Non-equilibrium gameplay

I’ve been thinking about the pacing of games, particularly simulation games. These games have a tendency to have a ‘desperately trying to survive’ phase and a phase in which you’ve basically caught your breath and are on top of things. I’m going to call these ‘non-equilibrium’ and ‘equilibrium’ respectively.

The equilibrium part is the easiest to understand – this is when whatever you’ve got built up is enough to keep you going. This is when you can go and build crazy stuff, because you aren’t restricted to do what you need to do to survive the game and keep playing. Its equilibrium in the sense that you could in principle set up some kind of routine and just iterate that routine forever, and nothing would change about the situation in the game. In SimCity this would be some point where growth is zero but you’re making a profit on taxes – if you walked away and let the game run overnight, the only thing that would change would be your bank balance.

The non-equilibrium parts are the ones where, if you did nothing special, you’d lose – your dwarves would starve, your ship wouldn’t make orbit, your city’s coffers would drain out. Usually the model for this is that you start with some initial boost above and beyond what you can yourself generate, and you’re trying to reach break-even before that boost runs out. These are the moments of the game that have you on the edge of your seat, wondering if you’re going to make it (well the first few times you do it, anyhow). Its not just tension though – when you’re in the non-equilibrium parts of the game, there’s a pressure to keep playing because you feel like there are things left to do to get into equilibrium. Its that feeling that you can eventually reach equilibrium if you just do this one more thing that keeps you hooked.

For something like Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress, actually reaching equilibrium is important, since the ability to build crazy stuff is kind of central to the experience. But for something like SimCity, especially in the older ones, equilibrium means that the game is basically over at that point. You can sit there and grow whatever resources are good to have for an arbitrary length of time before embarking on any risky endeavor. Once you hit equilibrium, the only limit to your resources is your patience.

Now, the ‘initial boost, try to break even’ model does leave you with the feeling of having to do things to reach equilibrium, but it only lasts as long as that initial boost lasts, which can be quite short. In Dwarf Fortress this is the first year basically – if you don’t have food production by then, you’re going to start to lose people to starvation. After that, you can basically wall yourself off and survive indefinitely if you want. Random disasters that require specific reactions is another model, but usually there’s very little you can do about it, so it doesn’t really hit that ‘feeling of more work to be done’, its more like ‘oh crap I have to react!’.

One model that I think works is finite resource depletion, where there’s only so much stuff in your immediate environment and you have to expand to survive (and at the same time increase your needs). By controlling the amounts of resources available in each area of the game, you can control the time the player has to complete that segment, and you can hold out the carrot of things that resolve the player’s dependency on resources or provide ways for the player to renew them in order to have something to work towards. There are surely other models that would work for this kind of extended play as well.

So for simulation-ey games, its important to keep this in mind and try to extend the non-equilibrium phase as much as possible while holding that carrot of eventual stability out in front of the player. Keeping the player out of equilibrium is really critical for giving them the feeling that there’s more stuff to do and more game ahead of them.

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