So there’s been a lingering thought in my head for a while that I never really put into words before. I’ve noticed a very hostile attitude towards the idea of comeback mechanics – which I define as a mechanic that almost always benefits a losing player more in a competitive game – especially in the fighting game community. While I’m not one to disagree that many comeback mechanics are often poorly implemented, there are arguments in favor of them.
They allow for rewarding behavior. I know this sounds absolutely baffling in a competitive game. Isn’t the point to push the person who makes the correct choices further towards the winning objective? Yes. HOWEVER: If this choice “feels” bad, then it will not be grasped easily. A very basic example is in League of Legends and the way gold on kills works. You get 300 gold for killing an opponent. If you die after a long kill streak, you give bonus gold to the people who killed you. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just make basic kills cost less gold to “average” this out? Well, no. 300 gold looks a lot nicer than 200 gold for killing someone, and feels better relative to the other sources of gold intake in the game. The other side to this is if someone is losing and the highest threat gives more gold, a player with lesser understanding of the game will put the picture together faster. It’s very natural feeling to kill that person now, rather than the lower hanging fruit. There’s a lot more that goes into this little micro-economy, but this is the gist of it: Kill a dude, it feels good. This can only be enabled by how the snowball and comeback mechanics relating to gold work. The basic objective of the game feels rewarding without it spiraling out of control.
Managing the “checkmate” scenario is another important part. Say you design your game with a very solid set of mechanics. They feel really good, but once a person starts winning, it all spirals out of control. Comeback mechanics can be used to mitigate the “non-play” chunk of this kind of game. Where once it’s effectively over, there’s still things the other player can do, but they are generally meaningless. It also instills a sense of tension here, where the other person is winning, but if a comeback mechanic is carefully managed, it gives the losing player the feeling of just dangling outside of defeat without being there. It’s not hopeless, there’s always a chance for survival, but they have to really work for it. Depending on how your snowball is implemented, this can be a very important way of curbing any unintended consequences while (if well designed), adding more overall options to the player. This is a very delicate balance to hit, and it’s often easier to use comeback mechanics as a counter measure than have perfectly balanced snowball.
Comeback mechanics are the safety net that go under your tightrope. If you make it too big, then it doesn’t feel like there’s any point of the tightrope to begin with. This is what is generally complained about, and gives a very “kiddie pool” feeling to competitive players.