Tobold's Blog
Monday, November 26, 2018
Cannibalistic games

If you imagine a perfectly fair and balanced PvP game with perfect matchmaking, the result would be something looking like World Chess Championship, in which every game is a draw; or, if the rules make draws less or not possible, every player would have a perfect 50:50 win:loss ratio. That is a bit of a problem for game developers: While some of them arrive at near perfect 50:50 win:loss ratio for most players (e.g. World of Tanks), this often results in some players being unhappy about losing half the time. Other games got around the problem by faking PvP, making players play against an AI using the name tag and the armies of an existing, but unaware player. If you don't even know that an AI with your name lost to another player, that loss is not a problem to you. But then a good AI is expensive and hard to program, and real PvP is much cheaper. So I see more and more games being based on cannibalism.

All players are not created equal. Especially not in Free2Play games, where there are the free riders and the paying customers. So from a game company point of view it makes perfect sense to exploit the free players as a resource for their paying customers. "If you aren't the customer, you are the product / content". So what we get is pure Pay2Win: The paying customers pay to effectively achieve a win:loss of above 50:50, while the free players end up losing a lot more than half of their games. It is simple math, you *must* have frequent losers if you want to have frequent winners.

The problem of that model is one of longevity. While winning only half of the time may bother some people, losing most of the time bothers many people. You can keep a stream of naive losers via advertising, but that only works so long. We live in a world of an oversupply in games, and if you keep losing it's easy to just quit and play something else. The cannibalistic model eats its new players until there are none left. And it doesn't stop there; the same game mechanics than leave the players who spent only a little in the role of the permanent losers. Until they quit the game, and the next layer of customers finds itself in that bottom spot. Ultimately the game eats itself, because it drives people to quit. Thus more and more we see online PvP games shutting down after a year or two.

I don't think the "free players as content model" is economically viable in the long term. If a game isn't fun to play for free, the conversion of a free player to a paying customer will never happen. I prefer the perfect 50:50 win:loss ratio, or playing against an AI.

If you make sure that players always get something they value even when they lose then they won't be too bothered about losing more than they win. So long as the winners gets more for winning than the losers get for losing, they won't be bothered either. Given that all anyone has to give away is pixels that cost nothing other than the salary of people you're employing to create them, coming up with enough imaginary stuff that people can be convinced they want shouldn't be a problem.
In a lot of 'Match-3 combat' games (such as Marvel Puzzle Quest or Gems Of War) the developers have no interest in developing good AIs. The AI plays your defence matches using your team, and plays them quite badly. But you don't see that except a message that you lost. The other side of the coin is that you can win lots of games against stronger teams than yours because you play better, and know the quirks of the AI.

(In MPQ, losing in this way will knock you down a few points in a tournament. In GoW I don't think it ever really costs you anything.)

As well as winning most of your games, this system means you never suffer from lag, slow-play or rage-quits.

I don't know of any card games where this system is used. It does seem like it has potential.
I agree that if free players would always be matched to paying customers, they would be frustrated. But good games are designed to make sure they stay around.

I have a good counter-example to give: Hearthstone. I'm not sure it is still thriving, but it is a 5 year old-ish game.

It's too early to say anything about MTG: Arena though. Time will tell.

Create a game style with asymmetrical win conditions. The first example that comes to my head is Hearthstone. 50% of people are playing to win, 25% are trying to pull off crazy combos and meme decks, and 25% are playing sub-standard decks to rush through a "Play X cards" daily quest.
The problem isn't losing half of the time. The problem is losing to clearly inferior players or not being rewarded for being better.

In team games it's usually created by adding retarded teammates who are playing obviously badly, leaving you outnumbered.
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