The Case Study & Theory: Gates

Thinking about how to add on to Over the Next Dune raises the question of whether and how to gate player powers. Of course, that begs the question of what a “gate” is. 😉 To avoid definitional confusion, let’s hammer that out.

A gate is something that controls a player’s access to in-game capabilities. The classic example is mana, as seen in League of Legends or the Final Fantasy games. A player uses up mana each time he or she employs a special ability, and when the mana is gone the player cannot use special abilities until it recharges. Ammunition is also a gate; it limits how much the player can use a certain weapon before having to switch or seek out more ammo.

Gates do not have to be numbers. Many role-playing games, for example, control players’ power via progress through the storyline. As the player explores new areas, meets new people, and learns new things, the player gets new capabilities.

Gates can go one way or bi-directional. One-way gates result in permanent changes. For example, in Burnout Paradise access to new cars is generally gated by completing races. Once you complete the race associated with a car, you have access to that car forever. Mana and ammunition are usually bi-directional gates; you can run out and lose access to a power, but replenishing the resource takes you back through the gate and enables you to use it again.

I believe that that’s a reasonably complete discussion of what gates are. They also have some properties that aren’t definitional but that I feel are worth putting forward:

Gates can be thought of in either direction. This is kind of a weird one, and it’s usually not relevant, but it can be useful. All gates can be described as having something or not having the opposite. For example, in Battletech firing weapons builds up heat. You can think of heat as the gate (too much is bad) or coolness as the gate (not enough is bad). It doesn’t matter, from a theoretical perspective, which approach you take.

Admittedly, this can get kind of silly. You could say that “lack of mana” is the gate, and that a player can use a certain ability because his or her lack of mana has been kept below a certain threshold. It’s a lot easier, though, to say that the player has enough mana.

Basically, this is like flipping an equation to put the variable you’re solving for on the left. It doesn’t really change anything, but if you’re accustomed to a certain presentation it might help you understand what’s going on.

Out-of-game gates are ineffective. Experience has shown that players cannot be limited by resources outside the rules of the game. Money and physical difficulty are two examples of out-of-game gates which have been proven not to work.

Money. If your game is popular, you will have a subset of players who will spend whatever they need to to get a competitive advantage. Magic: the Gathering was originally designed to use card rarity as a gate, on the thinking that players would be limited by their collections. Over time it became clear that tournament players assembled complete collections regardless of the cost. Magic still uses rarity for various design purposes, but not to balance constructed-deck tournament play.

Physical difficulty. It does not matter how difficult a physical task is; if it will help players win, some of them will put in the necessary time to be able to do it reliably. Fighting games often use precise timing as a gate, demanding that players time their moves to 1/60th of a second in order to get the longest combos and the most damage. Many, many players have practiced enough to hit those 1/60th of a second windows routinely.

From here we need to think about whether OtND should use gates at all. I’ll get into that next time.

Theory: Succession Wars and Not Having Enough Players

This weekend I was forced to confront an issue that’s been lurking in Over the Next Dune’s development for a while: what happens when a group wants to play cooperatively, but has fewer than five players? To answer that question, we have to look at a game that grappled with the same problem–and that, I feel, got it wrong.

Fans of Battletech–the classic game of giant fighting robots–might be familiar with The Succession Wars (“TSW”). TSW was a zoomed-out giant fighting robot game in which five interstellar empires battled for supremacy. Instead of controlling a few robots, each player controlled one of the empires, moving its armies and trying to take over the other players’ territories. If you imagine Risk in space you have something of the idea.

TSW’s map was arranged in a circle, with each player having a piece of the circle. As a result, at the start of the game each player shared a border with two other players. In a five-player game, this arrangement is OK. Everyone starts with two players to worry about, and things are even.

Unfortunately, it turns out that that balance is very fragile. My friends and I tried the game once with four players. It was an unmitigated disaster. The rules direct that when there are only four players, one player plays two of the neighboring empires (the purple and green on the map). Hence, those two empires each had one “safe” border–my friend was quite reasonably not going to attack himself. Not having to divide their forces to cover two fronts gave those empires an enormous numbers advantage where they were actually going to fight. That game ended with the player controlling two empires steamrolling the opposition.

TSW was balanced around the idea that everyone would need to pay attention to two borders at once. Putting one player in charge of neighboring empires freed those empires from the need to defend against each other, which broke that cardinal rule and ultimately broke the game. The neighbors controlled by a single player effectively had twice as many forces to deploy on the border each was going to contest, which proved to be a dominating advantage.

The lesson I took from TSW is that when one player needs to “sub in” for others, controlling multiple players’ pieces, the rules must ensure that the player cannot combine those pieces to become more powerful than the other players in the game. TSW tried to avoid that sort of combination with a rule that the player in charge of neighboring empires could not pool their money or forces, but by allowing a strategic partnership between the two empires it ultimately failed to prevent the single player from having more resources than everyone else. OtND needs to avoid that mistake, and next time we’ll apply TSW’s lesson to our case study.