Chi-Coder:  A Numbers Game

I have a passion for mathematics.  I developed it sometime during my college career and haven’t been able to let go since.  I’m that guy who went back through his trig textbook “just for fun”.  I’m weird like that.  But for all my love for math, I sometimes really despise seeing numbers in my video games.  Numbers can be great indicators of progress, and are sometimes necessary aids to help players understand things like difficulty scale.  Other times they can be down-right game breaking.

The good old DPS meter.

If you’ve played World of Warcaft in the last 5 or so years then you’re aware of the DPS (damage per second)  meter.  If you haven’t, then here’s a quick primer…  Every time you or anyone in your party does anything combat related (hits someone, get’s hit, etc…) it’s recorded in a combat log.  The DPS meter parses this combat log in real time and gives you a pretty little bar graph on screen.  So what right?  Here’s the problem:

By default, the bar graph orders players from best to worst in terms of damage output, so if you’re trying your best to crank out the damage, but you just don’t have very good gear, you’re going to be pretty low on the meter.  It can make you feel like a failure when you’re not.  What’s more, an increasing amount of WoW’s content is played with anonymous teammates who are looking at the same data you are.  A lot of times this results in comments like, “kick this scrub out of group, he can’t do enough damage”.  So imagine you’re a new WoW player and you just got to max level.  You want to try and do a raid so you queue up, hop in with a group of anonymous players and are immediately met with hatred and vitriol because you’re, “a stupid noob”.  Not great for community building.

What’s more, the DPS meter allows players to get an incredibly detailed picture of how much damage they’re doing so it’s relatively easy to figure out which class and spec is the best.  If you play a rogue and you like the combat spec but it doesn’t do as much damage as the assassination spec, too bad for you; you’re playing the assassination spec anyway just so that you don’t get yelled at and kicked out of groups.

By giving players access to the combat numbers you create both a massive social problem, and a massive gameplay problem.  Without the numbers players would feel freer to play whatever spec they wanted without feeling like they’re doing something wrong.  No one else would know any different either, so everyone would be in the same boat.

To take it one step further, the WoW design team is constantly working on new raids and dungeons and they have to build them around these extremely tight damage requirements.  If players weren’t quite so efficient with their play it would give the devs more room to create interesting encounters.  As it stands, they try their best to do that anyway, but their hands are often tied by some arbitrary damage requirement imposed simply by the fact that the player base has basically mastered the mechanics.  It’s as if every boss has to be tuned for the absolute best players in the world.

The thing is, back when WoW was no more than a design document on a conference table, I don’t think the designers sat down and said, ‘we should make a game about killing dragons with math’.  I believe the combat log was meant to be a way to help players look at the last few seconds of a fight and figure out what happened to them.  I don’t believe it was their intention for that data to ever be analyzed to the degree that it has.  Once that cat was out of the bag though, there was no going back.  Players realized the power of the DPS meter and there was no way for the designers to strip away the functionality without severely impacting the community.  Regardless of designer intent, the DPS meter created far more problems for WoW than it did solutions.

Truth be told, I played a lot of WoW after the DPS meter was introduced and I actually enjoyed it.  I enjoyed striving to be the best damage dealer in my party and I took pride in performing well with my group.  That said, the DPS meter made the game all about the numbers; the art, the lore, the story, all of it was second to the numbers.  WoW could have looked like Pong for all I cared, as long as I was topping the meter.  Therein lays the problem.  The designers worked hard to create a world full of interesting quests, stories, interactions, etc… and all of it is instantly overruled by a few simple numbers.

WoW is by far the most excessive example of how numbers can ruin things, but it’s by no means the only one.  Games show you all sorts of unnecessary numbers.  From RPGs to Madden, numbers dictate all sorts of arbitrary and not-so-arbitrary statistics.  In some cases, that’s ok.  In many other cases, it’s really not.  I mean, can a number really tell you if Richard Sherman is the best cornerback in the NFL?  Of course not, but that doesn’t stop Madden from applying overall ratings to every player in the game.

I wonder what rating Donkey Teeth got.

Numbers also act as a mechanism to break the fourth wall, whether or not they intend to.  One of my favorite aspects of Skyrim is that there are no damage numbers.  It’s an RPG, and I level up, but I never see the raw numeric damage I’m doing to the enemy.  This fact helps me stay immersed in the world, and makes it easy for me to make choices that I enjoy, rather than choices I feel are mandatory to maximize my damage.  Sure, I could make fun choices even with the damage numbers, but let’s be honest; most of us don’t do that.  If you know you can kill a boss with your axe, how many times are you going to use your fireballs instead, just because you like how they look?  When shown mathematical proof that A is superior to B, most of us we’ll choose A.  Skyrim removes the numbers, and by doing so it removes any pressure to perform.  I do what I like.  If it doesn’t work, I go level up some more and try it again.

I have no problem with numbers in games when they seem applicable.  A game like Final Fantasy Tactics seems right at home with the damage numbers on display.  In fact, most single-player turn-based RPGs feel that way to me.  Those games are all about the exact type of strategy that would require mathematical analysis.  I do not, however, think that a numerical value for things like gun damage in Call of Duty or player ranking in Madden make sense.

WHO IS THIS HELPING!?!

I think that numbers complicate things in a multiplayer environment in almost every conceivable way.  Numbers, by their very nature, attach value to things, and sometimes those things aren’t as easy to valuate as saying, “this player did X amount of damage.”  The problem is that the valuation that numbers attach is so much easier to understand than the abstract valuation of a statement like, “is this person a good teammate?”  Because of this, the socialization in a multiplayer environment becomes largely based on math-based performance metrics.  In a multiplayer environment it’s important to feel like you are part of a team, and the numbers shouldn’t be a part of that.  Would you kick your friends off your weekly softball team because they didn’t hit or field well?  I surely hope not.   I hope that it would be more important to have fun with your friends than to win every single game.

As I mentioned above, there is nothing inherently wrong with games that focus on numbers, as long as that is clear to players beforehand.  I do believe that giving players too much numerical data in a multiplayer environment is very dangerous though.  Furthermore, numbers seem to have infected every part of every game though, and that really bugs me.  As a math geek I love numbers, but that doesn’t mean that everything I do has to be dependent on them, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the gaming community as a whole should be shackled by them.  World of Warcraft is an easy target for this kind of criticism but it’s certainly not the only one.  Virtually every game on the market these days implements some type of numerical XP or level up system, or assigns arbitrary values to all manner of things.  A bit of that is ok, but it’s getting to be too much, too often.  Numbers, you need to back off!  Especially you 6, you shifty-looking scoundrel.