Exponential growth doesn’t work

Many games use the exponential growth curve to maintain player interest as they climb up the experience ladder.  They do this, because it works.

Here’s the gist:

At 100 resource points, the player obtains a new tool that allows them to double the rate at which they earn more resource points. This keeps the player engaged, thinking that they will get their next 100 resource points twice as fast –which they do. However, the next new tool becomes available at 300 resource points, which takes longer than the original 100 points took to gather. That’s fine too, since the original 100 points were gathered relatively fast. The player doesn’t mind spending 1.5 times as long to get to the next level… They’re earning points twice as fast!

Now take this process and repeat 10, 20, even 100 times, and you’ve got yourself a game.  It works so well that  other aspects of the game are almost superfluous. Check out the irrefutable demo: Cookie Clicker

In fact, this formula is so effective that many MMO games use this very approach to keep players engaged. Here’s a few:

  • Travian
  • Neptune’s Pride
  • Tiberium Alliances
  • Starpires
  • OGame

But they all run into the same rub. Not long after a player joins, their exponential growth makes them an insurmountable opponent to subsequent players who join weeks, months or even years later.

To avoid this pitfall, MMOs start new games (worlds) at regular/advertised intervals throughout the year.  Players, new and old, inexperienced as well as seasoned, all start at “ground zero” with each new game.  This effectively synchronizes everyone to the same exponential growth curve, allowing players to start on an equal footing and steer their destiny going forward.

But the world doesn’t work like that.

More importantly, BattleCell can’t work like that.  With a single massive game map designed to host hundreds of thousands of active players, BattleCell must implement an alternative engagement formula that keeps long-playing members from clobbering vulnerable new players.  It quickly becomes evident that even without the exponential growth mechanism, our gameplay must provide balance between new players and well established members who have been playing for a year or more.

Apparently, the BattleCell gameplay itself needs to evolve out of our initial stated objectives: a single massive map and long-term player engagement.  These initial constraints are inevitably driving us to a unique gameplay, a bonus for our 4X game.