Progress Mechanics

Progress is an important mechanic in computer games. Not only it gives us a reason to play the game, but it also serves as a way of communicating how well we are playing. It can also serve several other purposes.

Reward Spiral

One of the most obvious ways of implementing progress is to simply reward the player with experience points, better equipment, or other resources as they complete fragments of the game. Defeating opponents, completing quests, arriving in a new area, finding hidden treasures, etc. can all be used for this purpose. However, there is a danger in this if the rewards are useful in terms of the gameplay mechanics – they make the game easier.

Making the game easier as the player progresses is bad in single-player games because it often makes the game boring – the initial challenge, when finally overcome, becomes a mindless grind to get more of the rewards, with little actual skill required. To counter that, game designers will often try to offset player progress with stronger monsters and harder levels – so that even though the player character gets more powerful, so do the obstacles. This results in a kind of a power inflation phenomenon. It requires careful balancing, because a small random fluctuation can leave the player facing unrealistic challenges, or catapult them into too easy a game, staying just ahead of the difficulty.

While bad in single-player games, in competitive multi-player games this mechanic is often devastating. Whichever player manages to get even a tiny advantage, through skill or luck, gets catapulted ahead of the other players, and leaves them in the dust with no hope of winning, except maybe for a desperate gamble to get ahead in the initial stages. You can see that in action particularly well in the board game Monopoly, which was actually designed to demonstrate the problem.

Optimal Tactics

When playing a game in which rewards make the game easier, there is no longer a dilemma between sharpening your axe or cutting the tree. When you have to choose between gaining more power or doing something useful, you always have to choose more power. Anybody who diverts even a tiny bit of their gains into something else than immediate growth will fall back on the growth curve behind their opponents and lose the game. Power is the only thing worth fighting for.

The game is won or lost in the initial stages. Your best tactic is to optimize for short-time advantages, keeping yourself alive and as close to the point where the exponential growth begins, in the hope that a random fluctuation will boost you onto the path to victory. Sometimes you might even be able to see the fluctuation coming, or even to arrange it to happen, but there is still an element of randomness here, as some other player might be better positioned to exploit it.

Once your gamble worked and you get catapulted, all the other players will try to latch onto you, surf the same wave as you, or simply shoot you down to give themselves another chance. This is a delicate moment when you have to ruthlessly attack anyone who comes close to you or tries to overtake you. Exponential growth will exaggerate any initial differences fast, so all you have to do is to make sure you are leading for a short time, and afterwards you will be pretty much outside the reach of the other players. You have won the game.

The game could end at this point, but usually it doesn’t. The exponential growth means that the differences between players grow, and it’s pretty much impossible to change their order anymore. The growing powers will now compete for resources, until all are consumed, and then they will start eating each other, with the stronger taking over the weaker. In theory it’s still possible for two weaker powers to combine and overcome a stronger power, but in practice the stronger power can prevent that from happening by defeating one of the weaker ones before they merge. The game turns into a boring grind, desperate struggle to survive as long as possible and push away the inevitable.

If there is no time limit, the game will always end with one player controlling all the resources, standing on the burned husk of the world, with nothing more left to conquer.

Politics

If this looks to you like a criticism of capitalism, it’s probably because there are similar mechanisms at play. Bringing it all down to money (or capital, or power, or whatever single resource) does this. I’m not an economist or a politician, so I’m not going to dwell on this too much. I’m sure you can find such discussions easily elsewhere. I’m going to get back to game design.

Breaking the Loop

You see that this kind of positive feedback loop, where getting more powerful lets you easier become even more powerful is harmful to enjoyment of games. So what can be done to fix this?

The most obvious thing you can do is to separate the “victory points” that you gain for completing elements of the game from the other in-game resources. Make it “fame” or “status” or distance travelled or whatever else that has no direct impact on the ease of playing. Don’t worry, humans have an intrinsic desire to make numbers go up, and they will care about that number even if it doesn’t do anything. In multi-player games you can say that whoever has the most of those points after a certain time, or whoever reaches a certain number first, wins. This works very well in games like Splendor, for example.

But you can do even better. Make the victory points a burden. Make the game harder for the players that have more victory points. There are several interesting ways to do this.

In a card game Dominion, you build your deck as the game progresses. Victory points are scored by buying cards that have victory points on them – but usually those cards don’t do anything else, they just take up space in your deck, and remove the opportunity to play cards that actually bring you advantages. If you start by buying victory cards from the beginning, you will soon have a deck that is almost entirely victory cards and you won’t be able to do anything, soon your treasure cards will become so rare in the mass of victory cards, that you won’t even be able to buy the cheapest victory cards. So instead you have to balance your game carefully between buying the treasures that let you buy better cards, the actions that let you interact with your deck and other players to play better cards, and the actual victory cards. And that balance depends very much on what the other players are doing. This makes the game massively more interesting, and lets all players to play at their own pace according to their own strategy.

Another interesting trick is to leave the power inflation in there, but subtly use it to make the game more complex as it progresses. You can see that for example in the computer game Doom. The weakest weapon in the game needs no ammunition and no aiming – you just come up to the monster and punch it. But as the monsters become more powerful you have to use more powerful weapons, at the cost of complexity. The second least powerful weapon, pistol, requires ammunition and works at a distance, so you can’t just hold down the fire button and run around, you have to conserve your resources and aim. The next weapon, a shotgun, adds a long delay after each shot, so careful aiming becomes even more important. This pattern continues, with every weapon adding some kind of a special challenge – whether it’s especially rare ammunition, rocket explosions that can hurt you, a spin-up delay before the chain gun starts shooting, or long delays before and after each shot. As a result, power inflation prevents the game from becoming easier, and the growing complexity of the stronger weapons makes the game more interesting as it progresses.

Fungibility

We say that something is “fungible”, when it can be easily exchanged into other resources. A lot of things are fungible in the modern world, because gives us more options and frees us from having to plan too much – there are people who live owning just a few things (and a big bank account), because they can always buy whatever they need, and discard it afterwards. But this also means it’s much easier to fall into a power loop.

Social status used to be divorced from money or capital. People scoffed at the “nouveau riche” – people who have become rich recently, but don’t really have high social status. Master artists and craftsmen used to be rather poor and often relied on patronage.

Today things have changed. A rich person can become a famous innovator by just buying a car factory or a space rocket business. Status is decided by the lists of the richest people published by magazines. And money also give you access to the politicians, so you can make sure the rules won’t change. Fungibility has created a positive feedback loop of power.

Can it be avoided? Of course. You just need “victory points” separated from the money. Have goals that can’t be bought: being a good member of your community, having friends, learning skills, performing an art, protecting something irreplaceable, creating something unique. Separate different parts of life, so that being successful in one doesn’t automatically make all the others easier. And most importantly, noblesse oblige – make the game harder for those with more victory points – expect more of them in exchange for the power they wield.