Power creep. The continual churning out of more powerful content for players to play with in their loadouts as an online game’s development continues. I don’t know anybody who enjoys power creep as a game mechanic. Having your previous investments of time and effort being rendered relatively moot is a disappointing feeling. It’s especially a downer if a player has been on hiatus for long enough their hard-won endgame equipment is now only good for the equivalent of the previous expansion’s midboss. Unfortunately, “games as services” such as MMOs need continual content updates in order to draw new players in as well as keep their current playerbase active, and nothing is going to entice hardcore players more than more challenging content to tackle. That challenge must be complemented with appropriately more powerful rewards, and/or tools to tackle it with. I think power creep is, by the nature of these types of games, a necessary evil for them.
But the fact that it is unavoidable doesn’t mean it can’t be fought against. My biggest gachapon-styled game addiction, Fire Emblem Heroes, is also a victim of that nature. Yet FEH also takes big steps towards reducing the presence of power creep that every other game of its type should learn from.
If you’re not familiar with FEH, let’s start by nitpicking the details of how power creep exists in it. In this game, players form teams of randomly drawn characters. Characters have stats, three types of active Skills (Attack, Support, and Special), a classification of weapon (Sword, Blue Tome, Staff, etc.), a movement type, and three passive Skill slots. Most characters only actually come with two active skills and two passives, but there are exceptions. The creep comes into play by the addition of new characters, who always have new combinations of these variables.
Stats don’t change too much in between different units barring specific conditional modifiers (say, armored units being stronger than cavalry because they’re much slower), and different weapons/movement types come with their own innate strengths and weaknesses. What most new characters bring are brand new skills, both in active and passive flavors. The Killing class of weapons, known for decreasing Special cooldown timers by -1, has been one-up’d by Slaying weapons that have the same effect but with more damage at no extra consequence. Anyone who carries a Killing weapon is now behind the power curve. Others have new skills branching off of previous upgrade lines that straight up do more; compare Lon’qu, who learns Spd +3, to Nephenee, who learns a skill that raises Spd and Atk by +2 instead. While these alternate skills do come with certain trade-offs, the math suggests an overall increase in relative power. Many new skills have non-numerical utilities attached, such as the ability to move nearby units farther distances, so their power increase is more prone to debate, but they still open up powerful new strategies exclusive to units with such skills.
With this in mind, the creep has less to do with the characters themselves as the skills they carry. So, what did Intelligent Systems do about this? Only a month after launch, they updated the game to allow every character to learn almost every skill through Skill Inheritance.
Certain restrictions apply, such as “relic” weapons that are exclusive to their wielders (Such as the Falchion, wielded by series icon Marth Lucina) or compatibility based on weapon/movement type (Ranged units have no business learning Lunge unless they somehow shoot themselves at the enemy), but otherwise, that’s right. Skill Inheritance allows any unit in the game to have access to any other unit’s skills. Unit missing a Special? Not anymore, here’s Sol! Got a crappy B-Slot passive like Push Back? Let’s give you Vantage 3 instead! The biggest contributor of power creep to this game is now a much more even playing field.
There is a catch, in that Inheritance requires having a unit with the skills you want to transfer over. But as soon as you have a character of the prerequisite rarity to learn that skill themselves, it can be taught to any of your already existing characters. Your favorite characters whom you invested loads of time and resources into need not be tossed aside, thanks to the ability to simply inherit new skills instead. Killing weapon characters can easily inherit Slaying weapons, or any other weapon that better suits their needs. Lon’Qu may trade out his Spd +3 for Atk/Spd +2. The floodgates are open to whatever builds you have in mind for your army, be it a serious Arena team or an amusing meme.
While Skill Inheritance is the biggest equalizer, it’s also worth mentioning FEH’s other updates with new power-up mechanics. Sacred Seals, when earned, can be applied to any character at will, giving then one additional passive ability. Ally Support and Summoner Bond allow heroes of your choice to gain a set of stat buffs, under certain conditions. These mechanics make heroes remarkably stronger and thus, as a result, allow the developers to output more difficult endgame content. But nor do they don’t explicitly favor any specific heroes. On the contrary, they make it easier to empower your personal favorite, or create new synergies between allies. In a sense, this is also a method of power creeping upwards throughout the game. But since all characters in the game receive equal power increases from these mechanics, it dodges the drawback of outdating older characters.
Oh, and all characters can have their rarity/star level increased to 5* through Unlock Potential. It’s a minor thing, but many gacha games limit characters’ level caps and rarities on a case-by-case basis, so it’s worth noting the equal footing on potential level cap.
The game’s director, Matsushita, has stated in an interview on Polygon that one of his primary concerns with this game’s continued development is power creep. He wants players’ favorite characters from the game’s launch to remain viable through its many updates. While there’s still a lot of room for improvement (The fandom uses the term “Colorless Hell” for a reason), there are already many systems in place towards this end. The interview also suggests that still more such systems are in the works. I normally would be more cautious before taking this as a guarantee. But given the many updates we’ve seen that empower older units and reward their use, I think we have plenty of reason to take Matsushita’s word as a reliable promise to see his team continue to reduce power creep.
There will, inevitably, always be some characters that are objectively better than some others. That’s an unavoidable truth of developing any game with 100+ characters where each character has some gameplay variables--be it stats, unique abilities, or the like--to give them their own identity beyond aesthetics. Just look at competitive Pokémon tournaments. To Fire Emblem Heroes’ credit, the developers are actively working not only to even the rough playing field, but to reward players for sticking with their favorites through systems such as Hero Merit and Bonds. Power creep may never truly die, but FEH is a good example of how it can be fought against.
Exponential and intentional power creep is a lazy tactic to keep whales whaling away at gacha games, at the expense of the interest of older players. It’s one of the big reasons I lost so much interest in Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. Seeing Fire Emblem Heroes focus on the mitigation of power creep is a relief not only to individual players, but to the playerbase as a whole, because massive community engagement is one of the best things about free-to-play games. I’m glad to see this approach rewarded with FEH’s continued success, and I hope not only to see this game continue to chisel away at this issue, but to see other such games follow its example in some form or another.