[Second Looks At Snowballing](/blog/articles/snowball)
A common dynamic in video games is that when players do well at a task, they are given a mechanical reward. From one direction, this makes sense. Players expect to be rewarded for doing well and mechanical rewards are satisfying. However, the result is that players who have just proven themselves more than capable of dealing with the challenge of the game are given the tools to make the game even easier than it was before. So, the challenge decreases for the players that are most capable of dealing with additional challenge. This then lets these players crush their next challenge, which in turn rewards them by making the game even easier and so the challenge snowballs downward. Similarly, games that punish failure with a mechanical loss end up having their challenge snowball upwards.
For instance, in Into The Breach, doing well at a mission gets you bonus currency that you can spend and sometimes even bonus weapons and pilots, which makes future missions easier while doing badly results in less currency and possibly fewer pilots, which makes future missions harder.
At first glance, this is obviously an anti-pattern, and in a number of cases the obvious analysis is correct, but there are a number of places where deeper analysis shows some interesting results.
Difficulty in Downwell
A primary mechanic in Downwell is chaining together kills in a single combo. Getting high combos rewards you with more gems, more charges and more health. So, being able to beat the current challenge makes future challenges easier. However, difficulty increases dramatically in Downwell. By doing this, the game removes the issue of positive snowballing. Essentially, the game’s difficulty increases at a rate similar to your power if you’ve been getting those high combos (or actually a little bit more) and even if the player is doing well, the game remains challenging.
It avoids the issue of negative snowballing with the simple expedient of quickly killing the player. By not dragging the player through a period where the win is unlikely, the pain of being underpowered is greatly diminished. These are both simple solutions to the issue of snowballing and very effective ones. The game is quite hard as a result though.
Another point to consider is that you may want to trend the difficulty downwards with time. This can result in there being less of a challenge in the end-game, but it also means that the player is less likely to lose everything. Losing after half an hour of playing is a pain, but the kind of thing that you can brush off. Losing after getting 20 hours deep is the kind of thing that can absolutely ruin a player’s experience with a game. If there’s a point in the game where reducing the possibility of having the player lose is more important than making sure that the player is challenged, it makes sense to use a positive snowball to mitigate the chance of catastrophe.
The Value of Mechanical Rewards
The thing about mechanical rewards is that their value is extremely straightforward. After a player does well at a task, they expect to feel rewarded appropriately and so the reward needs to feel meaningful to them. This, of course, does not require the reward to be mechanical, but if it is not, the player still needs to feel rewarded or at least acknowledged after receiving it.
Additionally, part of the value of mechanical rewards lies in being able to easily overcome obstacles that earlier stymied you. Part of the fun is in crushing enemies after you get them, but that necessarily means a period without challenge. As a designer, you have to decide whether this feeling of power justifies not challenging your player for a while.
A positive reinforcement system can let a player turn an advantage into a game win quickly and make it so that games where one player has a notable advantage doesn’t drag on despite both players feeling that it’s over. Snowballing is an effective and often elegant way to bring a game to a quick conclusion.
The existence of these counter-examples shouldn’t be taken as a whole-hearted endorsement of snowballing. In many cases, a snowball mechanic can take a game full of fun, interesting choices and render it too simple to be anything but a slog. However, as with most game components, there are enough pieces in play that it’s hard to dismiss anything outright and when handled with care, a snowball mechanic can be a valuable addition to your game.