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Meta Gaming: A Dominant Strategy Is Bad For The Game

5 Minute Read
Oct 6 2018
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When one strategy rises to the top of a game and becomes the defacto “winning” option, then you’ve got a Dominant Strategy – that’s just bad for the game. But fixing the problem takes some creativity.

If you’ve played a game competitively – no matter the type of game – then you’ve probably come across the concept of a Dominant Strategy. This is when one concept/strategy/tactic/playstyle/etc. becomes the clear and obvious option to win. In game theory, this is also referred to as “strategic dominance” and it’s generally considered pretty terrible for your game.

For example, in the 40k meta right now, Imperial Knights are the most winning faction and the most played faction. We know this from the data provided by BCP. And while they might not be included in the Winning List this week, they’ve been pretty intricate in the meta for many weeks in a row now. I wouldn’t say that including Imperial Knights in your list is going to make you auto-win but it’s certainly not going to hurt your odds either.

At most, I’d consider Imperial Knights to be weakly dominating – meaning that taking Imperial Knights is going to provide you with a better outcome most of the time, but not all of the time. But in the current meta, they keep showing up at the top of the pile. There are many reasons for this and getting into them is another article altogether. Plus, with the recent changes to CP and stratagems, we might see them shift a bit in the upcoming months.

40k also uses dice which can really stab you in the back sometimes. Now, it’s NOT the dice’s fault when you lose…but they can certainly contribute to a loss. I would also argue that 40k has a pretty diverse meta and part of that is because of the dice. Randomness can compensate for things in game design – but what happens if you remove the randomness? Would Knights still be a the top of the meta?

A Better Example

Let’s take a step back from tabletop gaming for a moment and enter the digital world of video games a moment. There is currently one very clear example in my mind of a Dominant Strategy in a video game I’ve been chewing on – Destiny 2, a game where you and your friends planet hop replaying the same adventures while hoping for better gear. It’s a pretty popular game and while we don’t normally cover video games that aren’t related to tabletop games, I’m making an exception this time because it’s a very clear example of a Dominant Strategy.

Destiny 2 has a mix of PvE (player vs environment/enemy) and PvP (player vs player) game modes. Most of the time, these two activities are distinct and separate. But in the latest expansion, a new game mode was introduced that combined the two in a unique way. This mode is called “Gambit” and it’s been a lot of fun…most of the time. If you have played or currently play Destiny 2, then you probably know where this is heading because you’ve either been a victim of it or are using it:

The Sleeper Simulant

In Gambit mode, the Sleeper Simulant has become the Dominate Strategy. It’s the go to option at the cost of all other options. It’s a one-hit kill vs players and it does MASSIVE damage to the boss at the end (who you need to kill in Gambit to win the match). It serves as double duty – but it only dominates in Gambit and not the other PvE or PvP modes of the game.

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I’m not going to get into all the specifics of why Sleeper is just the best option for Gambit – but trust me it is. Bungie, the developers of Destiny 2, have even nerfed it once and are looking at more fixes to the weapon in Gambit. I was chatting with some friends about it and one of them put it very well:

“It’s limited variety and creativity. And makes hero moments less fun…it’s removed choice.” (emphasis added)

By being the best and obvious option, it’s become the clear Dominant Strategy for Gambit. That has stifled player creativity and made much of the mode routine and predictable. There is no randomness to help compensate for the power curve – no “dice” to stab you in the back here. It’s a simple point-and-click interface and if you hit with it, your target is gone.

That’s What Patches Are For

Now I’m not calling for removal or another nerf to this weapon. But I can certainly see why it needs a tweak to it’s efficiency. Bungie has a creative solution for the weapon up coming – they are limited the amount of ammo you get per “heavy brick” in an upcoming patch. I think this is a great example of a creatively solving the issue. The weapon will still be just as deadly, but you’re only going to have half the ammo now. Which means using it becomes a choice – do I use it to kill other players, or do I use it to burn the boss? It’s ADDING choice back into the mix. Maybe another weapon will rise-up to take it’s place, but for now, I can’t wait to see what will happen.

Games Workshop is attempting to “fix” the Imperial Knight problem in a similar manner. They are tweaking the Command Points quite a bit – in essence, they are cutting the ammo supply much the same way. While playing with Imperial Knights (or Sleeper Simulant) isn’t a guaranteed win, they do offer some very distinct advantages over other options. In both cases the Game Developers have stepped in to patch this problem. Actively working on your game post-launch is the opposite of lazy/bad game design. And I applaud both of them for trying to improve their respective games.

One last thing – before you say “well they should just not design games with a dominant strategy in the first place” – that is INCREDIBLY difficult to do! No amount of play testing is going to show you the gaps in your game – most of these strategies are “discovered” by the players much later after the game releases. They can only be found when your player pool jumps up by orders of magnitude. But a responsive Game Developer will take that feedback once the strategy is discovered and do something about it. So try to remember that the next time you want to post a rant about why “X” is broken. It probably wasn’t intentional and they might even be actively looking for ways to solve it.

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Dominant Strategies: Use Sleeper Simulant. Use an Imperial Knight.  Play for the Golden State Warriors?

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