Posted on April 6th, 2017 by | 5 Replies

Whether it’s attributes on gear or points spent on the character sheet, character stats are one of the most universal aspects of MMORPG design. If you looked hard enough, you might be able to find some MMOs without character stats, but it’d be a pretty short list.

The character stats pane in World of Warcraft

And yet there are a lot of problems inherent with the way MMOs handle character stats. These problems are so fundamental and so widespread that you probably don’t even think about them most of the time, but they’re no less real despite that, and I have a much harder time identifying what good stats actually do.

It’s enough to make you wonder: Are character stats serving a purpose in MMOs?

The Concept

First, let’s think about what character statistics are supposed to do. The theory is generally that they help you customize your character. In tabletop RPGs, where the concept originated, different stats could benefit you in different ways. Spending points in intelligence or wisdom could, for example, help your character understand ancient lore or solve puzzles, while more dexterity might help with lockpicking or other manual tasks, and strength could allow them to lift heavier objects as well as deal more damage with physical attacks.

However, video games, and especially MMOs, tend to focus much more on combat instead of non-violent activities, so in MMOs stats usually focus entirely on combat benefits.

In theory, this should still allow for character customization. You can stack haste on your gear to be a character who attacks very quickly, or you can ignore haste and favor critical strike in order to attack slower but hit harder.

Theory and practice don’t always align, though.

The Issues

Now let’s look at the problems inherent in the way most MMOs handle character stats.

The Gatekeeper, a way of testing a player's skills and builds in The Secret World

Mostly, it comes down to math. More specifically, the fact that when things are boiled down to pure numbers, it is possible and in fact inevitable that someone will calculate the mathematically best solution.

Once that happens, choice pretty much evaporates. It doesn’t matter if you want a haste build if the only viable build for your class favors crit. You’re only holding yourself back if you don’t use the mathematically best stat builds.

You can go against the grain if you want, but it’s usually not worth it in the long run. I’ve done a lot of non-traditional builds in MMOs, but I’ve gotten so much grief from my fellow players that in the end I’ve almost always given in and gone with the “best” option.

This is less of an issue in non-MMO RPGs. In a tabletop setting, the dungeon master can tailor the challenges to the capabilities of the party, so their relative power level is (nearly) irrelevant, and in a single-player video game, your choices only affect yourself, and there’s no one to judge you if you pick the “wrong” path.

The MMO community is not known for its forgiving nature, so if you step too far off the beaten path of character design, you can expect no end of unsolicited advice or even straight up scorn and derision. Even if you don’t care what others think of your build and are willing to ignore all that, the fact remains that you may be holding your group back, depending on how unusual your build is and what difficulty of content you’re doing.

A choice where there’s only one option is no choice at all. That’s not character customization; that’s a newb trap.

On the other hand, some games streamline stats to the point where it’s virtually impossible to make any bad choices. Star Wars: The Old Republic comes to mind, and World of Warcraft is also starting to lean this way a bit.

A Sith warrior in Star Wars: The Old Republic

I like that you really can’t go wrong here, but it’s still defeating the purpose of stats. If you just mindlessly equip whatever item has a higher level, then there’s still no character customization. It’s a naked treadmill of vertical progression with no personality, no flavor.

Speaking of vertical progression, that can further jeopardize the customization of stats, since often a sufficiently higher level piece of gear will be worth equipping regardless of its stats. If I favour haste, but I then get a piece of gear with no haste that’s twenty levels higher, I’m going to equip it. The raw volume of stats will make it an upgrade, even if those stats aren’t what I want.

So What Do We Do About It?

That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?

I think a pretty strong argument could be made that character statistics, as it stands now, are not actually serving a purpose in most MMORPGs, but it’s not like we can simply delete them and move on with our lives.

A lot of people would probably say that without character stats, it’s not an RPG. I’m not sure I agree with that, but they are such a fundamental aspect of the genre that it’s very difficult to imagine life without them. You would have to come up with something else to fill the void, I think, and it would be quite difficult to avoid repeating all the same issues that traditional stats have.

You could also simply try to fix the issues with character stats, but that’s not exactly a simple task, either.

A piece of legendary gear in World of Warcraft

The most obvious answer is just to balance the stats so well that there’s no significant performance difference between various builds, thus allowing everyone to construct their character however they want, but that’s easier said than done. By now MMO players are so hung up on the idea of there being a “best” way to do anything and so incapable of distinguishing between the concepts of viable versus optimal that even a difference of one or two percentage points can be enough for the lesser build to be declared trash and roundly dismissed.

Shifting progression to be less vertical and more horizontal might help people achieve their builds — if all gear has roughly equal power, you’re always free to pick the pieces with exactly the stats you want — but it still doesn’t solve the problem of some builds being favored over others.

This is not a problem with any easy answers. I’d go so far as to say it may be one of the most thorny design challenges in the world of MMORPGs. Even perennial controversies like the endless debate over the “holy trinity” of group roles pale in comparison.

How would you improve how MMORPGs handle attributes and statistics?


5 thoughts on “Are MMORPG Character Stats Actually Serving a Purpose?

  1. Isey

    I haven’t thought about this for a long time, but this did bring up a lot of pain points when I did start thinking about it. Thank you. (heh).

    Reminded me of when I was playing Legion a couple months ago, every piece of gear was a stress piece. I had to download a mod (Pawn) to find out if a piece of gear was actually an upgrade. Problem was, I had to run a simulator to get a Pawn string for my character at THAT EXACT MOMENT and gear set to be able to make that calculation. Everytime I picked up a new piece of gear I had to do that. IF I wanted to be optimal. Pawn would literally tell you taht an item was an increase (or decrease) of X%.

    If you got the Pawn string wrong, you could actually break your character. How was this fun? (It wasn’t). I spent so much time stressing on ilvls and what not that it took away enjoyment of the game. So, based on that, just get rid of the stats all together.

    The solution is to just do percentages. This sword gives 10% bonus to damage. That new piece gives 11.5%. Guess which is better? This helmet is a 5% defence bonus (etc. etc.). Over simplifying, but it would be far easier to understand.

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  2. Armathyx

    Had to deal with this constantly in GW2, see the whole problem is this false dichotomy right here:

    “It doesn’t matter if you want a haste build if the only viable build for your class favors crit.”

    The fact that one build is mathematically superior to others does not make others non-viable. A good example from GW2 was the Ranger / Engineer damage difference. Engineer used to be considered “non-viable” because Ranger had a negligible 2% more damage overall (41k damage compared to 40,5k or so).

    A second reason is comfort. Not all content in a MMO is group content and some people just like having more defence/health while soloing. Heck a lot of people like using safe but slow builds in group content because they’re not highly skilled players. This idea that the “MMO community” is one solid group that all hate on non-optimal builds is a myth; the loud minority of hardcore players are like that, yes, but the majority of players in MMOs nowadays seem to be casual weekend soldiers.

    A third reason is PvP. Everything’s different in PvP, you need certain builds to counter other builds and in a well balanced game you need a bit of everything to win as a team.

    I always liked having a choice because I truly don’t care about other people’s opinions. Making builds in a RPG is something I enjoy, it’s a hobby. I’m not the only one with this mindset, in GW2 I had no issue finding likeminded people and completing all the dungeons at our own pace with various builds. Yet I wouldn’t consider myself an unskilled player at all. I’ve had the guts to rank Diamond in starcraft 2, but in MMORPGs it’s just not the same.

    The problem has never been with the games, it’s always been with the hardcore community. It’s an old

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    1. Tyler Bro Post author

      I definitely agree that gaming communities have a terrible problem of confusing “optimal” and “viable.” Good enough is good enough, after all, and generally paying attention to mechanics and practicing your rotation will result in a much greater boost in performance than tweaking your stats or build for a few percentage points more damage.

      That said, I think you might be over-simplifying a bit. The problem is with both games and the community. There is quite a lot of people confusing optimal with viable and applying unreasonable standards to builds and stats, but there are also genuine cases where non-viable actually does mean non-viable. As I said, it’s a very complicated issue.

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