Thursday, July 28, 2016

Solving casual PVP: Pokemon Go

So if you haven't been living under a rock, you've heard of Pokemon Go. It's the location based AR app that's taken the world by storm over the past couple of weeks. The game is as popular as it is buggy. Much of the design had been critiqued for employing Skinner box elements. But there are some gems of brilliance in the design. One of those in particular is the way PVP is handled.

Traditional casual PVP suffers from a couple of problems. The most obvious is Pay2Win. Some casual games bias the PVP heavily in favour the players that are paying. This alienates free players. And can make the game unpalatable in the long term.

A more subtle problem is game balance. How do you pit players against each other when they have different abilities and play time? How does the elderly grandma that plays once a week compete with the teen that plays every waking hour? Casual games that forgo Pay2Win often end up being Play2Win, and are heavily biased in favour of those with more play time.

So how did Pokemon Go solve this difficult problem? The trick is in asymmetric PVP. The game is heavily biased in favour of the player who is at the location at the time.

So let's look at how this works. First a quick look at Pokemon Go's PVP structure. Combat happens only at specific locations called gyms. Players attempt to gain control of gyms for their team. The attacker is player controlled. The defender is an AI controlled Pokemon left by another player. Combat is very heavily weighted in favour of the attacker, meaning gyms change hands at high frequency.

So the first layer of bias occurs at the team level. There are three factions a player can choose from, the factions are identical in all respects except for colour. This number three is important. It means that at any given time there are twice as many gyms to attack as there are to defend. Any given gym has twice as many attackers as defenders.

The second layer of bias occurs when a gym is attacked. The attacking player gets to choose six Pokemon to attack with. Most gyms are defended by two to four Pokemon, giving the attacker an instant advantage in numbers. On top of this multiple players can attack a gym at once, further driving the numbers advantage. Not enough for you? The attacker 'wins' and weakens the gym for beating just one Pokemon. There is no penalty for attackers Pokemon that are defeated.

I dunno about you, but six on one odds sound pretty good. No matter how big the other guy is. And that's exactly what Pokemon Go is aiming for.

So what about the team defending the gym? Players approaching a friendly gym can train it. This works by pitting one of the players Pokemon against the gyms Pokemon. For each Pokemon the player beats, the gym gets stronger. Let that sink in for a while, attackers get six Pokemon, trainers get one. 

So what does this mean taken altogether? It means players are incentivised to attack gyms. And with such bias towards the attacker, gyms are changing hands constantly. And that's a good thing. Even the newest player can successfully attack gyms. And the advanced players have an interesting challenge to try and defend the gyms they do capture.

What do you think of how Pokemon Go has handled casual PVP. Have you seen other games do it better? Let me know in the comments below.

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