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  • The Reset Problem: A Case for Single-Player Matchmaking

    - Fabian Fischer

  • Groundhog Play

    In particular, self-contained matches mean "starting from scratch" over and over again. A recent example of this design pattern is Dead Cells. After every death and the following restart, players have to go through the first few levels with their simple monsters and layouts again. Sure, they are procedurally generated, but the frame conditions of the generator stay untouched. It's irrelevant how skillful a player has become already. The game is reset. While the early-game might have been a great starting point initially, it slowly but surely becomes a grind.

    To be clear: This is just one of many examples. Motion Twin's roguelike platformer is a great game and share this problem with most single-player games that can be permanently won or lost. If you're looking for an especially clumsy design, consider Diablo 3 and its "permadeath" mode. Now the early grind takes dozens of hours instead of a few minutes. After all, the feature is more of a curiosity (and a tribute to the game's roguelike roots) rather than a deliberate design.

    In any case we can derive the core of the reset problem from the above observations:

    • Players go through the early-game over and over again. While they get better, this part of the game becomes more and more trivial. Players don't learn anything new anymore and get bored.
    • Players rarely get to see the late-game and only for relatively short amounts of time, since getting there requires time and effort. Therefore, skills and strategies necessary to master the later challenges in the game can only be practiced sporadically.

    This results in a twofold feedback problem. Players learn less and less in the early-game and not often enough in the late-game. Neither part reliably and regularly confronts them with interesting gameplay appropriate to their skill level. The efficiency gained by choosing a match-based format is lost again in this highly suboptimal learning process.

    Asides: Save Points and City-Builders

    By the way, a variant of the reset problem can be found in games with pre-designed levels, too. If the last save point lies too far back, players will not just be confronted with the challenge they just failed again, but also with previous obstacles they had already mastered. In those cases players will sense that their time is not being treated with respect and get frustrated quickly. That's the reason why titles such as Celeste or VVVVVV are praised for their granular structure and frequent save points.

    Another side note: Builder games like Anno or Banished are themselves closely related to the reset problem. Every playthrough tasks the players with fulfilling basic needs again and building the first few default buildings again. Tabula rasa. Interesting decisions come in at a later point. Incidentally, similar things are true for "build orders" in, for example, StarCraft. They are rehearsed in minute detail. A necessary routine besides the "actual" game.

    But now back to match-based single-player. Good news: The reset problem can be solved!


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