|The Fourteenth Annual Game Design Think Tank
Project Horseshoe 2019
Round Again We Go:
Applications of Cyclical Progression
|Participants: A.K.A. "Sea Pigs"|
|Nate Heiss, PopCap||Dan Tanguay, Vicarious Visions|
|Yuri Bialoskursky, PerBlue Games||Matthew Moore, Microsoft|
|Squirrel Eiserloh, Rodents of Unusual Size||Joel Gonzales, Firaxis|
|Robert Djordjevich, Undead Labs||Josh Lee, Google|
|John Welch, Making Fun|
|With contributions from Dan Cook, Lisa Takehana, Ian Schreiber, and Ray Holmes|
|Facilitator: Linda Law, Project Horseshoe||download the PDF|
Brief statement of the problem(s) on which the group worked
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. For example, 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.
A brief statement of the group’s solutions to those problems
An alternative is cyclical progression. Players progress but eventually finds themselves (due to a variety of potential reset mechanisms) coming back to the start of the progression. Cyclical progression is not a new concept, but is underleveraged as a solution. This paper delves into the problems space of linear progression, how cyclical progression can be applied to solve those problems, and the new problem spaces that cyclical progression systems face.
Round Again We Go!
Many service-based games last for years and typically require a content treadmill to keep players fed and happy. Additionally, many of these games borrow systems from RPGs and MMOs that employ Linear Progression Game System (LPGS), such as leveling up. In order to extend the service, developers commonly add more content to the end of these linear progressions. However, this method can often break down over time due to costs, power creep, and/or economic issues. What's worse is that all of this effort and content is only experienced for a brief moment by players before they progress past it. There must be a better way.
Cyclical Progression Game Systems (CPGS) use loops to keep experiences fresh and perpetual. We believe that using CPGS can lead to more sustainable development and play in both RPGs and games that borrow from them. It also provides benefits to other areas like long term player acquisition, engagement, re-activation, and community building/support.
Questions That This Report Tackles
What Are Cyclical Progression Game Systems?
Cyclical Progression Game Systems are loops which players experience that--when they end--leave players in a state to start the loop anew. In this fashion, the progression can be played perpetually and without end.
These progressions share many commonalities with core loops in game. For the purposes of this document, core loops happen at a micro scale, while cyclical progression loops happen at a macro scale. When loops are applied at the macro scale, games have the ability to stay interesting and novel for a longer time, especially when paired with linear progressions. This document will explore this phenomena more.
Examples of Core Loops:
Examples of Cyclical Progressions:
Classifying Cyclical Progressions
Combining common progression types with the unique qualities of cyclical progressions builds a foundation for a genre-agnostic taxonomy. This provides a valuable reference for the remainder of the document.
Summary of Progression Types
This 2014 report on progression systems is a useful reference on how progression systems work; it delves a bit into cyclical progressions, mostly focusing on linear arcs and loops.
Listed below are many common ways that developers use progression systems.
Unique Cyclical Progression Qualities
All cyclical progressions share qualities with linear progressions. However, they also have qualities unique to loops. How all of these qualities interact directly influence how players experience the cyclical progression (e.g., how much of a sense of loss players feel from the reset).
How does the shape of the progression trend? While linear progressions feature a number of shapes (e.g., sawtooth, exponential), they primarily have an upward slope. Cyclical progressions can have more variety.
What causes the cyclical progression to reset?
How does the cycle reset? The magnitude of the reset informs the reset behavior.
Number of Cycles
How many times can the progression effectively cycle?
Cyclical Progression Examples
Linear Problems and Cyclical Solutions
Linear progressions in RPGs and MMOs have a number of well-documented issues. While Cyclical Progressions aren’t a panacea, they should be one of the first tools a developer considers when trying to solve the issues cataloged below.
If players finish playing all the content in a game, they are done with that game. Often players become attached to a single type of content within the game and call it quits when that content is complete.
Cyclical Solution: Looping Content
Allow players to play through a game’s content over and over, starting new each time. Players can re-immerse themselves, so long as the content has enough changes to make the new playthrough feel novel. This can be achieved through numerous approaches, including the selection of a new character class, gaining prestige for a subsequent playthrough, or tackling new goals that require mastery of the content previously played.
The game tomorrow feels too similar to the game today. Mastery is achieved and tedium sets in.
Cyclical Solution: Randomized Starting Parameters
Introduce randomized starting game parameters for each cycle. There should be enough so that each cycle creates a new, emergent set of challenges at the intersections of those randomized parameters. A good example of this is the randomized set-up variables of a map, a market, or available powers in a board game.
Content (such as areas, activities, enemies, gear, etc.) gets orphaned once players grow past it. This could be due to power creep making old gear into junk, or just the natural progression of the game offering different challenges requiring new solutions. The content is no longer relevant, especially if there’s a more rewarding alternative, so players don’t return to it.
Cyclical Solution: Remixing
Remix content in each cycle, so that only a portion of the whole appears at once. This keeps old content in circulation, and it will get more use and stay fresher as the context around it shifts each cycle.
Adding new content can create anger over “moving the goalposts.” This could take the form of additional collectibles in a set, a raised level cap, or the return of the final boss. Players expect that when they complete a thing, it stays complete. Completion is a motivation and reward for many, and invalidating completion feels bad and akin to losing progress.
Cyclical Solution: Gearing
Imagine a cyclical progression as a gear that can mesh with other progressions’ gears. One form of gearing that many games use is similar to rack and pinion gears: players create and reset progress on a cyclical progression (pinion gear) to gain progress on a longer-term linear progression (rack). So instead of adding more runway at the end of a completed linear progression, use rack and pinion gearing to create new parallel linear paths to progress on and explore as the player cycles through the game. Add new gears to breathe new life into the old cycles without destroying the sense of completion.
Player Cohort Inequality
Due to different amounts of time spent playing, players can end up in a “chasm of doom” between each other, such that they can’t interact in a meaningful or desirable way. This is common in MMO games where the bulk of players are in the early levels or at endgame content, and no one can be found in-between. This disconnects new and veteran players and hurts player concurrency, making multiplayer games feel more empty than they are.
Cyclical Solution: Realtime Resets
Have all players cycle through the same content during the same time period. Reset power levels such that new and elder players can play together if they choose. Create events to re-engage players and get them excited for what the new cycle has to offer. This way all the players are playing the same general content at the same time, and in the same place.
Players want to hold on to inventory forever, regardless of whether it’s consumable or durable. Players might think it could come in handy later, have social capital, or could be part of a set they can complete later. This can create anxiety for players who constantly run up against inventory limits.
Cyclical Solution: Consistent Resets
Having players start over has many benefits, and an empty inventory is one of them. Players can begin acquiring once more, finding new and interesting combinations of goods each time. Also, knowing that the inventory will reset makes it more likely that players use consumable items more frequently. Use it or lose it!
Game Is Daunting
Games seem to be in a perpetual competition to be as vast as possible. While this can result in some truly incredible worlds, it can also be extremely daunting for a busy adult to fit into their life. Players now have to ask themselves, “Can I commit to 100 hours of gameplay?” Vast game can almost feel like a chore when the road is laid out that far in front of the player. Despair can set in when players progress far enough into the game to learn how far they really have to go. Information overload can also have this effect.
Cyclical Solution: Achievable Cycles
Keep cycles short enough to feel achievable. Players can see the horizon and feel like they can get there with the time they have. Yes, they know there will be another new cycle waiting for them afterwards that will introduce new mechanics and content, but they can decide to keep going or stop at that point, so the experience feels less stressful as a whole.
Games are often watched on stream now, and it is an important part of a game’s marketing. Linear games can often be watched like a movie, and because of that, makes playing those games less valuable. Furthermore, once a streamer finishes a linear game, they will stop streaming it, and the organic marketing stream ends.
Cyclical Solution: Remixing & Emergence
By having remixed and/or random elements collide in each cycle, any emerging gameplay can feel unique to players. This means that a streamer’s playthrough will be interesting, and a player’s personal playthrough will also be interesting in different ways. As a bonus, sweet emergent moments have a greater share-worthiness, making them awesome for streaming.
Expensive to Produce
Games are expensive to make. Linear progression content (e.g., narratives, aesthetics, assets) is often used only once per player experience, requiring developers to commit massive resources to generating each hour of gameplay.
Cyclical Solution: Remixing & Procedural Generation
Make assets such that they can be remixed by developers or by procedural generation systems. This results in a variety of emergent combinations, adding novelty, but also reusing content over and over in new and interesting ways. It stretches the value of every dollar spent on quality assets.
Pitfalls Of Cyclical Progression
Cyclical progressions have a lot of benefits, but they also have pitfalls. This section highlights the key pitfalls and how developers can avoid or mitigate them.
Loss of Progress
The greatest pitfall of cyclical progression is a loss of progress. After all, progress is one of the great motivators in gaming and in life, and a cyclical progression by its very nature will take that away. All players who place a high degree of value on the progress that they make within a given cycle may never want to experience the loss of that progress. There are two types of loss to consider:
Loss of Game Progress
This can include accomplishment and discovery progressions. For example, players can lose accomplishment progression in a roguelike each time they die. This is the more commonly identified type of progression loss and is potentially easier for players to accept. Here are some basic methods for addressing that loss:
Loss of Player Progress
This can include mastery and identity progressions. For example, players can lose mastery if they no longer have access to a certain tactic/strategy. They can lose identity progression if they no longer have access to certain cosmetics that allow them to express themselves. This type of loss is potentially more challenging for players to accept because it directly impacts their sense of competence and autonomy.
Most traditional RPGs have featured linear progressions. With the rise of games as a service, however, cyclical progressions are becoming more commonplace. Yet players still have an unpleasant reactions to cyclical progressions due to misaligned expectations.
The primary expectations that must be set (and reinforced) are that the progression is indeed cyclical and how its mechanics work (i.e. what gets reset). This is especially important if the progression in question is one that has traditionally been linear, such as Power Progression. Moreover, expectation management is what makes it difficult to introduce cyclical progressions post-launch.
Additionally, players will experience dissonance in a cyclical progression if the theme/metaphor for the progression does not contextualize the reset. Having a strong context for the reset makes it easier for players to accept that reset as part of the game. The best examples of games that do this well feature verisimilitude (i.e., cycles and resets that are woven directly into the plot, lore, and world design).
Endless Off-Ramps from Infinite Highways
The end of each cyclical progression is a potential off-ramp for players to churn, and in a successful game, players will face this moment many times. It is a critical moment to manage well.
Here are a few ways to stay in the sweet spot, where players are feeling novelty in each new cycle, and are curious to see what unfolds:
Never Ending Narrative?
Cyclical progressions can theoretically last forever. However, many (if not most) popular stories have a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. Given that, how do we create narratives that never end? And how can we do it in a sustainable way? This is a topic with no easy answers that requires its own separate paper. Many games forgo sustainability and build cyclical narratives around classic storytelling techniques, budget be damned. However, there are numerous other games that feature clever cyclical narratives that may point a way forward:
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
As noted before, cyclical progressions reset based on a number of triggers, including gametime and realtime. In particular, realtime cyclical progressions force player resets, and this can cause FOMO in certain situations:
While FOMO can compel players in small doses, it can demotivate players and cause them to resent the game in large, long-term doses. A player should never say, “I felt so much better after I quit the game!” Here are some basic ways to avoid creating FOMO:
Untapped Cyclical Progression Tactics
This section shines a light on new and existing tactics that have untapped potential in cyclical progressions. Each tactic features both a high-level description and examples of how it could be deployed.
Loop Chaining ⛓
Addresses: Loss of Game Progress, Endless Off-Ramps
As noted in the previous section, cyclical progressions can overlap so that when one ends, players are in the middle of another cycle that motivates them to continue into the new cycle. (Loot chase behavior is a good example.) Alternately, the end of one cycle can set the stage for the next one, giving players something to look forward to and making the end of a cycle exciting. Consider the following methods when creating loops:
Procedural Narratives 📺
Addresses: Player Expectations, Loss of Game Progress, Endless Off-Ramps, Never Ending Narrative
Narrative in a cyclical progression can take inspiration from procedural television (e.g., sitcoms, detective stories). Each new cycle is a self-contained story arc with low persistence from one arc to the next. Narratives then become more “slice of life” or “villain of the week,” an approach that has sustained untold popular television programs. A procedural approach also has the benefit of allowing players to participate in a cycle without needing all the context of the cycles before it. Here are some additional considerations:
Bevel Gearing ⟂
Addresses: Player Expectations, Loss of Game Progress, Loss of Player Progress
As noted before, most games that employ gearing use a cyclical progression to drive a linear one (i.e., rack and pinion gears). However, a cyclical progression can also drive an orthogonal progression, much like bevel gears. A simple version of this is how a weekly Challenge cycle also drives a Mutator cycle for those same Challenges. When considering bevel gearing:
Addresses: Inventory Hoarding, Cohort Inequality
RPGs tend to promote collecting a sizable number of durable goods (i.e., items, abilities, powers, cards). Power creep can incentivize players to divest themselves of goods, but are there other ways of doing that? Consider the following approaches to promoting divestment:
Cyclical Goods ⏰
Addresses: Inventory Hoarding, Expensive to Produce
Consumables and Item Decay are a very common method for addressing hoarding and creating cyclical progression in item gathering. Using cyclical goods creates a larger game around gathering and using items that circumvents inventory issues, without completely resetting inventory. Here are some example methods:
Finite Resource Economies 🔒
Addresses: Loss of Game Progress, Loss of Player Progress
Economies with a finite number of resources lend themselves to cyclical progressions, as they allow players to easily grasp the totality of resources and re-allocate them if needed. Here are some examples to consider:
Cyclical Balance Tweaks 📈
Addresses: Content Exhaustion, Obsolete Content, Tedium
When managing a metagame, developers tweak the gameplay balance each cycle based on how players play. At the end of a cycle, they introduce new goods (i.e., items, abilities, powers, cards) or modify existing ones to incentivize players to try new strategies/tactics or to deter degenerative play. This could happen more dynamically during a cycle, giving players a more active role in balancing the game and creating emergent situations. Here are some examples to consider:
Social Pyramids 🔺
Addresses: Cohort Inequality, Endless Off-Ramps, FOMO
Adding a social dimension to cyclical progressions has great potential. Players can share their rewards and/or knowledge from their current cycle, priming the start of the next cycle for themselves and others. The players they assist benefit from their rewards and/or knowledge; the assisted players can in turn pay it forward to new players. Here are some examples to consider:
Memorializing Play 😭
Mitigates: Player Expectations, Loss of Game Progress, Loss of Player Progress, Never Ending Narrative
Games can look to the process of grieving to find metaphors for ending cycles, as well as the process of remembrance for carrying forward into new cycles. It can also look to the myths and stories built around death to assist with this. However, death is not the only form of loss; loss can take the form of graduations, retirements, molting, metamorphosis, and other transitions to a new stage of life. Even though some games do this well, there’s more potential to discover. Here are some considerations:
A Fresh Start 🥀
Addresses: Loss of Game Progress, Player Expectations
Building off the idea of Item Decay, an upward sloping progression (e.g., character progression) that contains gameplay benefits could also accrue detriments. A cyclical gameplay progression can wipe away those detriments, providing to players a sense of relief that offsets feelings of loss. A basic example of this is accumulating Curses in a card deck that are removed at the end of a run. Here are some examples to consider:
Here are actionable best practices to keep in mind when implementing cyclical progressions.
Links / Resources
Copyright 2000-2020, Fat Labs, Inc., ALL RIGHTS RESERVED