One of the hardest parts about creating a strategy game is giving something to two of your most important players: the brand new player, and the old veteran. Reflecting on uber-popular real-time-strategy (RTS) games like Starcraft, Warcraft or Red Alert, it gave a ton of replayability simply on the fact that you could optimize per second. It was great to match your playbook against someone else's, and adjust accordingly. I could spend years crafting my playbook and learning even quirks of the software itself like glitches or exploits.
This presents a problem when you want to have a diversity of player experience in the same space. New players are stuck in the same matches as old players, and just get obliterated over and over. The barrier of entry increases as time goes on, as players learn more about the game they gain a better advantage. Not a great attribute for a PBBG. Shooter games have mitigated this by trying to implement a ranking system, such as the Elo System, which is used in games like League of Legends, or other proprietary, often ineffective systems (Overwatch, I'm looking at you).
So we need some kind of system that can do the following:
- Give veteran players a reason to continue to play
- Give new players a reason to continue to play
- Keep the barrier of entry low
There is no perfect system, don't get me wrong, but when it comes to a pseudo-match making system for strategy games, knowledge of the game generally reigns supreme. And that is something we can measure. It is, literally, player experience.
So our solution could be level gating. Level gating is when content has a level requirement, or a gate, in front of it before you can pass. It's used a lot in RPG's to extend game-time and to reward players for their grinding. But in a strategy game...?
What if we took the very basic version of the game, and made that a level 1 match. Then gate players at level, say, 30 with some more advanced mechanics in a different 'tier' of matches. Level 80 may be the gate for really complex, interwoven mechanics. Level 140 could be the breach into RNG-based events for added challenge.
A level 31 player would be able to play the matches at level 30 as well as level 1. A level 200 player could play any match they wanted, even with someone who is brand new.
The benefits of something like this is that we're checking all 3 items in our checkbox above, while still allowing all players to play with each other.
- Gating the match itself, we can create an atmosphere that explicitly regulates the amount of advantage a veteran player can have over new players, lowering the barrier of entry to whatever level we want.
- It gives veteran players a reason to keep coming back, because if I create a new mechanic in the game, I can simply add it to a higher tier and a higher level gate.
- I also give new players to keep coming back because they're always playing around their ability level (or lower), and will have plenty of novel concepts to unlock as a rolling-pin of content as they progress.
Now, it's important to understand that this shouldn't really come out as rewarding the grind. Each new match tier shouldn't be something slightly better than the last, it should be something entirely different. The game Dragon Quest Builders absolutely NAILED this concept. Each chapter was like picking up a brand new game, revealing novel mechanics all the way up to the very end. So the space in between each tier should be long enough to learn all of the mechanics in it to a reasonable degree of fluency, then allow them to move on to the next.
All games should last forever and constantly amaze each and every one of us. Until that game gets made, us developers will have to deal with the gates, bored veteran players, and a lot of math...