The Number Of The Beast

What I love most about World of Warcraft is, above all, the numbers.

Earlier this week in The Outline, I wrote about why Classic is probably the end of the World of Warcraft (as we know it.) I acknowledge that this is a funny thing for someone who just started a newsletter about Classic to say, but I nonetheless stand by the points I made. Unless Blizzard announces something more wild than re-releasing a game from 2004 at Blizzcon this weekend, we're probably going to see them just re-release old expansions over the next few years. 

This is not terribly exciting news, but you know what while I was writing that blog for The Outline I was listening to the Grizzly Hills zone music and I decided right then and there that when Blizzard re-releases Wrath of the Lich King I'm gonna resubscribe again because I am a Huge Sucker.

But apart from nostalgia and trying to recapture my youth like the millions of other suckers who jumped back into WoW with Classic, the one thing that I love most about this game is the numbers. Not so much crunching the numbers — agonizing over gear choices and min/maxing myself with spreadsheets to within an inch of perfection, which I have begrudgingly done in the past — but just playing the game and seeing the big numbers pop up over the heads of my enemies. 

People wonder what it is about WoW that drew so many people in, and it's a lot of things but I believe that it's mostly the numbers. You start out with a crappy sword and when you hit an enemy you do like 10 damage. An hour later you get a new, better sword and you hit the same enemy and now you do 12 damage. You can't really make progress in a video game more clear than that I think. 

This is something that Kotaku's Heather Alexandra confronts in her seminal work on progression systems in video games: "I Like It When The Numbers Get Big." When we see a big number pop up on screen that's bigger than any we've ever seen thus far, it just scratches something in our lizard brains and we can't help but want to make that number get bigger.

"I know all this. I am intimately aware of it and find it disgusting. Mobile games are a hellscape. I also love it when I get a rare weapon or stat-increasing 'wrymprint' in Dragalia Lost that boosts my Might level to further heights," she writes. "Because even if you are aware that you’re living in Idiocracy, we’re all still giant apes who happened to beat up all the slightly dumber apes. If I have the largest Might level, does that not make me the bigger and most powerful of all the apes?"

It is the most shallow and exploitative game mechanic ever devised, but even now as a 31-year-old man when I get a new weapon in WoW or Destiny 2 — or any of the scores of games nowadays that have gear progression systems — and I see a big number pop up I can't help but hoot and holler and scream "DAMN this thing hits like a TRUCK."

In his dissection of games like Cookie Clicker and Farmville, "Numbers Getting Bigger: What Are Incremental Games, and Why Are They Fun?", developer Alexander King explains that when it comes to feeling good when the numbers go up two things are at play: the Skinner Box and loss aversion.

"Systems that periodically reward users or players for repetitive tasks are often derisively called Skinner Boxes, because the neurological feedback loop this creates can be incredibly addicting," he writes. "The second psychological underpinning of incremental games is our accumulation desire and loss aversion. Our brains are wired to dislike losing things we have, and, conversely, to give us a strong desire to accumulate things."

In other words, it feels nice when the numbers go up, and it feels bad when the numbers do not go up.

In retail when you hit an enemy a number like 12,467 pops up which is a big number I think we can all agree. But when you get a new sword a number like 12,987 pops up and you have to think for a moment if that's actually a bigger number. Am I actually hitting harder than before or is this number some kind of fluke of random number generation? Usually you need to go to a spreadsheet or a website that looks at all your gear and confirms that yes you are hitting marginally harder good job you're doing great.

This is where Classic is just literal order of magnitudes better than retail. The numbers are just much smaller and thus way more comprehensible. You have all these little self-imposed number milestones that you hit along the way. First you score a critical hit on an enemy for 50 damage and you're like holy shit get owned you moron. Then you get a crit for 100 and you're like wow I'm destroying these idiots. Then 200, then 300, then 400, then 500 and so on all the way until you hit 1,000 where you start to hit the Numbers Ceiling — which is kind of brilliant numbers design, I think.

Even when the numbers are at their biggest, you can still perform quick mental math to gauge your strength. Let's say you first hit level 60 as a Warrior and your Mortal Strike crits for around 900-1100 (I'm sorry I'm just kind of pulling these numbers out of my ass but it's close enough). You get some better gear and now your Mortal Strike is consistently critting for over 1,000. You don't have to look into a spreadsheet to confirm this, you can just anecdotally tell that when a big number pops up it's four digits instead of three.

Eventually you start ignoring the thousands digit and start focusing on how much over 1,000 you're hitting for and the number milestones start all over again: 1,100, 1,200, 1,300 and so on. With the best gear in Classic, the numbers stop around 2,000, just before the mental math starts to get a little too complicated and you need to use a spreadsheet.

I've been thinking about what Blizzard could possibly do that would get me excited about an upcoming expansion, and it ultimately comes down to the numbers. They've tried to address the problem of ballooning numbers with a Stats Squish twice before, but what I think needs to happen is nothing short of just stripping the players nude, and issuing them a potato sack and a rusty sword. I'm not really sure how you would make this work thematically, but honestly all I really care about is the numbers. Make them small so I can watch them get big again.

Next: Where did everyone go?

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