Rubber Banding

A big question I get from folks as they’re signing up — “what’s to stop someone who has been playing for a while from coming in and stomping me as soon as I sign up?” — and it’s a very valid question. A 4X game, by it’s nature, involves a bit of exponential growth, population being one obvious example in Galactic Impact, but also sheer access to resources: finding a second planet, then another, then all those planets funding your fleet, to find more planets, there’s an intrinsic exponential growth. 2x.

Of course, if you join today, and I join tomorrow, and we’re on the same exponential growth trajectory in a game, I can literally never catch you, it’s mathematically impossible, which diminishes the fun for both of us. For me, I can’t ever “overtake” you, so why try? But also for you, because you have no meaningful peer competition.

The need then, is to give established players just a bit of headwind, and new players just a bit of tailwind. One term game designers use to describe this pattern is “Rubber Banding”; picture all players are inside a single large rubber band, keeping them roughly together in a pack, because that’s more fun for everyone. One of the textbook examples of this is in MarioKart… if you fall too far behind, the drops you get from the Question Blocks are sick: Stars, the coveted Blue Shell, etc., while if you pull too far out into the lead, all you get are weaksauce Bananas.

The trick of course, is to make this feel natural, and not implement in a way that actively discourage the established players from continuing to advance. to wit, the nonsense claim that progressive tax systems prevent people from increasing their income.

These don’t all have to work in isolation, either, there can be multiple rubber bands pulling from multiple directions at once. One headwind I’ve already built into Galactic Impact for established players is putting the exponential growth back on them as a challenge: Population Growth on a players homeworld is unbounded and will cause issues empire-wide if not managed, and players are only given linear tools (repeated ship launches) to solve it. By its nature, this keeps perfect pace with the player’s reach & capacity.

A second I’m about to roll out is a system of “Fleet Maintenance Cost” — a price to keep the player’s fleet operational. The price being the square of the player’s fleet size, a polynomial headwind in the face of their exponential growth, which gently encourages them to be leaner with their fleet expansion (and a choice: do they build a large fleet that drains their empire’s coffers, or do they spend those credits to upgrade to more efficient ship types?). Thematically this is explained as “maintaining ship-to-ship tracking among the fleet”, and the upshot is that players who have been around a while can’t necessarily flood the galaxy with small warships that could “spawn camp” any new arrivals.

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