The Peanut Gallery Presents: Comeback Mechanics!

pg_titlecard_008Hello, one and all and welcome to the August edition of The Peanut gallery. Last week, we explored how some games, among them League of Legends and Defence of the Ancients, better known as DOTA, have mechanics that force confrontation and gradually widen power gap between the winning and losing sides. These mechanics, known as snowball mechanics, are designed to shorten time of conflict within the game itself. Without them, games of DOTA or League could drag on for hours, each team failing to defeat the other.


But surely these mechanics make the game unbalanced, you cry! Surely if one team earns a tangible benefit, then the very nature of this game is that the rich get richer and the poor simply lose. Many people will point to the anecdotal evidence of being crushed on games of DOTA or League of Legends, where being several kills behind made their opponent’s unstoppable juggernauts, crashing through every defence and destroying the other team.


And they would be right. On their own, snowball mechanics would simply mean that the game was decided by those who gained the advantage earlier. But the simple truth is, snowball mechanics are but one of two different mechanics in DOTA-likes. Their counterpart, comeback mechanics are alive and well, and by writing this, I am attempting to help people see exactly how a team can come back from their slow descent into losing territory.


But what is a comeback mechanic? Or how exactly does one come back? Well, it depends heavily on the game. I’m going to focus on DOTA 2 for the current time, and I’ll discuss how League does things differently.


First, we’re going to look at the characteristics of comeback mechanics. In my mind, comeback mechanics:


•           Are reserved for the late game. This is a simple point: most games do not snowball appreciably until they enter the late game. Thus there less reason for comeback mechanics to be required

•           Are generally hard to implement effectively. This is a natural concession: if they were too easy to execute, then the team who was even slightly behind would use them immediately without a second thought.

•           Are contestable. The big thing about comeback mechanics is that even a team that is behind by an appreciable margin is capable of executing the required strategy. On the other hand, this allows counter play, as the team that is winning can force confrontation by defending areas. We’ll see this more in the League of Legends analysis than the DOTA 2 analysis, but it still exists.


So, where do we find examples of comeback mechanics in the wild? Well, in DOTA 2 they might be a little hard to spot. You see, the strength of a comeback mechanic is related to both the [b][i]severity[/i][/b] and the [b][i]volatility[/i][/b] of the snowball effect. IN DOTA the snowball effect is strong. When you are killed by an enemy champion, you lose:


•           Some gold from your champion. You also give gold and experience to the opponent, thus increasing the gap.

•           You lose out on the potential gold and experience from any waves that attack while you are not in lane. Given that this is the main source of income for most champions, this is very bad.

•           You also lose the ability to deny the gold and experience that your opponent could lose out on if you were in lane.


As you can see this is a lot of direct losses that have occurred with a single kill. In this way, DOTA has a very severe snowball effect. A single kill can put an opponent in a prime position to walk all over you, and to contribute to his team sooner and more effectively.


But you’re playing by the same stakes. If your opponent makes a mistake and you capitalise, then they also miss out on the same opportunities. Thus, a certain equilibrium is achieved; the snowball is severe, but it is volatile. A single error can take any advantage you have, and thus it is easier for a team that is behind to catch up. This system allows DOTA to focus its comeback mechanics in the skills that champions have and contributes to the fast-paced nature of the game. With many skills stunning for upwards of three seconds at later levels, and large amounts of area-of-effect Control options, a well- prepared team working together can chain their crowd control into several enemy kills, effectively neutering the advantage that their opponents have. The caveat? Their opponents can do it too, and the extra power means that they won’t require as many stuns.


In League however, there’s less crowd control. The highest time most crowd control works to is 3 seconds, and there is little AoE control available. Ordinarily this would benefit the winning team more, but League also has a different approach. It is harder to lose experience and gold. However, you cannot deny your opponent of experience or gold, except by killing him and driving your minions to be killed by other means. In this way, Leagues snowball effect is less severe than DOTA’s but is also less volatile. A team that is winning is less likely to win in a straight fight, and with correct targeting and position, the ‘losing’ team can begin to close the gap.


But without access to skills that allow for comebacks, how do people in league lower the deficit between the losing team and the winning team?


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The two creature you see above are Baron Nashor and the Dragon, neutral mobs that defend themselves, and when killed give large amounts of gold to the team that managed to get the last hit.


These two are perfect examples of comeback mechanics. The Dragon functions as a smaller comeback mechanic, and while it spawns early, around 2 minutes and 30 seconds into the map, it is hard to kill for first level characters. Baron Nashor does not spawn for 15 minutes and remains a dangerous prospect all the way until the end of the game. They are hard to kill, but easy to contest, and they not only give global gold, but Baron Nashor empowers his killers, allowing them to stand on equal footing with their snowballing rivals.


These are but two examples of comeback mechanics that exist in the world today. From the slow and steady objective and monster-based mechanics of Baron Nashor and the Dragon, to the volatile and pendulum like-swinging of DOTA 2. What matters is that each of these systems works in proportion to the snowball mechanics they support: if we swapped the systems, how would they fare? Well, DOTA would simply have games decided by the 10 minute mark. Baron Nashor and Dragon would be too hard for the losing team to guarantee a successful kill on, while the winning team could simply kill the monsters at their leisure, accruing even more gold and buffs. On the Other hand, Games of League would get even longer, as minor advantages in gold and experience are countered hard by being simply crowd controlled to death. Both teams would exist in an equilibrium where destroying the enemy teams nexus is impossible so long as they fight, creating a long, stale siege gameplay mentality.


So as we can see, comeback mechanics are simply the counterpart of snowball mechanics, the other side of the coin, so to speak. Without one, the game is imbalanced. Without the other there is no way to resolve a winner.


My two-week foray into game design is over, and regularly scheduled Peanut Gallery begins next Month, as we look towards the release of yet another Magic the Gathering Set. So Join Us next week, as we explore the strangely familiar and dive into Magic the Gathering: Theros!