Degenerative Strategy

I really, really loved The Secret World for a long time. My close group and I blasted through that game together, loving every second as we worked our way up through the areas and got new, better skills. I’m still of the opinion that some of the best atmosphere and best storytelling (covering the entire spectrum of ways to tell a story) can be found in TSW.

I stopped playing in an abject, frothing ragequit. Today I’d like to talk about degenerative strategy.

When playing a game, especially a complex one, you make decisions. Broadly speaking, the decisions you make in the moment– where and when to move, when to attack, what spells to cast and when– those are tactics. The decisions you make in the planning phase– what movement abilities you’re using, what weapons you have equipped, what spells you have prepared– those are strategy. This is something of a simplification, but it’s not terribly inaccurate, either.

When I played TSW, I focused heavily on the Blood Magic healing tree, and was my party’s healer. Through most of the dungeons, I used blood magic to keep the group alive and continued investing in the tree. Thematically, it was a great choice, and one I enjoyed a lot. As we reached more and more difficult content, notably the hard-mode dungeons at the endgame, I found myself brutally struggling to keep up and keep everyone alive. It became stressful, and I started to get burned out.

At the same time, some of my group was starting to feel like their choices (particularly: to play melee) were getting unduly punished in the higher-end content. At one point, Kodra, having saved up some unused skill points, dumped a handful into the Claws healing tree, a different healing tree that I previously hadn’t touched, because it wasn’t really the theme I wanted.

Instantly, he was a better healer than I was. With less than a tenth of the investment I’d put into my strategy and no practice, he’d exceeded the capabilities I’d honed over my character’s entire progression. The choice for me became clear: play a Claws-based healer, or don’t heal. Blood Magic was simply not good enough. I took a third path: quit the game in disgust. I had invested a lot into the theme of the character, putting together a specific look and an entire concept based around being a blood mage. The endgame for TSW wasn’t worth sacrificing that to use a strategy I didn’t enjoy.

I refer to that as an example of a degenerative strategy. A degenerative strategy is a strategy that, for one reason or another, limits the effective choices you can make. You are either playing that strategy, a strategy that can directly counter that strategy, or you are losing. It’s degenerative if other choices exist, but are so far behind in effectiveness that they are no longer competitive options. As players discover the strategy, the viable options for the playerbase as a whole diminish; the strategic playing field degenerates into a small number of “correct” choices and a rather larger number of bad choices.

World of Warcraft’s old talent tree system created degenerative strategies. There was at least one “correct” build for every class, and even when there were multiple build options in a given class, the actual distribution of talent points in that build had an incredibly small amount of variance. If you were playing optimally, and had a build that allowed you to choose which set of talents you wanted, it was because you only needed to spend points in that tier and the actual distribution didn’t matter, generally because none of the talents were any good.

If there is a “right” way to play that excessively limits other options that appear on the surface to be viable, that is a sign of a degenerative strategy. If there is only one correct choice, there shouldn’t be a choice. It’s really important to note that this doesn’t mean that every choice you can make in a game has to be viable, if the game design itself isn’t trying to support that choice. As an example, in FFXIV, you cannot functionally form a group that lacks a tank, a healer, and some DPS in content that is relevant to you (if you far exceed the intended power level of the content, you can largely do whatever you like). This is a design choice, and it’s reinforced at every stage of the game. It’s not a degenerative strategy because the game doesn’t suggest that any other choices are intended or supported.

On the other hand, claw-based healing in TSW was a degenerative strategy, because it was so much better than the other healing trees that (at the time) there was no other viable option. As your understanding and skill at the game increased, and you sought to play as best you possibly could, you would have to move away from options like blood magic in order to play the more powerful, more effective, and thus more optimal claws build. Blood magic still *appeared* to be a supported option, but in practice it wasn’t effective and was, in essence, a “trap” build.

Game balance is a touchy thing, and is honestly not as relevant as people might expect. It’s less important that everything be equally balanced against one another and more important that degenerative strategies don’t exist. Certain games offer options that are very high-risk, high-reward, where a high degree of skill lets you outperform other options, but low-skill players will lag significantly behind less risky options. Perfectly optimal play would suggest that everyone should play the high-risk high-reward options, but in reality this isn’t that necessary, because balance is achieved through the demands of player skill.

When players get upset about game balance, it’s often paired with a claim that “everyone should just play X”, which is an implied suggestion that X is a degenerative strategy. Most of the time, this isn’t the case, but it’s very important that a game designer keep an eye out to see if a particular strategy is degenerative or not. It’s usually important to leave the strategy in place for a certain amount of time to see if it actually *is* degenerative– it takes time for the strategic geography of the game to degenerate, and a strategy with a functional, accessible counter is not degenerative.

In general, a good way to determine if a game is struggling with degenerative strategies is to look at how the game is played at the highest tiers of play– the most competitive, most optimal players– and see if there is a downward spread of those players’ choices to lower tiers of play over time; essentially, is the strategy causing degeneration in the game? If the highest tiers of players are making the same (small number) of choices out of a (much larger) selection, it’s a good indicator of a degenerative strategy.

Frost Mages, waaaaaaaay over to the left.

Fixing this problem is difficult. A direct nerf (reduction in power/effectiveness) of the degenerative strategy isn’t necessarily the way to go. If Claws had been nerfed to the functional level of Blood Magic, it would have been impossibly punishing to heal at the higher tiers of content in TSW. Sometimes, bringing the noncompetitive options up to par with the degenerative strategy evens the playing field and stabilizes the available strategies. Sometimes, introducing a new element to the game that shakes up the geography simply by existing can shake loose degenerative strategies and stabilize things.

One of the places I’ve seen this done very elegantly is in League of Legends. Oftentimes, a new champion will also bring other, older and less-used champions to the fore. The new champion may work very well with the older champions, or the older champions may be a strong counter to the new champion that is otherwise very powerful. The new champion may simply be very good at shutting down the existing dominant strategies, forcing new ones to be formed. It’s not a perfect process by any means, but it’s a very elegant one.

The main thing to remember is that fixing degenerative strategies is EXTREMELY difficult, and is a slow process. Discovering and refining a degenerative strategy takes time, and allowing it to take root and then watching to see if acceptable counter-strategies arise takes even more time. Since the changes required to fix the issue are generally not subtle, it’s important to be sure to collect enough information to correct it properly. Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes it is very, very hard. Games have rewritten their entire ruleset, sometimes multiple times, just to hammer out degenerative strategies.

Source: Digital Initiative
Degenerative Strategy

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