A Solution for Difficulty Curves and Power Creep

Most games portray you as a hero of some sort. A common trope is for the hero to be either inexperienced at the beginning of the game, or lack his equipment. This gives a reason for why the hero does not just plow right up to the main baddie and kill him at the beginning. In any case, a lot of games suffer from a strangely shaped difficulty curve. The game starts out fairly easy as the player learns the ropes, then the enemies get harder. Finally, you max out your stats and the game begins to get easier again.

Granted, the best games suffer from this less, but a lot of games have trouble with this type of power creep. Spore is a prime example of a ridiculously easy endgame (the space stage was essentially a sandbox). Some developers solve this by making enemies more powerful as the player progresses. This can work in games where, for instance, the enemy starts to realize just how much of a threat you are. In open-world games like Skyrim, though, this makes little sense.

Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation, mentioned in one of his Extra Punctuation an inkling of an idea for a game that is designed with this problem in mind. I have taken the liberty of gripping the nebulous concept by the horns and fleshing it out.

The game is based around the power suit you wear. It is a magnificent piece of High Technology. Unfortunately, this means that nobody is quite sure how it works. The machining of the piece is much too fine to replicate, in any case, which means any replacement parts have to come from other pieces of High Technology, which are few and far between.

At the start of the game you escape from the main fortress of the Bad Guys with some sort of Valuable Item (perhaps information). You raid the armory and steal the suit before plunging yourself deep into the wilderness around the citadel. You spend the game running from a cadre of pursuers, trying to make your way to the border. At every encounter with an enemy, it is up to you to protect your suit as much. Each blow is physically simulated and, depending on where you place armor, where the hit was, how hard it was, etc. a component on your suit has the potential of breaking. Parts also wear down over time.

The most critical part of the game is deciding how to keep your suit in working order. Some systems are critical, like the pneumatics that let you move (damage to arm parts may impair aiming speed, damage to legs may reduce speed or jump height, etc), and some are dispensable, like weapons. If a critical system receives a hit and becomes in critical danger of breaking down, you have to stop and either fix it with any spare parts you find, or scrap a non-critical system on your suit to get the essential parts.

This meta-game with the suit solves the problem of power creep. You are at maximum power at the beginning, but enemies are also at the greatest density. Slogging through the wilderness and fighting enemies wears your suit down, so by the end you are barely limping along. As time goes on, you have to choose which weapon or system to scrap for parts. This means that you get a sample of all abilities at the beginning, and can keep the ones that best suit your play style. One of Bioshock’s biggest problems was that there was no incentive to try new plasmids. I’m sure the majority of players just improved the starting set, because buying new powers was too much of a liability.

I like the idea of having the game being mostly free-world. You can choose the best path through the different types of terrain to avoid encounters. Cold environments, wet environments, and sandy environments all have different types of wear and tear on the suit. Roads are easy to traverse (meaning less food consumption and lower likelihood of suit failure) but are more likely to find troops on them. Towns and other population centers are more likely to hold supplies (food and maintenance items are critical for survival) and spare parts, but the citizens will raise the alarm if they see you, and there are likely to be troops in towns.

The catch is that any alarms you raise will alert the search parties to your general presence and means a higher chance of encountering troops. Same goes for any military engagements in which an enemy scout or survivor escapes. The game is part stealth (avoiding conflict), part tactics(managing the suit, choosing your world route), part combat (winning conflicts you get into). At the end, instead of a boss fight, you have a final battle at the border of the kingdom as the search parties converge on your position and a friendly militia comes down from the other side of the border to help you across.

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Minecraft Servers

I was once an innocent Minecraft player. I played a couple of single player worlds, back in Alpha. Then I looked into multiplayer. I joined a server. The server was called Age of Chaos. That was a fateful day; at the same time I discovered both the magic of SMP and the wonder of role-playing. AoC was a medieval RP server, and it was extremely fun, although looking back on it now I can see that it wasn’t that great. Alas, I joined it during its dying days. After the server went down, I was despondent. That was when I had a brilliant idea. I would create my own server.I had been thinking about concepts for a Minecraft server. I ended up setting up a server that would host a group of people from my school.

It was an RP server, and at first there were only 3 people. I set up a forum, and more people began to join. Some of them were from AoC, some from my school. Some found the server through the scattered ads we tossed out on online forums. TJRP was born (TJ is the common abbrevation for our school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology). The original iteration of the server thrived. The idea behind it was that there were three cities which would have varying diplomatic relations. As it ended up, one city became populated, and the other two fell off the face of the map (one managed to struggle along with one or two residents). Then another city popped up in the backyard of Elysia, the great walled city in the center of the map. Seralotta was the scientific center of the New World. Elysia was a neutral super-power, and Arboris, the half-dead tree city, suddenly revived as the magical city. Things were going just fine. Sure, we had a few disputes. Maybe more than usual. However, those were the days in which the seeds of doom were planted; a group of friends joined.

The core group of 5 people from TJ began to bicker, mostly because they knew each other. As the server spiraled downwards, complaints became more common. Suddenly I decided to reboot the universe. An apocalypse destroyed the New World and the inhabitants fled to another dimension. In the new iteration of the server, we introduced the idea of plugin-supported races. Each race had a different set of abilities. We decided on a two-city structure this time, with humans living in the two cities. The shaman-like Animists were traders, and lived mainly in caravans and in the great forest that dominated the center of the map. Ancients were the natives of the land, possessing great magical abilities but keeping to themselves. Crimsons were masters of Redstone, who also kept to themselves. The Emergents were the antagonists. A zombie-like telepathic race of infected individuals, they were the enemies to all in the first “season”.

The design was flawed, though. I don’t really want to discuss the events leading up to the fall of TJRP, for although it was months ago, it is still a sore subject. I become depressed merely thinking about it. I can relate, however, the fundamental errors I believe I made in creating the server, starting with the most axiomatic errors. The greatest problem was imbalance. Minecraft gameplay is inherently imbalanced. Imposing either behavioral or mechanical restrictions, such as through plugins, only stands to make the game less exciting and pleasurable. There is no way to balance Minecraft and keep a fun RP environment. The races merely exacerbated the problem by creating reasons for mutual jealousy. The second problem was isolation. This is correlative to imbalance. We didn’t have the members to support five races, especially the way we separated the races. We should have put all the players within close proximity of each other. That is what eventually happened, of course. After cities were razed by the Emergents, people naturally migrated to a quaint village built on a mountain. The last major problem was that we tried to induce story. We created “events”, in which a rough structure would provide some excitement and conflict into the world. It was executed in all the wrong ways, however. Instead of waiting for natural conflict to occur and then encouraging it into a full-fledged story, we tried to mould people into how we though the world should be. The story of the server ends with the inmates running the asylum.

TJRP Forums | TJRP Wikia

As bad an idea as it may seem, I am thinking of starting a new server. This time, however, I will make it the most perfect Minecraft RP server possible. With my knowledge, I can resolve all the problems that plagued TJRP. This is how:

Good Members

In the end, its the players who are playing on the server. If the players are going to have fun, they need to get along with each other. Otherwise their wouldn’t be any RP. The idea is that members would be handpicked from known people. Anybody joining from the outside would go through a rigorous grooming process, including perhaps some time on the server in which their personality is judged. TJRP’s selection process was far to tolerant. Player responsibility also needs to be high for my idea to work. Players would have an active desire to work towards an entertaining plot, rather than “winning”, such as building the biggest buildings, collecting the most resources, or having the most powerful character. They would also realize that other people are working towards the same ends, and would deal with any disagreements in a reasonable way.

Eradication of Imbalance

Minecraft is inherently unbalanced. Therefore, why try to balance it? I say that the best way to combat imbalance is to embrace it. If you give everything to everybody, there can be no gradient, since everybody has equal abilities and does not have to work to get resources. Players would all have moderator-level powers. They could utilize WorldEdit and enter Creative mode. Since players would be trying to craft a story, they would use these abilities responsibly. They wouldn’t overbuild, they wouldn’t overuse creative, and they certainly wouldn’t grief. Building powers would only be used for time-saving reasons. It would represent many hours of work sped up, so that players can focus on the juicy RP, rather than the dull work required to upkeep the world. Players could also use the powers to represent in-character powers, such as if a powerful villain were to make an entire building disappear.

Tons of Discussion

The players would be actively discussing the direction of the plot, both in-game and on the forums. Players would converse out-of-character during a scene to make sure their characters are cool and that the story stays interesting. Use of an application like Ventrilo or Teamspeak would facilitate such discussion. It would not only help players debate points faster, but it would encourage a sense of camaraderie and even be used for fluid delivery of in-character dialogue. Due to a common sense of the plot, arguments would rarely, if ever, occur. Hopefully epic stories would also be produced. The stories could then even be recorded and/or dramatized. Having a record of past story arcs would be fascinating and help recruit more valuable players.


You may call me a Utopian or a Romantic, but I truly believe that, if pulled off correctly, this kind of server would be the most entertaining ever made. The only thing that holds me back is fear of another catastrophic failure like TJRP. That server was almost like my child. I had helped it along since infancy. It matured, grew out of control, and then abandoned me and died, spawning another server whose members mock me. It was heart-wrenching, and even the sight of a former member at school reminds me of that horrible experience of a creation spiraling out of control.

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