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Malthusian Dynamic Difficulty

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It looks like a lot of games get easier as the player gets more powerful and the solution is often to just throw bigger threats at them. What if getting more powerful made the game harder in itself?
Imagine a game where you lead a group of people struggling to survive. The people in this group are portrayed in a way that lets you get attached to them as individuals and not just for their usefulness. Those emergent character stories and relationships would be a key feature the game and ensures that the player really cares about keeping those people alive.
At first the group is small and flexible, and unless you take big risks you are unlikely to lose anyone. But as the group grows it consumes more resources, attracts more trouble and you have to send your people out on dangerous missions where some are bound to die if you want to maintain morale and the survival of the group as a whole.
Even though it might be easier to play with fewer people in the group, the player is given incentives to add more, whether it's through scoring or objectives. Maybe victory can only be reached by finishing a project that requires the labour of a large group for an extended period of time. There will also be a lot of opportunities to show compassion and take in refugees and the like, so unless the player is willing to risk the stability of their group they will have to turn down and doom those people. 
The expectation is that the population of a group will plateau or oscillate at a level that provides a fun challenge for the player. If they change the difficulty setting, progress to a harder area or as they get better at the game, the population will adjust to match.
Since there is no doomsday clock, the player can progress at their own pace and play with a difficulty level that suits them. They can hopefully also avoid the scenarios where the start of the game is really hard and after getting through that, defeat is either inevitable or the player has become so powerful that it's now too easy to win. If the start of the game is too slow and easy, just pick up a few strays and start expanding right away.
What do you think about the concept? Do you see any challenges or pitfalls when implementing something like it?
I can imagine that it would be important to discourage the player from grinding with a smaller group by making the resources they can get then insignificant in comparison to the accomplishments of a larger group. A handful of people who sneak into an enemy encampment can only escape with what they can carry, while a larger group can take over the whole thing.
Mount & Blade is a good example of a game that has similar elements. When you're starting out you move really fast and can escape most armies, but as your army grows you also move slower and those other armies are now a threat. If you enjoy cruising around with a small group of elite soldiers you can do that, but you can also expand and start taking over castles. I don't remember how the difficulty changes as you grow so the comparison might not hold up.

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What do you think about the concept? Do you see any challenges or pitfalls when implementing something like it?

The most common pitfalls for these games are the players them self.

People, similar to energy, takes the path of least resistance to there goal. If the population controls difficulty then players will find a way to manage the population, keeping the game at a difficulty where they can reach a personal goal while keeping the game easy.

This can resort in players missing content because they are unwilling to even try a new difficulty.

You can see this in games like Fallout vault, Dwarf fortress, Sims and State of decay.


Also working a mechanic like this into a game gives players a excuse to use it, to explain better I will point to State of decay.

A huge amount of players that play State of decay will say that the cars make the game too easy, they complain about it constantly. Yet driving the vehicles is optional.

When you point out that they could walk to there destinations, they say that driving is part of the game. They will often even claim that they only drive to places, never hitting zombies; even when they hold the highest score for road kill.


The largest pitfall is that players will exploit the game, that is why I think they complain so much over "catch up" mechanics and easy mode in Dark Souls; they know they will use it even if they don't like it.

Edited by Scouting Ninja

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Good points. Player exploitation is definitely a design challenge.
I used the term "dynamic difficulty", but the game doesn't actually adjust the content to suit the player. In theory the self-adjusting challenge is just an emergent property of the game since the player will have to grow to progress in the game and growth leads to challenges.
Compare it to a dungeon crawling game where you can skip levels if you want. Some preparations and collecting of equipment might be necessary, but it's not what the game is about and items quickly lose their value from one level to the next. Defeat in this game does not mean that you have to start over, you just get kicked back to an earlier level and you can quickly work your way down again and fill up your inventory.
Skilled players can start playing and delve down maybe 10 levels right away, pick up a few items and then start fighting their way through challenges that are better suited to their skill. If they don't and choose to stay at the easier levels, the game won't reward them for grinding. But if they enjoy it, Fine. I don't think that it's inherently bad that players miss content to pursue personal goals, but if there are broken paths to achieve the intended goals, then that's a big problem. I don't want cars in my dungeon.
Does that clarify it a bit?
If this concept requires lots of balancing and tweaks to work without creating accidental zombie-killing cars I think it's doomed to be broken in some way. Hopefully it's possible to really simplify it and give the player a clean challenge curve that follows the population. Are you able to point out any specific pitfalls that you can see in this design?

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