Note: this piece originally appeared on the blog for Gaia Interactive.
[How FarmVille is like weightlifting, and a more elegant way to think about appointment setting mechanics.]
Wither is a familiar mechanic in the toolbox of Facebook game design. In Farmville, a crop costs currency and time to grow. After it is ripe, the player has a window of time within which to harvest it before the plant withers to a worthless husk, losing both the initial investment and the projected gain.
Withering is the strongest form of appointment setting, using both reward and punishment to get the player to return at a particular time. Because of the potential for unpleasantness, some games have chosen to omit it.
Hay Day, for example, a top grossing farming sim for iOS, does not use wither. You plant crops, they take some time to grow, and they will be there whenever you come back. Judging by the successes of Farmville and Hay Day, the wisdom of using wither can vary with market conditions.
Recently I’ve started going to the gym a lot more regularly. It’s not so much because I put on weight during the Halloween - Thanksgiving - Christmas feast season as because I read an article that made a compelling case for when I needed to be in the gym and why.
It explained why my previous regimen wasn’t working and how to fix it. My problem would be familiar to any player of FarmVille: I was waiting too long between sessions and my crops, or in this case muscles, were withering.
In weight training the same loop-- activity; delay; reward; decline-- happens. The reward period is called supercompensation. If you train again during supercompensation your muscles will be able to perform better than before training. Keep doing that and you’ll get stronger. If you don’t train again they’ll return to their pre-training level.
Supercompensation is a biological mechanism that forms one of the constraints of the game of life. Like any rule, it can frustrate a player or be turned to her advantage.
Wither Beyond Farmville
Since I read that article I’ve changed my weightlifting regimen and gotten a lot stronger. That experience has given me an analog for thinking about the experience of wither in games.
One interesting aspect of supercompensation, mentioned briefly on the wikipedia page, is that overtraining--training again during the recovery period--can be done to create even greater effects in the supercompensation period. An example would be doing bicep and back workouts on consecutive days.
Back exercises also recruit the biceps, giving them a harsher training dip--and larger supercompensation effect--than a single workout. In Farmville, the wither time frame was fixe. You weren’t supposed to make game choices about it, you were just supposed to come back (or else!).
In weight training, however, the waves of recovery and supercompensation for the complex of muscles that make a body are always available to further inputs. At the higher levels of dedication that positive interference becomes part of the mental game of power lifting.
You can imagine how a more complicated game than Farmville could likewise incorporate wither/supercompensation as part of gameplay, maintaining the possibility of negative consequences while giving the player a field of options as to how maximize output within those rules.
Supercompensation has made me think about using wither not just as a product question--how aggressive do we want to be about making players come back--but as a game design question--how can players learn, and benefit from learning, this system. An appointment setting game doesn’t have to be merely coercive if the player understands its significance to playing the game.
Supercompensation Beyond the Body
Games don’t need to explicitly invoke the supercompensation/wither cycle to make use of it. Training muscles happens in much the same way as training the mind, as FarmVille’s success with habit formation shows. But while FarmVille trains a subject to return at given intervals, it does not train them in the sense of improvement. I can lift more than I did two months ago but I’ve never gotten any better at FarmVille.
But of course, people can get better at games. It is normal for people to get better at games, and to do so by training with periods of rest in between. That loop is part of what has kept me coming back to Super Hexagon even though it offers neither punishment nor reward for my time. It just provides an occasion for me to get better.
The first 50 times I played I scored under 10 seconds because I was using the controls wrong (tapping instead of holding). A friend scored 30 seconds (!!!) and showed me how to play it right. Then I scored 30 seconds. And 40. And 50. And 60. Now I play on the harder, hardest, and hardester modes--where I fail almost immediately--just to get better at the most challenging segments.
And if there was ever a game that required you to take breaks, Super Hexagon is it. The game is thrillingly unpleasant to look at. Whereas FarmVille forces you to leave and return by exhausting the number of actions you can take, Super Hexagon produces the same effect by exhausting you.
That cycle is a lot more like weightlifting than what FarmVille and its progeny have to offer. And I’ll be going back to the gym and Super Hexagon long after I’ve quit the latest sim du jour.