I'm still thinking of a way to implement a proper, fair combat system between new and existing players
Abstracting the answer a bit, there is a more general underlying question: how to make things engaging for both newcomers and experts? There are a few interesting case studies here:
1. Opt-in complexity
One method that I'm particularly fond of is opt-in complexity. As a simple example:
In the Civilization series (among other 4X games), cities can change their resource output based on assigning the population to work particular tiles. This can give the player incredibly detailed control, but it can also become very tedious to manage from the start (especially when you're a new player).
Civ implements an opt-in complexity. It provides an average default implementation that the player doesn't need to manage; but it also allows the player to override the default if he chooses to engage in this tedious chore. It even has tiers of complexity:
- Default - the city will automatically strive for a balanced resource output. It will reassign citizens based on changes to tile yields.
- Focus - The player can choose which resource(s) need(s) to be focused on. The citizens are still assigned automatically, ensuring that basic needs (e.g. food output) are minimally met before dedicating itself to the focused resource(s).
- Full control - The player assigns every population unit to a specific tile, and can prevent the game from rebalancing the assignments. The player can also choose to only force certain tiles to be worked, while leaving the rest of the assignments up to the automatic behavior (focused or default).
This creates an incredibly intuitive approach.
- A new player who doesn't even know about resource management won't be bothered by having to make decisions about it. They can instead focus on other parts of the game.
- A player that wants to increase a particular resource output can find the focus buttons with relative ease.
- A player that wants to micromanage their city needs to find the right menu option.
Complicated approaches are hidden for players unless they go looking for it. This achieves the best of both worlds: players who don't care about it aren't bothered, players who do care get to do it their way.
As a second example, consider EVE Online. In a vast map of solar systems, every system had a rating from 0 to 1 (in 0.1 increments).
- 1.0 is fully under Concord (the NPC police) control. Anyone who misbehaves would very quickly be killed by the automated NPC security forces.
- 0.6 space would still be under Concord protection, but their response would be slower (and less forces would be dispatched).
- 0.3 space was hardly regulated. While there was some security near space stations and ports, the rest of the system was mostly unprotected.
- 0.0 space (known as nullsec) was pirate waters. No Concord protection was provided. Players would be on their own. Safety would only be provided by player-built stations. It's essentially what we think of when we say "the Wild West".
The security rating was clearly visibly for every system. Players would be able to avoid going below a certain security level, if they felt uncomfortable doing so.
However, nullsec was vastly more profitable specifically because it was such a hard place to survive in. Resources that were only available in low-security regions would be much more expensive, and thus much more profitable to mine.
The main conclusion to take away here is when there is a pro vs con situation (increased control vs. increased tedium, or increased profit vs less protection), giving the player the freedom to choose their approach keeps everyone happy.
2. Opt-in symmetrical play
You can often see a symmetry in gemplay: if a player wants to attack others, he'll also have to defend from being attacked by others.
This can be done via opting in. A simple example here is World of Warcraft:
On non-PVP-enabled servers, there was still the option to engage in PVP combat. However, it required consent from both players (direct or indirect).
Very simply put, both players needed to set their "PVP flag" in order to be attackable by the other party.
- A1 wants to fight B1, B1 wants to fight A1. Both players raise their PVP flag. They can attack each other.
- Player A2 approaches, but is not interested in PVP fighting. He does not raise his PVP flag. He cannot be harmed by the PVP combat, even if B1 wanted to attack A2.
- Player B2 approaches. He wants to help B1. Because A1 has his PVP flag enabled, B2 can attack him immediately (A1 has already explicitly consented to PVP combat). However, when B2 lands an attack on A1, B2's PVP flag will be raised automatically. B2 indirectly consented to engage in PVP combat by attacking a player who had already consented.
- A2 decides to not attack anyone, but he does heal A1. Since this aids A1 in his PVP combat, that counts as consenting to PVP play, which means that A1's PVP flag is now also automatically raised.
- To prevent abuse, lowering a PVP flag is only possible after 5 minutes of not engaging in PVP combat. A player could mark himself for non-PVP earlier, but it wouldn't take effect until after the 5 minutes are up.
The main conclusion to take away here is that mutual consent prevents either opponent from feeling wronged.
3. Challenge upwards, not downwards.
I used to play on GameKnot (online chess) years ago. There is a massive gap between casual and grandmaster chess players. The system needed tiered leagues in order to ensure roughly equal chess skills.
This was done via an ELO rating. Very simply put, it's a number that goes up when you win, and down when you lose (the amount won/lost depends on your opponent's rating versus yours).
However, there was an interesting feature added for tournaments specifically:
- Suppose a tournament opened for registering, with a skill level set between 1300 and 1500.
- A player with 1400 skill could obviously join the tournament.
- A player with 2400 skill could obviously not join the tournament.
- A player with 400 skill would get a warning when trying to join the tournament, but would be allowed to join.
This creates an interesting option for players: trying to play in the big leagues. Jumping in the deep end is a good way to learn the ropes (for some people, at least), so they ensured that it was possible for players to do so.
However, the opposite (playing in the little leagues) was prevented, because a high ranked player could easily ruin the fun for lower ranked players.
The main conclusion to take away here is that the underdog needs to consent to playing a game where they are the underdog.
4. Equivalence matching
This is just a short comparison.
In World of Warcraft, PVP battlegrounds would be ranked in brackets, based on player level:
This was necessary (due to exponential power growth in levels), but not a perfect solution. It created a metagame: twinks. These were special characters that players would take to the max level of a bracket (19,29,39, ...) in order to have the statistical upperhand on other players. The twinks were then given statistically superior (and exceedingly rare) gear in order to maximize their upper hand.
At worst, twinks would play against other twinks and it'd be a fair game. At best, they'd play against lower ranked players who they could easily win from.
Because PVP games did not award XP, twinks (who only played PVP) would never level up and could remain at the top of their bracket.
They later addressed this by giving tiny XP boosts for playing PVP, to eventually cause twinks to move up to the next bracket. It was a massive improvement, but still not perfect.
Comparatively, Guild Wars 2 had a much more interesting solution that was not prone to this abuse. Instead of dividing their player base in bracket, what they did was boost every player to max level.
- Player gear stats were boosted to be with an equivalent balance to top level gear.
- Players would be able to pick talents/traits just like any "real" top level character.
Inside the PVP battleground, everyone had the same level. You couldn't see a difference between characters based on their level. The game was one of skill, both in character design (stats) and gameplay (combat).
Note that gear wasn't fully nullified. There was still better and worse PVP gear. But by boosting the stats, a lvl 20 player that was boosted to lvl 80 would be given the lvl 80 equivalent of his lvl 20 gear, which did a lot in terms of leveling the playing field.
The main conclusion to take away here is that leveling the playing field can remove non-skill-based differences, reducing the game to one of skill, not acquired gear.
For your game
There are many different ways to level the playing field, while also catering to both new and experienced players. Now let's try to implement these based on your particular game.
A player can create a new village/town once, anywhere on a map (this is key!). There is an attacking period where players can attack each other but I want to limit the possibility that more progressed players can attack beginners and prevent them from growing. Tribal Wars for example does this by creating new villages further away from the more progressed players. In my case, a user can create his town anywhere on the map, so I'm looking for a fair solution for all players.
- Opt-in complexity
Players choose their own location on the map. If a player were able to see dangerous regions (i.e. with high level opponents), they would be able to choose whether they'd want to be close to these players.
This can be done via resources:
- Dangerous regions contain valuable resources, but also high level enemies. Usually, only high level players will go there. But low level players shouldn't be prohibited from going there, they should only be warned.
- Dangerous regions contain different resources from safe regions. These resources are only needed in the late game (high level players), not in the early game. There is no reason for low level players to settle there until they need the resources.
This can also be done via map design:
- Certain lands are under the King's protection. Any violence by any player will quickly be stomped by the foot of overpowered NPC security forces. High level players will avoid the region if they have nefarious intentions.
Or even by unrelated consequences:
If your game implements a reputation feature, attacking low level players could ruin the player's reputation. Note that there needs to be a significant drawback to having a bad reputation. Players who already do not play the reputation game are then not punished from ruining their non-existent reputation.
- Opt-in symmetrical play
A town can only be attacked once it builds a Barracks. Until then, it is a peaceful town that cannot be invaded or attacked.
This gives players the option to opt out of combat.
You can, if you want to, eventually force players out of peaceful play by making the barracks a requirement to progress further in the game. But the player must be aware that they are opening the door to PVP play.
- Challenge upwards, not downwards.
Towns are given a military rating (similar to how e.g. Stellaris provides estimated fleet power). This is calculated based on the player's property and defenses.
Players are not able to attack towns with a significantly lower military rating.
Players are able to attack towns with a higher military rating.
This creates a curve of protection: the more powerful a player becomes; the less he is able to attack beginning players.
- Equivalence matching
When a higher level player attacks a lower level player, that lower level player gets boosted to match the higher level player's level. When a lower level player attacks a higher level player, no one gets boosted.
In short: the defending player will always get boosted up (but not down) to the level of the attacking player.
Alternatively, you can deincentivize high level players from attacking low level players by removing the rewards. In most RPGs, a player no longer gets XP for killing enemies several levels lower than him, specifically to prevent players from attacking too easy opponents.
This does not protect against griefing however (attacking low level players for no benefit other than ruining the other player's game experience).