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):
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:
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.