I believe that when done correctly, less is more. The actual numbers on an item don't mean anything; only the relative values matter. For example, you could multiply all health, armor, and damage values in Quake by 1000 and the game play wouldn't change. Players would start with 125,000 health and each rocket would do up to 100,000 damage. Strategically nothing has changed. I call this "Pinball Inflation", as pinball games have been adding extra zeros for decades. Some tables now have scores that reach the trillions.
Online RPGs like World of Warcraft have a similar issue, where you can gain levels and deal extra damage, but you fight monsters that have more health. The difficulty of the fights don't change that much. At best you might gain a totally new kind of ability as you gain a level, which gives you another tool at your disposal, and that's the only way the difficulty increases. So for MMOs, the number inflation game is a method of unlocking more content. Players would be daunted if the first time they picked up a class of character, they had 30+ different abilities to choose from. It's better to start them with 3 to 5 and have them gradually learn more.
All that said, it's crucial to realize that gaining levels doesn't actually make your character more powerful, relative to the content you're doing. Sure you might kill goblins in 2 hits instead of 3, but you'll eventually move onto killing stronger goblins. The primary purpose of gaining levels is letting you experience more content in the game while maintaining the same difficulty.
I started the design of Less from a similar standpoint: I wanted Quake 3 to have more content. Reducing the benefit of each item might seem like a strange way to add content, but listen to the logic. A typical game of Quake 3 involves controlling the two to five best items on the map: red and yellow armor, megahealth, and powerups like quad damage and haste. But on the level there are dozens of items that rarely matter, things like boxes of ammo and weapons. You'd think weapons would matter more, but when they respawn every 5 seconds after pickup, pretty much everyone has any weapon they want. And the ammo a weapon provides makes that weapon's associated ammo box irrelevant. There may be 50 items on a level, but only 3 of them matter for a typical game.
The concept of Less was to make all items have a roughly equal play value on average. Then the best players would be those who knew which item was most important in the current situation, and what their opponent needed the most. You could end up with a game where the winner was the person who best controlled a box of rockets and a box of machinegun bullets. And that adds a deeper level of strategy and tactics, thereby adding more gameplay to the game.
You'd be suprised, but it's actually possible to tweak the numbers for each item to make this possible. The game plays like Bizzaro Quake 3, where you start timing the respawn of ammo boxes and small health balls in addition to armor and quad damage. It's definitely the same game on the surface, but the high level strategy of how you play the map is totally different.
While I don't have the source code in front of me, here are some of the changes made, to give you a sense of how dramatically the gameplay shifts.
- Railgun Weapon: Provides 2 slugs (3 seconds) instead of 10 (15 seconds)
- Railgun Slug Box: Provides 5 slugs (7.5 seconds) instead of 10 (15 seconds)
- Lightning Weapon: Provides 24 ammo (1.2 seconds) instead of 100 (5 seconds)
- Lightning Ammo: Provides 40 ammo (2 seconds) instead of 60 (3 seconds)
- Quad Damage: Lasts for 8 seconds instead of 30
- Red Armor: 50 armor instead of 100
- Yellow Armor: 25 armor instead of 50
- Orange Health: 25 health instead of 50
- Yellow Health: 15 health instead of 25