Getting the Numbers Right in Game Design
When SuikodenMUD started, it was packed with giant numbers. Your health would start in the five-figure range. You’d do ridiculous amounts of damage from the outset. I figured: Why even bother starting lower? Everyone loves big numbers. I thought people would jump at the opportunity to wield swords that strike monsters for 50,000 damage a pop.
They didn’t. Nobody wanted to play.
See, the rush we get from seeing giant numbers on our screen doesn’t happen because we’re seeing giant numbers on our screen. What matters is what those numbers mean. The story they tell. The gradual elevation from zero to hero, from a pathetic mercenary with 80-90 health to an all-powerful, world-devouring, 9999-HP-adorned warrior. When my Cloud cast Knights of the Round Table eight times and dealt some 80,000 damage to Ruby Weapon, it wasn’t cool because of the numbers: it was cool because I brought Cloud to the point where he could reach those kind of numbers.
Us humans are rubbish at framing big numbers, hence things like financial crisis tend to wash-over us with their billions and trillions of dollars. We can understand it, we just don’t conceptualize it very well.
This does show how key the numbers are in a game. Design often gets hung up on the flashy stuff – especially narrative and character, but the under-the-bonnet stats that drive a game at not only important, they are the making or breaking of a game. When selecting a number range, in many ways 3 to 4 digits are best as it gives you scope to make objects with ranges within it and to add modifiers, but also is not so big as to be meaningless. The Action Points (AP) in Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land are a good example of a stat improved by a range. I’d initially gone with a lower range, so 1 AP to move 1 normal landscape tile, which seemed natural. But then later with the weapons, I was struggling making them feel different with the lower numbers till Stu (our artist) gave me a nudge and we upped it – so a normal square movement became 6 APs and the whole thing fitted much better!
Part of the lower number thinking in making Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, with the ranges tending to be smaller – were a reflection of the paper RPG we were using as the basis, which being dice-based has number ranges that reflect that. So the core stats of a character are between 3-18, coming from the 3d6 you’d roll to generate that number. Interestingly the old DC Hero’s paper RPG got around this issue by using exponential numbers. So in a normal system, Batman might be an exceptionally strong human, say 17 or 18 STR (Strength). So what is Superman with his ability to bend steel? 17,000 or 180,000? So to get round this in their system the exponential version means a character with 18 STR is twice as strong as one with 18 STR. Less scope for granularity but it does allow for the accommodation of huge variation within the same system.