The Designer's Notebook: Preventing the Downward Spiral
May 12, 2010 Page 2 of 3
Suggestion #2: Include a repair mechanism.
Suppose that you really want to include a downward spiral for the sake of realism, but you don't want it to ruin the game. Consider a serious game about famine. Hungry people have little energy to tend their crops or their herd animals, so they don't get as much food from them, which makes them even more weak and hungry, and so on.
Eventually a starving person becomes so weak he cannot feed himself even if food is available, and so dies. In a serious game, you would probably want to include this downward spiral as a teaching tool.
You can slow down a downward spiral -- and perhaps even reverse it -- by building in a repair mechanism that tends to restore what the player has lost. In the famine game, this might be the effect of food aid -- if you give enough food to people to restore their health, then they can start producing food for themselves again.
(If you want to get politically controversial, you can also build in the "dependency culture" and create a mechanism whereby aid recipients decide that it's in their better interests to eat free food than to work to grow their own.)
Repair mechanisms work for conflict games too. In simulations of large fighting ships (or space ships), damage usually does impair fighting ability -- guns get knocked out, engines damaged, and so forth. By including a damage control facility that makes running repairs during combat, you can slow or reverse the downward spiral.
In Monopoly, the Go square works as a weak repair mechanism. The player is guaranteed to get $200 every time she passes Go, no matter what else happens. However, in the later stages of the game $200 is so little that it doesn't really prevent the downward spiral.
Suggestion #3: Define victory in other terms.
This is identical to the same item in my earlier column, but the point bears repeating. Even in a combat game, you don't have to define victory in terms of damage done to the enemy, or loss in terms of damage done to the player. If victory depends on a quantity or mechanic that is outside the feedback loop, then the feedback loop doesn't matter so much.
Losing a piece in chess creates a (small) downward spiral for the player who loses it -- she doesn't have that piece anymore and so is at a disadvantage. However, victory in chess is not defined in terms of the number of pieces remaining on the board. It can even be good to lose a piece at times, for strategic reasons.
In a serious car racing game (not Mario Kart!), if the player damages his car, he suffers a performance penalty. This is entirely appropriate. But victory is defined by crossing the finish line first, regardless of the state of the car.
A car can be terribly damaged and still win. This is a basic difference between race games and conflict games -- in race games, damage impairs performance, but there is no feedback loop that affects the victory condition.
Vehicle damage in a racing game doesn't actually create a downward spiral to failure anyway, because it doesn't tend to perpetuate itself. It impairs the car's efficiency, but it doesn't increase the likelihood that the car will be damaged further. It's a fixed disadvantage that doesn't get worse as long as the driver doesn't hit something else.
Suggestion #4: Avoid zero-sum games.
In a racing game, vehicle damage confers a disadvantage to the player, but it doesn't confer a direct advantage to his opponents. It's not like handing over your properties to another player in Monopoly. It makes the player's car slow down, but it doesn't make the other cars faster.
This is because racing is not a zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, no resource actually leaves the game: every player's loss is some other player's gain. But the car damage takes something out of the game entirely -- aerodynamic efficiency -- rather than giving it to another player.
To put the suggestion another way, when your mechanics take valuable resources away from one player, don't give them to another player.
(Monopoly isn't a zero-sum game overall, but once the properties have been distributed among the players, they are zero-sum. They never go back to the bank. They must always belong to one player or another.)
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