Unstable Equilibrium or The Winning Win and the Losing Lose
In games, especially multi-player games, when you are winning you have the advantage. Maybe you have more gold, units, health, whatever, and you are ahead of the opposition, thus you have an easier time staying ahead.
One of the most blatant examples of this is any type of racing game ever, even just time trials.
Let’s say you, Bob, are in competition with Alice to see who can complete a lap the fastest. Alice is able to reach the evenly spread checkpoints at 5.56, 8.34, 12.5 and finishes the lap on 14.01.
If, when you reach the first checkpoint, you are at 5.76, then you are behind. Alice took 2.78 seconds to get from the first point to the second, but you have to do it in 2.58.
Right there, you are at a huge disadvantage. Even if it was a minor blip and you are equal in skill, you have still lost.
The same thing happens with any sort of parallel competition.
In bowling, if you are 20 points behind on the sixth frame, you have to do that much better to even tie, let alone win. Now, it might have been a fluke, and that’s why bowling isn’t just one frame. But, the problem is slightly more complicated when you enter the world of live competition.
Live competition refers to being in a game where your opponents can actually affect you.
If we go back to Bob and Alice, but include 6 other players, you find an interesting effect.
If Alice is ahead enough, she doesn’t need to compete with anybody else, and can generally go faster. Bob, who is in the middle of the pack, has to play defensive to prevent others from overtaking him, also likely trying to deal with red shells and other player made hazards. Thus, Alice can actually go faster than Bob simply because she has less problems that will distract her.
In team based games like Counter Strike or TF2, if a team loses players after a skirmish, they are more likely to lose future conflicts. If Team A loses 2 players in a fight with Team B, then Team B is more likely to win the next conflict simply due to having more bodies.
Games like DOTA2 and LoL have a similar problem. If the Radiant is ahead of the Dire, they can purchase better items. If they have better items, they can make gold faster. If they make gold faster, they can purchase EVEN BETTER items. And so on.
In parallel games like bowling, this problem is inherit in the style of competition. There’s no external way of allowing a player to be able to catch up when they are behind in bowling. But, for live competition, you actually can deal with this in a number of creative ways.
- Being ahead makes you a more appealing target for players to attack
- Being ahead weakens you/being behind strengthens you
- Investment vs immediate payout
Being ahead makes you a more appealing target for players to attack
This is often shown free for all games like Unreal Tournament, Quake and Mario Party. The players with the most resources are most rewarding to kill.
In Unreal Tournament, players who are ahead often will have rocket launchers and sniper rifles, and you get those weapons when you kill them. A freshly re-spawned player likely only has their starting weapon, which you undoubtedly already have.
Mario Party and Monopoly combine this sentiment with the idea of preventing a loss. In these games, the richest person will win, so it behoves you as not-the-richest-person to go after the richest person to prevent them from winning. Also, you can only steal what someone actually has, so spending resources to steal from the poorest player will likely not yield much of anything. You may have an item that allows you to steal 10 coins, but if that player only has 3, you only get 3.
DOTA 2 does something similar in that the gold and experience you get when you get a kill are proportional to the killed player’s overall worth. If they are super duper wealthy, who ever gets the kill gets a huge amount of money, while killing a poor player nets a pittance.
Being ahead weakens you/being behind strengthens you
This involves actually giving more or fewer options to the players based on performance.
Mario Kart is famous for this, as the player in last will get better items (like the Blue Shell that will specifically target the player in the lead). The player in the lead may be… well… in the lead, but they only get a single Mushroom or Green Shell while the others might get Golden Mushrooms, Invincibility Stars or the aforementioned Blue Shells.
There are tons of these effects in Magic the Gathering that will trigger when your opponent is winning or you are low on life. These effects are mainly in black, the colour of paying for power with your life, but the ultimate example is the white card Timely Reinforcements. If you have fewer creatures, you get a bunch of creatures. If you have less health, you get a bunch of health.
Investment vs immediate payout
In DOTA 2, there are many items you can buy, some powerful and some not. The Vanguard, for example, provides a huge boost to health, hp regeneration and can block large amounts of damage. It can also be built into the very powerful Crimson Guard, which can provide very powerful blocking abilities to your whole team. But, it takes a lot of investment to reach that part. The Poor Man’s Shield, on the other hand, is cheaper on the whole and can provide more bang for your buck, with blocking and increased damage. However, there’s no way it can improve, so it will outgrow it’s usefulness really fast.
That is a simple example, Street Fighter is slightly more complex.
Street Fighter is a game where you wail on the opponent until they fall down, using normal punching, kicking and limb stretching, or you can use special moves like fireballs and teleportation. Attacking, being attacked and fighting in general gives “meter” which can be spent to power up special attacks (creating a larger/more damaging fireball) or perform “super moves” which can deal huge amounts of often unblockable damage. The powered up special attacks can be very useful in certain situations, but do not do as much damage as a super move would. Some especially damaging super moves require almost an entire match’s worth of meter to be used, and then you can’t use any other super moves or use your powered up special moves. Deciding which one to use can be important strategy that the player must always be aware of.
As you can see, slippery slopes are almost a defining factor of any kind of competition, whether on the racing circuit or the circuit board, and a designer has to be aware of that when designing their game.
Not enough help can lead to situations where high level play is decided mere minutes after the game has started. Too much help can lead to a situation where the “strongest” position is at the back of the pack.