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January 26, 2018

Progression and Strategies

FOOS After the post about The popularity of Nova Terra, it has been pointed out to me that the idea of First Order Optimal Strategies can be helpful when looking at her design and the ease of transitioning between strategies. I think this is an interesting topic, even if not extremely important to the Co-op mode. First, let's see what these words even mean.
First Order Optimal Strategy (FOOS) is a strategy with the best power/effort ratio. These strategies require the lowest effort and skill, but provide relatively high power or other reward. They are often discovered early on.

True Optimal Strategy (TOS) is a strategy with the highest power regardless of the effort and skill required to execute it.
A simple example would be the usage of shotguns and sniper rifles in many first-person shooters. A shotgun doesn't require precise controls and is effective on low skill levels (using it is FOOS). On the other side, sniper rifle requires a lot of skill and new players will struggle with it. However, it can become the deadliest weapon in good hands (TOS). In older RPGs, warrior class was often FOOS, while mage TOS. But with the addition of complex abilities to warriors, the skill differences between classes were erased for the most part.

These concepts are not limited to only games, but they are applicable to any process or strategy optimization. The post on Reality Refracted describes well these ideas in relation to tabletop games, and is well worth reading. Also, Extra Credits did a very good video on this.
FOO strategies provide a good way to introduce new players into a game. Because they require low skill and effort to execute, players can feel powerful and useful early on. As players get more accustomed to the game, they will start to improve FOOS and look for different ways to play. Eventually, they might even discover TOS. The path between FOOS and TOS can be anything from trivial to very difficult.

In games, FOOS and TOS can relate to various parts of gameplay - deciding between weapons, classes, skills, playstyles or ways to micro and macro. Let's look at Alarak and apply this to his unit compositions (Figure 1). Alarak is particularly interesting because of his clearly defined FOOS and TOS, and how difficult is it for players to transition between them.
In Figure 1, the Baseline represents random unit composition and players experimenting. However, players will quickly find a style that works - FOOS - in this case a solid opening followed by Supplicants mixed together with Wrathwalker and other units. This style works relatively well, players keeps improving it, and it gets stronger as players progress (even Baseline is increasing). After some time, another strategy becomes available. In this case it's the Supplicant/Ascendant composition (TOS). There is a Power drop when players switch from their optimized FOOS to this different and unoptimized build. After an adjustment period, the power of TOS overtakes that of FOOS. On a side note, it's possible that actual TOS include "1qe2c" or "No cooldown Alarak", but I won't go into that.

Figure 1: Simplified progression - Alarak

There are several reasons why players have hard time transitioning into the Ascendant playstyle (transitioning from FOOS to TOS). In the Alarak's case, TOS becomes available late at level 12 (→ wider Gap ). At that point, FOOS is already optimized and players are reluctant to switch to a significantly more difficult and uncertain strategy (⟷ significant Power drop). That is accentuated by how different those compositions and their playstyles are. Another issue is that when Ascendants become available at level 8, they are rather underwhelming and players might try and discard them as under-performing units. Only after level 12, when Alarak gets the Power Overwhelming upgrade, Ascendants become truly spectacular (→ even wider Gap).

Even though this might look as a design issue, it's mainly a balance problem. If mech builds were a viable alternative to Ascendant TOS, players wouldn't get trapped in FOOS. Furthermore, Alarak's playstyle diversity would be improved.
For other commanders, TOS can be the same as FOOS, or the differences between them are very minimal - for example for Zagara and Nova. However, even with Nova, players can get stuck on slightly sub-optimal strategies, if they don't like using certain units. Also, certain TOS are possible since the start, but they can get progressively more viable. An example of this is building multiple Orbital Commands with Raynor, where higher upgrades and masteries let players to be even more greedy early on.

Did I stay on a sub-optimal strategy for too long?

Some TOS can be unintuitive, for example opening with Siege Tank/Hercules, massing Orbital Commands and Omega Networks, or using Toxic Nests offensively. And as with Alarak, several FOOS are without a clear path to TOS due to balance issues - Fenix's ground compositions, Artanis' Robotic compositions, etc.

The difficulty of reaching TOS has to be set right. Having no good way to transition between FOOS and TOS can mean that players will never progress from FOOS. On the other side, if the path between FOOS and TOS is too straightforward or they are the same, the gameplay could feel more boring and shallow. A good middle ground can be a FOOS that easily transitions to the Second Order Optimal Strategy with strenght close to that of TOS. TOS then requires further experimenting and discovery.

How players can be led to TOS:
  • Intuitive use of units
  • Preview videos and graphics
  • Good progression unlocks
  • Achievements
  • Quests (daily)
  • Players learn from watching allies
What to avoid:
  • Unintuitive use of units
  • Too high Power drop
  • Too wide Gaps between strategies
  • Introducing units without their crucial unlocks
  • Having objectively bad units available
  • Completely different FOOS and TOS without an intermediary strategy
Wrap up
I don't think there is a big problem in transitioning between FOOS and TOS in the Co-op mode. In this mode, players can progress to higher difficulties at their own pace, as opposed to some other games, where the inability to adapt new strategies and skills can leave players in very poor situations, wasting their time or requiring backtracking. I prefer if the game doesn't always hold your hand, and there is a place for exploration.

In Co-op, dead ends created by underpowered compositions pose as a bigger problem. However, the idea of FOOS and TOS should be kept in mind when deciding on viable unit compositions for a new commanders, designing abilities, progression unlocks, achievements and creating preview screenshots and videos.

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