On game mechanics: Cycles & Engagement

Yup, it’s wall of text time.

Return of Investment Cycles

All strategy games which feature resource gathering through economic investment and military units perpetually offer you a choice: either invest in gathering resources, or build military units for the same resources.

One metric I commonly use when determining the economic viability of something is the time it takes me to get the investment back. I.E. if I build a building that costs me $10, and yields me $1/minute, I’ll get my investment in 10/1 = 10 minutes. I’ll call this the Return of Investment time.

This means that, if I build said building I need to hold on to it for 10 minutes to break even, and after those 10 minutes, I’ll be ahead of someone who has instead build a military unit for that $10. But it doesn’t end there, as after 10 minutes I have $10 which I can build another $1 producing building for, and get $2/minute. Then after 5 minutes, I can build another for $3/min, then after 3.33 minutes $4, 2.5 minutes $5, 2 minutes $6, etc, etc. The compounding interest scheme known as “snowballing”.

It’s in the exponential nature of this scheme that the more of these return of investment cycles there are in the time your game is supposed to last, the more it gets way, waaaaay out of control. Let’s look at a few games to see how many of such cycles they allow for in a typical game length. In say Starcraft 2, a worker costs you 50, nets you something like 0.8/second, for 50/0.8 = 62.5 seconds ROI, or roughly a minute. Then over the course of a game lasting some 15 minutes in average, you have some 15 ROI cycles. (And mind you, the snowballing is kept in check by a supply cap after 8-10 minutes). Or look at supreme commander, the T1 mass extractors might only cost 18 seconds ROI, which leads to massive early expansion as everyone grabs all applicable spots in a hurry, but then the limited map size forces you into T2 mass extractors, which sit at 150 seconds, or 2.5 minutes, which in a game lasting typically some 25-50 minutes, again leads us to some 10-20 ROI cycles.

Examples from 4X? Lets look at paradox’s Europa universalis, where you can build temples giving you a monthly income based on a province’s development. The pay-off typically ranges from 0.02/month to 0.5/month, costing a 100. Using an above average figure of 0.2/month, we get to to 2.4/year, leading to a ROI time of 41 years and 8 months. In a game that lasts some 377 years, we again see an amount ROI cycles around 10. In stellaris it used to be much the same, with ROI time lasting some 5-12.5 years and a game length of roughly 150-200 years, though I’ve yet to play the reworked version.

In Civ 6 a builder costs 50 production, has 3 charges, so it costs 16.67 per charge, and for one charge you can build a mine that gives +1 production. So a ROI of 16.67 turns. Over 500 turns that’s 30 ROI cycles. Techs improve this down the line, but by then there are less turns left.

I could keep dragging up examples, but this should give a fair idea of the amount of ROI cycles a game can tolerate before it snowballs totally out of control. The higher bound is around something like 20-30. This seems to hold true for nearly any game.

Compared to Outscape

Now when we take a look at Outscape, say I build a small beron mine, which nets me a mediocre 50 beron/hour. This costs me a 1000 beron, so my ROI time is 1000/50 = 20 hours. If we assume a server is meant to last for a year, that’s a whooping 418 ROI cycles.

Edit: and reaching the danger zone of 30 cycles after 25 days. By which time in A2 you were indeed snowballing totally out of control on a ROI time of 40 hours. Most games tend to tip over into uncontrollable territory after a mere 10 cycles.

Of course you could argue that it also has costs in credits and population, but the reason you’re building a beron mine is because that’s the resource that’s bottlenecking you. But very well, even if we assume that the beron cost is only a third of the total cost, you’re still looking at 139 ROI cycles. That shit is going to uncontrollable exponential heights fast.

This might be ok if, as in early game supreme commander, your goal is to have players spread out and cover the entire map, but as corruption shows, this is not the point. Not to mention how these short timescales means you’re not really risking much if anything by going full focus on the economy. It doesn’t set me behind for long enough for an opponent to take advantage of my relative weakness in military strength when I build an economic building instead of a military unit for the same price.

The point here seems to be to keep players engaged, give them a tangible reward on a appreciable timescale. However, the timescale is still too long for that if we go on the minute-by-minute basis a directly engaging RTS/4X has.

Player engagement

Player engagement, not the military variety but the getting hooked on something variety, is what all games strive for. There are various methods of doing so, reward cycles being one of them. In an RTS/4X, these are generally what it’s all about. You build stuff, throw it at an enemy, and win or lose. The fact that you could be doing a thousand and one things per minute, but you can only click so much per minute creates priorities, constantly engaging gameplay. But this game is too slow to rely on just that.

I was around for browser games like planetarion and imperial conflict, and the engagement those games offered wasn’t in the game itself as much as the diplomacy and IRC channels around it. The game itself just needed a few stats to measure success and for players to support one another, and let the meta diplomatic game be the game. These mechanics should be a focal point as they have a large role to play in keeping Outscape viable, but they are not what I want to talk about in this post.

Let’s take another look at MMO games that have reward loops, like Path of Exile / Diablo or World of Warcraft. There certainly are slow and long term reward loops in these games, like gaining another level or a slightly better item with a low drop chance, and these are certainly motivators to “keep going”. But the point here is that you “keep going” with the core gameplay, slaying mobs or other players, doing instanced dungeons or PVP battles, stuff that rolls on a minute-by-minute, second-by-second basis, and is engaging on that basis. The core cycle is target mob, kill mob, move to next mob, and repeat. The incremental improvement towards the reward is the gameplay.

This is the sort of direct engagement you’re just never going to be able to have in Outscape if you rely solely on buildings taking hours to pay for themselves or fleets taking hours to get somewhere. It’s just too slow. It works fine for other RTS/4X, because they are fast enough, or allow you to speed up the game enough for you to always have something to do. Neither of these are options for Outscape.

Therefor, if these ROI cycles in and of themselves are not enough to provide the desired engagement, then at present they only lead to massive snowballing on the timescales involved for little added value. Instead, they might as well be reduced to the time scales that’ll cut it down to some 50 ROI cycles a year tops. The time it takes for an economic improvement to pay off should be measured around a week to avoid the worst snowballing. Then, when that is made so, you can remove artificial barriers like corruption again, as things will grow at a pace that the game can handle.

But what do we do then?

Naturally, when you abandon the shorter ROI times, you need something else to be engaging. As I’ve hinted at above, the engagement isn’t all that great to begin with, but more fundamentally, as I alluded to when mentioning MMORPG’s, you need gameplay cycles on the minute-by-minute second-by-second basis.

I have several idea’s for this in mind, and no doubt more can be thought of. Lets first look at how a few other games do it. I’ll bring up Europa Universalis again, as mentioned the pay off cycles take many years, and while you can speed up the game to get there, you can spend the years in between doing things while you wait for your money pile to grow. You have the diplomacy minigame, where you maintain relations, make claims on neighboring lands, and etc. You can colonize, organize your military, trade, fight wars even. Then there are random events which you need to react to. You’re not stuck doing nothing. It’s just that in the background of all the things you’re actually engaged with, you’re building up your cash pile. And that’s exactly where you need to go with Outscape for your engagement. Doing stuff with the things you’ve build and the things you know.

Even in fast RTS’s like Starcraft or (open) Red Alert, the fun is in the doing things with the stuff you’ve build. It’s just that they tend to die in the process and so you need to replace them, which is where the economic game kicks in.

So lets take a look at how Outscape utilizes the moveable parts, the parts I can interact with on that short timescale of player engagement.

I have scouts, that buzz around the galaxy exploring things. By now I’m pretty much locked into my amount of planets, and they are so far out that unless I find the perfect planet, it’s really not a good idea anymore to go out and settle there. There is actually very little reward in further scouting.

But that’s sort of ok, because there is no danger in scouting either. Provided I don’t try to facetank a Homeworld’s orbital defense, there is no danger. But that equally loses tension from the whole endeavor. Having some good (artifacts, stranded ships) and bad things (space critters, ancient dangers) to be discovered would go a long way.

That wouldn’t solve its mechanical deficiency however. Wait a few hours for the scout to arrive, then click on the planet you want to explore, wait for it to arrive, click the next planet and etc. Check if you can get some fuel for the next leg on every planet until you get it. Then when you explored all planets, send it on to the next system. After a few systems it becomes very much of a chore. I’ve scouted out my initial radar bubble, and now I’m spiraling out beyond that, but it’s a chore for which I’m rapidly losing motivation.

There is the potential for direct engagement here, with proper dangers and rewards, paired with enough automation for it to keep going independently, only prodding you with choices upon reaching those key points.

There are transport ships, but it’s hard to imagine a way in which this can be made very engaging. The one thing this does is chorish anti-engagement, when you want to move resources or people from A to B, you have to do it manually. Playing ferry man is ok for a few times, but when I need to make the same trip 10 times to move the required resources, it’s just a chore. Automate this please. I jut want to be able to say: Take 0 to all of the resources from there, and move them over here.

Then there is the “big” one of military ships, but these present a few days or weeks worth of investment, and that’s roughly how often you can throw them into battle before you’re just running out of ships. Positioning is one thing, but mostly a one-of choice, not something that’s bound to fluctuate on the desired second-by-second, minute-by-minute basis we look for. Not to mention how diplomacy makes their use seldom.

All in all, I’d judge that the mobile assets the game presently offers for direct engagement are not utilized to great effect. And where they do offer direct engagement it’s a very repetative chore.

Improving engagement of the existing assets

As mentioned, expanded exploration is the simplest way you can improve engagement. Finding boons and dangers gives tension to the endeavor. Automate the chore side and you can have pretty fun mechanic. These dangers and boons can then evolve into a mini-game sort of situation. For example, you find an ancient tomb on a planet, which pauses the auto-exploration and presents you a choice to open it (whenever you log back in). Bad luck! It was an ancient wraith, which now you have to escape through a minefield while the thing pursues you. Or will you take the risk and lure the wraith over enough mines to kill it and reap the rewards? Just an example.

Battles are simply too costly to have on a frequent basis, but what about military exercises against simulated enemies? You could have the option to simulate an enemy fleet (based on scouting/espionge/whatever) and see how your fleet performs. Fiddle with its tactics and try again. Now we can have as many battles as we like without losing all those costly assets. Durable engagement.

More ways can be thought of, no doubt.

Edit: And as I forgot to mention, now I re-read it, space stations and/or megastructures can vastly add to the scope here. I.E. a tourist resort space station (as in distant worlds) might generate revenue on locations that are deemed particularly pretty, science stations, even mining stations, etc, all add to creating a more lively galaxy than just planets and fleets alone could provide. A step in between nothing and a full blown colony gives you way more scope for interaction with the map.

Narrative engagement

Another form of engagement, that is presently overlooked, is narrative engagement. The engagement of wanting to hear the next chapter in the story. Now the story of something abstract like an empire is tough to sell. Which is why I’d suggest implementing characters and quests / missions.

Characters we can identify with easily. An explorer on a quest for the fountain of eternal youth, a spy trying to steal the battleplans for an opposing fleet, a researcher looking for a way to resurrect his dead wife, etc. Characters can move about on the minute-by-minute basis we’re looking for. They open up a whole host of potential mini-games.

Say we have a spy we want to sneak into another empire. So we have a cloaked ship and now need to dodge the local radar systems and scouts to land him there unseen. It pits two players against each other, where one has the static set up of his cloak detection net, and the other has to find a weakness in it. They’re interacting, but only one has to make the direct actions. Ideal for a game where the other might be offline. We can imagine a few more of such mini-games no doubt.

Upon success the spy might be able to steal fleet plans which you can then feed into your military exercise. Short-term engagement options reinforcing each other. Thus creating an ever expanding network of direct player engagement. We’re not forced to sit idle while we wait for our resources to replenish but can keep busy with things offering us small yet tangible benefits.

Beginner questlines might explain the player the basics of the game in the form of some early explorer settling a new world or something along those lines. A tutorial line is easy once you got the framework.

More over, questlines can have several branching points based on choices, random outcomes and other factors that are deemed relevant to the circumstance. This leads to both replayability and the potential for offering very great rewards (if the chances of taking the correct turn at every branch are small enough).

And, very crucially, once a generic framework for character (classes and/or stats) and questlines has been established, they can be crowdsourced to an extend, allowing players and fans to submit their own for review, after which you can put them into the game. Such an approach can provide you with more content than you’re likely to ever see as player, keeping content fresh.

In summary

Starting with the observation that the short ROI cycles lead to massive snowballing on the timescale of this game, I’d propose we dial that back to a more sustainable level. This will make the game “slower”, yet it was too slow for those reward cycles to be engaging on themselves no matter how you twist or turn them.

Rather than relying on these cycles for engagement, I’d propose to look at shorter, more direct options for player engagement, while we push those greater reward cycles to the background. The existing mobile assets can be made more engaging by adding dangers & rewards on the map, automating repetative work, allowing for simulated battles. Narrative engagement can be integrated by adding characters & questlines. All of which can lead to interconnected, short, engaging gameplay loops.


Bump for an old but excellent post! Specially this last part:

And this part:

Instead of simulation, I would simply call this PvE. Analyze the different battles occurring around the galaxy and generate PvE fleets from the most successful one’s.

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