Class Prompt: Diminishing Returns in Content

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In spring 2020 I taught a Technical Game Design class in Champlain College’s game design program. As part of my work I wrote discussion prompts. I’m expanding some of those prompts into blog posts, like the one below. The full set can be found here. Because they were meant as prompts for students to discuss, they do not necessarily provide strong conclusions or answer the questions that they pose.

Let’s talk about a problem that plagues live service games. If your game relies on releasing MORE content in pre-existing categories – characters in League of Legends or Overwatch, exotics in Destiny, new cards in Magic: The Gathering – then there are two fundamental design problems you need to solve:

  1. Diminishing Returns: How do you make content that is as exciting on the Nth update as it was on the first update? How can your 50th piece of content compete with all 49 previous pieces?
  2. Narrowing Design Space: How do you leave room for each new thing to feel unique and different over time?

These two problems are closely related, and designers must be careful because solving one of these can make the other worse.

Example:

Let’s say you’re working on a MOBA, and you’ve identified a set of things that characters can do. For example:

  • Crowd control
  • Disengagement
  • AOE damage
  • Single-target burst damage

Your first round of heroes looks something like this:

  • Hero A: crowd control, disengagement
  • Hero B: crowd control, AOE damage
  • Hero C: crowd control, single target burst
  • Hero D: disengagement, AOE damage
A table displaying the four qualities characters from this example can have, and the possible combinations.

You can keep this up for two more before you run out of design space and every combination is used. Once that happens you can’t make unique new content anymore, and you run smack dab into Problem #1: Diminishing Returns.


You could solve it in the near-term by giving the next character THREE qualities. That’ll be exciting and desirable! But that runs into Problem #2: Narrowing Design Space. If characters have three qualities, then there’s only room for FOUR distinct characters instead of the previous six. That’s power creep, and it makes the design space smaller.

A table showing the possible combinations of 4 elements, broken up into columns based on the # of elements in the combo. Combo of 1 has 4 possibilities. Combo of 2 has 6. Combo of 3 has 4. And combo of 4 has 1.

One way to solve this is to give every piece of content such a narrow specialty that you’re leaving a functionally limitless amount of design space. But if you do THAT, you run into problem #1 again: it’s hard to make each new thing feel like it has an impactful set of unique properties.

Discussion

Ultimately, any live service game that releases new content over time is going to need to mitigate or solve these problems.

  • How have the games you play addressed or designed around these problems?
  • What games have solved only one of these issues? Did it exacerbate the other?
  • What games have failed to solve either of these problems?
  • I’ve been talking about live service games, but these dynamics can exist in traditional boxed product releases, too. Do they use different solutions?