The Peanut Gallery Presents: Snowball mechanics!

pg_titlecard_007Hey all, and welcome to the July edition of the Peanut Gallery! Last week, we looked at the largest gaming convention in the world, and how the feelings and reactions of gamers everywhere can make even the largest companies of this industry change their decisions.

This week we’re going to become amateur game designers as we look at one of my favourite genres of game, MOBAs, and how they have created and popularised snowball mechanics. We’ll be comparing two of these games, League of Legends and Defence of the Ancients, and seeing how each of these games snowball in their own different ways, with regards to how each approaches the idea of snowballing. We’ll also be comparing them to games from another genre and seeing how they approached the mechanics of snowballing.  So put on your hazmat suits and get ready to dive into the world of MOBAs!

But first, what is a snowball mechanic?  Well, snowball is a very large umbrella that encompasses several different mechanics, and the simple truth is that it depends on definition.

In my mind, a snowball mechanic:

  • Is a mechanic responsible for an imbalance between teams.

That is, it is a mechanic that creates a tangible difference, a difference that is measureable and can thus be used to claim which team is ‘winning’. This is the most basic question of any mechanic: does it have an impact? For example, in League of Legends and Defence of the ancients, the main objective is protected by towers. These represent tangible methods of measure how close each team is to achieving their objectives, and it isn’t too rare to hear commentators refer to teams as ‘two towers down’, meaning that their opponents have destroyed two more towers

  • Occurs irrespective of player skill.

This is an important distinction because its interpretation is quite muddled. You see, player skill is irrelevant to the mechanic itself, but player skill controls its magnitude and effect. To explain, killing an enemy champion in League of Legends or Defence of the Ancients gives you gold, which is used to buy items, and experience, which is used to learn new abilities and skills. If we were to take two bots that had the same character, took the same abilities, were of equal skill and acted the same way, then the winner in DOTA or LOL would be the one who attacks first. By killing SecondBot, and surviving, the FirstBot would gain gold and experience. This gold and experience, in turn, makes him stronger. Since these bots act and move and react the same way, the eventual result is that, in a self- fuelling situation, this ‘extra’ gold and experience allows the FirstBot to win more engagements, thus gaining more experience and gold, thus recursively getting stronger. These bots are of equal skill, but not of equal strength, although they began as such.

The reason that player skill is irrelevant to the definition of a snowball mechanic is simple: Being better at a game is not a mechanic. Otherwise, first person shooters would have a core game consisting entirely of snowball mechanics, since the largest factor in any first person shooter is player skill.

So having taken a look at what a snowball mechanic is (or rather how I define a snowball mechanic), you can begin to see that snowball mechanics, especially in DOTA and LoL, are readily apparent in each game. In fact, they form part of the core gameplay. By killing enemy champions, you are not only earning more experience and gold, but depriving them of gold and experience, since their presence is required to earn both. This in turn can lead to these games becoming quite one – sided as the advantages of ‘winning’ can lead a team to survive, and indeed emerge victorious, in situations that their opponents could not. But where do these mechanics fit inside other games. Well, if we look at the recent trends of first person shooters, a pattern occurs.

The existence of killstreaks reward players who manage to gain a particular number of kills. If these particular killstreaks are designed to kill an opponent and stack, they can create a situation where a person only needs a few kills to quite possibly end the game. By allowing the kills created by using a killstreak to count towards attaining the next killstreak, the developers have inadvertently created a snowballing system, where significant emphasis was placed upon killstreaks that could kill directly, and kill streaks that allowed you to kill multiple times with a single killstreak, for example the chopper gunner killstreak of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

These mechanics are often derided for creating situations that can be considered ‘unwinnable’, but their existence is in many ways a required one, as without this game mechanic, both League of Legends and Defence of the ancients would have even longer games and in some cases be perpetually ongoing, depending on the tenacity of its players. So you see, snowball mechanics are a good thing! They provide a metric of measurement, allow for the creation of exciting edge cases and force the conclusion of a game. But this mechanic hasn’t been fully explored, and all sorts of little tweaks and ideas could help expand the idea of snowball mechanics to new heights in the gaming world!

That’s all from me about snowball mechanics, but I hope that this has given you a couple of ideas about things that you could add to games, or even things that you could design or change that could help you take advantage of the way that snowball mechanics create! I’ll see you next month and From the peanut gallery, keep gaming!