The Fall of Gunrox

Earlier this year I spent a couple of months playing an online, turn-based, tactical game called Gunrox. It’s a game similar to X-COM, and of a genre that has being ignored by most game developers for many, many years. The gist of Gunrox is this: you create a team of three units, fight other players in online battles, and increase your team’s power by earning experience points (which lead to new abilities) and better weapons. It was great fun.

Anyway, I stopped playing back in last summer, then recently checked the game out again. It had improved a lot in some technical aspects, and an online store had been implemented where people could buy weapons and special abilities with real-world cash.

Unfortunately, the game designers made some poor design decisions in the reward system of the game, creating an inverted game balance graph (a concept I made up just now). I’ll explain what I mean by a game balance graph in a bit, but, game-wise, the designers decided to increase the punishment for losing (and continue to do so), making it harder and harder to be competitive in the game if you lose a couple of rounds. Losing teams earned fewer and fewer experience points, while winning teams were awarded with more and more. So severe is the new system of rewards that, in order to advance in level, losing teams must play two orders of magnitude more games than winning teams!

To address what some of you might be thinking (i.e. “shouldn’t the better players advance faster anyway?”), it should be noted that there are two parallel areas of advancement in the game. The first is the levelling system, where advancement occurs by earning experience points by injuring opponents in battle. The second is the player ranking system, where advancement occurs by winning more games than you lose. It is the first system — the levelling system — which is being screwed up more and more in Gunrox.

The result of level advancement is that your team becomes more powerful. Conversely, it reduces the amount of skill needed to be competitive. In other words, a player with less skill and a higher team level becomes a balanced opponent for a player with more skill and a lower team level. The end result is a broadening of the player base.

The problem with the recent design decisions in Gunrox is that, now, players with less skill are heavily penalized in the area of level advancement, whereas players with more skill are awarded hefty bonuses. Presumably these design decisions were made in order to encourage (or force) players to spend money at their in-game shop to buy weapon upgrades in order to be able to compete. In fact, in one of the most recent patches to the game, a new penalty was introduced for players who enter combat with no weapons (which is normally the result of having lost several games in a row). These unfortunate players who already start at a disadvantage (i.e. no weapons) are now also punished by receiving only a fraction of the experience points they would have earned for injuring opposing units should they be lucky enough to find some weapons during the battle.

This leads me, again, to my concept of the game balance graph. Here is an example of what I believe is an “ideal” game balance graph (for multiplayer, online games):

Ideal Game Balance Graph

In the above graph, the horizontal axis may need some clarification. The “Player Status” is an aggregation of the various ways a player’s in-game “value” can be measured, e.g. level, rank, gold, achievements, etc.

An easy way to understand the graph would be to visualize it as a real-world canyon; think about what happens when you drop balls (i.e. players) into the canyon at various points of the curve. In general, the balls would all roll down to the center of the canyon and stay there. If you drop a ball at the left end of the slope (i.e. place a poorly skilled or a poorly equipped player into the game), it’s easier for it to roll to the right and increase its status. Conversely, if you drop a ball at the right end of the slope (i.e. place a highly skilled or a well equipped player into the game), it’s easier for it to roll to the left and reduce its status.

What this all means is this: players who are down-on-their-luck or who are inexperienced at the game find it easier to improve than someone who is average, but one you hit the “status quo”, it gets more and more challenging to stand out.

Compare this to the graph that represents the design mistakes the Gunrox developers are making:

Bad Game Balance Graph

This graph represents the consequences of punishing players with low “status” (i.e. inexperienced or ill-equipped players) and rewarding players with high “status”. Designing games where the primary goal is “income” rather than “fun”, as in the case of Gunrox, can lead to this kind of graph. Imagine what would happen to a ball dropped anywhere on the slope? It accelerates toward one end or the other, and eventually falls off.

What you’ll want to do in a massively-multiplayer game — especially one you charge money for — is to get people easily hooked and not easily bored.  This results in a pool of players who are all trying to out do one another, which is a hallmark of a successful game.

6 thoughts on “The Fall of Gunrox

  1. You’re not going to get them to see reason on this. They are operating in a completely different (and wrong) way of thinking.

    The right way: Make a great game where people can pay to make the experience even better.

    The Gunrox way: Make a game and intentionally induce problems that people can pay to get around.

    The way they’re forcing the people that are succeeding the least with the game into the decision of “pay or quit” is horrible.

    Gunrox, another entry in the “it could have been so much more” hall of fame.

  2. The reason this whole Gunrox things bothers me so much is that good games of that genre just not being made. Gunrox had so much potential, but the developers just flushed it all down the toilet.

  3. I read the threads you talked about this stuff in on the gunrox forums. It’s amazing how people didn’t understand your graphs. The second graph illustrates it perfectly. If you’re skilled you’ll be so rewarded that things will become meaninglessly easy and if you get in some bad going, you’ll be penalized until things become uselessly hard.

    I think an X-com like MMO game would be the coolest thing ever. You could have a combination of computer controlled instance fights and fighting against another person. It would be awesome. Imagine being the alien player and carrying out a terror raid. All those X-com players within a certain distance would get a warning and if one chooses “go there” you’ll have a fight. If no one picks to go, the computer will bring an AI controlled opponent or just give you success. Countries could swing towards funding X-com more or making pacts with the aliens based on the aggregate success ratio in that particular location. People could choose to relocate their team to different countries that are swinging too far towards the enemy. There’s just so many proven game play methods that could be combined into a great strategy game without having to reinvent the wheel (and then purposefully make it bad so people have to buy stuff in a cash store to fix the game).

    A good example of an MMO with free play and a cash store is Maple Story. While it’s cartoony and a weird side scrolling game, the target market for the cash store are those that are average players. For those struggling, the difficulty of quests/fights doesn’t cause a death spiral. For those kicking butt, there’s always a stronger fight ahead. The cash store is for people who want something they can’t just find. A certain weapon, or a new skin for the character (which don’t expire). They also cross marketed it with a trading card game that has codes for even more stuff you can’t get any other way. You can enjoy the entire game without encountering problems/penalties that require cash purchases to solve. At the local game store, they sell a lot of Maple Story cards to people who just want them for the online content. If it wasn’t a strange side scrolling thing with weird controls and bobble heads abounding, I’d be all over it.

    • I have yet to come across anything like Gunrox. It’s too bad, really. Gunrox could have been an incredible game had it been managed by developers who took game design seriously. Turn-based tactical squad-level games have a large following, too. It’s unfortunate that there are not more developers out there who want to take advantage of this market.

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