On time commitment vs benefit
The base question at hand is the following:
Should a player receive increased benefit for increased time dedicated? Should this increased benefit be unlimited? Should it asymptote? Should it hard limit? Should it exist at all? Should the benefit cease as soon as they stop dedicating time? Should it continue at an equal, slower, faster, etc rate?
Gamers should be familiar with this especially in the settings of persistent world or social gaming environments. If you do 8 hours of gaming and someone else does 4, should you be farther in the game than them? Should they have to do 4 hours of gaming to catch up?
There are advantages and disadvantages to each model. All highly dependent on how you want your players to interact with your game.
For example, World of Warcraft follows several different models depending on what part of the game you are in and what you are attempting to do.
For leveling you are in a gated advancement model. You have a certain amount of ‘rested experience’, where killing monsters gives increased experience values over the norm, after this is exhausted your experience increases at the ‘normal’ rate until you spend some time outside of the game and it recharges. This results in two rates of gain, initially increased followed by decreased. This type of gated model encourages interaction up to a certain point, and discourages it past that point, but does not remove your ability to benefit entirely.
For reputation gains you are typically in a linear (also potentially named ‘unlimited’) model. You can grind to your hearts content and no amount of action will reduce the gain you are getting from your investment. This is not entirely accurate, as each step in reputation status changes the benefits you receive from any given action, however these are not dependent on time not spent playing or other such action. They are just the reality of the advancement.
For raiding or other such actions to get gear you are typically in a hard limit model. There are a limited number of times you can kill a given individual or set of bosses or complete a given encounter per time period. Once you hit that limit you have no advancement potential on that path, and thus it is hard limited. Investing time in it is either impossible, or produces no benefit.
Gear advancement in WoW also provides an example of an asymptoted model, although it violates some of the constraints of this discussion. As you grind a given encounter level your potentials for advancement decrease significantly. If there are 10 gear pieces that are of benefit to you in the encounters as that number decreases you have the potential to spend more and more time per remaining piece just due the the probability of one becoming available at any given moment. This violates the constraints of the discussion as waiting doesn’t truly reset it, unless you wait to the point of a new tier of encounters becoming available. This is thinking on a significantly increased time scale.
So, what model is best? Are these examples of ‘good’ applications of the models? Somewhat, in a sense.
I argue that the best model for time invested vs benefits allows the widest range of players to accomplish what they would like to accomplish within the game with their available time. This is not to mean that someone with one hour of available play time per week should be on par with someone who spends 40 hours per week playing. But this is to mean that there should be aspects of the game that a one hour per week player can advance in in some way. More appropriately, your game should be tuned so that the minimum acceptable time investment that you want to be reasonable for your game should be able to advance in some way.
The next aspect of this is the question of what happens when you stop playing. Does the benefit stop? Does it continue at a reduced rate? The same rate? A gated rate?
Imagine a game like Tapfish (analogous to any number of recent social games, Farmville etc). You have a very limited amount of benefit from time invested, it is a hard limit system where you have a certain number of actions or certain amount of preparation before you are simply waiting for the next round of events to become available. Produce a tank full of Green Snappers, wait four hours, sell them. In between you can feed them a few times, clean their tank etc, but the true action that got you benefit was the filling of the tank to let them grow to adulthood in four hours.
In this case, your benefit per time dedicated is hard limited to being only a few minutes of time. This is both good and bad. It means that you cannot actively play the game for extended periods of time at a go (in Tapfish’s case, this is not true as you get to higher levels, but for lower levels it definitely is true). It also means that you don’t have to play for extended periods of time at a go, but will still receive benefit. True, you need to deal with your fish / strawberries every four hours, but that isn’t the same as needing eight hours per day of play time to be competitive. The benefit of your actions continue for a period of time after you do them.
This draws a line in the sand for the type of gamer you are attempting to woo to play your game. Some hardcore folk will scoff and say “pshaw, I play all day every day and obviously deserve more benefit than you do mister hour per day person”. Some so called ‘casual’ gamers will agree to that. Sometimes the limits of the game make the argument moot (as in Tapfish), but this will make some players less likely to pursue your game if they can’t dedicate long blocks of time to it.