllakhazamWoW on the players side. It’s not so much the Blizzard tendency towards perfecting an existing idea as opposed to coming up with an entirely new one; it’s more the fact that WoW is an amalgamation of two old cultures: the crowd, who have been asshats since the days of Starcraft and who worshiped the concept of 0.0001% drops (via Diablo/Diablo II), and the EQ/DAoC/AC crowd, who by this time was all into the endless treadmill of uberism. Decades’ worth of aging cultures gave birth to WoW, which was grey before it was even conceived.

Many of the current top developers at Blizzard were EverQuest guild leaders of top raiding guilds: Rob Pardo (Ariel), Jeffrey Kaplan (Tigole) and Alex Afrasiabi (Furor). These guys literally created raiding as we know it today in MMOs like WoW; it’s worth noting that raiding was never intended as a game activity in the original EQ. These guys were the first rockstars of the MMO era and the EQ devs were only too happy to create cutting edge content to keep them happy. It soon became a symbiotic relationship that ended up dominating the future direction of the genre.

I mentioned the rise of the uberguild phenomenon in my Open Letter to SOE in 2004 as one of the problems with the current state of EQ. Back then the raiding culture had become an out of control train speeding down the tracks. Those EQ raiding guilds required that recruits adopt a strict hardcore, powergamer, achiever type attitude. As raiding become the dominant play style it had the negative effect of diminishing the relevancy other types of play styles: the explorers, the socializers and role-players. After all, who had time to do any of those seemingly trivial things when you were busy achieving? Today these very same powergamer devs have created the ultimate numbers game for the masses: WoW.

Better Virtual Worlds Through Math?

Developers have removed the mystique from virtual worlds like WoW. Everything is revealed to players these days. Every mechanic has a number and percentage associated with it. The worst thing of all is that the current crop of developers have purposely crafted this addiction to numbers among their players. Rob Pardo Blizzard VP of Design, speaking at the GDC Conference in San Francisco said the following in 2008:

Math is the foundation of your game system.

You notice he didn’t say adventure, quests or immersion: he said “math”.  While it’s true that computer games certainly need to have a system whereby combat is computed and calculated via numbers, the extent that Blizzard has opened up the hood and let players view inside the engine is cause for concern. Players should be enjoying playing in a virtual world without having to worry about about the math.

Imagine for a moment that you were around a person that constantly took their blood pressure, measured their biceps, weighed themselves on a scale, took their pulse, etc. You’d go crazy being around that person! Yet that is exactly what is happening today in most MMO’s. In the name of maximum efficiency, we’ve become obsessed with statistics to the point of absurdity. Achieving higher levels, stats, attributes, damage have become the raison d’être of MMOs.

The Play To Win Mindset

As other types of video gamers started migrating to MMOs from FPS games like Quake and Counterstrike they brought with them the play to win competitive philosophy. Therefore it stands to reason that players that play to win will use every possible advantage to prevail over their opponents. Theorycrafting: the analysis of character attributes, talents and weapons and combining classes in groups and raids in order to achieve damage/heal synergies illustrates this mindset perfectly.

Racing to the Endgame

The current obsession with achievement, stats and numbers is eating away at the fabric of what fantasy virtual worlds should be about: allowing the player to express themselves fully while being immersed in exotic lands of magic, mystery and adventure in the company of fellow travelers. Designers with limited vocabularies are only too eager to push a reward, reward, reward mantra onto players that elevates the worship of higher numbers above all else in virtual worlds.

No longer are we content to stop and smell the roses in the MMOs we play. Instead most players are singularly focused on reaching the level cap as fast as possible. Companies like Blizzard have compounded the problem by placing all of the best and most polished content at the illusory “endgame”. Thus everyone in WoW is in a perpetual hurry to reach that magical number that awaits us at the level cap. This has very dangerous ramifications in that content that takes months to create is disposable and players now feel entitled to an easy ride to the good stuff that awaits them at the endgame.

We Too Are the Problem

Finally, we need to take an honest look at ourselves in the larger equation of what went wrong with MMOs. People today live in a consumer culture of entitlement and convenience. We are constantly bombarded with messages of productivity and time management. We have power lunches and take power naps. We work hard and we play hard. We are time-starved powergamers.

Although our world may be full of uncertainty, we expect our virtual worlds to be predictable. Thanks to MMOs like WoW, we log on and we expect to get a rate of return for our time and investment. We live in an age of instant heroism for the mere price of $15.99 a month. We want results and we want them yesterday. It’s no wonder that we have forsaken the old gods and started worshiping the false idols of numbers in order to track our progress.


The preoccupation with numbers has become an unhealthy distraction for players. Take away the premise of math and numbers and you’d have to wonder if and MMO like WoW would even have a purpose. The truth is that without them, WoW and MMOs like it would crumble like a house of cards. Some of the astute players among us have already begun to realize that and soon the masses will catch on too. Again EtadanikM leaves us with some parting words of wisdom that explain this:

And so you are here, yearning for those experiences of old, counting the years since you were last truly excited about a MMO. But be glad, at least, that you were part of the scene when it was young. Today’s gamers, they will not have that opportunity. They will have inherited a culture already aged and decrepit, and they will grow old before they were ever young. I’ve seen it happen again and again – brand new MMO players going into WoW and getting burned out within a year or two, having “seen through it all.” They say things today that only after half a decade of time in EQ did I truly begin to feel: that MMOs are pointless exercises in futility, an endless pursuit of worthless numbers wrapped in tedious time sinks. A donkey and carrot game where it’s always beyond your reach. This is the wisdom that age has brought the MMO culture – that it’s all a sham.

Where to proceed, from here? How do you revitalize the MMO industry, a culture where expectations are already so formidable, the rules so set in stone, the cynicism so deep?

That will be the challenge for the next generation of trailblazers. May they be wiser than we.

Those are brutally frank words and he is probably right. So can the current MMO design paradigm be salvaged? Part of it is that people have forgotten why they started playing MMOs in the first place. Some where along the way we traded in the immediacy of our swords and shields for the security of calculators and slide rulers. We’ve become risk averse accountants and statisticians instead of foolhardy adventurers and explorers. It’s because of our insatiable appetite for deconstruction and demystification that we have become our own worst enemies.

We need a new language with which to communicate in MMOs that goes beyond numbers to explain and quantify things. Players need more meaningful ways to express themselves in MMOs. We need to strive for new loftier goals that go beyond the narrow focus of acquiring better weapons and better armor. It’s time to relegate numbers back to their proper place — they should be serving us instead of subjugating us.


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