On the Internal Economy of Ingress
I’ll start by posing this question: What is a level 8 resonator worth?
To clarify. I’m talking about its in-game value, not what it costs or can be sold for in real money. Deployed resonators can create value for their faction by holding territory and increasing the value of gear that allies can get out of a portal – they can also create value for their faction by increasing the effort it takes for the opposing faction to remove them.
The first core truth that needs to be recognized when thinking about the economy of Ingress is that this usefulness-of-a-level-8-resonator isn’t fixed. It’s contextual.
A resonator deployed in a level 8 farm attended by 20 people helps create perhaps 88 new level 8 resonators, even if it only persists for less than an hour. That’s useful. A resonator on a portal hacked by nobody for six months can be useful as well, if it helps hold down territory. Most deployed resonators are going to have life stories that are less useful than those two examples, but on a basic level usefulness-of-a-l8 resonator derives from the interaction of how many friendly players benefit from it and how long it persists in the game environment.
In other words, it’s worth what you can do with it and what you can do with it depends on the state of the game in the local area. What you actually do with it depends on you, but that’s a different kettle of fish.
That leads to the second core truth: the more dominant your team is in your area, the more useful the gear in your inventory is. Even assuming every player on both sides is at item cap, the team that is larger, more organized, and/or already owns most of the portals is at a distinct advantage because their resonators when deployed last longer and provide benefit to more of their team.
The advantage is even more marked for xmps, because Niantic has made design choices (link mitigation, shields being just another type of gear) that are of much more benefit to the dominant team’s defense then the weaker one. The dominant team’s shields get destroyed less frequently so they persist in the environment longer, they have more opportunity to add additional mitigation over time because of that greater persistence, they have more opportunities to add mitigation through links because they own more portals and those portals are more likely to be fully deployed, and because they have more link mitigation opportunities they can use cheaper and fewer shields to gain the same defensive effect that the less dominant team would have to use a larger number of more expensive shields for. In addition, high mitigation is exponentially more useful than weaker mitigation, so even a low difference in the average mitigation achieved by each faction can translate into the weaker faction needing several times the xmps the dominant faction does to achieve the same destructive effect.
Note that I have not even touched on scarcity issues here. These observations are true even if every player on both sides has identical access to gear.
As a practical matter, though, dominant teams worth their salt can significantly limit the other team’s access to gear. What this means is that weaker teams have access to less gear and the gear they have doesn’t go as far, and stronger teams have more access to gear and that gear goes further. This creates a positive feedback loop.
This is itself a design choice. In board game circles it’s referred to as the “runaway leader” effect – winning makes it easier and easier to keep winning. It has a few advantages – it is a more intrinsically realistic dynamic. There are some games, like Monopoly, in which a runaway leader taking over is the entire point of the game in the first place. However, runaway leader positive feedback loops are not viewed as good design for longer games because players tend to dislike games where the outcome is decided very early on but they are obliged to keep playing. While nobody is actually obliged to play Ingress, player attrition rarely helps with the underlying balance issues. Note that a game having a runaway leader effect doesn’t mean that a team in a weaker position cannot ever achieve victories – it just means that the odds are heavily stacked against them.
Ingress is a very long game, and also intrinsically different from most other real world team activities. You do not get extra points in football for sneaking into the other team’s field at 3 AM and kicking goals. Nobody is going to view a cricket match as legitimate if one side has five fewer players and no bats. Yet Ingress puts players in that kind of situation all the time. You just have to make the most of it.
Here’s how highly effective players get gear in my city:
Ideal farms are around 50-60 portals arrayed in a driving loop in an isolated location. 50-60 portals because the more portals in a farm the more gear surplus is gained from it. Players prefer to farm as few times as possible to get the necessary gear to keep up with the gameplay pace in the city. Even so, the pace in this city is fast enough that top players often farm 50-60 portal farms daily or more than daily, with multihacks when the other team is lazy enough to permit. Driving loop because our city has a farm-crashing culture and the farm needs to be completed as fast as possible to gain any benefit from it, and also because as mentioned the farms are in isolated locations. The isolated locations without serious local opposition is to give a head start.
Farms on foot usually do not produce enough gear to compete with the gear produced from driving farms. They tend to be either small (up to 20 portals, very limited geographic area) or slow. That means they usually either provide a much smaller surplus than a driving farm, or are liable to be crashed. The last only matters if you’re in an area that has a culture of crashing farms, but if you are in that sort of area it matters a lot. Usually they are both small and liable to be crashed which is a double penalty.
Crashing a farm is sending a player to interrupt and destroy an enemy farm before they can get much gear out of it. A team’s ability to crash farms depends on player ability, player availability, player transportation, awareness of where the other team is likely to farm, and surplus gear. A team with comfortable gear surplus can take risks with their gear – if it takes 200 or 400 level 8 xmps to stop the other team from farming, it’s nothing, they know where to get more. A team with no surplus has no gear to take risks with and has a much harder time interrupting enemy farms. Since interrupting enemy farms is the easiest way to suppress enemy gear acquisition, this is another aspect of the game that leads to positive feedback loops in favor of whatever team is currently winning. If meeting people to get gear becomes risky, inventory-painful, and pointless, people become less willing to do it.
A key concept to remember when thinking about the production and consumption of gear in Ingress is “pace”. If you are not successfully farming at at least the rate your opposition is farming, advantage will accrue to them. If you are farming once a day, that’s not enough if your opposition is farming twice a day. If your opposition has a standing farm and can farm on demand… you’re in trouble. One of the things hardcore players do to lock casual players on the other team out of areas is to push the pace of play so hard that the casual players might as well not be playing. Most quit at that point. There is no limit to how long a player can play as long as they have data access and power to their phone. Compared to a player who plays 18 hours at a stretch, even a player who plays 1-2 hours a night is “casual” and liable to be locked out. Ultimately, players who can best approximate a bot in their ability to acquire and consume gear win out. There are many ways to play Ingress, but most of them depend on there not being hardcore PvP players opposing you at every turn.
Why chase opposition players out of the game? Basically, your ability to do awesome things in Ingress is inversely related to whether the opposition is there (“Opposition” can come from your own faction as well as the other one). If they don’t show up, either because they don’t exist or have been demoralized, you can do fun and cool things like 8′ing your entire city or building field art or megafielding. If they do show up, your ability to do such things drops precipitously and swiftly approaches zero. How much effort your team puts into these accomplishments has much less relation to whether they are successful than the presence or absence of the other team. Perhaps unfortunately, only absolute accomplishments count for Ingress glory. Relatively, it could be much more difficult for one team to build a level seven farm against local opposition than for another team to field three countries against zero opposition, but the second team is going to get all the accolades. This is a strong motivation to chase people out of the game. Some players do that through playing hard, others in a less ethical fashion.
It’s true that there’s not much point to playing Ingress against a total lack of opposition. Players do prefer having opposition, but they prefer that opposition to be much, much less effective than they are. The threshold at which players become disappointed at the lack of opposition in this game tends to be well past the point at which that opposition is completely demoralized by its inability to accomplish anything.
And that’s how the gear economy works and drives the balance of power. It’s rough on people. The inventory production/consumption cycle is used to ration play, drives how territory is divided, and has a huge effect on how well teams are able to contest anomalies. When it’s unbalanced, as it is now, that creates major distortions in play that amplify other existing imbalances. Unlike other games where the territory fought over is imaginary and players can choose their home turf, Ingress is fought over real territory. It does not artificially balance teams and it makes no allowances for how people are distributed in real life.
Runaway positive feedback loops aren’t an inevitable problem for a game like this to have. A few negative feedback loops introduced to the mix could make the game more competitive and less about constant grind for all players. Here’s a few suggestions from a 40 million AP perspective:
1) Give thought to making underdog play interesting and fun. Even if a player is faced with a sea of max-mitigated and linked enemy portals as far as the eye can see, she still should be able to accomplish things. There should be easy ways to do minor random sabotage to portals in this game, perhaps by using keys.
2) Stronghold portals need to get weaker over tactical timeframes. A farm should be hardest to take down when people are farming it and easier to take down (soon) afterwards to encourage players to defer destruction and slow down the pace of the game. Currently a farm tends to be poorly mitigated when built and gradually grows stronger as it’s linked and shielded, making hitting mid-build the most cost-effective approach for attackers on several levels..The current decay mechanic is too slow to be relevant within tactical timeframes, and remote recharge ensures most portals someone cares about will get recharged, and only the scraps will get easier to take down with time.
3) Slow down high-intensity players in a targeted way. Per-player resonator and mod limits would accomplish a lot here. Have more than a set (or cell-scaled) number of level 8 resonators deployed? Your burster effectiveness takes a hit. You already have 10 very rare shields on portals? Sorry, that’s all you get to deploy, wait for the ones you have to be destroyed.
4) Mitigation needs a lot of work. A large fraction of mitigation comes from links, introduced to motivate players to link before scoring was introduced. As earlier mentioned this favors the dominant team. It’s also anti-pedestrian in environments where links are longer than a reasonable walk away. Reducing maximum portal mitigation (currently 95%) by 1% per link would make highly mitigated portals much less spammable. 1% reduction doesn’t sound like a lot, but 90% mitigation is half as strong as 95% mitigation. That would make a fully shielded portal with 5 links take twice the damage as a fully shielded portal with no links. That’s just one possible tweak – the whole mitigation system is heavily unbalanced.
5) Mercilessly oppress agents who play without ever leaving their cars. “It’s time to move” is basically a joke in nearly any pedestrian/car player interaction, and despite frequently claiming Ingress is a game about exercise in interviews, Niantic is putting more and more emphasis on large-scale fields that require heavy car use. It’s not just destroying by car that’s the problem; hacking and deploying 8s from vehicles is equally problematic for game pace and balance. Agents over 12 mph being limited to effective level 6 for firing xmps, deploying, and hacking would be one approach to this issue that would probably work well.