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Borrowed Power, Borrowed Time

The Blizzard devs have been on a bit of a interview circuit since the reveal of the next WoW expansion. Some of the tidbits have been interesting, like this particular summary (emphasis mine):

  • Borrowed Power
    • The team reflected on the borrowed power systems of the past few expansions and admit that giving players power and then taking it away at the end didn’t feel good.
    • As they thought of a way to move forward without borrowed power systems, they realized that the only talent system used to fill those gaps by giving you something new every expansion that would not be taken away at the end.
    • The goal of the new talent system is to grow on it in further expansions with more layers and rows.
    • They want the new talent system to be sustainable for at least a few expansions and what to do at that point is an issue to solve then.

In other words, Blizzard recognized the failings of the “borrowed power” system – after three expansions! – and decided to bring back talent trees as a replacement. All while acknowledging the reasons why talent trees failed in the first place… and simply saying the equivalent of “we’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it.”

You know, I’m actually going to transcript that part from Ion Hazzikostas for posterity:

And I think we’ve built this system… you know, I mean, could we sustain that for 20 years? Probably not. But we don’t realistically… we think of, you know, there’s a – there a horizon of sorts where you want to make sure this will work for two or three expansions and then beyond that it’s sort of a future us problem. Where so much will have changed between now and then we can’t… it’s not really responsible for us to like, you know, make plant firm stakes in the ground. And if we’re compromising the excitement of our designs because of we’re not sure how they’re going to scale eight years from now… we’re doing a disservice to players today and eight years from now won’t matter if we’re not making an amazing game for players today.

I don’t technically disagree. When you have a MMORPG with character progression and abilities that accumulate over time… at some point it becomes very unwieldy to maintain every system introduced. Not impossible, just unwieldy. It reminds me of when CCGs like Hearthstone or Magic: the Gathering start segmenting older card sets away from “Standard” and into “Legacy” sets. Want to play with the most broken cards from every set ever released? Sure, go have fun over there in that box. Everyone else can have fun with a smaller set of more (potentially) balanced cards over here.

Having said that… is it really an insurmountable design problem?

My first instinct was to look at Guild Wars 2, which recently released its third expansion. The game is a bit of an outlier from the get-go considering that there is no gear progression at the level cap – if you have Ascended/Legendary Berserker gear from 10+ years ago, it is still Best-in-Slot today (assuming your class/spec wasn’t nerfed). That horizontal progression philosophy bleeds over into character skills and talent-equivalents too: whatever spec you are playing, you are limited to 5 combat skills based on your weapon(s) and 5 utility skills picked from a list. You pick three talent trees, but those trees don’t “expand” or get additional nodes. The only power accumulation in GW2 is in the Mastery system… which is largely borrowed-power-esque, now that I think about it.

So GW2 is doing well in the ability/feature creep department. For now. Because that’s the rub: ArenaNet is on expansion #3. WoW is on expansion #9. Are we prepared for six more Elite Specs per class? Outside of it being a balance nightmare – which is hardly ever ArenaNet’s apparent concern – I could easily see more Elite Specs being slapped onto the UI and nothing else of note changing. So the problem is “solved” by never granting meaningfully new abilities to older specs.

And… that’s basically the extent of my knowledge of non-WoW MMOs. Surely EverQuest 1 & 2 have encountered this same issue, for example. What did they do? I think FF14 is accumulating character abilities but not yet hitting the limit of reasonableness. EVE is EVE. What else is out there that has been around long enough to run into this? Runescape?

Regardless, it’s an interesting conundrum whereby the choices appear to be A) not grant new abilities with each expansion, B) have Borrowed Power systems, or C) periodically “reset” and prune character abilities before reintroducing them.