Cyclical progression systems

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The challenge: Many service-based games last for years, which necessitates a content treadmill to keep players fed and happy. However, many common progression systems borrow from RPGs and MMOs and involve leveling up in linear fashion. Players grind up to some max cap, at which point the numbers have started to break down. Such games run into power creep, diluted rewards and other balance issues when they belatedly extend the progression for a few thousand hours more.

An alternative is cyclical progression. This is where they player starts growing in power but eventually finds themselves (due to a variety of potential reset mechanisms) coming back around to the start of the progression.

Examples of cyclical progression systems fall in at least a couple main categories…

Hard cycles: The player progresses upward in a roughly linear or exponential fashion. And then they do some form of a hard reset.

  • Seasonal leagues in sports and esports
  • Season passes in various F2P games
  • Permadeath in rogue-likes
  • Ascension systems in idle games

Soft cycles: Instead of a hard reset, cycles blur into one another.

  • The changing of the seasons. The original cyclical progression.
  • Item decay like the weapon breaking in BotW
  • Star Wars Galaxy’s unique crafting resources that then become scarce

Question to tackle at Project Horseshoe
What could the work group tackle? This is a relatively focused topic, but one that I suspect is worth a few hundred million for the right team.

  • What are examples of cyclical progression?
  • What are advantages?
  • What are pitfalls?
  • What are opportunities?
  • Other lenses for looking at this topic?

Other notes
Just some rough notes to kickstart people’s thinking.

1. Ideas from linear progressions
Cyclical progression is contrasted against linear progression (up and to the right!) where players steadily gain in resources and power.

Several key ideas in linear progressions that are also important to cyclical progressions.

  • Shape: Every progression has a shape that determines pacing and feel of the progression. Common shapes for linear progression include exponential and sawtooth.
  • Loss: The key benefit of linear progression is that players never are forced to feel loss. Since losses result in intense negative emotions that result in churn, many games intentionally use never-ending collection and leveling.
  • Content treadmill: The downside of using linear progressions is that they put the team on a content treadmill. Where they must constantly make large amounts of fresh content to extend the linear progression. How might cyclical systems minimize the treadmill?

2. Managing loss aversion in cyclical progressions
Cycles inevitably involve loss. There are some very solid existing systems for managing that loss.

  • Opt-in: If the player makes a conscious choice of their own volition to restart, the pain of loss is less.
  • Gearing: Idle games use gearing systems where you lose your progress on one linear progression to gain progress on a much slower linear progression. A small gear slowly turns a big gear. You transfer the player attention away from the short term loss and towards the long term gain. Rogue-lite systems like Rogue Legacy are a version of this.
  • Obsolescence due to environmental shifts: If items become slowly obsolete, players don’t feel loss as strongly. Winter boots are great in winter, but by the time summer rolls around, you don’t feel the need for them as much.
  • The fading of memory: There’s a natural decay of human attention over time, where a thing that was once important no longer matters so much a few years later. Perhaps if decay is slow enough, no one will notice.
  • Unique scarce resources: Star Wars Galaxy generated unique scarce resources that feed into the crafting system. Since the resources ran out, player would be economically incentivized to switch to more available substitution good. And once that is exhausted, the process repeats. Conceptually this is similar to obscelence, but coopts the opt-in agency of a trade economy.

3. Meditations on ritual and progress
Humans are inherently cyclical creatures. We live in a world with seasons. Our communities involves overlapping cycles of birth, growth, death. Many traditional cultures and religions emphasize cycles and their associated rituals. Are there ways of building cyclical progressions that enhance the gentle living of a player’s life? Or must games always be about climbing the infinite mountain.

Pro-social economics for games

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I hesitate to submit this topic because of my profound ignorance. In the past, this lack of personal experience can lead to a group that BSs for the weekend and then has to do huge amounts of research afterwards in order to salvage some sort of publishable result.

The big question
What are the key connections between: A. Joris Dorman’s internal economies (sources, sinks, pools, transforms, etc) and B. recent social game design discussions around the Trust Spectrum, friendship formation, group formation, social logistics and anti-toxicity? Our group might:

  • Identify and name key concepts of pro-social economics as they apply to games
  • Demonstrate with examples of those concepts
  • Describe how these socio-economic tools help build more robust social game systems (and communities)
  • Describe how they help us avoid current failures.

What is the source of this esoteric topic?
What I’ve found is that as soon as we start designing robust social systems, we jump deep into the realm of systems design. We immediately leave behind any sort of pure social psychology and start layering in an economics backbone.

  • The basic cross-over: We need to manage resources, time, concurrency and other player logistics. What are these resources? How do things like zero-sum, positive sum, currencies (of various sorts), communal resources interact with social physics in our small virtual worlds?
  • The complexities of trade, both in terms of virtual goods and political capital. Clever humans start gaming the system, usually in highly coordinated, adaptive groups. This directly drives dominant social strategies and erodes most utopian ‘good intentions’.
  • Failures of naive capitalism. Such systems inevitably run into the limitations of capitalism: unmitigated corruption, inability to value public goods and weak long term planning.
  • The need for governance: In order to deal with societal failures, you need legislative, executive and judicial systems.

It feels like in order to build rich, robust social systems, a working designer needs to tackle the economic foundations and ramifications of that system.

Where do we start?
There’s conservatively a 150+ years of dense writing on these topics. And as far as I can tell, much of it is incomprehensible rhetoric highly specific to the time and place it was written. So I’d need 2+ decades intense research to be mildly educated on past thought experiments. (Despite my socialist leanings, Marxism and its faux scientific rants-masquerading-as-theory is an absolute blight on search engines. Nothing builds on past discoveries; just a century of wordy folks bickering.)

And let’s also be clear. Most of the *good* work out there involves laboriously constructed but completely untested models. These are proposed with the hope of convincing some government in the next 50-200 years to maybe (pretty please) give it a try. Or they rely on natural experiments (which are mostly commenting on stuff that happened in the hopes of boosting a pet theory)

There’s very little experimental stuff outside what you can do with Mechanical Turk or a tiny captive herd of WEIRD young grad students. And of course very little of this is associated with making games.

Some references
So I’m ignorant. But it feels like I should at least making an attempt to ground this investigation. In that spirit, here’s a horribly incomplete list of reading. If people were to read these before November, it might be better than just sitting around in a circle jawing.

Basic game economies:

Basic social psych for games:

Economics focused reading:

  • A Survey of Economic Theories and Field Evidence on Pro‐Social Behavior: How economists talk about some of these topics.
  • Voting systems: Ultimately voting is ‘just’ an internal economy (vote are resource tokens). Most voting systems are simplified due to their need to be implemented by humans (they are board games) What is the computer video game version of a voting system where we have full access to all the tools of an expert systems designer?
  • Radical markets: Interesting thinking around applying bottoms-up market signals to social systems (instead of relying so much on government intervention.) Hmm…worryingly close to libertarianism, the kissing cousin of objectivism (both philosophies that seem to obstinately ignore everything outside the sociopathically selfish 20ish male. You know: Individuals.)
  • Cybernetics and economic systems: Essentially asking the question what computer systems can do automate command-and-control economic systems in a cost effective fashion. Crazy talk in the 60s when the Soviets were using human computers. But maybe more interesting now, especially since corporations are already doing this internally at a vast scale.  Nothing here is actually surprising to a F2P economy designer.

Questions for those with a passing interest
Questions worth answering before tackling this topic (which feels like a black hole)

  • What else should a designer be reading on this topic? The reference list above is obviously, woefully incomplete. 🙁
  • What is a narrow scope we could tackle at Project Horseshoe in a productive manner?
  • Is it possible to get enough people together who have knowledge of these topics that the weekend would be productive? The best sessions are ones where everyone contributes something to the stone soup. So…who has an economics, political philosophy and/or social psych background? Maybe a small group?

Utopian Capitalism in Games

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A few Horseshoes ago, Crystin Cox sparked this topic by mentioning how income inequality appears inevitably in games with trade. Add trade and 6 months down the road, you’ve got an inherent power dynamic that warps every economic and social system in the game. A subtle issue, admittedly, but we are all familiar with how the naive inclusion of trade results in bots, trade spam, scams, anti-social cabals and sociopaths rising to the top of power structures. In the end, the downsides of trade are so great many teams simply remove it from our games.

Assumption: Trade is worth saving. I believe trade is a powerful motivating for good, especially if you look at it from the lens of Homo Reciprocans where reciprocal economic transactions are non-zero sum. Trade can be a net social positive.

The challenge: We, as game designers, want to make a thriving, pro-social community within our online games. What are the Utopian economics that support such as structure and avoid the downsides of traditional capitalism?

Online games are in a unique place to experiment with new forms of capitalism

  • We don’t have to follow real world rules of scarcity in our games. We’ve got substantial control over the underlying means, methods and physics of production.
  • We can run experiments with large scale populations.
  • We have immense access to data when it comes to understanding even the most minute of interactions.

Issues to tackle:

  • Valuing long term goals and consequences
  • Valuing social bonds between individuals
  • Valuing existing culture and traditions
  • Valuing public goods
  • Valuing equality and equal opportunity
  • Valuing human labor
  • Valuing human dignity and human rights
  • Managing corruption

Personal note: I don’t feel like I know enough about this topic to do a full weekend on it. So I may not. But I wanted to put the idea out there in order to spark ad hoc conversations and find folks that are also interested in the space. What should people interested in this topic be reading?

Ethical Monetization

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We now have at least a decade of design experience building free-to-play game. Mobile F2P is maturing rapidly and Mobile Premium is shrinking. Both PC and console have adopted IAP within their top selling games. It isn’t hyperbole to say the majority of financially successful games would not be so if it weren’t for their IAP monetization designs.

Sometimes these systems do bad things to players. Gambling is a popular topic in the press. At the very least many of the practices can be deeply dehumanizing to players.

For me, I spend about 80% of my time designing and balancing the F2P systems outside (and inside) the core game loop. This is independent of The Man breathing down my neck. It is simply the world we live in.

Given this reality, how do we:
1. Make games that are profitable. Especially given maturing markets and intense competition.
2. AND Make games that are a positive addition to the lives of our players.
3. AND Find the joy in monetization design. It seems like there are some wonderful system design and multiplayer design challenges.

Cozy Online Games

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There’s a growing sub-genre of ‘cozy’ games that focus heavily on tend and befriend-style gameplay. They try to make the player feel comfortable and safe vs stressed and competitive. Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing, Hidden Folk, Neko Atsume and others fit this mold. However few have any focus on multiplayer. I just released one experiment, Beartopia, multiplayer Animal Crossing style game for VR, but it is a topic I’d love to explore more.

– What are cozy multiplayer interactions?
– What does cozy play with strangers look like?
– What sort of business models would work for such a game?

Designing a Friendship Leveling System

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How do we level up player relationships? We work hard at leveling up their skills with careful scaffolding of level difficulty combined with a slow drip of new concepts. We level up their virtual skills and sense of power with RPG style leveling schemes. But can we level up players from strangers to friends that cooperate?

In psychology, there’s numerous studies on how friendships form. They identify factors like similarity, repeated unplanned interactions (logistics) and the economics of reciprocation loops. All those are factors we can directly manipulate with our game designs. We do this already in a folk design fashion with blindly followed MMO conventions. However, we can explicitly design systems that methodically create positive human relationships. What are the exact tools? What elements should a crafted friendship leveling system contain?

This is a group that would require some research ahead of time. Collect some papers. Bring them with you. Let’s not just sit around and bullshit, but start with materials and distill out something real and useful.

Some initial reading and viewing that might be of interest

Spacial or Topological tools for game grammar

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There’s been some great work over the past years when it comes to creating practical abstract tools for game design. Internal economics (Joris Dormans) give us a language for describing and modeling feedback loops and resource sources, sinks and transformations. Interaction loops (Crawford, Koster, myself and many others) give us a diagnostic framework for identifying and fixing issues around players interactions and skills. At smaller timescales, interaction loops let us perform fine surgery on game feel (without falling back on non-transferable word salad like ‘sticky friction’) At larger times scales, scaffolding and progression concept built off internal economies and interaction loops give us tools for understand how players learn and change over time. These are shockingly useful and I find myself applying them in every game I design. Arguably you can’t help but use them because they are fundamental aspects of how games operate.  Exciting times.

Yet. I still would struggle to create a good game entirely from these theories.  I’ve tried. And the one piece that remains missing is topology. When we talk of core mechanics, we often are discussing some spacial, temporal or logistical problem space bound by interesting constraints. This is hinted at in the game grammar tools, but only remains addressed superficially. Raph has talked about this in the past in terms of the math of games, so that’s probably a critical starting point.

So what are spacial or topological tools for game grammar that fit the following constraints?:

  • Predictive models: They make a prediction about how a game system *functions*. They are not merely descriptions like MDA or lists of descriptive categories.
  • General tools: They can be used to fruitfully analyze almost any game. They are not genre specific rules of thumb.
  • Transformative legos: If you break down a game into the atomic elements using a game grammar tool, you should see ways to reconfigure the problem and come up with something new. Joris’s Machinations does this with feedback loops…once you know the tool it becomes trivial to imagine adding new loops or subtle friction to something that was before a mystical black box.
  • Impossible to unsee: Once you’ve understood the tool, you can no longer look at a game without seeing these foundational elements.

Shared avatar games

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Twitch Plays has been moderately popular lately. Many people play a single character in games as divergent as Dark Souls and Pokemon. How far could these shared avatar games be taken?

  • Fun voting systems: Everybody Votes was dumb. What is better?
  • Differentiated roles: Games like Artemis where the ship is the shared avatar.
  • Weirdness: Someone once pitched a super human god character in an MMO played by a team of game masters simultaneously. One for combat, one for researching players from analytics, one for the voice. Able to appear in multiple places at once. Able to switch bodies.

Prototyping metagames and progression systems

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We’ve got lots of tools for iterating rapidly on high frequency loops at the heart of most games. Rapid prototyping and playtesting works great. However, lower frequency loops such as progression systems or metagames are harder to prototype and balance. Often issues only show up when the game is live and while spot changes are easier than ever due to analytics, structural issues may only get 1 or 2 passes over the lifetime of a game. So we typically reduce risk by just copying what we think another successful game is doing.

In the past, progression systems arguably didn’t matter as much. But now, when 30-day retention can make or break your company, these systems are now in the spotlight. How do we not mess them up? How do we innovate? What are the best practices? Are there new tools (like simulation approaches like Machinations) that could help?

Three Cheers for Systems Design: Promoting the dismal science of games

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Many (though not all) game live and die based off their systems design. Yet this critical discipline lingers in the shadows, poorly understood and poorly promoted.  Over the years that I’ve talked about systems design, I’ve found it to be a bit like chatting about advanced math at a loud dinner party.  In almost any setting available to game developers, the conversation quickly shifts to rhetorically charged chatter about art, narrative, politics, business or even programming. There’s a place for that. But…how do we encourage a rich discussion about system design?

  • What is a fruitful place to discuss systems design? How to create a safe space?
  • How do we create a critical mass of serious and knowledgeable practitioners so the conversation isn’t washed away?
  • How do we elevate and promote the practice?
  • What are useful rules of engagement with more rhetoric-focused groups that only weakly understand or appreciate systems design?

Inventing Progression Systems

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Progression systems have seen all sorts of innovation lately. F2P, MMOs, and incremental games (In a Dark Room, Cookie Clicker, Gridland) all do fascinating things to ease the learning curve and keep players engaged long term.

  • Tools we can use to make new progression systems
  • Common and uncommon existing variations (leveling, unlocking, events, drops, etc)
  • Techniques for mixing and matching existing systems (feedback loops, internal economies)
  • Ways of introducing meaningful choice.
  • Common design goals for the progression system and how we might meet them.

When do you kill a game?

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There are multiple stages to a game. Prototyping, Production, Live game.  And in each of these multiple moments, it might be a really good idea for the game to die.  Life is short, resources are limited and there are more games to make in the future.

  • When do you kill a game?  
  • What criteria do you use?  What are tools that make us murder intelligently?
  • What are the emotional costs and benefits?  Parents are always over invested in our sickly children.
  • What are ways of ending a game that open up the maximum opportunities for the future? Is the corpse worth preserving?  Can its essential organs be harvested and used elsewhere?