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Mr. Reisberger of Bigpoint recently made the claim, “If selling an advantage ruins the game, you haven’t done the balancing right.” This at first sounds contradictory and downright silly. If you are giving out an advantage, isn’t that inherently disturbing balance? Seems pretty obvious, right? Surprisingly, however, the case can be made that this idea just might be true—at least, to a degree.
I can’t say anything about the rest of that article and Bigpoint’s business philosophy; talk of “buying users,” “cash cows,” and having users “beg” certainly leaves behind the sour taste of exploitation. And statements such as, “In the traditional industry, game designers just write nice stories like they’re making a film,” seem intentionally antagonistic and dismissive for the sake of marketing.
One minute Mr. Reisberger is saying, “We say you can be as creative as you want to, but base it on numbers,” the next he turns around to say, “One of the main dangers of game design is focusing on the numbers... You can’t focus on the numbers.” Hmm...
Anyway, despite all of that, the premise that you can sell advantage without breaking balance isn’t necessarily wrong. And I want to explore this possibility by talking about a game that has nothing to do with Bigpoint: APB Reloaded.
So how does this work? Well, it only works in a PvP game if it actually doesn’t matter if you lose. No, more than that: if there is also a strategic advantage to losing. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to go a little deep into boring expository territory now before I can discuss what I mean by this.
APB uses multiple systems of progression that measure player achievements: roles (or rank), standing, and threat level.
Presumably, threat level is a measurement of player skill: it’s basically a win/loss ratio type of thing where the more missions you win, the higher your threat level goes. This is what the game uses in matchmaking to try to put together players of similar skill.
Roles are gained through frequent usage of different types of weapons or objective activities like breaking into cars or disarming bombs. The higher your role with something is, the better equipment you’ll be able to use for that role. So a rank 5 graffiti artist will be able to buy a spray can that lets you tag faster (a possible mission objective). As for weapons, unlocking ranks in Rifleman or Grenadier, etc.—done by killing opponents with rifles or grenades, respectively—will allow you to equip better mods for those weapons.
Finally, standing is the measurement of your progress with a faction contact. You unlock your ability to use mods through roles, but to equip you have to buy them first through contacts. Gaining standing with a contact will therefore unlock equipment for purchase from that contact, and standing rises with each mission you participate in; you will get standing (and money) even if you lose, though not as much as if you win.
Those are the basics, then. It should be mentioned that, besides the base assault rifle you start with (which is actually pretty good), weapons need to be purchased (with in-game money) and will eventually expire. Which is where paying (with real money) comes in.
With a premium account, players get +30% to money and standing gained from missions and 50% faster cooldown on activated abilities (there’s only one, which is the field supplier—that is, it’s not a big deal; you get to restock or change weapons without visiting a kiosk every 2 minutes instead of 4). Players can also buy (real money) perma-guns that won’t expire, which means earning money through missions becomes less of an issue.
So that’s the competitive advantage we’re going to discuss. The advantage is that paying customers will on average have more gun types than regular ones, which provides more options to play certain situations. Plus, certain perma-guns have unique attributes that you can’t access in the base game (a silenced SMG being an example). That is to say, these really are competitive advantages.
Ok, enough of that. Let’s talk about the actual topic at hand: why these advantages don’t break balance.
Losing to Win
I mentioned that threat level is presumably a measurement of player skill. In reality, though, it’s actually just a measurement of how much a player gives a care about winning. Even if your threat level goes down as a result of a mission, your standing and role ranks will still go up, which means a low threat level player can end up with better mods than a high threat player. More experienced players will, in fact, intentionally lose to keep their threat level down. And, since threat is the attribute used to determine opponents in matchmaking, it’s in the player’s best interest to have as low a threat as possible while leveling up his ranks as much as possible.
Is this simply teamstacking and exploity behavior? Perhaps. But it’s also an internal balancing mechanism specifically designed to give frequent losers a better chance. The idea is to give such losers better equipment so they can face more skilled players more evenly—but it also works to balance against premium players of similar threat level who are also likely to have access to more equipment. And it’s prevented from being too exploity by making threat rise much faster than roles or standing. For skilled players, sometimes it’s simply hard not to win unless they manually exit the game before they are given credit.
This means that win/loss, to the experienced player, means absolutely nothing—at least, not to his agency. It’s still fun to win, to beat an opponent toe to toe, but it’s also not a “waste of time” to lose out at the last second in a 20 minute mission. There are stakes, but the stakes are personal and arise from the player, as opposed those enforced by the game through ludic punishments. What’s important is not winning or losing, but doing things right.
APB Reloaded, then, is a PvP that truly rewards process-orientation—a rare breed indeed. It’s fun and useful to delay objective completion as much as possible in order to extract the full value out of each. More time spent before an objective is completed means that more kills will be accumulated, so more progress to ranks and money will be made per mission, which translates directly into player agency. And, again, it ultimately doesn’t matter to your agency if you win or lose, so losing out to a better equipped player doesn’t feel all that invalidating.
Caveats, as Usual
The effect of all this is that a paid for competitive advantage doesn’t have to be an advantage if the non-paying player doesn’t want it to be. It gives players the freedom to choose which battles matter to them, and that same doesn’t-matter-if-someone-in-PvE-has-better-stuff-than-you feel to a PvP game.
Some caveats, however: low threat/high rank is really only an advantage against players who aren’t aware of or don’t use the same strategy, and nothing keeps premium account players from utilizing the same threat reduction tactics. Plus, if everyone starts doing it, it will probably break. Nevertheless, as mentioned previously, the better situated player (be it through skill or equipment advantage) will at times find it really is hard not to win, especially when joined in groups, so keeping threat down becomes an increasing challenge over time for more advantaged players.
(Unfortunately, as with any game, you will encounter griefers/exploiters that just stand around after initiating a mission to lose on purpose—as opposed to, say, playing the game but letting your opponent complete their objectives [who wants to play a game where nobody is willing to engage?]. Hearsay claims that GamersFirst will punish players that manually exit missions too frequently, but I can’t testify as to whether or not that is accurate.)
It’s also possible that this “balancing” is just an unintentional result of a personal playstyle preference (of not caring about winning) and too dependent on player skill to be credited as such. Still, it’s the fact that the game doesn’t really punish the player for losing that makes this possible in the first place. And this idea of low threat/high rank is encountered often enough in the game and in the forums that it’s quite reasonable to say that this actually is a relatively common strategy.
All of this, however, wouldn’t genuinely be possible without APB’s excellent level design and weapon/mod balancing which, if played right, lets you mitigate those paid for advantages of having more options. If you can spot what looks like a tactically advantageous location which might even the playing field or tilt it towards your favor, you can probably get there. So reading one’s opponent, good bluffing, and proper usage of terrain will often let the player pick his fighting ground and reduce the efficacy of the opponent’s weaponry. More guns is definitely an advantage, but it's still not pay to win.
Ultimately, this kind of delicate balancing of everything from player skill to the radar to level design to gun attributes only comes once in a very occasional while, which makes it hard to say that APB isn’t an exception as opposed to a proof. I suppose that’s the real question, then. Can paid for competitive advantage that doesn't break balance be done? Yes. But is it merely serendipitous? Well... maybe.