Would you rather play an MMORPG with no statistics caps and items overflowing with bonuses or one with finite, even small, caps and item bonuses being rare?
It is actually an important question to consider, both as a player and a designer. First, let’s tackle the player side…
As a player of the first scenario, your character has stats (strength, intellect, stamina, etc.) that start low and have no limit. As you progress through the game you’ll casually pick up items that boost stats, giving you more strength or stamina or intellect or whatever, or a combination subset of them, or all your stats. Then as you reach the higher levels of the game, the items become litered with stat bonuses, and your character sheet is lined with three digit numbers. This is actually the model most games on the market currently present to players. At level 5 you’ll get a “Shard Sword of Quickness” that does decent damage and adds a small bonus to your dexterity. By level 60 you’re drooling for “Mangar’s Mystical Maul of Mighty Mashing” that practically kills anything under level 40 in a single blow, adds more than 40 points to every stat, makes your hands glow blue, and occasionally explodes fire on your target for more damage.
In the second scenario, we’ll take the age-old Dungeons & Dragons model. Stat cap of 25, and anything over 18 is rare and exceptional. Your fighter is a tough guy with a 17 strength, and throughout most of his life from levels 1 to 60 he uses items of varying quality, Rusty Blades to Polished Rapiers to Adamantine Swords of Supreme Quality, each one better than the last, doing more damage, needing less repair, and other more esoteric qualities like the graphics. Then, at level 60, you and a group of friends fell a dark lord in a castle and you are rewarded with a Blade of Might that gives you a two point bonus to your strength when you wield it, pushing your strength to 19.
From the design standpoint… Scenario one leads to the marginalization of statistics. If you are going to be handing out stat bonuses like candy on Halloween, and characters are going to be allowed to climb from a starting point under 20 and finish up somewhere above 200 or 500 or wherever, individual point bonuses have to be tiny, almost meaningless, so that getting an item with 4 strength on it does very little, but getting one with 40 strength on it is noticable.
The second scenario, well, that can lead to disappointed players. Sure, going from a 17 strength to a 19 strength means the player goes from being a well toned human to a small giant when it comes to damage bonus and being able to kick down doors and lift open the lids of stone crypts, but that system, while possibly easier to manage and balance for gameplay, means that bonuses are extremely rare, and many players may never see one at all.
Personally, I’m actually sick to death of the dominant system on the market. I’d prefer to try a game with a more limited stat system where every point means something. So, what system do you prefer?