Sorry for borrowing slogans from Bill Clinton, but sometimes I think that we are overly fixated on feature lists of MMORPGs, and don't look enough at the numerical details. In this post I am going to argue that numbers are extremely important in the design of a MMORPG, and can completely change how a game is played.
But first a real-life example: In the air that you breathe there is 20.9% of oxygen. If for some reason the oxygen concentration drops below 19.5%, this officially counts as Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health. As you can see, a small numerical change in oxygen concentration (less than 2% absolute, 10% relative) can have rather serious consequences.
MMORPGs are ruled by numbers. Every sword blow, every spell is a calculation. Your level, and your experience points, are counted in numbers. Your whole character is a collection of numbers in the form of stats. And what these numbers are, and how they evolve, is to a large extent decided by game developers. A big part of game development consists of balancing numbers, and the decisions taken there have a huge influence on how the players will play the game.
I recently realized one interesting example when I made a gnome deathknight in the Wrath of the Lich King demonstration version at the WWI 2008 in Paris. I made a female gnome deathknight with pink hair, just because the idea was so silly. But in reality the gnome deathknight only *looks* silly. While in many other games a small character like a gnome or halfling would do considerably less melee damage than a big character like a tauren or ogre, in World of Warcraft there isn't any noticeable difference. The gnome deathknight is as efficient a killing machine as the tauren deathknight, despite the obvious difference in height and muscles. That is a design decision by Blizzard, and it leads to people playing and race/class combination without having to worry about the effect on stats.
Another example is the group xp bonus in World of Warcraft. There isn't any for a 2-person group, so if a mob gives 100 xp if you kill it solo, it gives only 50 xp if you kill it in a 2-person group. As in most situations a 2-person group does NOT kill twice as fast as a single player, you end up getting less xp per hour if grouped with a friend. There is a 40% xp bonus for 5-man groups, so the same 100 xp solo mob now gives 28 xp if killed by a full group. In that case you would need to kill 4 times as fast as a single player to make more xp per hour in a group than solo, which again is hardly possible; the spawn rate alone would prevent you from doing so. It is easy to see that the group xp bonus is completely arbitrary. But now imagine we would increase the bonus in a way that generally you would get *more* xp per hour if you killed monsters in a group than if you did it solo. It would turn World of Warcraft into a game where between level 1 and 70 a lot more grouping would happen than now. It wouldn't change the fact that you can solo all the way up to 70, but it would increase the incentive to group with strangers and make new friends, thereby adding the missing "massively multiplayer" part to the leveling part of World of Warcraft. Change the numbers, and you change the game.
My last example is combat. Having played several different MMORPGs this year, I noticed that one typical fight in each game takes a different amount of time, and a different number of keystrokes. For example in Age of Conan combat is very quick; at level 1 some casters can kill a level 1 mob with a single spell. World of Warcraft has a medium speed combat. And other games are even slower. Again that is an important design decision which is completely numerical. If combat is faster, it becomes less tactical. By the time my rogue in WoW has three combo points on a mob and could use the "expose armor" finishing strike, the mob is dead already, and the ability doesn't make sense for this short combat. When he is in a group, fighting a longer fight against some boss mob, the ability suddenly becomes interesting. Again the game would be very much different if there was a numerical change to damage output and health of characters and mobs, making fights longer or shorter.
Of course there are many more examples, I can't list them all. But I hope I was able to make my point that numerical parameters in games are at least as important, if not more, than the typical bullet point list of features you can see in any game announcement. If you see an announced Wrath of the Lich King feature like "New tradeskill: inscription", giving you the ability to modify your spells and abilities to do more damage, or crit more, or have added effects like knockback, that sounds very cool. But how important this new inscription profession is going to be depends solely on the numbers: How much do the inscriptions cost? How much more damage or crit or added effect are they giving? By changing the numbers inscriptions could range from totally useless to something everyone must have. There could be interesting tactical choices, or it could be a boring must-grind-for-best-mats affair where one inscription is strictly better than another. The bullet point announcement really tells us nothing. The real effect is in the numbers.