Tobold's Blog
Monday, April 08, 2019
Core shell model of games

A lot of games are designed following a model which you could call a core shell model: There is some core activity of gameplay (which, given how prominent violence is in games, is often a battle), and then a shell around it, which has everything else. The shell often has progression elements, like management of experience points and levels, talent or tech trees, and sometimes non-progressions elements like the story. A typical player in a typical game of this sort constantly jumps between the core and the shell: Does a battle in the core game, then levels up his character in the shell game, to go back to the core battle with a stronger character.

Core and shell are fundamentally different, and only the core is viable on its own. You could imagine many games like Fortnite, League of Legends, or World of Tanks with only the core, and no shell. In World of Tanks you could theoretically just have tank battles, without any tech tree progression, any tank equipment research, any crew skill management, and the like. In fact, since I tweaked some settings in my mod pack for World of Tanks, I now get a display at the start of a battle which shows how many battles in that particular tank each player already did. And I am always surprised that some people play thousands of battles in the same tank. I recently saw a guy who had twice the number of battles in this one tank than I had with all of my tanks together. I assume that these players just like to play this favorite tank of theirs, and don't care about the shell elements of World of Tanks. After a certain number of battles you have the best possible equipment, and your crew skill development has slowed to a crawl. The shell of World of Tanks has events, and features like "2x (or even up to 5x) experience points for the first win in each tank" that encourage people to play many different tanks. But doing just the core battle always with the same tank clearly works as well. Having no core wouldn't work, even idle games but in fake battles with little or no interaction instead of skipping the core totally.

Regarding the recent discussion on paying to win, or paying for power, for me it makes a big difference whether you pay for more power in the core game, or in the shell game. World of Tanks has pretty much shifted all the power you can pay for into the shell game, you can pay for faster advancement, or for getting tanks directly for cash. The separation isn't 100% clean: The so-called "gold" or "premium" ammo, although not buyable directly with gold any more, are still much easier to afford with a premium account or after farming credits with a premium tank. And premium ammo gives a definitive advantage in the core battle game. And some people would argue that some of the premium tanks are "overpowered", although I must say that most of the premium tanks are definitively underwhelming. (I don't buy premium tanks any more unless people complain about it being too powerful, like the Defender currently on offer.)

But even if the separation was complete, the question would remain what part of the game is really "the game", and what is a "win" in the term Pay2Win. Quite a lot of games have some mechanic where paying results in faster advancement in the shell of the game. As being of higher level or tier then usually doesn't give you an advantage in the core game, because you are simply matched against other players of the same level, faster progression doesn't really make you "win" more. But then some people consider the progression part of the game, in the shell, more important than winning or losing battles, so faster progression is exactly the kind of "win" they want. At least in World of Tanks I had exactly the opposite experience, that playing at higher tiers was less fun for me than playing at lower to mid tiers. If I am paying for faster progression (which I am, in the form of the premium account), it is more to be able to unlock more different tanks and tank lines faster, than to reach tier 10 in one line (which I rarely do).

One thing World of Tanks doesn't offer, which would be the completely opposite idea, would be for players to be able to pay for guaranteed top tier in all their battles. Now *that* would really feel like paying to win for me, and thus not really fair. The top tier tanks tend to dominate in a battle, or at least are much more likely to than the bottom tier tanks. If you listen to the chat, you can always hear people complaining about being bottom tier tank again, even after the recent matchmaker changes, so I'd guess this option would sell very well. But I guess in the interest of the game being perceived as fair even to free players, this isn't really a viable option to introduce.


One thing World of Tanks doesn't offer, which would be the completely opposite idea, would be for players to be able to pay for guaranteed top tier in all their battles.

I've not been playing WoT for some time, so maybe this was changed, but wasn't this more or less one advantage of premium tanks? "Preferential matchmaking", i.e. the guarantee not to be bottom tier?
"Preferential matchmaking" only exists for few tanks these days, and they are not all premium tanks. It is *not* a guarantee not to be bottom tier, but only a guarantee that the top tier will not be more than 1 tier higher than you are. You can still end up in a match with only two tiers and be in the lower one.

Most tanks with preferential matchmaking have some major weakness, e.g. a very weak gun, which wouldn't allow them to do anything against tanks two tiers higher. I don't know if the plan was originally to be a paid-for advantage, but these days it is more a crutch for the handicapped.
I wonder how many games have a core element that can't sustain itself without the shell game. For example, I played PUBG for a few hours and enjoyed it but got bored when I realized a few useful strategies to consistently last to the top five. Since winning wasn't sufficiently motivating to me to keep playing, and at the time PUBG barely had any identifiable shell game, I left and didn't look back. When I tried Fortnite the game took off in my family, at least partially because there was always something to win or unlock in the shell game, some challenge to do to earn a new tier and a new thing. Fortnite is a tight game itself, but without the shell game I easily find it less interesting to stick with for the long haul...again, because the satisfaction of winning is so rare that it's not worth the effort, but unlocking a new shiny tier item is always a possibility.

I'm playing Dead by Daylight right now, and after several hours feel like I've probably seen the bulk of that the core game has to offer, but the impressive shell game with three ways to level up, tons of blood point perk unlocks, vanity items and other bling are deeply compelling. So...yeah, the shell game may be its own thing, but I often suspect without it the core game would be a 10 or 15 hour experience at best.
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