Playing Style Reinforcement
By applying slow, positive, constructive feedback on player actions, the game encourages specialization and gradually adapts to the player’s preferred playing style.
Also Known As
Role-playing game (RPG) elements.
Slow, positive, constructive feedback on player actions (actions that have another effect on the game) causes the player’s avatar or units to develop over time. As the actions themselves feed back into this mechanism, the avatar or units specialize over time, getting better at performing a particular task. As long as there are multiple viable strategies and specializations, the avatar and the units will, in time, reflect the player’s preferences and style.
Use playing style reinforcement when:
- You want players to make a long-term investment in the game that spans multiple play sessions.
- You want to reward players for building, planning ahead, and developing personal strategies.
- You want players to grow into a specific role or strategy.
- Actions players can perform whose success depends in part on the attributes of the player’s character or the units involved in the action.
- A resource ability that affects the chance that actions succeed and that can grow over time.
- An optional resource experience points that can be used to increase an ability. Some games call these skill points and include a different resource called experience points that cannot be traded.
- Ability affects the success rate of actions.
- Attempting actions generates experience points or directly improves abilities.
Some games require the action to be successful, while others do not.
- Experience points might be spent to improve abilities.
Playing style reinforcement works best in games that are played over multiple sessions and over a long time.
Playing style reinforcement works well only when multiple strategies and play styles are viable options in the game. When there is only one, or only a few, all the players will use the same strategy, which makes the game uninteresting.
Playing style reinforcement can inspire min-maxing behavior with players. This refers to a strategy in which players seek the best possible options that will allow them to gain powerful avatars or units as fast as possible. If min-maxing is successful, it usually becomes a dominant strategy. This can happen when the strength of the feedback is not distributed evenly over all actions and strategies.
Playing style reinforcement favors experienced players over inexperienced players, because the experienced ones will have a better understanding of their options and the long-term consequences of their actions.
Playing style reinforcement rewards the player who can invest the most time in playing the game. In this case, time spent playing can compensate for different levels of skill among players, which can be a wanted or an unwanted side-effect.
It can be ineffective for a player to change strategies over time in a game with playing style reinforcement, because the player will lose the benefit of previous investments in another play style.
Whether or not to use experience points is an important decision when implementing play style reinforcement. When using experience points, there is no direct coupling between growth and action, allowing the player to harvest experience with one strategy to develop the skills to excel in another strategy. On the other hand, if you do not use experience points, you have to make sure that the feedback is balanced for the frequency of the actions; actions that are performed more often should have weaker feedback than actions that can be practiced infrequently.
Role-playing games are the quintessential example of games built around the play style reinforcement pattern. In these games, the feedback loops are generally quite slow and balanced by an Escalating Challenge, Dynamic Friction, or a Stopping Mechanism to make sure avatars do not progress too fast. In fact, most of these games are balanced in such a way that progression is initially fast and gradually slows down, usually because the required investment of experience points increases exponentially.
You must also decide whether the action needs to be executed successfully to generate the feedback. How you decide this issue can dramatically affect player behavior. When success is required, the feedback loop gains influence. In that case, it is probably best to have the difficulty of the player’s tasks also affect the success of an action and to challenge the player with tasks of varying difficulty levels, thus allowing them to train their avatars. When success is not required to earn experience points, players have more options to improve neglected abilities during later and more difficult stages. However, it might also encourage players to perform a particular action at every conceivable opportunity, which could lead to some unintended, unrealistic, or comic results, especially when the action involves little risk.
Many pen-and-paper role-playing games implement playing-style reinforcement. For example, in Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play and Vampire: The Masquerade, players are awarded experience points for achieving goals in the game. They can spend experience points on improving their character’s abilities. Curiously, the original role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t have playing-style reinforcement. In Dungeons & Dragons, players are awarded experience points that they need to accumulate to advance to the next level. However, the player has no influence over how her character’s abilities improve when she levels up; the character’s abilities do not adapt to the playing style or preferences of the player.
In the computer role-playing game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the avatar’s progress is directly tied to her actions. The avatar’s ability corresponds directly to the number of times she has performed the associated actions. Oblivion implements playing-style reinforcement without experience points.
In Civilization III, there are different ways in which a player can win the game. A player reinforces his chosen strategy of military, economic, cultural, or scientific dominance (or any combination) by building city improvements and wonders of the world that favor that strategy. In Civilization III, several resources take the role of experience points; money and production are prominent examples. These resources are not necessarily tied to one particular strategy in the game. Money generated by one city can be spent to improve production in another city in the game.
In the board game Blood Bowl players coach football teams in a fantasy setting. Individual team members score 'star player points' for successful actions: scoring touch downs, throwing complete passes or injuring opposing players. When a team member collected enough star player points he gains new or improved abilities. Many of these increase their ability to score, pass or injure opponents. Improvements occur only between matches and players build up a team over a long series of matches. Blood Bowl facilitates a wide variety of playing styles that generally fall somewhere between two poles: agility play with a strong focus on ball handling and scoring, and strength play with a strong focus on taking out the opposition in order to win the game.
When playing style reinforcement depends on the success of actions, it creates a powerful feedback. In that case, a Stopping Mechanism is often used to increase the price of new upgrades to an ability.