The dangers of positive feedback
When I sit around with my friends to play a board game, the evening usually goes something like this. We put on some music, break out the food and drinks and set up the game. Somebody says that he doesn’t remember all the rules, so I read parts of the manual to everyone. And then we start playing.
At first everybody is having fun, but after about thirty minutes, someone gets bored waiting for her turn. As time passes, this problem increases. More people get bored and some of them even lose interest in the game all together. During the last fifteen minutes of play only two people are paying any attention to the game at all. Those two players are the only two who stand a chance at winning. All the others have already lost and they know it; they have known it for quite a while already.
The problem here is positive feedback and it’s not limited to board games. During the game, one of the players gets a slight edge over the others. By exploiting that edge, she opens up a gap and she uses that gap to get in an even better position for winning the game. Even though the game still goes on for quite a while, it’s already fairly certain she’s going to win.
Positive feedback in games occurs when winners are rewarded and losers are punished. Being in the lead makes it easy to stay in the lead, being good makes it easier to become better. And those who follow have no chance of catching up. This can quickly ruin a game, at least for those that are left behind.
As a game designer, you can prevent this problem. What you want to achieve is to give the leader a slight edge, but to make sure she knows the heat is still on her. The players who are doing badly now, should have the feeling that they can still catch up.
Positive feedback in current games
Positive feedback is a problem that can creep up in any game. Sometimes you don’t even realise your game is suffering from it until you start playtesting, so you need to keep a special eye on it.
Personally, I think there are too many games on the market today that suffer from positive feedback. Maybe it isn’t as much of a problem in the market of hardcore gamers. ‘If your not good enough to win this game, you should either take up the challenge and improve or you should quit as a loser.’
That’s not the attitude of your average casual gamer, however. It’s not winning or losing that matters, it’s the experience of the play itself. Before I give you some tips on preventing positive feedback, I’ll give you some examples of positive feedback I regularly encounter in current games.
Racing games – Many racing games reward the winner of a race by letting him start the next race from pole position. Consequently, when you came in last in the previous race, you will have to start this race from the back of the field. The racer in front has a lot more chance of winning the race this time too than the one who has to pass every single opponent.
Strategy games – Your army against mine. When we start, our armies are equally matched. Then comes the first battle and you beat me. We both suffered casualties, but you come out just a bit stronger, so when we next meet you have a slight advantage. You win the battle again and your advantage gets bigger. And so on. You probably love this, because you are winning the war, but halfway through the game, I’m not having fun anymore.
Role-playing games – Each time you beat an opponent, you gain skill points. This makes it easier to beat the next opponent and this gives you even more skill points. After a while, that opponent you fought so hard to get your first skill points is no challenge for you anymore. You’re kicking his butt just because you can, and not because you need the skill points; you are already invincible.
Preventing positive feedback
It can be quite tricky to prevent positive feedback. You often need a solution that feels very counter-intuitive, because it seems like you are punishing the winner. However, preventing positive feedback is a necessary step if you want to create a well-balanced game that is fun through-out.
Below are some pointers on how to prevent positive feedback. This list is not complete, nor will any of these tips work every time. Just find the one that works best for your situation.
Break up the game into levels – If you break up your game into levels, you can rebalance each level seperately. You can make opponents more powerful to keep the player challenged. If your game involves two or more players, you can level the playing field again or even give the loser from last round a slight advantage.
Reverse the order – Picking up where the previous tip left off, you can reverse the order from the previous round. In a racing game, for example, you can determine the order in which racers start a race by reversing the order in which they finished the previous race. If a player is really good, she should be able to win from the back of the field, too. If not, she can try again next race from a better starting position.
Make every reward a double-edged sword – It’s often a good idea to reward a player for winning, but that doesn’t mean the reward can’t have a downside, too. If you give the player a better gun, make the gun really heavy so he’ll walk more slowly. If you give the player better resources, make those resources harder to manage.
Punish a surplus – You can cap the amount of a resource a player can have: no more than 50 units of wood. It’s even nicer if you can do without the artificial limit and make it such that having more than 50 units of wood doesn’t help anymore, because you just can’t do anything with the surplus. If you can pull it off, the nicest solution is to punish a surplus, for example: having too much money will make you a likely target for thiefs and they do serious harm to your business. This way the player must find the right balance herself.
Don’t punish the loser – Punishing a player for losing a game will probably only make it harder for him to win the next time.
Don’t forget the rewards
Dealing with positive feedback is pretty much a balancing act. If your player wins, you should reward her, just don’t reward her so much that it takes all the fun out of the game. On the other hand, don’t go overboard trying to prevent positive feedback either. A player should never feel she is being punished for winning. （source:casualgamedesign）