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Thursday
Oct162008

Slippery Slope and Perpetual Comeback

If a game has slippery slope, it means that falling behind causes you to fall even further behind.

For example, imagine that every time your team scored in basketball that the opponent’s team lost a player. In that game, falling behind is doubly bad because each basket counts for score AND it makes the opposing team less able to score points of its own. The actual game of basketball does not have this screwy feature though, so real basketball does not have slippery slope. Scoring in real basketball puts you closer to winning but does not at all hamper your opponents’ ability to score.

Slippery slope is another name for positive feedback, a loop that amplifies itself as in a nuclear reaction. Because people confuse the terms positive and negative feedback so easily, I prefer the more descriptive term slippery slope.

Slippery slope is usually a bad property in a game. If a game has a powerful slippery slope effect, that means that when one player gets a small early lead, he is more likely to get an even bigger lead, which in turn makes him more likely still to get yet an even bigger lead, and so on. In a game like this, the real victor of the game is decided early on, and the rest of the game is futile to play out (or to watch).

StarCraft and Chess do have slippery slope. They manage to be good games anyway, despite this anti-climactic property. In Chess, when a player loses a piece, his ability to attack, defend, and control space on the board is slightly reduced. Sure, there are many other factors in Chess--positioning, momentum, pawn structure--that determine if a player is actually “losing,” but losing a piece does have an effect. Clearly, losing a lot of pieces, say 8, puts a player at a significant disadvantage. It’s pretty hard to make a comeback in Chess, and a game is usually “won” many, many moves before the actual checkmate move.

This is why there are a lot of forfeits in Chess. Good players don’t actually play out the pointless part of the endgame when they recognize the opponent will definitely win. Chess players would say that forfeits being a regular part of the game is fine and not awkward, but it’s a disappointing quality compared to games without slippery slope. Still, Chess is a pretty good game anyway.

This guy just lost a Chess piece.

StarCraft also has slippery slope. When you lose a unit, you are penalized doubly. First, you are closer to losing (having no units at all is so crippling as to be virtually the same as the actual loss condition of losing all your buildings). Second, you are less able to attack and defend because the unit you lost was not just part of a score, but also part of the actual gameplay of attacking and defending.

In basketball, the score is completely separate from the gameplay. Your ability to score points doesn’t depend at all on what the current score is. You could be ahead by 20 points or behind by 20 points and have the same chances of scoring more points. But in StarCraft (and Chess), the score is bound up with the gameplay. Losing units pushes you closer to loss AND makes it harder to fight back.

StarCraft has even more severe slippery slope when it comes to the game’s economy. Imagine that your opponent rushes you (sends an early attack to your base) and you fend it off. Let’s say you each lost about the same value of units in the exchange, except that you also lost one worker unit. In a different type of game, this might equate to being one “point” behind. But in StarCraft, that can be a crippling loss because gathering minerals is nearly exponential. Your opponent is ahead of you in the resource curve, increasing his earnings faster than you are. You’ve fallen down a very slippery slope here, where an early disadvantage becomes more magnified as the game goes on.

Fighting Games

Fighting games don’t usually have slippery slope. In Street Fighter, for example, your character still has all of his moves even when he’s about to lose. Getting hit puts you behind in life totals (in “score”) but doesn’t limit your gameplay options in the way that losing a piece in Chess does or losing a unit in StarCraft does. An unusual example of a fighting game that does have slippery slope is Bushido Blade. In that game, getting hit can cause you limp around or lose the use of an arm. This is extremely rare in the fighting game genre though, and for good reason.

While it might be "realistic" for a nearly dead character to limp, move slowly, and have generally less effective moves, it's not fun. (At least in Bushido Blade's case, this part of the game lasts only a couple seconds, then you lose.) Meanwhile in Street Fighter, comebacks are frequent and games are often "anybody's game" until the last moment. Street Fighter does have some very minimal slippery slope aspects (if you're very near death you have to worry about taking damage from blocked moves which aren't a threat if you have full life), but overall it's pretty "slippery slope neutral."

There is one fighting game that stands out as an exception: Marvel vs. Capcom 2. In this game, each player chooses 3 characters. At any given time, one character is active and on-screen, and the other two are off-screen, healing back some lost energy. The off-screen characters can be called in to do an assist move, then the jump off screen again. The main character can attack in parallel with the assist character, allowing for a wide variety of tricks and traps. The player can switch the active character at any time, and he loses the game when he loses all three characters. But here, slippery slope rears its bitter head. When one player is down to his last character and the other player has two or even all three of his characters, the first player is at a huge disadvantage. The first player has can no longer attack in parallel with his assists, which often means he has no hope of winning. Comebacks in MvC2 are quite rare and games often "end" before they are technically over.

Fighting games with "ring out" such as Virtua Fighter and Soul Calibur as especially devoid of slippery slope properties. In these games, a player instantly loses if his character is ever pushed out of the ring, no matter how much energy he has. Basically, no matter how far behind you are, no matter how close you are to losing, you always have a 100% damage move: ring out. Long ago, I thought this concept was "cheap" and served only to shorten games while adding little benefit, but actually the threat of ring out adds quite a bit to both these games. Since the threat of ring out is so great, another whole element of positioning is added to the game. A player must fight both to do damage to his opponent, and fight for position to avoid ring out.

Limited Slippery Slope

Fighting games do have very localized, limited kind of slippery slope that’s actually a good quality. If a game truly has no slippery slope whatsoever at any point, then it can feel like a series of disconnected decisions. It’s interesting though, if a decision you make at one point in a game echoes forward through time, and can influence later moves in the game. The problem is if this influence is allowed to snowball into a greater and greater advantage.

In limited slippery slope, there is a cap on how far you can slip and the effect is temporary. In Street Fighter, getting knocked down (hit by a sweep) does have a bit of slippery slope. You lose health (“score”) but you also have temporary limitations on what your character can do. Your character falls down, then gets up into what is usually a disadvantageous situation. The two things that are important about this are: 1) after the knockdown is over, you regain all your moves and 2) you cannot get doubly knocked down.

Ken is at a temporary disadvantage here from being knocked down, but the disadvantage can't snowball into deeper levels of knockdown (there aren't any) and it fades with time.

Hitting the opponent with a sweep does echo forward through time, but this advantage is reset soon after and can’t snowball into “getting REALLY knocked down” because there is no such thing as degrees of knockdown. If you are already knocked down, you can't be knocked down "even more."

Another example is backing the opponent into the corner (the edge of the stage). If you do this, you have a natural advantage because the opponent has fewer movement options. But again, there’s a limit here. Once the opponent is in the corner, he can’t be “more in the corner.” There’s a limit to how disadvantaged he can get.

An even more basic example is anytime you block a move that has a fair amount of recovery. In these case, you recover from your blockstun before the opponent recovers from his move, so you have a few frames to act first. This gives you an advantage because if you both try to do a move of the same speed, yours will win (it will start first). Your good decision to block echoed forward into the future, but the effect is very fleeting. Even one second later, this advantage fades.

So fighting games are full of small, temporary slippery slope effects that actually help the game. And yet, on the macro level, they do not have the real kind of slippery slope, the permanent kind that snowballs until the game ends. Compare this to Chess where you don’t just get your captured pieces back a few turns later.

And RTS Without Slippery Slope

Here’s an idea for turning the full-on slippery slope (usually bad) into the limited kind (usually good). Both players start with the same amount of resources to buy units. When your units are destroyed, your resources are refunded. A delay in the timing of this refund combined with the build-time for making new units means that losing units really is a disadvantage, but that the disadvantage fades over time, similar in nature to getting knocked down in a fighting game. The real-time strategy game World in Conflict does exactly this, but I’ve never actually played it.

My point here isn't about whether World in Conflict is a good game, or even whether the exact refund system stated above is good. It just shows that it is possible to remove slippery slope from an RTS if you try hard enough. Someone very dedicated to that problem could probably come up with an even better way to remove it that results in a deeper game, rather than a shallower one.

Perpetual Comeback

The opposite of slippery slope, I call perpetual comeback. That’s just a more descriptive term for negative feedback. (Also, negative feedback sounds like a bad thing, but it’s usually a good quality in games, so it’s helpful to have a term that doesn’t sound negative.) A thermostat uses negative feedback to keep the temperature of a room from spiraling out of control.

Perpetual comeback, then, is a quality in which being behind actually gives you an advantage. I’d like to draw a distinction between two types of this effect, though. In one, when you are behind, a force pushes on you to help improve your position. An example of this is the Fatboy mutator in Unreal Tournament. In that first-person shooter mod, when you kill an enemy, you become fatter and easier to hit. When you die, you become skinnier and harder to hit. Multiple hits magnify the effect, so if you die over and over you get skinner and skinner. Note that even if you die a lot, you are still losing (your score is not helped), but you do have an advantage (harder to hit).

Beautiful, but dangerous.

A similar example is any version of Mario Kart. The further behind you are, the more powerful the items you get. In last place, you can get the powerful blue turtle shell which has homing powers to zero in on the first place racer. Meanwhile, the first place racer gets only weak items.

Advance Wars: Dual Strike on the Nintendo DS has a similar feature. Each side has a powerful “tag attack” that’s tied to a meter. When you get attacked, your meter fills up at twice the rate as usual, so the losing player will have faster access to this powerful attack, giving him a chance to make a comeback.

In all three of these examples, the games have a force that help out players who are behind and hinder players who are ahead. This is generally a good type of force to have, because it makes games closer, and small early mistakes are not crippling. That said, maybe the effect is too extreme in Mario Kart, or maybe it creates strange artifacts such as avoiding 1st place on purpose for most of the race. And the power of the tag attacks in Advance Wars might be too extreme, making them dominate the game. Tuning issues aside, the concept is still sound and when it’s done right, it can make matches closer and more exciting.

Perpetual Comeback Extreme

There is a different type of perpetual comeback that is far more extreme and far more rare. That’s when getting closer to losing doesn’t JUST give you helping hand, but instead actually puts you ahead. I think the best example of this strange property is Puzzle Fighter.

Puzzle Fighter is, in my opinion, the best puzzle game ever made and I felt that way long before I was lead designer of Puzzle Fighter HD Remix. The game seems standard enough--it's one of those games where each player has a basin that pieces fall into. There are four different colors of pieces, and you try to build big, single colored rectangles (power gems). You can then shatter those rectangles with special pieces called crash gems. The more you break, the more junk you drop on the opponent's side. When your side fills to the top, you lose.

Several factors come together to create perpetual comeback (the extreme version!) in Puzzle Fighter. Firstly, each "character" (there 11 to choose from, including secret characters) has a different "drop pattern." A drop pattern is the pattern of colored blocks that a character will send to his enemy when that character shatters blocks on his own side. For example, Ken's drop pattern is horizontal row of red, followed by a horizontal row of green, then yellow, then blue. Every time Ken sends 6 or fewer blocks to his opponent, he'll send a horizontal row of red. Every time Ken sends 12 blocks, he'll send a row of red, then a row of yellow. Since the enemy knows this, he can plan for it. He can build his blocks such that Ken's attack will actually help rather than hurt. There's one catch: when you send blocks to the opponent, they appear in the form of "counter gems," which can't be broken immediately by normal means, and can't be incorporated into deadly power gems. After about 5 moves, the counter gems change into regular gems.

The other very critical property is that power gems broken higher up on the screen do more much more damage (send many more counter gems) than gems broken at the bottom of the screen. So consider what attacking is actually like in this game. Attacks are really only temporarily damaging, until the counter gems turn into regular gems. At that point, the opponent will probably be able to incorporate the gems into their own plans, since the opponent knows your drop pattern. Even if the opponent isn't able to benefit from your attack in that way, he can still "dig himself out" of trouble by breaking all the stuff you sent him. By filling up his screen most of the way you've basically given him more potential ammunition to fire at you. What's more, as he is nearest to death, his attacks will be the most damaging due to the height bonus. Gems broken at the very top of the screen do significant damage.

Puzzle Fighter has the extremely unusual property that "almost losing" looks exactly like "almost winning." Let's say you break a whole slew of power gems and send a large attack at your opponent. You're screen is now almost empty. You're winning right? His screen is nearly to the top--almost full. He's losing, right? Well, he is on the verge of losing, but he has all the ammunition and he has the height bonus, whereas you have almost nothing left to defend with. In effect, your opponent is both "losing" and "winning" at the same time. Very curious, indeed!

Ken (left) was close to losing, but he got the yellow crash gem he needed just in time. Donovan (right) will lose.

It turns out the best way to play Puzzle Fighter is to very carefully never attack until you can make it count. All those little jabs you make just help the opponent in the long run. You've got to save up for a huge, 1-2 punch. You need to send a big attack that almost kills them, then immediately send another attack that finishes them off. 1, 2! The point is that Puzzle Fighter is a high energy, edge-of-your seat game. Your opponent very often has enough attack to kill you, so you have to have enough defense to stop them. Whenever the scales start to tip in your opponent's favor, they have also, weirdly, tipped in your favor as well, in some sense. A game of Puzzle Fighter is never over until the last moment. Comebacks are the name of the game, and the excitement goes to the very last second almost every time.

Conclusion

Slippery slope is a force that punishes players who fall behind, making them even more likely to fall further behind. Left unchecked, this makes for matches where the real victor is decided long before the game actually ends, leading to either boring endgame play, or lots of forfeits. While fighting games lack this overall slippery slope, they do have several forms of temporary, limited slippery slope that improves gameplay. This limited slippery slope probably exists in other genres as well, but could be a conscious design choice for future games. Finally, perpetual comeback, the opposite of slippery slope, is a force that helps losing players and puts the brakes on winning players, making for close matches. This property can easily go wrong if tuned improperly, but if done well, it leads to closer, more exciting matches. Puzzle Fighter takes this concept to an extreme, by making winning look almost the same as losing.

References (11)

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Reader Comments (113)

In my opinion Fighting Games do have Slippery Slope effects, in the sense of an effect that accumulates 'continuously'. Zoning/Spacing is all about that. As long as you stay in a bad position, you keep losing more life, so basically you 'slide down'. But that is only linear, in RTS-Games the function usually is still polynomial but higher order (growth through resource gathering in StarCraft is polynomial btw.).

November 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMetadeos

I had no idea that the height at which you destroy gems affect their attack power in Puzzle Fighter. Neat.

November 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAntonio

I really enjoyed the new version of this article; in many ways it's much clearer and more useful than the already interesting original.

This is probably a really stupid question, but have you thought about doing videos highlighting some of your game design ideas? While you wouldn't be able to deliver the same kind of depth as you do with your articles-- which is what I love about them, and what makes them so superior-- it would get your ideas out there to a larger audience and allow you to illustrate certain game design concepts with added clarity.

Just a thought.

November 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTom Russell

Starcraft actually has something of a buffer against slippery slope. Although SC definitely does have some obvious slippery slope properties, I've found that they tend to exist more in the details than in the overall picture. A property of SC that I've seen in very few other RTS games is that units do an incredible amount of damage compared to how little health they have. Just a few seconds of combat can completely devastate armies and that immense power serves as a counterbalance to slippery slope. The High Templar shows this property best. For a good example, imagine a PvT match where the Terran has just clobbered the bulk of the Terran army with siege tanks. Slippery slope will definitely affect the Protoss player if he merely retreats and tries to hold off the Terran army, but if he slips down a high templar unexpectedly and psi-storms the moving tanks, he can cause enough damage to the Terran player to fend off the assault.

The power of a single unit in the right place to be able to sway the flow of a large battle in Starcraft really helps to keep everything in check because until there is a very large advantage for a player, the underdog can always force his way back into a favorable position with good micromanagement of his units, even if he is outnumbered.

November 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDBC

I've always found this property (and article) to be very interesting.

Unfortunately, though, I think this property is largely a matter of taste, and the degree to which it is a good thing is debatable. As you pointed out in your Mario Kart section, being in first often is disadvantageous due to incoming blue shells (unless you can get ridiculously far ahead, anyway).

The problem is that when people do the "right thing", they want to be ahead. So if I race clean, and you can't race as cleanly, I should have an advantage. Indeed, many people LIKE accruing gradual advantages in this way; this is one of the reasons chess is so much fun. There are positions where you're behind materially, but ahead positionally, which can lead to very interesting games, and simple gradual positional advantage can win the game for you relatively quickly (either via checkmate or simply via converting into an unsurmountable material advantage) - and sometimes some early move you made has major repercussions twenty-odd moves later and wins you the game (or causes you to lose).

People enjoy this as well, and not all games SHOULD allow for perpetual comeback, because if you do, then you're excluding a huge category of players.

Basically, you are not thinking outside yourself. You must always remember that people have varied preferences, and at times, you seem to forget that in articles like this. YOU may find slippery slope bad, but many people enjoy gradually accumulating advantage which causes them to win. Both are fine ways to build a game, and intentionally neglecting either group is a bad thing.

November 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTitanium Dragon

Incidentally, there's another thing you're missing which is rather important as well. Part of the reason you see so many forfeits in chess is because players can see further ahead than in most games - you know whether you're going to lose or not many turns in advance. This is the nature of the game. As such, the moment you know you're going to lose, you can forfeit and conserve your mental energy. You see the same in Magic - people are only seldom reduced to zero life in tournament play. Usually, one player or another will forfeit because they know they've lost and they don't want to waste time (or they want to conceal information, which is an added level of strategy not present in a lot of other games like this, as it is a game where you can see into the future a good distance but there is still a lot of hidden information).

Forfeits aren't a bad thing at all. Just because you don't like them doesn't mean that other people don't find them valuable, and Magic is a particularly interesting example in that regard as forfeiting can actually give you an advantage in the next match by preventing your opponent from knowing what deck you're playing so it is difficult for them to sideboard effectively against you, while you know what they're playing and can sideboard appropriately and swoop in for an easy kill and then a hard fought third game once they know what you're doing.

November 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTitanium Dragon

One game that has a high slippery slope is the FPS QuakeWorld (i.e. Quake1). It can be lumped with SC and SF2 as one of the few old video/computer games still in 1-on-1 tourney play today. Fast-paced gameplay and fluid movements are what keeps ppl playing it.

Definitely a hardcore game due to high mastery curve--even for experts in other Quake games. Once a player gets an early lead, it's hard for the opponent to make a comeback. Scores of 22:3 or 17:-4 (lava maps & telefrags) are common--even when two elite players are dueling.

QW strategy is to establishes control of the map's prime resource spawns--denying the opponent the best stuff. It's due to the so-called unbalanced weaponry in QW (which id tried to "fix" in Q2 to the detriment of tourney play). However, if the losing player kills the controlling player and "runs the map," there's a comeback chance. Thankfully, each game is only a few mins long and different maps are used in a best of # for the winner.

With that said, although it's great for hardcore players, the slippery slope is too much for noobs on public servers--it deters new players from giving it a chance. With each new Quake game, id tried to balance the casual vs hardcore elements to some degrees of success. However, QW is still arguably the best for tournies.

Btw, download the multiplayer game legally @ http://nquake.com/ It includes bots for offline play.

November 15, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdarkwolfe

Titatium Dragon: I disagree with your comments.

1) You say that blue shells show that perpetual comeback isn't always good, as shown by Mario Kart. That shows that slippery slope can be poorly implemented so that it creates undesirable artifacts. That doesn't mean the concept is bad. Furthermore, I don't think I ever said that perpetual comeback is always good anyway. It's just potentially very good if done right.

2) "Another thing that I'm missing(??) that's rather important" is that players can see pretty far ahead in Chess and know if they will lose many turns in advance. That is exactly my point! I am not "missing" that. I wrote about how lame-duck situations are bad here: http://www.sirlin.net/articles/balancing-multiplayer-games-part-2-viable-options.html

3) You say that a game with lots of forfeits allows you to conserve mental energy. Yes, but at the expense of being a game with lots of forfeits. Games without forfeits come to exciting climaxes and are never over before they're over, so after considering the (extremely small) trade-off, here, I have to say that all things being equal, we'd rather have a game without excessive forfeits.

4) You give Magic: The Gathering as an example of why forfeits are good because you can forfeit to hide the contents of your deck from future players. I'll toss in another point on your side that you could have said. MTG also has the concept of intentionally drawing (that is, not playing at all, just agreeing to draw) rather than actually playing because it can be advantageous for both players to get to top 8 if the situation is right.

Both of those cases are artifacts of the tournament system the game uses. They have nothing to do with fun gameplay. So the argument that a game full of forfeits allows for somewhat of a band-aid solution to the problem of being scouted in a tournament is a week argument indeed. If we were to design a new game, we would say "how can we prevent a bunch of forfeits?" not "how can we design lots of forfeits into the game to slightly reduce how much people will get scouted in a tournament?"

5) "I should remember that other people have valid preferences" and "I'm not thinking outside myself" because other people like slippery slope. That's a mix of straw man argument and condescension. The article speaks very favorable about "limited slippery slope" and think that's a good model for competitive games. If you want to go beyond merely "limited" to full-on slippery slope, then yeah I'm saying that all other things being equal, you wouldn't want that in a game.

I think it is ok to make some claims in life. Some people might enjoy banging their head against a wall, or playing a story game with no ending, or being bombarded with a loud annoying beep during most of a game. People have strange preferences that are different from my own. I don't think it's useful to acknowledge every single possible preference in every statement, or else you couldn't really make a statement. "Don't put loud annoying beeps in your game that keep beeping" is a reasonable claim, even though some people might like that.

By the same token, "don't make a game with excessive forfeits because it suffers from too much slippery slope" is also another good rule of thumb. It's not that I haven't taken other people's thoughts into account. It's that all things being equal, a game is more exciting when it ends when it ends. Games that have too much slippery slope end way before they end, and that's frustrating and frankly poor design. Why should ever put the player in a situation where continuing to play is pointless, yet the game rules haven't triggered a win yet?

I'll tell you the reason to do that. The reason is if something else in the game is so good that we're willing to forgive this feature. You could say that Chess and StarCraft qualify here. They each have properties that are good enough that we're willing to forgive the drawback of lots of slippery slope and forfeits. But if I had a magic wand that could create new games exactly as deep and fun as those two games, but that DIDN'T have the drawbacks, then I think it's fair to say it's preferable to do so.

Some people will enjoy the (bad) feature of many forfeits, some people will enjoy the loud beeping every few seconds in the example above, and I'm taking that into account when I say that generally we should remove these bad features when it's possible to do so.

November 15, 2008 | Registered CommenterSirlin

1) That wasn't my point, actually. You specifically said that it was an unbalanced form of it.

The point was not "blue shells show perpetual comeback isn't always good", and indeed I probably should have chosen a different example because you're focusing on the wrong thing. The point was "many people do not like giving their foe an advantage by being better". This is actually a fairly common complaint; some people absolutely abhor gameplay of this sort. They like being able to gradually lever a small advantange into a larger and larger advantage. If two players are playing a game, one makes a small mistake, then later in the match the other person makes a small mistake, the person who made the second small mistake does not want to be behind the person who made the second small mistake.

2) I had not read this article yet, so I went off and read it. You are wrong about lame-duck situations, or rather, what is the actual problem. What is bad is not a lame duck situation, but rather being locked into playing a lost game. There's a very important difference between the two. It is awkward to quit out of a fighting game because of the nature of the game, but it is not nearly so awkward to quit out of a Starcraft match. It isn't awkward at all to quit out of a game of Magic or Chess.

Depending on the sort of game you're playing, forfeiture can be anywhere from perfectly fine to radically unacceptable. It IS unacceptable to have situations wherein you'd forfeit in a fighting game, but in a game like Magic its fine.

3) This alone is not a reason to do it.

4) The reason I used forfeiting in a game and going onto the next game as an example, and not intentional draws, is because they are different. An ID can prevent scouting, but you aren't ever actually playing a game.

On the other hand, intentionally forfeiting the first game of a match after you're put in an unwinnable position, but before you've exposed what deck you're playing, has an immediate impact on the game at hand - you're going into the next game of the match with an advantage. Sideboarding IS a part of Magic, and it makes its multiple games within a single match format linked in ways that most games are not.

Thus simply saying "forfeits are bad" is wrong, because there are times when it can actually add strategic depth and make successive games more exciting - if your opponent forfeiting early, going into round 2 you have to play a guessing game of what to sideboard against and what to play against until you know what they're actually playing. This is still exciting, and it still creates tension, it just does it at a different time.

5) I'm not trying to be condescending, and there's nothing wrong with making claims. But I think you're overgeneralizing based on personal preference.

If I make a small mistake at the beginning of the game, we both play perfectly over the course of the rest of the game, and then you make the same small mistake later on, who is ahead, and by how much?

In some games, the two will be even. In some games, the player who made the first mistake will be behind, because the small advantage was levered into bigger advantages over the course of the game by the second player, and making a small mistake later on was insufficient to completely reverse the accrued disadvantage - StarCraft would be an example of this. And in some games, the player who made the second mistake would be behind, as being behind causes you to deal more damage (Mario Kart might be an example, as would Super Smash Brothers games).

There are people who will answer each of those three ways, and there are people who feel that at least one of those ways is really unfun and unfair, and so will avoid games of that sort because they dislike that sort of gameplay.

Forfeits come from the second type of game.

November 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTitanium Dragon

Sure it's easy to forfeit, but being forced to play out the winning side of an already-decided chess game can sometimes be pretty darn annoying. I'd rather move on and play a new game with new possibilities. Especially over the internet, where certain individuals who didn't enjoy making their mistake will grief you by consuming the maximum clock time allowed and offer you draws.

I have also seen that "strategy" employed in online magic drafts.

It's possible that people can enjoy slippery slope, but I would agree with the article that it is at best a bad quality of a good game.

On the topic of loud annoying beeps, Sirlin, my friend is making this fantastic game where you are constantly assaulted by a loud annoying beep that also has red flashes on the screen. It's great because when you kill the boss at the end of a level the beeping stops, and you have this enormous feeling of accomplishment because of all the pent-up rage from that gad-damn beeping.

It's based on the original Zelda.

November 17, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterricefrog

Sirlin - in one of your Street Fighter Tutorial videos (the Super Turbo ones), you describe one of Honda's "traps" against Bison in the corner of the screen. You say something like, "If you can get into this situation, you should stay in it and ride it all the way to victory. It can be almost impossible for Bison to get out of this."

Is this not slippery slope? "Trapping" Bison in the corner and getting him into a situation that's "almost impossible for him to get out of"? What about 0-to-death combos? Aren't those slippery slope? The first hit lands, and then your opponent can't do anything to prevent additional hits? Aren't combos themselves an example of slippery slope?


I think you have to be careful about how you're defining/applying the definition of slippery slope. You say that "if a game has slippery slope, it means that falling behind causes you to fall even further behind." By this logic, the player who makes the first mistake loses, because the first mistake makes them fall even further behind, and more, and more, and more, until they lose. I don't know of a single game that does this. There are certainly situations in games where, if you make a big enough mistake, you will lose because that one mistake was big/bad enough to give your opponent a solid lead to victory. But that doesn't mean that every mistake is fatal. People wouldn't play such games if they were like you're describing them to be. No one wants to play a game where they can always tell who's going to win based on who made the first mistake.

You bring up chess and StarCraft as examples of slippery slope. Yes, there are aspects of both of those games that can cause a player to lose after even one mistake. What's wrong with that? Competitive players should be prepared for serious punishment if they make big mistakes; to say otherwise is to make a mockery of competitive play and teaches "bad policy", so to speak. But there are also aspects, mainly "those other factors" that you didn't elaborate on, of these games that allow players to come back time and time again. Metagame/psychology, to name one. At higher levels of play, often when both players have mastered the technical levels of a game, mindgames is ALL there is, or close to it. Slippery slope becomes way less important because both players are already aware of it, know how to manipulate it, and know how to escape from it as well. Not to mention it's not nearly as bad as you're saying.

When a player "forfeits" in chess, they've essentially "lost" the game. You seem to imply that there's still some game left to be played - there's not. Both players know it's over. It's not like they need some announcer to say "K.O.!" or something like that to know it's over. The real "game" includes that period of time when the players are trying to read each other's minds and predict each other's moves;; the game does NOT include that "lame-duck" part when both players know it's already over. You're not being fair to chess by calling that part of the game. That's like saying that McCain was "still in the game" even when it was clear that Obama already had the electoral vote majority; obviously, the game was already over. You're not making any strong points about chess, and competitive chess players would already know anyway that your labeling of the "forfeit" period as part of the game is wrong.

Same thing for StarCraft. Losing one unit does not mean you're instantly behind in the game, especially if you used that one unit well. If I lose a scouting zergling that's been harassing my opponent's probes for the past five minutes, I'm not on a slippery slope. Conversely, my opponent who has had to expend his time and effort to chase down that one unit and kill it (even though he loses no units of his own) is the one that's behind. There's so much you're not touching on here - I'll leave it to other posters to explain it, but basically you're leaving out too many factors and making a massive generalization about a game that you probably don't know well enough (with all due respect - I realize that you may not have time to explore the extremities of StarCraft).

You say that " in Street Fighter, comebacks are frequent and games are often 'anybody's game' until the last moment." Well, yeah...I bet they are. Games are "anybody's game" in StarCraft as well - I just watched a professional StarCraft match in which two players rushed each other back and forth until both their armies were whittled down to 3-4 units, each had no workers left, and they had no money left to build anything else. It literally came down to the last second of the game before the loser said "gg", and no one could guess who it would be until then. Most games of StarCraft are like that. Very rarely can you actually guess from a single event in a game who's going to win. In fact, before most broadcasted professional StarCraft matches, they usually display "statistics" that show which player is predicted to win by the audience. Nine times out of ten, the predictions have been wrong this season - upsets are happening left and right. Each game is still as fresh as ever.

And, if you don't mind, a question: how much experience do you actually have with games other than Street Fighter? Obviously you have some experience with Brawl...but what about chess and StarCraft and MvC and all these other games that you talk about so much? How often have you played them? How good are you at them? Do you play them competitively? I'm just curious...pardon my insolence.

November 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterInTheory

I explain the Honda trap in corner situation here: http://www.sirlin.net/articles/balancing-multiplayer-games-part-2-viable-options.html (under checkmate situations and lame-duck situations).

Your claim that at high level, slippery slope becomes less important: wrong.

Your claim that when you make a mistake, you should be behind: sure, and with neutral (no) slippery slope, you are behind when you make a mistake. The complaint is when this snowballs without limit to make it MUCH harder to catch up, rather than just "regular harder" to catch up with neutral slope.

What's wrong with slippery slope? I've explained it so many times, don't know what else to tell you.

"Why are forfeits bad?" Isn't this self-evident? When the game can continue pointlessly, that is a flaw. A good game could have this flaw and still be good because there are more important factors. The flaw should be pretty obvious: if you have effectively lost, you can stall the game to be a jerk (I've seen it many times in starcraft) or you just don't realize you lost because you are new (have seen it in Go). Certainly it's better to not have that feature, all other things being equal. If you could remove it without disrupting the game, you would.

The above text is true whether I am the best player of StarCraft in the world, or a person who has never played. The very nature of the game is that it has slippery slope. You seem offended for no reason over this. Let's say that I'm exactly right, that it does. So what? Is it a good game? Yes. Should we strive to remove this undesirable feature from games when we can? Yes. It is not any kind of attack on your pet game.

November 18, 2008 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I think instead of you guys attacking the stance "slippery slope is bad" you should be making a more interesting counterclaim that starts with "Yes, but", such as, "Yes, but there is a class of games that have desireable features X, Y & Z, but those features come at the cost of also having slippery slope. So slippery slope must always exist in a certain class of otherwise fun games."

Then explore the link between these fun features and slippery slope. Maybe it has to do with the intertwining of the score and the pieces, as sirlin mentioned in the article. Or maybe it's more about titanium dragon's difference between early mistakes and later mistakes, and the fact that it's fun in some games when early mistakes hurt more. Or maybe it's about something else entirely, I don't know.

But it isn't about forfeits and playing lame duck dead-endgames against clock-griefers being fun. That I can promise you.

November 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterricefrog

"Your claim that when you make a mistake, you should be behind: sure, and with neutral (no) slippery slope, you are behind when you make a mistake. The complaint is when this snowballs without limit to make it MUCH harder to catch up, rather than just "regular harder" to catch up with neutral slope."

Alright, so at least we both agree on this - making mistakes should push you behind your opponent. No questions asked.

However, you still haven't justified the Honda trap (and other such traps, I might add...) in terms of slippery slope. You claim that Street Fighter has "limited slippery slope", but I see this as an example of a very, very harsh slope indeed - especially since it becomes quite difficult for your opponent to escape. On another note, "limited slippery slope" as opposed to what? "Total" slippery slope? Are you saying that it's generally easy to catch up in Street Fighter, but generally difficult to catch up in chess or StarCraft? Hopefully not, because if you are, this discussion becomes that much more difficult for both of us - namely, I (and probably other posters) have to spend copious amounts of time explaining that making a mistake in StarCraft or chess does NOT make your disadvantage "snowball without limit" until you lose. It does give you a disadvantage (depending, obviously, on the degree of mistake that you made), but it doesn't prevent you from coming back. That's what you make it sound like when you say "snowballs without limit", and you know that's not true.

DBC made an excellent point (his is one of the first responses) when he said that StarCraft has a "buffer" against slippery slope; the example he gave was a few crucial units being used to drive back an overwhelming army. Not to go into too much detail, but the Terran army mid- to late- game, is extremely powerful against Protoss because of its Siege tank power and range. Protoss can lose half or most of their army simply by walking too close, while Terran can just sit back and wait. However, if Protoss gets a couple High Templar within range, a few well-placed Psi Storms can rip through the Terran army and completely "flip" the advantage that the Terran had; Protoss can do this even with a drastically inferior army. You would call that "perpetual comeback", not slippery slope. There are so many situations like this in StarCraft I can't begin to describe them. It would take hours for me to explain to you all the instances there are of this "flip" factor - and that's part of what you're leaving out when you talk about the game. You completely ignore things like player micro, intelligence, mindgames, etc., choosing only to focus on "unit lost = default disadvantage." Really shallow, general argument that really makes me wonder how much you know this game.

This is why I asked you how much competitive chess and StarCraft you've actually played. You're failing to give concrete, comprehensive examples of slippery slope in each of these games. You qualify your statements by saying "well, there's other factors...etc.", but you gloss over them and stubbornly stick to yoru original statement that "one mistake = snowball effect = eventual loss." You're not willing to discuss the extremities of the game like you are with Street Fighter (although I can understand this - doing StarCraft justice would take up more time than I think either one of us would be willing to give up ). Overall, the only real point you've made is that these games have some amount of slippery slope. Congratulations. They do. So does Street Fighter. I've given you an example of incredibly steep slope in Street Fighter. I've given you an example of perpetual comeback in StarCraft.

I'm not sure how you plan to prove that making a mistake in Street Fighter as opposed to StarCraft and chess will always cost you less and allow you to come back, especially considering that you yourself talked about some very steep-slope aspects of Super Turbo in your tutorial videos. Maybe you're talking about the same thing, except that in Street Fighter it's called "riding the wave to victory" and in StarCraft and chess it's called "pushing your opponent down the slippery slope." You haven't proved otherwise by anything you've said, and I certainly invite you to try. This is definitely a discussion that I think I can enjoy if it's handled intelligently by both of us.

November 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterInTheory

InTheory: You miss the main point of what Sirlin was talking about. Maybe it becomes clearer if I try to organize the 'slopes' in a dfferent way.

- negative slope: Mainly used in partygames. This is what Sirlin probably meant by 'perpetual comeback'. The losing player may use the difference in 'score' or 'momentum' in some way to his advantage. In Mario Kart this means you get better Items for every Rank you fall behind. In Puzzle Fighter you can use the 'filling level' of your stage (which brings you closer to losing) in your attack. StarCraft doesn't have any system of that kind. The system can be used in competitive games if the winning player has a way to counter your 'losing-Joker' and if the 'powerup' always comes with a risk, putting you on the edge of losing before you can use it effectively (giving the leading player the chance to finish you off).

- neutral slope: This is when falling back doesn't have any effect on how hard it is to catch up. Like Time Trials. If you're some seconds behind, it doesn't matter when you catch up, you just have to get back later what you lost at some point.

- linear slope: This is what you find in fighting games. The advantage in 'momentum' coming from the right spacing, gives you a somewhat constant amount of 'score' (reduction of the opponent's lifebar) per unit of time. This makes the score-gain linear. Your example of Spacing with Honda is an example. As long as the Momentum stays in his favor, he gains linear score by continuously reducing Bison's lifebar at a 'constant' rate. For Bison the difficulty of breaking free doesn't increase with time, once he does, he stops losing health instantly and has to catch up what he lost by turning the momentum in his favor.

- (higher order) polynomial slope: This is what you usually have in RTS-games and what Sirlin calls 'slippery'. If you have one expansion less, you get less new resources and less new units, meaning the longer the game stays in this state, the bigger the difference in momentum gets. That means your opponent has not just constant, but growing score-gain per unit of time. It also means it gets harder to land your 'game turning' maneuver, not only because you need to 'kill a higher amount of resources in unit-form', but because it is more difficult to actually do that. You can still get the momentum back up to some point (at which the opponent plain outgrows you), this is why StarCraft is such a well-designed game. It doesn't change the fact, that in pretty much every RTS-game the advantage of the leading player grows at an increasing rate as long as the weaker player doesn't actively stop him.

The basic point is:
You should try to avoid 'the longer you're behind the faster (not at a constant rate!) the difference grows'-features. StarCraft compensates, it doesn't avoid.

November 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMetadeos

""unit lost = default disadvantage."" He means 'Important mistake made = disadvantage that makes it harder to catch up with the snowball effect'
So the scout(owned by p1) annoying the opponent(p2), eventually killed, is more of a mistake on the person who spent the time chasing it down(p2). This won't decide the game, but it just might push p2 a tiny bit closer to the edge of the cliff. Here, its not about "units lost" but 'resources and time lost'.

November 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLLL

Metadoes - you're over-generalizing the situation as well. StarCraft certainly CAN have a "polynomial/exponential" slope, if the situation allows for it; getting rushed early and having half your workers taken out will create such an effect. You are, however, incorrect to say that it has this type of slope by default - StarCraft's slope can be linear as well as neutral (to use your terms) depending on the situation at hand. Remember, the type of "slippery" slope that you and Sirlin are referring to is the kind that "creates a snowball effect that makes it hard/impossible to come back." As I've said before (and if need be I can provide more examples), there are many, many situations in StarCraft where it is not only possible for a player to turn the game around, but quite within that player's grasp. Big enough mistakes can create "slippery" slope from which it's hard to recover, but smaller mistakes (which are much more likely, especially at higher levels of play) will create "linear" or "neutral" slopes.

Keep in mind that economy and military are constantly at odds in StarCraft. In fact, having more of one means, by default, that you have less of the other. If I decide to expand early in order to out-resource my opponent, I'll have, by default, less units to fight with. My opponent, meantime, will have more units at his disposal, but less resources. Add the fact that both soldiers and economy can be "converted" into each other in a given amount of time (more military presence means you can safely expand more; more money means you can build more soldiers eventually, etc.), and you have an incredibly dynamic, flexible set of conditions that can be very quickly manipulated by a skilled player. You can't assume that one player is going to sit back and just let the other player somehow grow stronger in both military AND economy; a player like that is what we call a "newb". And yes, slippery slope does occur when this happens. But it should. That, in itself, is a fatal mistake that deserves a loss (yet players can still come back even in these situations...). I can only assume that that's the mistake you're referring to - getting in a situation where your opponent is beating you both economically and militarily. And again, you deserve to lose for doing that - that's a huge mistake.

November 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterInTheory

Street Fighter definitely has a slippery slope element that you've missed: Chip damage. As a player loses more and more health, his or her ability to defend attacks is reduced based on the amount of chip damage that attack would induce. In Street Fighter 3 a player with 1% health for example, can no longer block attacks, but must instead avoid or parry those attacks, removing a crucial strategy. A player with 3% health may be able to block special moves, but not multi-hit supers, and so on.

It's not something I would consider a "limited" slippery slope, and I'm surprised you missed it in your analysis.

November 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTheChirurgeon

chir, unless i misunderstand what you're saying, that is discussed in the 11th paragraph.

November 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterricefrog

"However, you still haven't justified the Honda trap (and other such traps, I might add...) "

Those are very specific situations. And they aren't justifiable. But they also make up a small part of the game. So some characters (3 is it?) can have a very slippery slope, It's basically, you start it, you win. But, you have to sit there doing it. It's a lame duck situation that shouldn't be there, and if I recall correctly, as removed in HD remix.

November 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterlink6616

link6616 - Yes, I know that "trap" situations in SF are very specific. However, they are still parts of the game that exhibit not just "slippery" slope, but VERY slippery slope that is far worse than that found in StarCraft, chess, etc. Sirlin fails to address the distinction between a game BEING slippery slope and a game having SOME slippery slope situations in it, and that's the distinction I'm trying to point out. StarCraft is not slippery slope by definition; there are some situations that will cause you to go into a "lameduck" game, but certainly not all situations - comebacks and upsets happen, literally, all the time in high-level plaly. SF is the same way - there are some situations in which it is very hard and almost impossible for a fighter to come back, while in other situations it is easier to turn the tide of the fight.

November 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterInTheory

I don't think that the Honda vs. Bison trap is a fair example of slippery slope. Although it can be extremely difficult for Bison to escape, each subsequent hit he receives as a result of being in the trap does NOT increase the difficulty for him to escape the next hit. Even if his chance of escape is something like %2 it is still possible for the Bison player to escape the trap with 1HP left and continue to still win the round despite being trapped for some time.

This to me makes it not a valid slippery slope.

November 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterOwen

InTheory: Slippery slope does not mean that trading blows doesn't happen, comebacks are impossible, and that mistakes don't happen. Slippery slope simply means that as you fall behind, your ability to compete decreases.

The slippery slope in Starcraft is very clear -- if, without compensation, you suffer greater losses than your opponent in a skirmish, or fall behind economically, then you have less ability to win the next battle, or to exert map control.

However, if you lost a battle but gained equal compensation in return (e.g. it allowed you to secure a useful tech lead, or you sacrificed troops to distract your opponent from a successful peon raid) then you were never losing, and there were no comebacks involved -- you simply traded blows with your opponent.

However, if you did not gain compensation for such a loss, then you are now falling behind, and you have less ability to catch up. Most, if not all, of your options are now less likely to succeed. If nothing changes, on average you will have even more losses in your next fight. Or your opponent might convert into a more persistent advantage by investing economically / technologically. Sometimes, the matchup is forgiving, and small losses can be shrugged off with a reasonable chance to get lucky in one of the next few key moments. Less forgiving matchups or larger losses can still be equalized through a desperate maneuver with low odds but high payoffs. But either way, the average result is that each loss you sustain leads to bigger losses as the game progresses.

The ultimate example of an unforgiving matchup is Zerg vs Zerg, back when it was all about zerglings in the early game. Small losses often meant certain defeat because the winner could afford an extra drone or two, and overlord scouting / ability to expand rapidly made it very, very difficult to succeed with a desperate maneuver.

To put it all differently -- if you and your opponent are equally matched, and then he wins a fight by 100 minerals, then he can invest 50 minerals into his economy and 50 minerals into his army. He is now beating you both militarily and economically, the very situation where you say one deserves to lose.

November 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHurkyl

I have some doubts about how well this author understands Chess.

The whole point of Chess at the highest levels *is* beating your opponent *before* the game actual comes to what the author might consider 'a satisfactory conclusion'.
Saying 'forfeits' are bad in Chess is simply acknowledging a lack of understanding of Chess.

That is, especially at the highest levels of play, the point is to get into a situation where both sides recognize who will win and they both say 'good game', shake hands and move on (to whatever they planned to do after that game - whether it was another session of Chess, a session of another game or something else).

I also think the "Chess is a pretty good game anyway" comment is quite revealing of this author's view.
If you use one hand to count games that have been around as long as Chess, are as worldwide/universal as Chess and have even a tenth as many daily/weekly/monthly players as Chess, you will have a few fingers left - "a pretty good game" indeed!
If any of the other games mentioned in this article last as long as (and garner as large a following as) Chess, everyone will be more than surprised - they will be *completely* shocked!

Similarly, I disagree with the characterization of 'slippery slope' as an "undesirable feature".
Such a claim is clearly an opinion, not a fact.
As such, the author is merely stating his personal preference for games (i.e. an opinion on what he likes/dislikes in a game).
Some players like games where everyone is standing on the point of a pin and any error will knock you off (and cause you to lose).
Apparently, such a game would not be to this author's liking.
That does not make the game 'bad', 'inherently flawed' or any other similar 'claim'.

Not every game is for everyone (not even "a pretty good game" like Go).
But just because someone does not like a particular game (or aspect of that game) does not mean the game is bad (or that part of the game is "a bad property" or an "undesirable feature").
All that means is different people have different tastes (which is like saying 'The Sky is Blue' or 'The Grass is Green'; i.e.stating the obvious).

DonMoody

December 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDonMoody

Hurkyl - I agree with almost everything you said: if you suffer an "uncompensated loss", then you'll fall further behind; if you suffer a "compensated" loss, then there will be no "net punishment" for you. Where does this leave us? Well, for starters, this statement of yours shows that StarCraft is a game in which you have multiple types of "slope" - you have slippery, neutral, and sometimes even "reverse" slope. You can't generalize and say that the game as a whole is slippery slope when there's several different types of slope that come into play. In some games, slippery slope is nonexistent because neither player actually makes a big enough mistake to start the slippery slope. In other games, slippery slope shows up right away because someone forgets to block their ramp and loses to an early rush. Other games start out being "slippery" but quickly "even out" when the losing player pulls a trick out of his sleeve and turns the game around.

That's why I disagree with your statement that "the average result is that each loss you sustain leads to bigger losses as the game progresses." The problem with this argument is that there IS no "average" result - as I said before, there are many types of slope present in StarCraft and no one type dominates over the others. I'd be stupid to say that every mistake I make in StarCraft will cause slippery slope. I'd be just as stupid to say that every mistake I make can be completely "compensated" or recovered from. I can lose my entire army to my opponent and still win the game if I play well enough. Yet I can lose the game in a few seconds if I let my opponent storm-drop all of my workers with High Templar. Two different situations; two different slopes. Similarly, I'd be stupid to say that every mistake in SF results in an eventual loss for the erring player, and just as stupid to say that every mistake can be completely recovered from. Getting hit by Ken's Dragon Punch will probably not end the game for me, although it will do a decent amount of damage. Getting stuck in the corner with Honda's trap, however, will make it extremely hard for me to turn the game around. Again, two different situations; two different slopes.

You ARE correct that the ZvZ matchup is unforgiving - unit/worker losses mean more, overall, in that matchup than in others. However, even that matchup is not dominated by slippery slope. There are ways to "compensate", as you say, for your opponent having more drones/zerglings/mutas/whatever than you. (Obviously if there weren't, then no one would ever bother trying a different tech path than their opponent). For example, you can make 2 scourge for only 75 gas; these scourge can kill 1 mutalisk or cripple 2 of your opponent's for less gas and minerals than he spent on his mutalisks. You can actually do more damage to him by using less resources; this is a deadly technique and can quickly even the odds in a lop-sided fight. If your opponent has more expansions/drones than you do, then you can simply attack him in the early game and force him to either lose an expansion or waste money on making units/buildings to defend your attack. There's a constant balance (in ALL matchups, I might add) between economy and military; the more you have of one, the less you have of the other. Knowing how to manipulate those two aspects can make you a really flexible player and allow you to adapt to many situations, even within a single build order. So yes, while the ZvZ matchup IS unforgiving relative to other matchups, it is by no means "explicitly" slippery slope - there are many ways to come back even in this matchup.

December 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterInTheory

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