The Designer's Notebook: Preventing the Downward Spiral
May 12, 2010 Page 3 of 3
Suggestion #5: Increase the influence of chance (and other factors).
I mentioned this in my earlier column as a way of limiting the upward growth of positive feedback, and of course it works here too. Backgammon has a weak downward spiral, because pieces that are hit and sent to the bar are not available either to obstruct, or to hit, the other player.
Furthermore, a player with pieces on the bar is not allowed to move any of his other pieces until all the ones on the bar have re-entered the game. This makes it slightly more likely that his opponent will be able to hit him again and send more pieces to the bar (if the first player has been foolish enough to leave himself vulnerable).
However, the role of chance in backgammon is so great that this mechanic doesn't guarantee failure. Having pieces on the bar is definitely a disadvantage, but the probability that more will be sent to the bar specifically as a result of that situation is not very high. A few good die rolls and smart play can easily overcome it.
Here's a more sophisticated example that will be familiar to computer role-players: blood aggro.
For those of you not in the know, "aggro" is gamer jargon for the tendency of monsters to act aggressively; the term is usually preceded by the name of the stimulus that provokes the attack -- sight, sound, the use of magic spells or items, and so on.
Monsters who exhibit blood aggro attack when they detect a character with reduced health nearby (presumably by smelling their blood).
Since the avatar's damaged condition attracts enemies, this tends to result in more damage, and so on in a downward spiral. For this reason, someone named Pteryx wrote to me proposing that blood aggro, at least as implemented in Final Fantasy XI, should be considered a Twinkie Denial Condition.
He argued that blood aggro punishes an inevitable consequence of normal gameplay: health loss. The only way to avoid it is to make sure that you're fully healed at all times, which promotes a very cautious and unheroic approach to playing the game.
However, I don't think the blood aggro mechanic is intrinsically wrong; it's exactly how sharks and other opportunistic predators behave in real life. The feature is just badly managed in Final Fantasy XI.
In that game, according to Pteryx, the monsters that exhibit blood aggro usually appear in mobs, are immune to magic defenses normally used to deal with mobs, and can smell blood a very long way off. All of these factors could have been tuned differently: do away with the mobs, get rid of the immunity, reduce the detection range, or some combination of the three.
You can also establish other factors that override the blood aggro. A smart monster might be lured by the blood, but then see that the injured character is armed to the teeth and accompanied by five big friends, and think better of it.
That's certainly the way creatures like jackals act: the smell of blood causes them to investigate, but their instinct for self-preservation helps to determine whether they actually attack or not.
(That's one of the problems I have with RPG monsters: most of them are suicidally aggressive, and the player has to be ridiculously well-armed to compensate. If the monsters had a few more brains, the players could spend more time exploring and less time buying weapons.)
Monopoly is a well-designed game, but its one big weakness is the downward spiral. From the point at which a player realizes that his position is hopeless, it takes upwards of another hour for him to actually go bankrupt... and that's a rather dull and depressing time.
Downward spirals aren't intrinsically bad if they're balanced properly. Generally speaking, it's better to do without them if you can, but as I've shown, sometimes a game needs to include them. Now you have some suggestions about how to manage them. These aren't commandments; you may find it appropriate to ignore any or all of them. But I think you'll find them helpful.
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