Fair warning, this article is rather dense. But, sometimes it’s good to move beyond saying this game is good or this game is bad and be able to explain why. So, let’s take an academic look at a few models of resource production in online strategy games and see how they affect game-play. That is, how does a player’s resource production change throughout the course of the game, and what is the result?
There are four main models of changing resource production. The most common is exponential growth. This path is followed by Travian and many other games. You start with producing 5 resources per hour with level 1 Mines, then 25 per hour with level 5 Mines, and then 200 per hour with level 10 Mines. This means that a strong player with level 10 Mines is receiving 40x more resources than a new player.
The second, linear growth, is found in Ikariam and a few others. Here, the increase in Mine production increases by about the same for each level. A level 1 Mine allows for 30 workers, a level 10 Mine allows for 175 workers, and a level 20 mine allows for 400 workers. In Ikariam, a player with level 10 Mines is producing 5x more than a starting player.
Another option would be static resource production. This is perhaps a little similar to Energy in Zynga games. Imagine an OSG where every player received the same amount of resources per hour, throughout the entire game. There would be no way to increase your production, and the decisions would be about how to spend the resources you are given. Here all players, no matter how strong, would be earning the same amount of resources.
A final option would be NO resource production. At the beginning of each game, a player would receive a certain cache of resources, and it would be up to them to make the most of it. This is the situation in classic strategy games such as Chess. Of course, this probably would not work very well with persistent browser based games because players start at different times and without some source of resources the games would need to be much shorter and thus, less persistent.
So, what are the effects of these different models? I’ve thought of few:
1) A sense of growth. A strong aspect of persistent strategy games is how long they take. Players spend months on these games and it’s important to feel your growth. When you start the game making 5 resources per hour and now are making 200, that’s verifiable improvement you can feel good about.
2) Something to Do. In Travian, you have 18 Mines that you upgrade. If you get everything to level 10, that’s 180 construction tasks. This is much more exciting than not upgrading mines at all.
3) Balance between Weak and Strong. To me this is the biggest effect. I feel that a “sense of growth” could be accomplished by seeing your city and army grow. And if upgrading Mines is just “something to do”, they’re really more of a chore than part of a strategy game. Go play cow-clicker instead. So, let’s focus on the balance between weak and strong players.
In exponential growth, there is a very wide divide between the weak and the strong. Strong players who have gained enough resources to upgrade their Mines will become stronger and stronger. Of course, the cost to upgrade increases with each level, but the cost of soldiers is generally static. That means that the players who get on top at the beginning can afford more soldiers, which will help them get further ahead, which will increase their production and let them afford more soldiers. Or consider two players who, for whatever reason, cannot log in for a week. If one player had a level 10 mine producing 200 resources per hour while the other had a level 5 mine production 25 resources per hour… when they come back the first player would have 8x more resources (30k more) than the second.
Progressing through the different methods decreases this gap. In linear growth, a “level 10 player” would be twice as strong as a “level 5 player”, but not 5x as strong. That means that two “level 5’s” could potentially join forces against a “level 10”. To me, this is a much more interesting situation than having a “level 10” that is basically invincible against weaker players.
Static production brings things even closer. If you manage to become a strong player, by building the right structures, being victorious in combat, or whatever, congratulations. But you’re going to have to keep working and planning just as hard to get further ahead. The resources flow in to the world evenly, and so every step above the average player is a direct result of your actions, not a byproduct of being part of the upper class.
So, what are your thoughts? Which is best suited for a persistent, competitive world? How much of an advantage should be given to strong players. After all, one of the great things about these games is that everyone starts as an equal. The strong are not just born that way, so surely they deserve some advantage for playing a better game? But how much? Would lowering the gap discourage players from advancing, or would it rather enhance the competition? Maybe there is an element of resource production that I haven’t considered?
How much of this is about strategy games as opposed to what’s going on with the world today, and how much do each inform the other? Something to think about.