World of Warcraft

Game Design 101 (for WoW players) – Part 2: “New Coke” and the Sweetness of Character Power

wow5 - Game Design 101 (for WoW players) - Part 2: "New Coke" and the Sweetness of Character Power

In 1985 the Coca-Cola company reacted to declining market share, and taste tests indicating that other brands of soft drinks were rated higher, by replacing the original formula of Coca-Cola.

New Coke - Game Design 101 (for WoW players) - Part 2: "New Coke" and the Sweetness of Character Power

New Coke scored considerably higher in taste tests, in large parts through being sweeter. The introduction of New Coke to the market did not go as predicted: After an introductory uptick, sales began to drop – massively. Those tanking sales lead the Coca-Cola company to reintroduce Coca-Cola classic within 3 months, whose market share then rose significantly compared to the times before New Coke.

It is seen as a textbook example of why one should not mess with a successful brand and how faulty simple consumer tests can be.

The hypothesis presented here is that we see a very similar effect with character power rewards in World of Warcraft since at least WotLK. It fits a standard explanation for the declining sale of New Coke. Animals have diminishing returns build into most of their internal reward systems. Especially with respect to sweetness: we don't like to consume things we consider too sweet and will reduce the amount of really sweet things we consume significantly. The New Coke tasted better in small amounts, but very few people could stomach it at their habitual soft drink consumption level.

Behaviorism - Game Design 101 (for WoW players) - Part 2: "New Coke" and the Sweetness of Character Power

Behaviorism states that the important things to look for to describe behavior are the incentives – rewards and punishments and the behaviors most closely linked to that. The most obvious reward cycle in WoW is the increase of character power.

Rewards and the Illusion of competence

Although discredited in the grander scheme of things, behaviorism – explaining agents through their behavior and the learned connections to that behavior (conditioning) – is still an important first step to explain more complex behavior. Which behavior is rewarded or punished? What are the incentives and disincentives of a certain setup? What are those rewards and punishments and how are they given out? Humans as conscious beings can in some regards choose their own rewards – decide what drives them. Despite this it is comparatively easy to extract the things regarded subjectively as rewards from observing behavior and this is often done.

The rewards connected to the basic evolutionary imperatives of "continue living" and procreate are of course those that behaviorism is built out of. Those rewards systems are quite strong, but the cerebral rewards we get from play cannot be coupled directly to these systems, which is why Self-Determination Theory (SDT) describes human behavior better than pure
conditioning on rewards. For a broader introduction to SDT, see Part 1 – How to get Agency?.

So with respect to games and WoW, it would be interesting to look at which rewards fulfill which of the three basic needs of SDT, and how:

Autonomy – Characters at max level have a large selection of possible actions. A large selection of pets at 25. Gold (to buy things), appearances, mounts, toys. Relatedness – Story bits and pieces, connecting to others by interacting with them (positively). Size of friend list/guild. Competence – Achievements and leader boards. Experience points and levels, buffs and items increase character power.

The difference between character power and competence is subtle. I subscribe to a definition of player skill that relies on how much of a characters potential can be effectively used by a player (and how reliable). But acquiring skill needs
Practice (learning method)#Deliberate practice - Game Design 101 (for WoW players) - Part 2: "New Coke" and the Sweetness of Character Power

deliberate practice and of course runs into diminishing returns – it takes a lot of time and work to increase from 95 to 96% usage of potential, but that only gives less than 1% relative increase in character output. Pure character power does not necessarily have that problem – the numbers can just get larger and larger without immediate problems. And the game designers know this or have at least experienced it, so RPGs are build to give at least the illusion of competence through character power rewards.

And successfully: Tests have shown that players like character power rewards above all else. Done right these rewards hit all three basic needs:

  • One could argue it is just an illusion of competence for the player, but with respect to an in-game character it is directly competence.
  • Greater power gives more autonomy, more choices to do things and relaxes the constraint how those things can be done (e.g. soloing old raids).
  • And of course these rewards are more or less directly related to something that one does in game. It's complicated, see the randomness part of Part 1.

So from the view of Self-Determination Theory character power is quite similar to sweetness in taste tests – a direct coupling to a basal reward system, one intrinsic to the agents in question.

Character power since WotLK

In the latest Q&A Ion Hazzikostas said that since WotLK there has been a philosophy of
CvG7VKwJb20?t=1243 - Game Design 101 (for WoW players) - Part 2: "New Coke" and the Sweetness of Character Power

"If you do new content you should get an upgrade."

Exactly since then there has been a stagnation and then decline of player number and I have an inkling that this philosophy derived from superficial taste tests and a simple player model is at the heart of it. Doing new content on a level you enjoy is a reward in itself – the true reason why most people play games. If you reward them even more for it, you need to be very, very careful of the overjustification effect – if you give external rewards, intrinsic motivation is replaced – but one should also be aware of possible negative side-effects.

With the philosophy of "upgrades everywhere" Blizzard put character power rewards in exponential degrees everywhere. Where before they existed most prominently for the expansions and in much lesser degree for new raids, they now exist also between difficulties and for differences in group sizes. The exponential degrees – x% more – are considered necessary to give a qualitative difference in strength instead of just a quantitative differences. This is used to establish the character power reward loop in new players.

In old players I do not think this exponential degree is necessary. They already have that reward loop established and if the rewards are not exponential, they can actually choose to participate in it or not as they see fit, i.e. do the things in the game they actually like doing – which gives them a sense of autonomy and competence.
The assumption of necessary exponential rewards seems especially strange when one looks at what players do for vanishing increases in character power.

Player perception

The problem of too much character power has one more insidious aspect in player perception and communication: The players are quite vocal about liking more rewards not just in every single test and questionnaire, but also in every single other communication venue. Even in the actual game, they still like those rewards in the short term – until they realize that they no longer have fun, about which they then complain and think more rewards would alleviate that.

This may also be the reason behind the now infamous statement

" think , but don't." – J. Allen Brack


While that is quite definitely true – I don't know what I want most of the time either – using just taste tests instead of larger and more expensive testing does not really provide any better data. The final arbiter can only be the player behavior with respect to the final product and not their professed opinion.

Even today players are clamoring for more rewards and larger rewards with statements like "I would not do that content otherwise", "It would feel better with character power rewards" and "I deserve that reward because of something or other". These are probably the only complaints to which "Unsubscribe" or more clearly:

If you need a reward to do it, then don't do it. It's a game. If you do it for a reward instead of the enjoyment, something fundamental got lost on the way. Do something else with your time.

is the correct answer.
And not just for the player, but also for the corporation – because you definitely do not want to pay the players money for playing. So your only option is for the players to want to play your game. And for this it needs to be rewarding to play in itself – the rewards in-game can only be something in addition to the reward of playing the game. As a game designer you also can not really change the subjective value the player gains from the game – you can only make an offer that is accepted or refused.

Character power and other game systems

It seems to me that in a game with an overheated character power progression, those rewards are not just sweetener, but actually pure, calorie-laden sugar. Nothing trivializes content as quickly as increasing character power, nothing compares to that sweet rush of power gain.

Sometimes for me it feels like nothing in the game matters except item level. I often feel I can't even do the content I want to do, because I feel a need to instead increase my item level – be it to feed my own acquired sense of reward, in order to do the content I want to do or to do that content faster.

And this leads to further problems, similar to karies and metabolic problems in response to sugar:

  • A reduction of perceived player sense of competence – ilvl easily negates or even inverts player skill differences.
  • A reduction of player autonomy since in an even slightly competitive setting, the players have no other options but to follow the steepest gradient of power progression. "We feel forced to do Split Raids/turn on War mode for PvE content/run after every single weekly reset."
  • The relatedness/social aspects of the game suffer, since everyone is just hurrying in the ilvl treadmill and saying hello or communicating with other players just takes time away from the run.

And several less central game problems:

  • Runaway numbers and power levels necessitating regular squishes with associated problems.
  • Rewards feels unearned and trivialized, because you need to keep players on about the same relative power level.
  • Problems of finding the right content difficulty for not just different players, but different players with differently powered characters – a problem solved by well implemented difficulty settings.
  • Some system like Warforging/Titanforging seems necessary in order to reward players for playing.
  • Professions are sorted by their character power rewards/buffs into mandatory and useless, instead of being a fun addition to your character.

What to do?

Since character power is so central, it takes concentrated action to remove oneself from its cycles and find enjoyment somewhere else.

One type of player relatively save from that are the collectors: Achievements, characters, titles, pets, mounts, toys, transmogs are not direct character power increases and those players and their communities are enjoying the game and flourishing…Except when they are confronted with the ilvl treadmill and gating in order to get what they want and of course the rampant negativity of everyone unhappy with the ilvl reward cycle in the game.

Some other people are expectantly waiting for the release of Classic WoW. The recipe from a time before the amount of sugar poured into the drink increased exponentially. Back when you played the game in the way you wanted to play it, because you wanted to play it and not for some sweet treat. Their view may be influenced by nostalgia and
other biases, but the reaction to that different character power reward scheme is something I can't predict and look forward to seeing.

To be honest, I would be very interested to see the reaction to "Diet" realms of current content, where character power rewards are removed or greatly reduced.

  • No character power rewards for different difficulties.
  • No content gating through items – e.g. every content has an ilvl window and every character outside that window is set to the limits on entering that content.

This is very similar to the PTRs, so data from players participating in those could be used as a substitute, I just don't know about the impermanence of those. How are players acting differently on PTRs/the normal game?


I think this change in the reward system – that in WotLK Blizzard started paying the players for playing in exponential character power increases – is a central problem of the game. And it is not a problem of "developers not listening to the players", but of players turning into developers and bosses of developers and then just doing what they think they want – forgetting their own biases and ignoring the real game player data.

Writing this text has made me want to check out the Test realms and considerably more excited about WoW Classic. I love this game, but the current type of endgame is just too sweet for my taste.


Next time I would like to write about time – simultaneously finishing an overview about rewards and costs and starting a two-parter about the main reasons people stop playing according to
unsubbing is often seen as the only real way by - Game Design 101 (for WoW players) - Part 2: "New Coke" and the Sweetness of Character Power

this post by Ghostcrawler: "no more time" and "nobody to play with".
Choice vs Agency03.10.2018Inofficial Part 0, written by u/sindeloke
Part 1 – How to get Agency?14.02.2019
Part 2 – "New Coke" and the sweetness of character power05.03.2019
Part 3 – Time?
Part 4 – Social tools?
Part ? – Communication is hard – Feedback and community relations?
Part ? – War mode and PvP?
Part ? – Change?

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