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Unstable Equilibrium

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"In order to get a loan you must first prove you don't need it."
Murphy's Law: John's Collateral Corollary

In games, an Unstable Equilibrium occurs when a design feature rewards a well-performing player with advantages that enable the player to perform even better, or punishes a badly-performing player and causes them to do even worse. This causes a pile-up of advantages or disadvantages which can eventually turn into an unstoppable feedback loop of success or failure.

Another name for this effect is "snowballing", after the metaphor of a snowball that grows larger and larger as it rolls down a snow-covered hill; the larger it gets, the more surface area it has, and thus the more snow it can pick up, making the problem increasingly worse over time.

Unstable equilibria are nearly always undesired in games, as they upset the game balance and make the game less fun to play. For example, in a single-player game, they can create a situation where early advantages accumulate to the point where the game becomes very easy later on, while early mistakes make it harder and harder to recover; this can make the game boring for more skilled players and frustrating enough to drive away everyone else. In multiplayer, it can mean that any player who takes an early lead quickly amasses such an advantage that they cannot be beaten, rendering the rest of the match pointless for everyone else.

This is a ubiquitous problem in game design and a difficult one to solve. Examples of unstable equilibria in games include:

  • In empire-building or 4X games, a player who successfully conquers more area will have more resources at their disposal, which can enable them to get even further ahead. This often leads to a situation where once one faction is ahead, it is difficult or impossible for the opponent to catch up, and a significant portion of the game can be just "mopping up" weaker neighbors.
  • In Shoot 'em Ups, it's common to lose your power-ups when you die. However, if you weren't able to survive when you had good weaponry, you're probably not going to do much better with even worse weapons.
  • In racing games, the player in first place doesn't have to worry about crashing into other racers, giving them an easier ride than people who are behind.
  • In games with Score Multipliers and Combo systems, the points rewards for success can increase exponentially the longer you play; this means that a player who does only a little bit better can end up with a vastly higher score in proportion to their skill difference.
  • In games where extra lives are awarded for reaching certain point milestones, the players who are good enough to get these extra lives probably don't need them, while players who struggle with the game won't be able to earn them.
  • In team deathmatch games, every player killed is one less weapon that can fire at the enemy team. If the team that scores the first kill is able to capitalize on the resulting numbers advantage by scoring the next kill as well, their advantage will keep growing. This is especially true in games with no respawns, since the reduced numbers are permanent.
  • In tower defense games, killing enemies will frequently give the player additional money or other resources that they can use to buy and upgrade towers. A players who lets enemies through early on will have fewer resources available to them compared to a more skilled player, making it harder for them to keep later enemies from getting through, which leaves them even shorter on resources, and so on. This goes double if the enemies are able to attack and kill your towers — a bad player who lets their early towers go down will struggle much more against later enemy waves than a better player who managed to keep them alive.

In its worst excesses, unstable equilibria may send games completely off the rails into a nonsensical or incomprehensible state, or could even crash the game. However, it has some limited positive applications. In Chess, for example, a good player will rarely make a big-enough "blunder" to give the opponent immediate victory - but if they do, the game will Mercy Kill them quickly as the progressive pile-up of advantages to their opponent rapidly ends the game. This can reduce the frustration of a protracted loss.

One form of Unstable Equilibrium that applies to nearly every game is known as "tilt". The term, which originated in Poker, refers to how negative events during a game, such as repeated bad plays, rudeness from other players, bad luck from the Random Number God, or losing several rounds in a row, can put a player in an unstable emotional state that proceeds to make them commit more mistakes and tilting them even further, possibly culminating in a Rage Quit. That said, positive outcomes may also lead to tilting in different forms, such as repeated victories making a player overconfident or an unexpected advantage leaving a player unprepared to best utilize it, but this will usually lead back to negative tilting once they start to make mistakes.

Unstable Equilibria also happen readily in Real Life: for instance, those who make more money have more financial resources to draw on, which makes it significantly easier to increase income in the future.

Avoiding the Unstable Equilibium is one of the challenges of Resources Management Gameplay. Early Game Hell and Continuing is Painful are common results for games that fail to avoid it. A Comeback Mechanic is one method of giving players a potential way out of a spiral of doom, and the Golden Snitch can also be used to bounce back when a opponent has pulled too far ahead. Dynamic Difficulty is a general solution which can be used to counteract it by artificially increasing or decreasing the difficulty in response to a player's success.

For related concepts outside of video games, see Disaster Dominoes (one mishap causes a chain of increasingly worse ones), Snowball Lie (a small lie becomes larger and larger as more lies are invented to cover up its inconsistencies), and For Want of a Nail (a small change to history has an increasingly large knock-on effect in the future).

No relation to the movie Equilibrium - even though the dystopian government in that story turned out to be plenty unstable.

This article provides a more in-depth examination of the issues surrounding the phenomenon, and also provides some ways to avoid it.

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Gaming Examples:

    Action Games 
  • Very much in effect in the Devil May Cry series. Even on a fresh playthrough where the character moveset is still limited, skilled players will use combos better and with more variations, giving them a higher Stylish rank than those who spam the same attacks and combo patterns over and over. The higher the Stylish rank, the more Red Orbs the enemies drop, which in turn allows the player to buy more and better moves, giving them the ability to use better and more varied combos to repeat the process of unlocking new stuff, which also includes Vitality and Devil Trigger gauge upgrades that are helpful for your character's survival and utility in the harder modes.
  • Tomb Raider:
    • The earlier games in the series have items carry over from level to level. Saving health packs and especially ammo during the early levels where enemies still die easily to the infinite ammo pistols allows for a lot more leeway towards the end, where not having enough ammo is likely to also drain your health pack supply. The third game throws a few nasty curveballs in there to mix it up:
    • A certain level empties your entire inventory, and, depending on what order you choose to play the levels in, this can be as early as the 6th level or as late as the 14th. You don't get any of it back. Saved everything you found so far to make the final levels less painful? Shucks.
    • The only exception to this inventory wipe is your save crystals, in the Playstation version. These are collectibles that carry over from level to level and allow you to save your game. Yes, except for between levels, you won't be able to save without them so you'd better not need to save much early on.
  • The Legend of Zelda:
    • In The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords, if you die, you lose all the powerup seeds you've collected up to that point, making it harder to avoid dying again and you lose more rupees than last time.
    • The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: A minigame has you try to collect colored items worth different amount of points while flying. The kicker is that for each consecutive item of the same color you collect, its point value doubles, to a maximum of ten times. In short, every consecutive item you collect until you hit the cap is worth more than all the previous ones combined. You can win quite easily if you miss several red items, but if you collect a single other item during the middle part of the game you're screwed.
  • Bomberman games are notorious for this in its arcade-like single-player modes. You died? Kiss all of your ability power ups GOODBYE! Recovering them means clearing several levels without dying again. It's even more painful if you died to a boss; as Bomberman bosses often have their own levels without any bombable blocks in them. This means you generally will have no way to replace the ability powerups you lost for sequential attempts, it's definitely painful, but the situation is still serviceable if your stats are high enough. Get a Game Over to the Boss though? All of your stat powerups are gone now as well, have fun beating that difficult boss with only a single bomb with the absolute weakest blast radius. And with absolutely NO way of getting stronger during boss fights, it may be quicker and easier for you to start the game all over at this point.
  • There is/was an old Atari ST game called Tri-Heli 2 where the player controls a helicopter mining into a landscape to collect buried diamonds. Each level has a higher base ground level, making mining harder, for the first five levels, then the ground level resets and a new game element is added. Eventually the game runs out of new elements, and just cycles through the 5 depths, randomly generating each level indefinitely. To complete a level, you have to collect 2 out of 3 diamonds, or you can sacrifice a life to skip the level. Also, each level, the points scored for collecting a diamond increase while the points required to earn an extra life stay fixed. A player who does well enough, or gets lucky enough, will reach a point where completing the first 4 levels of each cycle of 5 will earn you enough points to get an extra life, letting you skip the 5th entirely. Not too long after that, completing three levels will let you skip the 4th and 5th. Eventually, you can reach the point where just collecting a single diamond will let you skip dozens of levels and the only way to lose is to deliberately suicide (and even that takes a while...)
  • Bayonetta: Torture Attacks need at least eight units of magic to use and tend to make enemies drop their weapons, which can be used to quickly rack up more units of magic. On the other hand, getting hit will deplete four units of magic, which is recovered through fighting, dodging, countering, or taunting. More skilled players will be able to take out angels quicker by avoiding attacks and building up the magic meter, while players with less skills will have their Limit Break gauge getting reset on hit. The sequel fixes part of this by removing magic-depletion on damage.
  • Valdis Story: Abyssal City: You're graded on how well you do during boss fights. How quickly you defeat the boss, how much damage you take, and how high your combo meter was all contribute to an overall score. Better grades reward the player with increased stats or additional skill points. If you're not strong or skilled enough to get a good score, you won't get the better rewards, making the next boss fight even harder to get a good score in.

    Beat Em Up Games 
  • God Hand includes a difficulty system that goes from easier to harder and back depending on how well the player's doing, through levels 1, 2, 3 and the aptly named Die. After each stage, the game counts up all the enemies you killed on each level and rewards you with money, with kills on higher levels being worth more, and conversely penalizes you for every death. Having more money allows players to buy upgrades and more powerful attacks.
  • In Tonight We Riot, the player's party is stronger the more workers they have liberated for the revolution. Lose some workers early in a level, and it is likely to turn into an uphill struggle throughout. Conversely, assembling a big enough pack can turn most levels to a walk in the park.

    Board Games 
  • Risk is a mixed bag. As players conquer more territory, they get exponentially more troops. This means that the guy to conquer the most gets the most troops. However, this is to counterbalance the side effect of spreading your troops too thin. It also suffers from the mopping-up problem where someone is clearly going to win, but it will take a lot of die-rolling for it to be official. And of course, there's the human factor...
  • In Monopoly, someone who gets a good start (i.e., getting a monopoly early) will generally continue to win. And, like Risk, the mopping-up can take a looong time. (Worse, unlike Risk, it's hard to gang up on someone...). This was done deliberately by the game's first designer specifically to elicit anger from the losing players. She was using the game (then called "The Landlord's Game") to illustrate how poor wealth distribution screws over the lower classes — that it makes it impossible for them to succeed in any meaningful way unless they get absurdly lucky.
  • Chess has very strong elements of this. A player who gets behind in the opening development will have a very hard time catching up with his opponent. In a similar way, if one player manages to get a material advantage ("material" as in "combined value of all pieces"), that player will likely be able to exploit and increase said advantage. This means that, for advanced players, winning a game of chess is often a matter of getting that first advantage while preventing the opponent from doing so. This is the reason professional-level chess games almost never end in checkmate, with one player conceding when they determine their situation to be hopeless; not because Chess players are quitters, but because they understand how key the unstable equilibrium is in the game.
  • In Settlers of Catan, players whose initial settlements don't produce enough resources often wind up permanently blocked from expansion by other players busy building roads and settlements, both of which cost nothing to maintain and can't be removed. This is likelier to happen the more players are in the game. Though these unlucky souls lack the resources to do much of anything either for themselves or against opponents, their misery doesn't end until the game does.
    • However, apart from being blocked off from an expanding player, the game is mostly an aversion. Doing well early on plants a big bullseye on your back from the other players, and unlike a game of Monopoly, the players do have ways of ganging up on you and making you pay. A good strategy is play well, but not so well that it's obvious that you're winning. That's why the Development Cards exist. Mathematically, they're often not as great as the resources you spend to get them, but they are a way to potentially advance in position quietly for a surprise victory at the end. The unstable equilibrium exists more for losing (it's harder to come back) than for winning.
  • Downplayed in 7 Wonders Duel. The Progress Token "Economy" gives you the money spent by your opponent when they buy missing resources. This gets more powerful the farther you are ahead on resources, which already gives you an advantage.

    Card Games 
  • Poker. While you get the same (random) cards whether you're down or up, a short-stacked player can't thicken the pot as well when he has really strong hands, and can't use the threat of a large raise to force players out and protect his "drawing" hands.
    • While it is generally true that a large stack gives players more strategic options to play their hand and the possibility to win larger pots, this can quickly become an Inverted Trope for extremely small stacks. In a tournament, players who have less than 10 Big Blinds left usually only have the option to go all-in right away or fold their cards. This gives the short-stacked players a slight advantage by being able to force their opponents to make a final decision early on during a hand.
    • During the golden years of online Poker, so many players exploited this "short-stack strategy" by buying into cash-games only with the minimum amount required (20 big blinds at that time), that virtually every poker site had to increase their minimum buy-in to 50 big blinds.
  • In the obscure Digimon TCG, the losing side is dedigivolved to their rookie form, while the winner remains the same. This basically means that whoever is winning after the first turn has a big advantage. They did try to use the Rock–Paper–Scissors mechanic to combat this unbalance - Vaccine (red) beats virus (yellow), Virus beats Data (green), Data beats Vaccine - and some digimon switch their color when digivolving. Though the other player can anticipate your switch and switch themselves.
  • Magic: The Gathering
    • A player that can obliterate his opponent's forces has a few rounds of easy pain-causing before the other side can bring itself up to speed. The solution is often one of the "Wrath of God" cards that clean the whole board and re-equalize the situation.
    • The concept of Tempo also highlights this— well-timed spells and abilities can be used to slowly gain total control over the flow of the game through card advantage, denial of critical spells, or even just by delaying the opponent, so a player who can snipe out critical spells or permanents can effectively cripple an opponent so badly, only the most unexpected spells or the worst possible draws can ruin their advantage. Of course, tempo can swing both ways, as a canny Aggro player can lure out a Wrath of God with a token army, then summon the real threat after making the opponent use up their mana and spells to stop that feint.
    • This is part of the archetypal Green Ramp deck. Play cards that give extra mana, use the extra mana to get more mana, repeat until you can drop enormously expensive things early in the game. The game designers have mentioned doing this deliberately, arguing that even being on the losing end of an Unstable Equilibrium is generally more fun and encouraging to a player than being involved in a game that has been forcibly stalled. It also helps the Green Ramp by design has intentional weaknesses that keep them from being invinsible (no flying creatures means damage can be blocked more easily, many of them dying to simple removal or counterspells), and naturally an attempt to circumvent those weaknesses would lead to a less efficient ramp.
  • The WWE TCG Raw Deal has probably the most extreme example of this. The game has no mana; instead, you can play cards with a Fortitude "cost" equal to or less than the amount of Damage you'd already played. In other words, the more damage you've dealt, the more damage you can deal. They addressed this with powerful cards in the next expansion that only work if you're behind ... which then makes it more advantageous to be behind ... which was addressed with powerful cards that only work if you're ahead in the following expansion... and the cycle of life continues.
  • In the Pokémon Trading Card Game, the player who knocks out a Pokémon gets to draw an extra card, which is a small but significant edge. The player whose Pokémon gets knocked out must discard any cards attached to it, which nearly every Pokémon requires in order to attack and may have needed several turns to build up, a substantial setback. Quite often, there has not been time to attach anything to any Pokémon but the one attacking, meaning the player whose Pokémon has just been knocked out must start all over while the other player still has all of the necessary attachments.
  • Legend of the Five Rings has central game mechanics built around an Unstable Equilibrium, as each of the paths to victory limits your opponent's options while expanding your own.
    • Military decks attack the opponent's provinces, which limits the number of Dynasty cards they get. These include Holdings (used to pay for everything) and Personalities (used to do nearly everything).
    • Honor decks can control the Imperial Favor, a bonus which has had a staggering number of different uses over the years.
    • Dishonor decks force the opponent to pay extra for Personalities whose honor requirements they no longer meet (and in previous editions of the game, could prevent them from playing Personalities at all.)
    • Enlightenment decks seek to play the five Rings cards, which is an Instant-Win Condition. The Rings themselves have extremely useful abilities.
    • The aspect of the game that pretty much everyone agrees is its biggest flaw is the way the battle system resolves: once all players involved in the battle have finished taking actions, the total amount of force on each side is counted up. The army with less force, even if only by 1 point? Annihilated. And to add insult to injury, the winning player gains 2 honour for each card they destroyed this way, which can add up to an enormous surge in a large battle. If you don't commit everything you have to the battle, you risk losing, but if you do and lose anyway you'll basically lose the game in one battle, while the victor loses nothing (apart from any cards destroyed by in-battle actions like ranged attacks). The Yu trait was basically introduced as a direct attempt to limit the effects losing a battle can have on the game, but it's still generally considered a band-aid fix to a fundamental and unfixable flaw.
  • The My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic card game by Enterplay uses Action Tokens to do more or less anything. The closer you are to winning, the more Action Tokens you get at the start of your turn. If you're only three or four points away from winning (out of fifteen points), you'll be rich enough to grab two points a turn without your opponent being able to do anything about it.
  • Downplayed in Mao. The more of the hidden rules you've figured out, the more likely you are to win a game. And when you win a game, you get to add your own hidden rule and penalize your opponents for breaking that in addition to the other rules they're still trying to figure out. However, it's unlikely that someone will gain an insurmountable advantage because good luck can compensate for incomplete knowledge of the rules.
  • Invoked in a family of card games known by names such as President, Daifugo, or Tycoon. The objective is to rid your hand of cards by playing cards that outrank the top card or matched set of the pile, or forcing everyone else to pass and starting a new pile with the card/set of your choice. At the start of each hand, the winner of the previous gets to take the two strongest cards from the loser's hand and give them any two cards in return (usually bad ones); the second-place finisher makes the same trade with the second-to-last finisher, but for one card. Thus, whoever wins a hand is the favorite to win the next hand as well.
    • The Great Dalmuti is a variant by Wizards of the Coast themed around a vaguely Middle Eastern medieval realm. The Great Dalmuti and Lesser Dalmuti tax the weaker players, but weaker cards are more plentiful and you must play the same number of cards in order to win a trick. Thus, the lower-ranked players win when they can play a massive number of low cards quickly, while the Dalmutis win when they can control the game by playing high-value cards a few at a time. Dalmutis can also make new rules that change the nature of play (such as requiring their lessers to cheer if they get ahead), but cannot cheat the game itself. Additionally, a revolution mechanic allows for a complete reversal of fortunes of the players, so Dalmutis are incentivized not to be too cruel.

    Fighting Games 
  • Doomsday Warrior gives you experience based on how much health you have at the end of each fight. You get one point for every remaining life segment to spend on stats. If you struggle against opponents and barely win, you will end up weaker. If you regularly win with more than 75% of your health, you will end up stronger.
  • Downplayed in Granblue Fantasy Versus, where the Guts mechanic does lower a character's damage if they get hit, but the highest reduction they can be dealt is 25%, when their health bar hits the 11% threshold.
  • Human Killing Machine has a very annoying mechanic where Kwon, the player character, is designated either "strong" or "weak" at the beginning of a fight, depending on how well he beat his previous opponent. If he won the fight with high health, he is "strong" and needs fewer knockdowns to defeat his next opponent - but if he barely won he is "weak" and requires more knockdowns to win. While the intention was presumably to reward a player who was on a good streak, the reality is that it is difficult enough to beat an opponent at all with the game's poor controls and hit detection. Therefore, most victories the player will achieve will be barely scraping by, ensuring that Kwon remains "weak", and since each opponent essentially gains an extra two lifebars under those circumstances, the chances of clawing one's way back up to making Kwon "strong" again are essentially nil.
  • In any fighting game with a Tag Team system where the match continues until a team loses all their characters gets increasingly stacked against the losing team as their numbers dwindle. Simply for the fact there are now fewer opportunities to swap characters to heal, this can be particularly compounded if the game allows for assists to aid the active character as losing a character means also weakening the active character by association, cutting off options they may have been able to take advantage of with a full squad. It isn't impossible to mount a massive rally with just one character but anyone in this situation is seriously in dire straits. Normal one-on-one fighting games abide by Critical Existence Failure, meaning a character doesn't get increasingly weaker as a fight goes on (Comeback Mechanics notwithstanding), but in a tag fighting game the chances of coming away victorious diminish with the loss of each character.
  • Labrys in Persona 4: Arena has a gimmick in which practice makes her whole character built around Unstable Equilibrium. She has an axe gauge with five levels that builds up as she attacks the opponent (on hit or block). The higher the gauge, the better her damage output is, and at max level, her attacks gets extra hitstun. She can use her Supers to consume the gauge and deal more damage, and when maxed out it has the potential to outright one shot opponents. However, the axe gauge depletes while she stops attacking or gets hit, and her damage is significantly weaker at low levels. Moreover, the axe gauge carries over to the next round, so if she wins a round with a Super but not the match, she has to start the next round with an empty gauge. If Labrys stays on the offense and the opponent can't push her out, she gets rewarded. If Labrys has to go on defense or has to use her Super to prevent a loss, she gets punished, and her average mobility and bad defensive options makes it even harder for her to recover. Even when compared to others fighters in other games that depend on close-range aggression, Labrys gets punished harder than most by design.
  • Super Smash Bros.: Ledge recovery attacks become slower but stronger if the player's character is at or over 100% damage. Removed in 3DS/Wii U for game balance purposes.
  • In Fist of the North Star: Twin Blue Stars of Judgment, the star mechanic heavily encourages this. In short: both players start a round with seven stars under their standard life bar, actions performed over the course of the game (such as hitting with certain moves, breaking an opponent's guard, or making a counterattack) can break an opponent's stars one by one, and when an opponent's stars are depleted, the Star of Death appears and the player can use a character-specific Fatal KO move. Hitting with a Fatal KO replenishes the opponent's stars fully in the next round... but if that doesn't happen, then lost stars will still carry over between rounds, with players only replenishing one star at the start of each round, and nearly all the ways to break stars favor the person who's dishing out damage. So if you successfully whallop an opponent hard enough to break all their stars but don't use your Fatal KO in favor of beating them up conventionally, you can simply break their last star at the start of the next round and drop a Fatal KO to decide things in five seconds.

    First-Person Shooters 
  • Counter-Strike:
    • Online multiplayer team games such as CounterStrike often give the winning team a bigger reward. This, of course, means that as one side keeps winning, the losing team slowly becomes crippled relative to the winning
    • Some servers also run a Warcraft mod where players earn XP for kills. Higher levels get better abilities, which may make it nigh-impossible for low-level players to get any kills. For example, an Orc player at a certain level has the explosive power and range of regular frag grenades boosted by a factor of 2-4. This can allow an Orc to clear out an entire building with a single grenade. While some servers keep your XP and level if you log out and come back later, other servers reset it either upon a login or at certain intervals.
  • Evolve. A Monster that manages to stay ahead of the Hunters will get more time to feed uninterrupted, allowing it to Evolve more quickly and grow as a threat. However, if it gets caught early and often, it will end up wasting precious time in the Dome, and that's if the Hunters don't manage to do enough damage to get through its armour to its health. Health doesn't regenerate and isn't fully restored when Evolving, meaning Hunters can slowly but surely chip a Monster to death over a number of fights. However, if the player Hunters don't work well together, it is very easy for the Monster player to absolutely stomp them very quickly, even in stage one.
  • A similar problem occurs in multiplayer games where the players have to collect weapons and powerups like Quake and Unreal Tournament. A recently killed player will be severely understocked against the player that just killed him, which in turn leads to worse chances of getting the next powerup that appears and increased chances of dying again.
    • In Unreal Tournament 2004's case, the adrenaline. By getting full adrenaline the player can temporarily give himself regeneration, a faster firing rate, superspeed movement or even invisibility. A good player will gain a massive advantage from these with the most unfortunate example being Bombing Run, a sports-esque game mode where scoring a goal gives a large amount of adrenaline to the player, about 35% of the meter. Since speed is very important in Bombing Run, the winning team will be able to abuse the superspeed powerup over and over again as they score more goals and refill the adrenaline almost instantly.
    • Notably, Adrenaline is disabled in most competitive UT2004 matches, as are the one-shot-kill superweapons. This means that in competition, the unstable equilibrium feature on a map is usually the large shield pickup. It's a strong enough bonus to ensure that its holder cannot be killed in one shot by any normal means (though falling into an instant-kill map hazard is still fatal). This item spawns on a predictable timer, and many, MANY matches are decided largely on which player can manage to be precisely at the point where the pack spawns at precisely the moment the shield respawns. The player who took the last shield has a ridiculous advantage in taking the next shield, provided that they manage to retain their shielding. Additionally, as the player's arsenal is emptied on death, the shield-holder often has a wider array of weapons available in any given encounter, where a freshly-spawned player might have two or even one good weapon. Also, given that certain (usually deathmatch) rulesets make weapon pickups despawn temporarily on pickup, a player with the early lead can conceivably hold a monopoly on the best health items on the map AND the best weapons for depleting that health. It's little wonder that very small skill gaps in UT2004 can lead to landslide victories.
    • In the Onslaught game mode, Power Nodes almost always spawn vehicles. The team controlling the most nodes thus usually has a firepower advantage, which in turn makes it harder and harder for the other team to either construct a contested node or keep it up long enough that they can move on to the next one.
  • Team Fortress 2
    • The game, as carefully balanced as it is, does this on purpose. On control point maps, a team that's down to a single point still under its control will have its respawn interval increased, making it take longer for a killed defender to rejoin the fight: without this rule, the density of defenders on the last point would be so high that no one would ever win.
    • The game also rewards doing well with critical hits: If you've done a lot of damage in the last twenty seconds, one has a much higher chance of scoring critical hits and, therefore, to keep killing. This is to encourage players who are 'on a roll' to stay that way.
    • In Capture the Flag, capturing the intelligence (flag) awards your whole team several seconds of all crits, making is easier to push for the intelligence again. Likewise, in Arena mode, whoever earns the first kill earns several seconds of critical hits (not shared with your team this time), making it easier to keep killing (otherwise, earning the first kill would be nearly suicidal).
    • They go into great detail on the evils of stalemates in the dev commentary. The engineer's teleporter, the moving respawns, and the sliding respawn interval are all bent towards crushing the weaker team, so the match can end and the teams can be reshuffled. It's also interesting to play third-party maps by people who didn't listen to the commentary, and therefore designed an old-style static map, which of course results in a stalemate nine times out of ten. This also becomes a problem on servers with instant respawn—while it's nice to get back into the fight more quickly, it pretty much destroys game balance.
    • In Mann Vs Machine, a well-comprised and well-organized team is more likely to be able to get a lot of the money dropped by robots when they die. The team needs the money to upgrade their equipment, which is necessary for surviving later waves of robots. Likewise, the robots become stronger the longer they can hold the bomb without dropping it, making easier to keep from dropping it.
  • Call of Duty:
    • The Modern Warfare series and Call of Duty: World at War also have this - players who get kill streaks without dying are rewarded with air support raining down on the opposition. However, these advantages are SO high as to fall squarely into the main-level trope. Someone who is only okay is likely to get less and less kills, as the high-level people gain the ability to use those tricks.
    • This goes even further in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops, as the later killstreak rewards are often simply -better- than earlier ones. A weaker team might be trying its hardest to scrape together enough kills to earn a UAV recon or spy plane, whereas the other team can be grinding them into dust with repeated airstrikes, AC130 gunships and attack helicopters. Worse, in Modern Warfare 2, said killstreak rewards count towards earning others, something that resulted in the somewhat infamous Harrier/Chopper Gunner/Nuke combo.
    • Reasons like this are why Modern Warfare 3 tones down the killstreaks substantially; many killstreaks require more kills than in the previous game, air support only counts toward your killstreak if used during the same killstreak it was obtained in, and there are better counter-air-support options, such as better rocket launchers and a surface-air missile turret item. Additionally, the new version of the Tactical Nuke, the M.O.A.B. (Mother of All Bombs), is less powerful and much harder to get—it instantly kills the entire enemy team rather than instantly ending the game, and the requisite 25-kill streak no longer counts kills gotten using other killstreaks.
    • Curiously this can also manifest within a team. If one or two exceptional players keep killing the outmatched enemy team, their allies can find themselves constantly chasing after blips on the radar, finding only corpses, while their exceptional allies are already on the other side of the map making new corpses of the team who have just respawned. As the best players get better and better killstreak rewards they'll create a situation where only they can get kills, because the enemies spend too much time dead for anyone else to have a chance.
  • In the online FPS Planetside, players were soldiers on a battlefield and received experience points for killing enemies, but received much more experience points if their side won a battle. Hence, if one side started losing, players on that side would realize they were unlikely to win and pull out, looking for better experience-point potential in other areas. This meant that it was difficult to find a battle in serious contention for more than an hour or so at a time. To mitigate this problem, the developers introduced a system that gave players on the side with fewer members bonus health and experience points, encouraging them to stay. This also caused controversy among gamers: one gamer said that the game was "becoming more like the University of Michigan every day" (referencing the affirmative-action debate).
  • TimeSplitters brought a creative solution to the problem in one game mode: the player in last place gets a strike team of rocket launcher-wielding monkeys dropping in periodically to help.
    • The sequels have another mode called Shrink, in which players change size based on their rank on the scoreboard: maintaining first place means retaining normal size, but any drop in position causes the player to shrink, with the last place competitor becoming very tiny and difficult to hit.
  • Halo
    • In Halo: Reach, the weapons you have when you blast off in the Sabre fighter determine what weapons you have when you board the Covenant Corvette. On harder difficulties, a poor weapon choice can dramatically affect how well you do on the Corvette level.
    • Same with the two-part missions in Halo 2, where your weapons carry over from the first half of the mission; a poor combination can make things more frustrating, and if you quit and reload, you start over with the mission's default weapons.
    • In Halo 4, this is the whole point of Dominion. Of course to make things fair some weapons randomly spawn outside on the field, away from the bases to give either the winning or losing team a upper (or lower depending on the player and weapon) hand. However, when the losing team loses their last base, the entire team enters a mode that gives overshields to help them win back a lost base. If they die, they stay dead until a base has been re-captured or they lose.
    • In Halo 5: Guardians's Warzone mode, you earn more energy levels by kicking ass. Higher energy levels allow you to requisition more powerful weapons and vehicles, which allow you to kick even more ass and earn even more energy levels. That said, requisitioning weapons will reduce your energy level, with the most powerful ones setting it back to zero, and there is a cap on how much energy you can have at any given time.
  • This trope is very common in many modern FPSs with a leveling system: Kill enough people, level up. Level up, get better weapons. Get better weapons, kill more people. Kill more people, level up faster. Rinse and repeat.
    • This is why many game with such a system also have some system where a player can obtain additional (entirely cosmetic) rewards by resetting their level to the minimum and clawing their way up again. The rewards for doing this may only be cosmetic, but they are still reflect well upon others' perception of a player's skill (or determination). Examples include Prestige Mode in the various Call of Duty games, and Prime Mode in High Moon's Transformers shooters.
  • Battlefield 3:
    • Being an FPS with a level-to-unlock system, has this trope in hordes. However, it does try to avert this with pick-up kits and squad specialisations. The most egregious example is with regard to air combat. If your opponents have a good jet/helo pilot while you only have a decent jet/helo pilot, he probably already has loads of tasty unlocks and the skill required not only to cook your air support, but your tanks, your jeeps, your infantry and even your mobile anti-air. Considering that air-to-ground missiles are scarily effective on armor, this will not end well.
    • Vehicles do have their own class of unlocks too. Tanks are the most egregious example here, with the penultimate unlock being a Canister Shell that does 50% damage to infantry and acts as a shotgun with 1km range. Essentially, they can snipe out infantry with random headshots.
    • It is the vehicle vs infantry unlocks in general. Almost all infantry upgrades have a downside. Heavy barrel increases bullet speed, but also recoil while decreasing hip accuracy, the silencer hides the minimap ping and lowers recoil, but greatly reduces bullet speed. Reactive armor, smoke/flare or canister shells have no downside at all. Made even worse by the fact that infantry carried anti vehicle equipments do not have any upgrades at all besides unlocking them.
    • Speaking more generally, in Conquest matches a losing team is extremely likely to KEEP losing. This is because flanking attacks and divide-and-conquer techniques are a major part of successful play... but a team that has been pushed back into their spawn area literally only has one direction to come from. They can't flank in any meaningful way, and the winning team is free to focus the entirety of its firepower on them rather than being forced to split their attention between multiple objectives. The losing team gets no advantages whatsoever.
    • The Armored Kill maps are even worse. In addition to the usual jets and helicopters, it also adds AC-130 gunships and mobile artillery. Both of these powerful vehicles are tied to key objectives, which is supposed to allow a losing team to rush those points. The problem is that both the artillery and gunship are more effective the more of the map you control. A winning team can use artillery to fire straight into the enemy base without fear of reprisal, while the gunship kills backcappers from the air. A losing team, on the other hand, is likely to waste precious tickets in a rush to the gunship point only to have it shot out of the air by hordes of stinger missiles from the rest of the map.
  • Overwatch: Doing damage to enemies gives you charge for your Ultimate, and using Ultimates makes it much easier to win fights. So, when a team starts getting the better of fights, they can use their Ultimates more frequently, which helps them win future fights, which gives them more charge for future Ultimates.

    Four X Games 
  • Stellaris: As with any 4X game, those who fail to defend their borders against early game aggression will have less territory and by extension, less resource output and are thus less capable of maintaining fleets powerful enough to defend themselves from further aggression. Even with the reduced cost for technological advances, the problem is you won't be producing as much Research, since you will need to devote planetary resources to producing Energy and Minerals for other projects, especially fleet upkeep. Can be defied if you can somehow convince a much more powerful Empire to support your war efforts; very unlikely if you're playing with AI, but in Multiplayer...
  • Sword of the Stars:
    • Being designed as a competitive multiplayer game, tends to invoke this trope. While a small empire can hold off a larger one almost indefinitely by building ships instead of researching, doing so will leave you far behind research-wise, making the outcome inevitable. To make things worse, the game is sufficiently random that you often 'start' with an advantage of this level, and smaller AI empires only band together if they have a decent chance of success - beyond that, they're smart enough to ally with the apparent winner instead. It does cut down on the mop-up period.
    • On the other hand, you can also start with a disadvantage of this level, that you must work to overcome. The degree of randomness in starting positions and the amount of available customization in initial conditions is seen by the developers as an effective counter to the problem of unstable equilibrium, when viewed statistically over the course of a large number games.
    • There's also the problem of the Zuul players having expansion as a racial requirement. As their planets are constantly losing resources, if they're not allowed to expand, the empire will eventually die.
  • Civilization
    • The games in general suffer from this when it comes to the research-race. Players who start out in a location favorable to research, or know how to best balance early expansion and enhancement of existing cities to maximize research, will sooner be able to create buildings that increase research (Libraries, Laboratories) and - more importantly - build one-of-a-kind Wonders that can boost research or provide free technologies (The Great Library, for example), thus further increasing their lead in the tech-race. Next thing you know, they'll be knocking over your bow-and-arrow wielding sentries with tanks and tower artillery. Better hope you're playing one of those Civ-games where Rock Beats Laser. This problem is prominent enough that some players exclusively play on Pangaea-type maps so that they can stop any opponents who look set to skyrocket in research.
    • The popular Civilization 4 mod, Fall from Heaven includes this trait, but also adds a new, militarized version in Baron Duin Halfmorn, a unique 'World Unit' which can be built by ANYONE, regardless of civilization, religion and civic choices - the ONLY such unit. (All other 'unique' units are cultural or religious heroes.) So basically, whoever first researches the necessary technology, gets to build him. Being a Werewolf, he has a high chance of turning any unit he kills into a Ravenous Werewolf, and if they survive their first engagement (even if it's only with an unarmed Worker), they turn into Blooded Werewolves under your control. These, then, have a chance of turning into stronger Greater Werewolves with every combat-success - and every type of werewolf has a set chance of creating more whenever they kill a unit. Thus, anyone good enough with tactics to make decent use of Duin Halfmorn and his spawn, are rewarded with even more, free units with similar power, essentially allowing a skilled played to BECOME The Virus. (Fortunately, there's an option to simply disable Duin Halfmorn from your game if you find him too unbalanced.)
    • Civ V attempted to mitigate runaway city-building and warmongering. Unhappiness is increased every time another city is founded or annexed, and social policy and tech costs also increase with the number of cities one owns. This attempts to encourage you to not to spam cities everywhere, and only do so if you can be sure the city will pay off the increased science and social policy cost. The downside, however, is that this inadvertently made it so that playing tall (few cities, but high population) is far more advantageous than playing wide (many cities, but lower population), resulting in an odd situation where you have a 4X game that discourages 3 of those Xes.
    • Civ VI, attempting to solve the paradox in V, made it so tech and civic costs are now static, but districts (special locations focused on a specific thing, like science or faith) scaled in cost instead. The downside is that this trope comes into play again, since it doesn't matter if your 20th Campus is going to take 100 turns to construct - it's not going to negatively influence your empire, so just forget about that crappy snow city and let it slowly build. VI also made it so that barbarians will come harass you more than in previous games, meaning that if an encampment spawned next to you you will probably spend the next 20 turns trying to clear the horde while other Civs got to expand. In a game where a second city early will likely double your science, culture and production, lagging behind in expansion is a really hard hole to crawl back out of.
  • Imperium Galactica invokes the trope deliberately: the Dargslans are live and expanding from day one, and you have to ascend to the Grand Admiral rank before they defeat the majority of your would-be allies to stand a chance in the endgame.
  • In Star Trek: Birth Of The Federation, a small empire will invariably be at a disadvantage, as research nets you bigger and better warships. For example, if you play as The Federation (which is, arguably, one of the most difficult factions to play) and dominate research, you will fairly quickly get access to the Defiant-class heavy escort, the most powerful warship in the game (available to the player). No other race has an equivalent. A single Defiant can destroy an entire fleet without sustaining much damage thanks partly to its cloaking device (which gives you a free turn at the start of combat). Additionally, if a weaker empire is constantly losing battles, the planetary morale will keep falling until the planets start seceding, which has further negative effect on morale, resulting in a domino effect.
  • Master of Orion
    • The game takes steps against the boring mop-up period, not against this trope itself. Every so often, the game's warring star empires convene and vote on unification. Anyone who's supported by two-thirds of the total galactic population wins the game.
    • Unfortunately the voting process is weighed against population; only the two most populated factions out of up to eight become candidates for the election, the vote of a faction is worth more as it grows on population, and the two candidates can, and will, vote for themselves. Its more of a mercy feature to prevent games to extend needlessly, as anyone who has the lead on the population race is often steamrolling in every field with little chance for anybody to catch up.
    • Some races, especially in Master of Orion II, have clear advantages over others, creating inherent imbalance. Playing as the Psilons, who get all advantages from researching a technology and a research boost (normally, a player has to pick one advantage per technology and trade for the rest), or the Elerians (who can see all star systems from the beginning and can conquer planets using mind-control) usually results in them curb-stomping everyone in short order.
  • Galactic Civilizations 2: Large empires are just better at everything. Their greater size means they get more money from their higher population, can build more research facilities, and can build more, bigger and better ships. Plus, since friendliness is largely calculated based on military size, they will tend to start shaking you down if you're too far below them, further delaying catch-up.
  • Star Ruler
    • A big offender. Getting many planets early allows you to get more research capacity. Research not only improves economic and military capabilities, but also begets more research. Play your cards right, you'll be out-researching and out-producing everyone while also building bigger and more advanced ships, spiraling until victory is effectively guaranteed. Bottling in the AI opponents early on is critical, as if you see waves of colony ships leaving their systems at about an hour or to into the game, you have already lost; the AI will expand exponentially and will build exponentially more powerful ships. The game tries to discourage you from colonizing too fast by having Space Pirates appear to blockade and raid undefended systems, but past a certain point in the tech race you'll have powerful enough weapons that even a puny task force can keep them off your backs.
    • The sequel demonstrates Sequel Escalation from the first game. Early rushing to grab as many planets as possible is even more important than before, and this time the Space Pirates rely on hit-and-run tactics against trading ships rather than attacking weak colonies, which was used to dissuade wild colonization in the first game. On the other hand, other empires can annex planets or entire solar systems through diplomacy, especially in multiple small empires gang up on the larger one at the negotiation table.
  • VGA Planets: Often a problem in this multi-player space-empire game. If you don't get off to a fast start settling and developing the planets around your homeworld and getting a ship-building supply network going, one of your 10 opponents will likely end up producing a massive fleet that will irresistibly roll over you. And since a typical game takes months to play, a losing player gets to slowly lose for, yes, months, as the winning player normally has to mop all of the victim's assets in order to officially boot them from the game. (You can still technically be in the game while owning a single ship.) On the current "Planets Nu" system, there is always a long list of games seeking replacements where people got fed up and quit. Some Nu games do include a planet count required to stay in the game which increases as the game progresses.

  • The Lone Wolf gamebooks reward you for playing through all the adventures by allowing you to add an extra Discipline for each previous adventure you completed. By and large, these make life easier but don't give you a massive advantage. Until Grand Master. In addition to the Discipline benefits, you gain 1 Combat Skill point and 2 Endurance points for each adventure completed. The upshot is that the adventures actually get easier as you go, to the point where the ultimate mission... going alone into the evil god's universe and swiping a legendary artifact from his inner sanctum... is an absolute cakewalk.

    Though this gets inverted in some of the later books, where having some of the items you get from previous books, most notably the Sommerswerd, will make some bosses exponentially harder, to the point where one boss is mathematically almost impossible unless you have a very specific set of disciplines, have gotten and saved every single stat-boosting item you can get by that point in the game, have both of END and CS scores maxed, AND gotten a one of a kind potion in the third book that boosts your combat score higher then any other potion in the game and refrained from losing/using it until the boss battle, in the eleventh book. Even then it requires a lot of luck with the combat rolls.

    It's notable that there are several fanon attempts to explain why it would be perfectly logical for Lone Wolf to NOT bring the only non-evil weapon in the world able to kill the Big Bad's with him when he invades one of their strongholds, just to make that fight easier.

  • World of Warcraft:
    • Lake Wintergrasp:
      • The PvP area Lake Wintergrasp deals with this by granting the faction with fewer players present the Tenacity buff, which gives them increased health, health regeneration, and healing power. In extreme cases, this can result in players with five times as much health as the opposition. Tenacity effectively rewards the side that's unable to gather as many players together to fight, since it's widely considered that the buff more than makes up for the lack of numbers. Of course, Tenacity doesn't help defenders because 3 players cannot cover 20+ points of entry from 80 or more players. It basically just enforces a tug of war.
      • There's also a feature in Wintergrasp that makes the battle easier for the attacking side if they've consistently lost several battles, ensuring that control of the zone will eventually switch.
    • Tol Barad has similar issues. There's no Tenacity, and it's much easier to defend Tol Barad than it is to capture it. This is semi-intentional, as capturing Tol Barad comes with huge rewards. Later Blizzard tweaked it to make capturing Tol Barad more easily possible.
    • An example created via an Addon. The infamous "GearScore" addon calculate the (then hidden) item level of a player's equipment, and assigned them a number based on the average. This was meant to give raid leaders an indication of how well geared a player was, as certain content required a certain level of gear in order to be survivable. Unfortunately, GearScore really took off, and some raid readers began enforcing "Minimum GearScore" requirements for certain content. Often, the only way to achieve the required score was by equipping gear found only in the dungeon they were about to run. Blizzard eventually made item levels visible, and began enforcing a (considerably more reasonable) minimum ilevel to run content.
    • Blizzard made the leveling easier and removed the penalty for death but is now finding that once players reach the top they are bored and half the gaming world is useless (i.e. too low a level to bother hanging around in) to players at the level cap. This was at least partially remedied with the Archaeology profession, as well as the Pet Battle system, both of which gave high-level players a reason to visit lower-level areas. World-wide level-scaling was also introduced towards the end of Legion, making monsters and rewards in given zones correspond to the player's level, within certain ranges, making leveling in what were once lower-level areas as profitable as higher-level areas.
  • EverQuest. Couldn't survive in this zone with your equipment? Have fun trying to survive naked if you die and have to make it to your corpse. In the old days, at least.
  • Obscure German browser game Power of Politics suffers of this. You can challenge other players to debates. Your chances of winning are determined (among other things) by your Ego, Publicity and Eloquence scores. What do you get as a reward for winning debates? Why, a portion of the loser's Ego, Publicity and Eloquence, of course.
  • Guild Wars 2 originally featured Orbs of Power in its realm-based player versus player combat, which provided large bonuses to whichever team possessed them. Since gaining control of an Orb of Power was rather difficult to start with, but keeping control was easy, the first team to take an Orb very rarely lost it. Add in an exploit allowing unethical players to take an Orb without being challenged, and it's not surprising that the mechanic was removed entirely.
    • Having control of many supply depots also lets a realm upgrade their defenses and deploy offensive weapons much faster, which allows faster gain of more supply depots, which can eventually lead to another realm being repeatedly squashed at their home base. There are, at least, several vulnerabilities to this strategy, as defending every supply point on the map simultaneously takes a good deal of coordination.
  • Final Fantasy XIV's large-scale PvP mode, Frontline, gives players on a killing spree the "Battle High" and "Battle Fever" buffs (high for four kills, fever for eight), which increase damage dealt and result in your Limit Break filling faster. Given how a melee DPS job can very nearly kill squishier jobs (e.g. healers) with the Limit Break alone, this can lead to a juggernaut ripping through your team if they have their own healers focusing on them. The tradeoff is that a broken spree rewards the enemy team with more points.
  • EVE Online:
    • There are generally two groups of players: Those with lots of money all the time, and those who constantly struggle to make a living. The ones who are always wealthy, usually have built up that wealth for so long that they have self-sustaining business empires within the game and often comprise the leadership of player-run empires. Needless to say, there are also many players who make a lot of money by successfully scamming and stealing from everyone else.
    • There is a well known phenomenon that was discovered in the game's adolescent years, when the developers would introduce new features and benefits for new players to attract more of them; One veteran player stated that "Any new feature intended to benefit new players will ultimately benefit older more established players substantially more". This law has yet to be defied or disproved.
  • Champions Online gives you stars as you win battles and complete missions, and takes them away as you die. These stars give a boost to your stats, improving your healing abilities, the damage you do, etc. That means that doing well in battle makes your character more powerful, while doing bad takes your power away, making you weaker and hencefort more likely to die even more. You can buy star refill boosts in the in-game store at any time but, of course, this takes real money. If you've been doing certain missions you can get Questionite, which you can then exchange for store money at exhorbitant rates, but you'll likely find that there are many more useful things you could be doing with either of those currencies. If you're a free player, your better choice are vendors that will refill your stars for in-game gold but, of course, those can only be found in hub areas, and not inside dungeons, where you're more likely to need them.
  • Preventing this sort of thing and returning everyone to an equal starting point is a major reason why the Nexus Clash universe hits the Reset Button on the universe from time to time. There are still some things that get carried over from universe to universe though, and enough of them can add up to an advantage.

    Mecha Games 
  • Unstable equilibrium could hit the earlier versions of MechWarrior Living Legends pretty hard. Players start out each match with light assets and earn money by capturing bases, assisting teammates, and damaging enemies, which causes them to rank up, increasing their spawn money so they can buy bigger and more advanced vehicles. However, an early base capture rush by one team could give them a decisive advantage, which would only magnify unless the other team coordinated to take down the enemy's top players. After half an hour into the match, the rush team might be stomping around in Inner Sphere assault mechs and Clan heavies mechs, while the slower team was stuck in medium mechs. Comeback Mechanics introduced in the final update greatly reduced the likelihood of the curb-stomp battles by giving more money to players fighting larger assets - pulling an assault battlemech too early now is essentially shooting yourself in the foot, as the lighter enemies will get loads of money by shooting your slow mech.
  • The reboot to Steel Battalion does this in a rather nasty way. In order for you to get any upgrades at all, you need to attain a good performance rating from specific missions (which, incidentally, are also multiplayer capable). Particularly good players that can gain an A rank is awarded with many upgrades, especially the ones that can make your Vertical Tank much more durable (which is the most valuable upgrade, given the Nintendo Hard nature of the game). However, it is unlikely that new players know what to do, and most of the time, they cannot attain such a rank, which means later levels will get progressively harder and harder because simply surviving gets very, very hard without the upgrades to help them.

  • This was the biggest reason why James Bond 007 flopped: It has a mechanic in which you'll begin with a set amount of time, and achieving certain things will add time. What results is that beginners get destroyed and can barely play before the game decides they're done, while experienced players who get to learn the rules can play and play until they get bored. In other words, this mechanic annoyed both beginners and experts alike, to where operators returned the machines and demanded refunds. This mechanic, in which players begin with a limited time and can extend it, was revisited by different companies with Flipper Football and Safe Cracker, both of which also flopped (though Safe Cracker would later be Vindicated by History).

    Platform Games 
  • Mega Man:
    • There are eight (six in Mega Man) Robot Masters that you have to defeat and you can do it in any order. Each one of them is weak against one of the other's weapon that you can gain with Power Copying. Once you have knowledge of their weaknesses, you can easily cream the rest of them once you beat one of them.
    • But then it's all fair for the final level when you have all the weapons... at least until you realize that dying will not refill your weapon energy tanks, but it will remember which ones you've already picked up. When these weapons make getting through certain parts about 100x easier, and you use them all up, and then die and have to do that part again.
    • Mega Man X5 introduced the infamous boss rank mechanic, where a boss that is level 8 or higher can drop a special item, and the higher their level the more likely they are to drop one. Ignoring that this only happens on normal difficulty (which makes easy the hardest difficulty as lamented here), the better you do in the stages the faster the bosses will level up. In other words, doing well without the items gives you more opportunities to get the items, while doing poorly makes it harder to get the items you could most certainly use to do better.
    • Mega Man Zero is worse. In order to gain a new special attack from a boss, you have to get the highest rank in the stage - you have to be good enough to win without taking any damage or using any items.
  • Super Mario Bros.:
    • Super Mario Bros. actually has this pretty bad. Fire Flowers make it easy to plow through many enemies, including the otherwise tough Hammer Bros. (especially those not standing on overhead blocks) and all of the boss fights. But mess up or fall into a pit, and you'll have a much harder time. 8-3 and 8-4 in particular are bad examples; if you are Fire Mario and know your way through these levels, it's not too difficult to preserve that status and win, but if you make a mistake, you'll probably take a hit and lose the precious fireballs. These levels are exponentially harder without the fire suit, and after the 8-3 checkpoint or the entire level of 8-4, there's actually no way to get a complete fire suit again if you die once. Later 2D games also have lots of suits like this, many hidden, so in most games a simple Self-Imposed Challenge is done to avoid such suits.
    • The game also has hidden 1-ups which are only collectible if the player collected all the coins in the preceding level...thus giving extra lives only to players who collect every coin and therefore have more lives to start with (as 100 coins = an extra life).
    • Super Mario 3D World: When playing co-op, the winner of each level is awarded a crown that is worth 5000 points in the next level. This makes it easier for one player to win several levels in a row, although other players can fight for the crown.
  • The Contra series has this in spades. The base bosses in the arcade version increase in difficulty the longer the fight drags on, but even in the console version, chances are the spread gun is the only thing keeping from becoming dog food. Lose the spread gun, and you will probably lose the rest of your lives in short order. In Super Contra, if you lose your weapon upgrades in Those Last Two Levels, you're as good as dead.
  • Castlevania takes away whip upgrades, sub-weapon and stored hearts whenever Simon dies. While the whip upgrades can be quickly regained, losing ammo and being forced to use an almost always worse sub-weapon generally makes finishing the stage much more difficult.
  • The first three Ratchet & Clank games don't return any ammo to the player if they die, making progressing through already difficult missions even harder if there are no vendors in sight. This is especially bad during the first game where ammo is more expensive compared to what you get (and numerous Cash Gates don't help matters) meaning you can completely run out of both ammo and money during the Final Boss. Deadlocked doesn't return ammo either, but since money is plentiful (at least compared to the ammo price) and the stages are short (thus usually you'll get respawned next to the vendor), this isn't that much of an issue in that game.
  • The same goes with Jak II: Renegade; especially painful due to the game's Nintendo Hard nature worsened even more by Checkpoint Starvation. Emptied 85% of your weaponry on that final wave and died? Now do the same without ammo.
  • In Blaster Master and its sequels, taking damage during the overhead on-foot segments downgrades your gun, which you need to have powered up for the bosses, especially the later ones.
  • In Super Valis 4, your score doubles as an experience meter, and reaching milestones gives you a powerup to your life bar. You have only one life, continuing removes all life-bar power ups, not to mention your carefully hoarded weapons and armor powerups, and the later stages of the game are designed with a superlong life bar in mind. Need several tries to beat the Final Boss? Have fun starting the entire game from scratch each time. (Or use an emulator with save states, but ...)
  • In Cave Story, any damage you take will also cause your weapons to lose XP and eventually de-level, so they deal less damage. You get that weapon XP back by killing more enemies—which of course becomes harder if your weapon loses a level. The upshot of this is that deliberately tanking damage is rarely a viable strategy. (Although there are systems to minimize the failure spiral. You can switch to a different weapon if your current one is depowered too far, and later in the game you can get weapons that are very powerful even at their lowest level. And the various bosses' projectile attacks can be destroyed for powerups, so the boss fights don't become unwinnable just because you took two hits.) The one mitigating factor to this, albeit it's tricky to find, is the Nemesis weapon that is actually its strongest at LV 1 with no experience, and at its weakest at MAX level: it's normally tricky to use in levels but with your back against the wall from a boss it's easy to keep at its most powerful.

    Puzzle Games 
  • Invoked deliberately in Papers, Please much like the real-life poverty example. If you don't have enough money for food or heat, your family members will become sick. If you don't buy sick family members medicine (on top of the daily food and heat), other family members will become sick, requiring more medicine. This will also force you to make some of the more harsh decisions, such as coldly turning away people you sympathize with because you can't afford the citation for letting them slide, or accepting the deal of the corrupt sentry who pays you off to detain more people than normal.
  • In Professor Layton games, you get "picarats" for solving puzzles. The number of picarats a puzzle can earn you is based on its difficulty (the more picarats it's worth, the tougher it's going to be). The more times you try a puzzle and get it wrong, the fewer picarats you can earn by getting it right, although after a few tries it stops lowering the score. They don't affect the outcome of the game as far as winning or losing, but you must earn certain numbers of picarats to unlock bonus material.
  • Pokémon Shuffle offers items that permanently enhance your Pokémon as prizes for competitions and escalation battles. Using them wisely (or in bulk) improves a player's performance in future competitions and escalation battles, allowing players who did well collecting the early items to collect even more of the later ones. In competitions, where items are awarded by regional ranking, the fact that the best players keep getting more items makes it harder for other players to get any items at all.

    Racing Games 
  • Mario Kart:
    • In a grand prix, winning a race means you start the next race slightly ahead of everyone else; the players start in the order they finished the previous race. This is countered with the re-introduction of coins as of 7; racers start off with coins based on how far down the grid they are.
    • Racers in the lead are more likely to get defensive items that help them fight off incoming attacks, while those who are falling behind will frequently get speed boosts and offensive items with no defensive benefits at all (though the Super Star and Bullet Bill do provide temporary invincibility). This means while drivers at the front of the pack can keep and maintain a healthy lead until and unless somebody pulls out a Spiny Shell, racers who are near the middle will often end up pummeled by items and drop even further behind.
  • R4: Ridge Racer Type 4's GP Mode gives you a new car after the first heat, after the second heat, and before the final race. Your performance in previous races determines the quality of your new car. Get first place in every race and you'll get the best new car, allowing you to complete the next few races with ease. Place just high enough to qualify in each race and you'll get crappy new cars that will require perfect runs to even qualify in the upcoming races. This is on top of your team berating you for not finishing in first.
  • Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing winds up like this, despite scaling the items' power like with Mario Kart. This is because of the unintentional advantage given to the driver in 1st place: Whereas drivers in 2nd and lower have a certain number of opportunities per race to get items to attack and defend, the driver in 1st gets the same amount and only has to defend. Sometimes, they don't even need to defend: Long range items that follow the track will often instead collide into an obstacle or hazard, or fall down a pit, and never even reach its target. In addition, there are items that, if dropped behind the vehicle, will attack whoever is the next racer to come across, which winds up strengthening the lead. It's not unusual for online races where whoever's in 1st place will finish half a lap or more ahead of the player in 2nd.
  • This is just one of the issues with Sonic R, as booster pads and locked doors need rings to activate. Since the person up front will get first-grab at the rings on the track, they'll be getting more boosts and shortcuts than the people behind them, making it even harder for everyone else to catch up.
  • In general, racing games (particularly simulation racing games where taking the best lines through a turn is critical) will make it so it's easier to hold first place than it is to claim it, since the first place driver doesn't have to deal with other drivers occupying the road in front of them. Essentially, while everyone else fights to try to pass each other and capture the best racing lines, the driver out in first is always able to drive the optimal route without having to deal with those other cars and is able to strengthen their gap. Probably true in real racing to an extent as well.

    Rail Shooters 
  • The original Time Crisis, and its Gaiden Game Project Titan. Unlike later games, where the timer completely refills every section, it only increases by a certain amount for each area, also depending on your skill. So if you aren't fast and well skilled, you'll have less and less time for the subsequent areas, and when the timer runs out, it's Game Over. The timer also keeps running during the "Wait" sequences.
  • The House of the Dead
    • Throughout the series, failing to save a civilian often dumps you into a more frustrating alternate path. Not to mention that many of them give you extra lives, which you also get depending on your ranking at the end of each stage.
    • House of the Dead 4 gives you a letter grade at the end of each level based on your overall accuracy, score, and "shot ratings" (number of headshots and headshot streak). Nb., you lose points every time you take a hit. S (which requires an absolutely phenomenal run) nets two life boxes, B (which takes some skill, definitely no gimme) or A earns you one box, and anything worse gets nothing. The result is that there's very little middle ground in this game; either you're an ace and can zip through the whole game in 1-3 credits or you struggle mightily and have to shell out. If you mismanage grenades, can't get headshots, or don't know the layout, be prepared to really pay through the nose.
  • Silent Scope EX gives you a letter grade at the end of each level based on speed, hit ratio, and headshots. An S rating restores 10% life, and a SS restores 25%. Lower grades have proportionately smaller benefits. Needless to say, if you're good enough to SS even one stage, getting through the whole game in a single credit isn't going to be a problem. If the best you can do is B, it's going to get expensive.
  • Sin and Punishment: Star Successor has a score multiplier that increases as you kill enemies. Getting hit lowers it, and at over x10 (up to the maximum of x16), the decrease in multiplier gets worse. The multiplier penalty also seems to be biased towards multiple hits, so ten hits of 1 HP each, for example, tends to be worse for your multiplier than one hit of 10 HP. If you are bad enough, or have hit the time limit for a boss, the multiplier can even drop to x0, making everything you do worthless until you get the multiplier back up.

    Real-Time Strategy Games 
  • Invoking this trope is the goal of the "Rush" strategy in Real Time Strategy games. If executed properly, you severely hinder the economy of your opponent while your economy has a great chance to thrive. This allows you to quickly build more or better combat units, while your opponent is still trying to recover from your initial attack, allowing you more time to expand your territory. In the end, the difference in power between you and your opponent is so glaring, that the game turns into a Curb-Stomp Battle. However, this can also backfire heavily when the initial rush fails. Since the rusher temporarily cripples his own economy to build combat units instead of workers, failing the rush can lead to the rushee having a much more stable economy, leading to more powerful units, which are used to expand their territory, essentially turning this trope to their own favor.
  • Sacrifice:
    • One of the more dramatic examples. There is a single resource for creating units; souls. These souls exist in a VERY limited amount, most held by you, your enemy, and the scarce ambient creatures across the field. Since souls are easier to hold on to (run into them) then they are to steal (a minute long ritual just to get them on their way to your altar for another ritual to convert them) the game maintains a strange sort of least until you lose one bad fight. If your enemy gains even a tiny soul-lead on you, it turns very quickly into a snowballing curb-stomp.
    • Made slightly more odd by the fact that this is the main tactic in the campaign mode for you. Create a catspaws base to start sapping enemy souls for your own army.
  • Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games:
    • Games like Defense of the Ancients, Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends tend to turn one-sided very quickly. When a player is killed, the killer gets gold and experience and may push the lane and kill a tower. Meanwhile, the victim is unable to get experience or gold, and in the first two of those three games you also lose gold. Both gold and experience translate into more power for the killer, making it easier for them to stomp you again next time. This quickly leads to the killer 'snowballing' into a much stronger force than anything else in the game and either using this advantage to take multiple objectives or, even worse, reach a powerful late-game state that much faster. On the other hand, the 'feeder' is now way behind in experience and items and will find it harder and harder to farm or contribute to fights. On a global scale, after all the towers in a lane are down, buildings are exposed that once destroyed will cause more powerful creeps to spawn in that lane, causing it to passively apply pressure to the enemy team as it constantly pushes. It can be punishing and obnoxious, but with existing matches lasting forty-five minutes or longer it's probably necessary to avoid eternal stalemates... with the downside being that it can be incredibly annoying to have to sit through the rest of a match when your team has essentially lost it in the first five minutes.
    • The last point is the reason why League of Legends allows you to call a vote for surrender 20 minutes after the match started. This gave rise to the expression "surrender at 20", when a team got stomped so incredibly hard they call surrender the very minute it becomes available.
    • This is made even worse by the fact that in a number of these games players actually lose gold when they die- as if giving the opponent gold and exp and losing the opportunity to both farm more and keep the opponent from doing so themself wasn't penalty enough. You might also have the option to "buy out" of a death, which typically costs tons of gold and is only feasible if you're way, way ahead. League of Legends and Demigod are two games which removed this extra penalty (as well as the buyback thing) and even the super-hardcore "Stop Having Fun" Guys rarely complain about its omission.
    • It is actually easier to come back in Defense of the Ancients than in other games provided you have the skill to know how (or luck), even though its mechanics lead to massive gold differences after only a few kills. This is because abilities are so powerful (and by and large don't scale with gear) that even the highly fed enemy carry can be caught out and nuked or stunlocked to death. You have to do it multiple times due to buyback gold, but you can do it. The final match of The International 3 was decided by Alliance pulling off two awesome plays from a severely disadvantaged position after 30 minutes of getting stomped by Na'Vi.
      • There is a huge defender's advantage at the entrance of the actual base, but once they do get into your base and destroy your barracks, the game is pretty much over. It doesn't end at that point though, giving the winning team plenty of opportunity to spawn camp the losers.
    • League of Legends has many measures to slow down the scales tipping. For instance, killing a player who already died lots without getting kills will only give you a pittance of gold, while the weaker player gets tons of money if he does manage to gain the upper hand. It doesn't prevent unstable equilibrium, but it makes it less overwhelming.
    • However, it then also has objectives like Dragon, Herald and Baron, neutral monsters which grant Status Buffs to the team that killed them. They were intended as Comeback Mechanics, but they actually tend to decide the match in favor of the team that gets them. Even worse, Gold has a bigger influence on gameplay and ability use in LoL than it does elsewhere (disables have much shorter duration and can actually be countered by spending gold on tenacity items, etc). The end result is a game where, as revealed by one strategy site based on analysis of pro matches, the team with so much as a 10% gold lead at 12 minutes in is 90% likely to win the (30-40 minute) match.
      • This actually tends to swing back and forth at different points in the game's history as radical changes to the LoL's game design and the meta take effect. In fact, Elder Dragon was explicitly designed to be not a comeback mechanic, but a game-ender during a time in the meta where this trope was being averted and games were getting bogged down in stalemates where an early gold advantage wasn't proving decisive enough.
    • Some champions are also designed with special abilities that can snowball out of control given time but leave them very weak if they're denied that opportunity. For example, Veigar has a damage-dealing ability with an infinitely stacking damage bonus based on how many things he's already killed with it. More damage means that getting the next kill with it will be easier, and easier, and easier. On the other hand, if he can't accumulate Phenomenal Evil Power stacks by farming, he's basically going to be a slow, fragile target. Experienced players are well aware that letting Veigar feed is likely a death sentence.
  • Warhammer: Dark Omen makes a downright infuriating example. Lose a critical unit in any battle, and you are royally screwed. In fact, the very instant you see your Fire Wizard drop dead, you might as well restart the battle. Also, if you have high casualties in one battle, that usually means that your army won't be at full strength for the next battle, leading to heavier casualties, etc. It tends to quickly degenerate into a downward spiral, where your best option is to restart the campaign and self-impose yourself some "acceptable casualty limits".
  • This is a well-known phenomenon in the Total Annihilation / Spring community: the outcome of a multiplayer match is frequently considered to be set in stone after the result of the first raid. If you can cripple your opponent's economy early, you can set him back whilst your own vastly outstrips his. Cue large army smashing on your doorstep because your enemy is claiming metal spots whilst you're fending off raiders.
  • Homeworld lives by this trope. Don't harvest sufficient resources or maintain your fleet (through construction or capturing) and you will find later levels much more difficult. Do a good job and the later levels become much easier. In some of the later levels it helps if you deconstruct your fleet to some degree and quickly rebuild at the start of the level. The enemy force scales with yours but not your resources.
  • The RTS game Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 was specifically rebalanced to avoid this, since the first game had a rather bad problem with it - namely, that the computer will throw everything it has into its first attack, meaning you've effectively beaten it if you can weather that. One of the developers described it as (something like) "winning a game in five minutes, then taking forty minutes to actually complete that victory."
  • Red Alert 3:
    • The Empire faction uses the least amount of resources to expand to new ore mines, and as such can get a very early head start. They can also immediately start sending infantry-producing structures towards the enemy to attack very early. This is compensated somewhat by the fact that their heavier units take longer to obtain (each production building must be individually upgraded, unlike the Allies' wide area of effect or the Soviets' map-wide upgrades.
    • The most frustrating aspect of the Commander's Challenge is that the enemy starts off with much more resources and sometimes an entire base, translating to more units faster.
    • Refineries take a long time to pay themselves off (8-10 collector trips) and are quite exensive, meaning you might easily bankrupt yourself trying to get more money.
  • Towards the end of an early mission in MechCommander you face a MadCat, a very tough enemy. The game does allow you to avoid the fight (in fact that's what you're supposed to do, thematically) but beating it very often nets you this mech and with it you will waltz through the other early missions. The point being that only players good enough to get through the rest of the mission essentially unharmed can consider accepting battle, those struggling won't have their mechs in any shape to face it (although the only realistic way to beat it is luring it into a field of fuel tanks and then blowing them up, you still need to have your mechs in relatively good condition to even consider engaging it or it's just going to wreck you before you can get it into position).
  • Seven Kingdoms 2: The Frythan Wars
    • Human factions must conscript new soldiers from their civilian population. A major loss can significantly drain the population of a player's cities as they try to replace their lost soldiers and hurt their economy. Made even worse is that soldiers level up, a lot. Soldiers in forts are constantly training and slowly gaining levels, and in battle gain several levels quickly. And finally every unit has an inventory where they can hold one unique item. A victor can walk away from a battle with an army that has gained several levels of experience and new items while the loser has to use his civilian population to create new rookie soldiers.
    • Additionally, the demonic frythan factions use life force gained from killing to create units. A victory for them can really boost their military might.
  • Players need to use their (usually infantry) units to capture territory in Company of Heroes to earn resources, but if one side truly outmatches the other in maneuvering as they fight over territory, they'll capture more territory than the other side to start buying upgrades, laying down mines and requisitioning vehicles at a faster rate to help them continue beating up the opposition who will probably be struggling to just have the manpower to replace or reinforce their basic units, let alone buying more advanced ones. This is very slightly undercut by how manpower is automatically reduced as more of a player's population is used up on units, but not by much given that without any units at all, a player will earn about enough manpower to build a basic infantry unit every minute and a half (and obviously, having no units at all is incomparably bad for their ability to control territory). This effect can even happen later in the game due to how territory cut-offs also provide population, so even after both sides have bought pretty much all of the units they could want, one side getting enough of a leg up to be able to control both their territory and the enemy's territory cut-off can allow them to reduce the enemy's population such that even if their enemy hasn't actually lost any units, they will lack the population to be able to reinforce their infantry squads. Given that factions tend to need infantry to capture victory points to win the game or have engineers to repair their vehicles, this can be a crippling blow even late in the game if the territory cut-off is not regained quickly. 2 and onwards removed the later possibility by making all players start with their maximum possible population at the beginning of the game instead.
  • Dawn of War
    • It doesn't matter how good your base defenses are, capturing strategic points/critical locations/relics is practically the only way to produce Requisition resource which is needed by absolutely everything. If someone gains an advantage here, they can Zerg Rush the losers who will never catch up in terms of production capabilities. The skirmish/multiplayer victory conditions Control Areanote  and Take and Holdnote  are specifically introduced to prevent this trope by ending the match whenever someone has gained critical advantage.
    • A totally different example occurs in the Dark Crusade expansion, at the strategic level in the campaign. There, your bases stay right where you left them, to be used when an AI later re-invades the territory. Hence a province you gain in a skin-of-your-teeth victory with your base half wrecked will be a BEAR to hold in subsequent rounds, whereas one you left with two fully-developed expansion bases will provide a pretty boring curb-stomp of any foolish invaders. This also developed a habit of people stopping just short of completing the objective (usually blowing up the enemy HQ) to capture every single Requisition point on the map and fortify them, as well as building up ludicrous amount of power generators, so that if the area gets assaulted again, all you have to do is to hotkey your unit production buildings and swarm them before the enemy even has his economy up (which is a surprisingly easy feat despite the enemy already starting out with resources and a base). You can even build gun turrets where you expect the enemy to spawn, so that you can win a Defense match without ever pressing a button!
  • Blizzard Entertainment RTS titles feature a fair amount of this trope, particularly in the first five or so minutes, where proper scouting, army composition, build order, supply-line harassment and Worker Unit saturation can easily decide the match. And then we start getting into Game Mods—remember, the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre originated as RTS mods, and in games like "Nexus Wars" (a Tower Defense variant), the opening minutes are both the slowest and the tensest.
    • The Warcraft III AI is quite vulnerable to rushing, where sending the right hero at their base can utterly ravage their economy and leaving them utterly helpless and unable to produce more units. Attacking early also allows the player to have heroes with a level or two more than the opposition's, which often makes all the difference in battle.
  • In the The Battle for Middle-earth series, hero units persist across campaign maps and the War of the Ring mode of Risk-style territory captures. By the time the Rise of the Witch expansion was produced, your armies were persistent in War of the Ring, thus letting you build up an army of elite upgraded top-tier units and simply roll across Middle-Earth crushing everything in your way. Conversely, if a skilled-enough player on the defensive can hold off the advance (often with the aid of fortifications like Helm's Deep and copious amounts of archers), the player can not only completely shatter the offensive, but come out of it with a powerful army of the player's own and turn the game around.
  • In rymdkapsel, get too many workers picked off by a hostile fleet and you'll be too busy replacing them to build additional defenses before the next fleet hits. Although in the end you're doomed anyway.
  • In Offworld Trading Company, you win by buying out your opponents. The thing is, if you can get a large income in the early game, you can buy out your weaker opponents to raise your stock price (making it more expensive to buy you out), until you've snowballed such an advantage that your remaining opponent is in a hopeless situation. On the other hand, if you struggle to get a strong income, you'll fall behind, have a low stock price, and be more vulnerable to a buyout. This is the point of the game, however: as an economic warfare simulator, the game starts off with everyone on equal footing, and your goal is to destabilize the equilibrium to enhance your position and destroy your opponents.
  • Empire Earth II: In skirmish games, the AI has a huge advantage in terms of resources and micromanaging units, often drowning players with enormous armies. However, on larger maps the player can focus almost solely on capturing territories to let them build more universities and temples, which lets them generate tech points faster, which can lead to sending aircraft against enemies that are still in the Middle Ages.

    Rhythm Games 
  • In Elite Beat Agents and Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, your multiplier is equal to your current combo. This means if a song has a maximum combo of 300, and you miss on the first or last note, it means not a whole lot. But miss on the 150th note, and your score can really suffer because your point multiplier only went up to x150 instead of x299. The effect is extreme enough that a perfect, but low rank run will likely score higher than an imperfect, but otherwise higher ranked run. Gets egregious in later levels when shooting for a high score. Every tap you do starting from 2x combo will tack on (12-Easy/25-Normal/50-Harder) points to the values of every 300 you get. 100s, not so much. This results in FC's having almost double as many points as regular runs, and in that over 30% of your final can be from the last segment alone. By the end of Ep. 15, a single 300 can be worth as much as 30,000 points.
  • In osu!, the freeware equivalent of Elite Beat Agents, it is even more aggravating, since, in average, songs have much more beats to get combo (since breaks are much shorter, and there are several long songs), combos have a much more bigger impact in score. This means that, in order to get a score high enough to get considered for a ranking increase, FC's are mandatory (except in a few Harder Than Hard songs) (For a score to be considered for a ranking increase, the play has to be in the top 800 scores of the beatmap). Also, the way scoring works, it is possible for a play with 99.x% acc with 1 MISS to lose against a ~70% FC (or even less).
  • BIT.TRIP FATE: While higher modes grant no gameplay advantages in the rest of the series, higher modes slightly increase your firepower in this game, helping you defend yourself from enemies so they don't hit you to lower your mode.
  • DJMAX attempts to strike a compromise: when you hit a note, you get a note judgment in the form of a percentage, and at the end of the song, the game averages your note percentages to produce your accuracy. Then there's the scoring system, which has the combo bonuses.
  • Flash Flash Revolution bases its point system off of both hitting notes properly, and the highest level your combo reaches on the song. Thus, it's often in your best interest to mash buttons in time with the music if you lose the rhythm of the song, as the points gained from keeping your combo up will negate the points lost by hitting buttons when you shouldn't.
  • In Guitar Hero and Rock Band (before Rock Band 3, which allows saving with no-fail on), nailing a star section gives you star power, which you can deploy on demand to make it easier to keep your health up. If you miss the star sections, you won't have the star power to BS your way through the tricky stuff.
  • In Cytus, the maximum score you can earn on any song is 1,000,000, which is earned by hitting every note with a Perfect rating. Just below that, there's the S rating, earned by scoring at least 950,000 points. You'd think that this means each note is worth 1,000,000 divided by the total number of notes, but actually, 100,000 of these points are based on your maximum combo. Missing a single note near the middle of the song will make it impossible to get an S rating, even if you hit every other note perfectly, while missing once near the start or end of the song will still result in near-perfect scores.

    Roguelike Games 
  • Tantrums in Dwarf Fortress are all about this. When a dwarf gets unhappy enough to throw a tantrum, they'll toss items around and attack other dwarves, both of which are crimes, and they'll be subject to Dwarven Justice for them, which will not make them happy. Best-case scenario, the player has built a Luxury Prison Suite specifically to counter this. More likely, the player has forgotten to build a prison at all and all jail times are replaced with beatings. Oh yeah, and if your fort is in bad enough shape that one dwarf will throw a tantrum, there are probably a few others right on the border of one, and if it happens to be their stuff tossed around or their nose punched in, you might be in for a tantrum spiral. Conversely, if your fort is kept really happy, a single dwarf randomly (or "randomly") suffering enough at once to throw a tantrum regardless won't be enough of a dent in the overall mood to have any further effect.
    • The big 2014 content update expanded personality traits and added a more elaborate stress system, which mitigates this substantially. Instead of dwarves instantly throwing a fit after having one really bad day, good and bad experiences cause stress to slowly build up or wear off over time, such that it takes a prolonged period of hard times before a dwarf snaps. In addition, dwarves react differently to stress; only the angry dwarves will throw tantrums, while others may mope or stare into space, and some dwarves are just naturally more able to cope with stress than others. All this serves to soften the blow of short-term stress; you either have to constantly neglect your dwarves' needs over long periods of time or fall victim to something more violent like a dragon attack.
  • FTL: Faster Than Light: Pick up lots of scrap, take a minimum of damage and have good encounters, and you have good chances to go far. On the other hand, taking lots of damage and being forced by the Random Number God into poor encounters where you can't get much scrap will force you to use that scrap in repairing and hobbling on with poor equipment, which will further lower your chances of survival.
  • The Binding of Isaac:
    • Not getting a good item on the first floor can make or break your entire run. It can make the difference between having enough time to make it to Boss Rush or ??? or getting held up by rooms of Goddamned Bats, and it can be the crucial thing that stops you from taking damage and getting those precious Devil and Angel Rooms. So much so that not only is "Holding R" now an official term for resetting your run until you get a good first-floor item drop, but doing this 7 times in a row gives the Mr. Resetrer! achievement and unlocks half Soul Hearts as a drop to reward (punish?) you for it.
    • Learning how to game the system and avoid damage can take an experienced player much further than a newbie. The game rewards you with powerful Devil or Angel rooms each floor if you avoid taking non-self damage to your red hearts, allowing them to get more powerful faster if they choose to do so. For this reason, damage is more valuable than health earlier in the game, which lets you kill enemies and remove danger sooner, as is finding soul hearts early since they can cover for mistakes without ruining Devil/Angel room spawn chances. Most health ups and defensive items don't matter as much until late game because if you're not killing things fast enough you'll just accumulate more damage. Avoiding damage also means that the player may have spare health laying around to use for various purposes, such as gaining money from a blood donation machine or taking on a boss challenge room knowing they can heal afterwards.
    • Being able to find (and access) secret rooms is also a big deal, as these rooms often contain many coins or items. More coins means you can get more items from shops or pay off beggars later in the game for health up items, while secret rooms can contain some of the biggest Game-Breaker items in the game.
    • The character Bethany has gameplay that leans heavily toward this. She can't gain soul or black hearts, meaning that any damage she takes reduces Devil/Angel room chances, and spawns wisps of light that enhance her damage and defense, but are damaged by enemies, meaning that even getting close to being hit can destroy them. If she's not able to consistently dodge she'll run out of wisps, her main advantage. Tainted Bethany takes this even further, as she gains masses of extra items that are tied to destructible wisps - if the items she has aren't enough to tear through enemies easily she'll start losing them.
    • Tainted Keeper is a particularly extreme example of an unstable equilibrium. One of his primary gimmicks is receiving much larger shops with items from a variety of pools (instead of only shop items). If you're lucky enough to get powerful items from a shop early in the run, chances are good you'll be able to steamroll the rest of it, unless you get careless. If not... well, Tainted Keeper has two HP maximum under most circumstances, and his base damage output is barely enough to get through the first few floors without upgrades, and certainly not later ones.

    Role-Playing Games 
  • With the release of the expansion Throne of Bhaal, Baldur's Gate II became potentially really unbalanced because you can clear the first floor, maybe the second too, of the Watcher's Keep during chapter 2, and snowball consequently. They can be undertook without too much danger as the enemies scale on your level and are doable. First, the loot is very overpowered (considered that it was thought for a party after the defeat of the Big Bad in the vanilla campaign); if you don't want to use it, you can still sell it to earn tons of money and buy fancy things you weren't supposed to afford until in later chapters, some of which become Disc-One Nukes. Second, the experience points you get can make your party much more powerful than most enemies you are supposed to face in the normal missions at this point, and if you add the xp from those, you will cut pretty quickly through chapters 3 and 4. Chapter 5 might still be a bit challenging in some quests, but by chapter 6 you might even have reached High Level Abilities (introduced in the expansion with higher levels, while the original game was capped below the max amount of possible xp you could get in the whole campaign). At this point you could also return to the Keep and finish the remaining floors, which while hard can earn you tons of items, xp and money that make the loot of the first two floors pale in comparison. You will end so much stronger than what was previously your limit that the final confrontation with the Big Bad will be trivial.
    • The Enhanced Edition added a mechanics giving free xp to newly recruited characters if they are way behind the protagonist, in order to catch up and be immediately competitive. On one hand, this makes anybody perfectly viable even if you recruit him or her after most experience was divided among other companions; on the other hand, you could cheese the game by quickly farming xp while soloing (e.g. by scribing spells from scrolls or exploiting quests that earn tons of xp when you conclude them, since you don't divide them among companions).
  • World Tendency in Demon's Souls works this way. If you die while in Body Form, World Tendency shifts towards black. On the contrary, if you defeat a boss or certain black phantoms that only appear in Pure Black World Tendency, it shifts towards white. As it gets whiter, the enemies are easier to kill and do less damage. As it gets blacker, the enemies are more difficult. However, in Black World Tendency, the item drops are much more valuable.
  • Dark Souls
    • Dark Souls got rid of world tendency, but still has this to a lesser degree with the humanity stat: it has a tremendous effect on resistance to the instant-death curse status effect and item drop rate while having a smaller effect on defense, but raising it is rather time-consuming while failing to recover your body after dying makes humanity go down to 0.
    • In Dark Souls II, a character's maximum health is stunted by 5% after each death, up to a maximum of 50% health stunting. It can be reversed, but only through use of an item with limited supply. There's also a ring that prevents this (and another which halves the effect of the penalty to a maximum of 25% of maximum HP), but it breaks upon death. It can be repaired, though (for a price).
  • In Final Fantasy II, the chance to gain Agility is based on your Evasion percentage, and Agility itself contributes to your Evasion percentage. In essence: the more Agility you have early in the game, the more Agility you will have later in the game. A character who optimizes their Evasion with shields and light armor from the start of the game will be able to practically do backflips in the ultra-heavy end-game Armor of Invincibility, while a character who spends the entire game in heavy armor will be stuck as a far-less-effective Mighty Glacier.
  • Final Fantasy Tactics A2 has this for the auction houses. At first, you barely stand a chance at winning since you only have a handful of 1, 2, and 3 point tokens, but if you play several times to unlock the ability to buy tokens before starting the auction (with clan points, which you get for everything, but are otherwise almost useless), then the whole thing becomes piss easy. It can also lead to a Game-Breaker or Disc-One Nuke if you get this ability early and use it to sweep the board to win powerful items.
  • Final Fantasy X with its Overkill mechanic can cause a positive-feedback loop; higher-level characters will score overkills more often, getting more experience and keeping them higher-level to score more overkills...
  • Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII: If you do not master time management and Chronostasis, then you will run out of time to do all the quests, and may even fail the game. If you learn them all too well, then you can finish the main quest line by the end of the third day, and most of the side quests by the end of the sixth day. This leaves you with very little to do until the final boss battle, which won't happen until the world ends after day thirteen.
  • In the Fire Emblem series it's near inverted, as although the more units on your side the better, if you try to level each unit equally, you'll be left with not very good units and be overwhelmed easily.
    • Also, if you spend the limited amount of gold you're given too quickly or hold on until the last moment, you'll end up with not very good gear besides the special equipment that you're given.
    • While too many units is a problem, so is not enough. If a crucial or powerful unit is defeated and you're short on people, you're finished.
  • The hacking minigame in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If you invest in hacking augs early and hack often, you'll quickly gather a stockpile of Nuke! viruses that enable you to claim nodes without alerting the system, and Stop! worms that put alerts on hold for a few precious seconds. If you wait too long, you'll use up every one of the viruses and worms you find just trying to hack the level 4/5 computers that are everywhere once you get to Montreal.
    • Actually, the Praxis system in general. The major experience bonuses are only available with specific augs activated - the Traveller bonuses usually need high jump and/or Icarus Descent, combat requires the Reflex Booster, hacking requires an array of hacking augs - and better aim and defenses don't trigger bonuses. Choose utility early on, and you can afford aiming and defenses later. Choose defenses, and you'll never get enough Praxis to gain utility.
  • Increasing your LV in Undertale increases the damage you deal and passively decreases enemies' defense stats, resulting in you dealing more and more damage as you continue to level up, to the point that you can One-Hit Kill almost anything save two bosses if you grind XP, and enemies start dealing less and less damage to you if they even get a chance to attack, resulting in a snowball of power imbalance. Given that LV, level of violence, is the measure of your malice, and monsters naturally become weaker against someone who is malicious, it's justified in a nasty way.
  • Head-to-head battling in a Pokémon game, assuming no other factors, is like this: As soon as the first Pokémon faints, that player has one fewer Pokémon to use, and it also means fewer options to switch to. The more the difference in remaining Pokémon grows, the more at a disadvantage the player with fewer Pokémon becomes. There are also some Pokémon that are very effective were it not for some crippling weaknesses or one or two bad stats, such as Arcanine, Donphan, Shedinja, Tangrowth, Serperior, Tyrantrum, Alolan Sandslash, and Vikavolt, who are sitting ducks early on but become a lot more useful when the opponent has run out of Pokémon that can safely deal with them. In addition, there are Abilities that create bigger advantages the more the user is ahead, like Moxie or Beast Boost. In practice, however, Pokémon battling is a game of withheld information, meaning surprises and wild cards that cause huge comebacks can pop up at any moment—you can never tell if that Mimikyu will use Z-Splash and suddenly gain the Attack boost needed to one-hit KO all of your Pokémon, for instance.
  • The Smirk status in Shin Megami Tensei IV. If you deal a Critical Hit, hit an enemy with their weak element, get hit by an element you resist, or successfully dodge a non-status attack, you have a chance of gaining this effect. This basically buffs all your stats through the roof — including crit rate and dodge rate — and temporarily cancels your weaknesses (you'll take normal damage instead). This means one decisive hit can turn into more decisive hits, while one bad move can turn into more bad moves. The only reason it can't chain forever is that Smirk only lasts until the end of your next turn, and you can't Smirk on consecutive turns.

    Shoot Em Up Games 
  • Many Shoot Em Ups try to solve this problem by having the player drop either a series of power-ups or one mega power-up upon death (though this usually only happens if the player runs out of lives, probably as an incentive to keep playing.)
    • Some newer games either allow the player to retain their powerups upon death, such as in Mushihime Sama Futari, or outright do away with the powerup system, like in DoDonPachi DaiFukkatsu and Saidaioujou.
  • Your maximum power in most Gradius games: missiles, a laser attack (or double shot), four Options, and a shield. This takes 31 or 32 powerup capsules. On dying, you lose all of this, although some games allow you to fly into and recapture the Options.
  • Blazing Lazers is a good example of the space shooter power-up problem. The weapons level up seven times. The later levels are tough enough with the best weapons. If you die once, it's virtually impossible to build them back up without dying again.
  • Star Soldier (the WiiWare one, probably other ones) rubs Unstable Equilibrium in the face of gamers everywhere with an (admittedly generous) twist on the "die and lose all your weapons" concept. Your weapon strength is tied to your health, so each time you're hit, your weapons get weaker and weaker until you die. The short "score attack" nature of the WiiWare game makes this a bit easier to swallow.
  • In most games in the Darius series, dying can decrease your firepower by a lot.
    • In the original Darius, powering up your weapon, bomb, or shield 6 times will upgrade it, and on dying, you lose all of your powerups. So you can be on the last powerup level for your missile shot (red triple missiles), ready to get another powerup so you can get the laser, but when you die, you downgrade all the way back to green single missile.
    • Darius II decides to just say "fuck you" and take away all of your powerups.
    • Darius Gaiden takes away two shot levels every time you die. Just to add insult to injury, there is a Dynamic Difficulty system that raises the difficulty whenever you collect a shot powerup for the first time within the stage, with the new difficulty being directly proportional to the current stage. A few deaths in the final stage not only has a devastating effect on your firepower, but also leaves you with a choice between toughing out the last stage with your reduced firepower or making the stage sadistically difficult by trying to recover your firepowernote 
  • The arcade game Twin Eagle: Revenge Joe's Brother was rather unfair with this trope, for example you get plenty of weapon powerups in the first level, but hardly any in the second. It also features cheap Dynamic Difficulty, ie the further you play without dying, the more likely you are to die and lose your powerups.
  • Twin Cobra does this too, exacerbated by power-ups being fewer and farther between in later levels.
  • In Thunder Force III and its sequels, dying will, instead of taking away every weapon (besides the two that you start with), take away only the weapon you were using. This leads to situations where, in order to keep a particularly useful weapon and you are in a very risky situation, you have to not use that weapon. So much for using Free Range and Sever on those more difficult bosses!
  • Shoot Em Ups that penalize more for bombing than dying, resulting in games that end sooner with plenty of bombs left having higher scores than games that are completed and have lots of bombs used up. Some offenders:
    • Every mode in Mushihime Sama Futari Black Label — lose one life and your counter drops by about 1,000-2,000. Use a bomb, and your counter drops by at least 6,000.
  • Many Touhou series have some such game mechanics:
    • Most of the games make you lose some power whenever you die. How harsh this penalty is varies depending on the game. In the first three Windows games, recovering the lost power is fairly easy. In Undefined Fantastic Object and beyond, the main rule is that dying reduces your power by 1.00 out of 4.00, and that while the games are quite generous with power items during stages, they're much harder to come by during boss fights. So if you die during (or just before) a boss fight you're going to have to finish the fight with about 25% less firepower than you'd have otherwise, making all the patterns take longer, making you more likely to die again.
    • Both Mountain of Faith and Subterranean Animism have a shot power penalty for bombing, so if you bomb against a boss, its attacks will last longer, which means you're more likely to have to use another bomb. MoF does grant one "free" bomb at full power, since the shot power is exactly the same from 4.00 through the max of 5.00, but drop to 2 or less during a boss fight and you're pretty much screwed.
    • Mountain of Faith also has the Faith Point system, which determines the score value of the blue point items. Each time you die, your total Faith Points take a permanent hit, making every single blue point item for the rest of the run worth fewer points. Meanwhile, extra lives are awarded based on score.
    • In Subterranean Animism, bosses can drop a life fragment item after every attack phase, and an extra life is awarded for every 5 life fragments collected. The problem? If you die during the attack phase, the boss won't drop the life fragment at the end of that attack phase. In addition, if you don't finish the attack phase within the time limit, the boss also will fail to drop a life fragment, while the power loss from bombing makes it more likely that time will run out.
    • Double Dealing Character comes at this from the positive reinforcement side: Bomb and life fragments are gained by auto-collecting large numbers of items (done by going up to the top of the screen. Or bombing, but that's not efficient) and capturing spellcards (done by not dying, bombing, or timing out the attack). So, it's easy to get totally maxed out on resources if you're playing below your skill level, but you'll find yourself with nothing if you try to play above it.
    • Unconnected Marketeers has several mechanics that cause this, but also ways to mitigate it:
      • You lose quite a bit of your power when you die, and the game is a bit stingy with power items. There are some Ability Cards that can mitigate this, however: Pebble Hat makes you lose less power when you die, Reliable Tanuki Apprentice keeps your power from falling below 3.00/4.00 after you die, and Great Tengu's Barley Rice can repeatedly increase your power. There's also Law of the Survival of the Fittest, which boosts the power of your regular shot and ensures you'll have an okay damage output even at low power.
      • You lose some money when you die, which can put some of the stronger ability cards that could've helped you out of reach. While you can also pay in power, there are two problems: (1) you may have lost so much power from dying that you still can't afford the card, and (2) even if you can afford the card, you'll have to start the next stage with lower power. However, the Lucky Rabbit's Foot allows you to keep all your money when you die.
      • The Dragon Pipe card gives you life fragments when you clear a Spell Card without bombing or dying, which means that you'll get extra lives when you're doing well and nothing when you're struggling.
      • The Gluttonous Centipede card gradually increases your power as long as you play perfectly, but it's reset whenever you die or bomb.
  • In Legendary Wings, your weapon power acts as your health, every time you get hit your power decreases, until you die.
  • In Terra Cresta, your attack drones can be destroyed by enemy fire, making you more likely to lose another, repeat until death.
  • In Axelay, your currently-equipped weapon gets disabled when you get hit, if it doesn't kill you outright.
  • Border Down has a unique take on this. There are three colored borders in the game: green, yellow, and red, which you choose one of at the start of the game and may or may not be able to manually change between stages depending on how high you scored in the previous stage. Each border is a different variation of a stage: green border is the easiest, while red is the hardest. They also represent your lives remaining: getting hit in green demotes you to yellow border, getting hit in yellow demotes you to red, and getting hit in red results in a Game Over.
  • The very first Raiden has this. At full power, you can have a vulcan cannon that covers almost 180 degrees in front of you as well as huge dumbfire missiles (and/or a Wave-Motion Gun and stupidly fast homing missiles). Die, and you're back to a basic two-bullet shot with no sub-weapon. It takes 2-3 stages of powerups to get up to max.
    • The sequel and DX fix it a bit with fairies, which spawn if you die and give you some powerups so you don't lose absolutely everything. The Raiden Fighters series is much more generous with powerups so it isn't much of a problem at all.
  • Heavy Weapon has this with your Smart Bombs. In most shooters, you are restocked with a certain number of bombs after death. In Heavy Weapon, you lose all your Nukes on death! This makes the waves even harder as you now don't have the ability to clear the screen of enemies and bullets.
  • In BLOODCRUSHER II, player leveling is tied to points from combos and trick kills, enemy difficulty is tied to kills total. Thus, if a player is playing conservatively and killing enemies safely one at a time, enemy difficulty quickly outpaces their character's attributes.
  • In Thwaite, after a missile silo is blown up, it's out of commission for the remainder of that round and until either sunrise (every five rounds) or the player completes a round without a single building being destroyed. At this point, the player has fewer missiles to work with, and one strategy is to ignore half the buildings.
  • In Chicken Invaders, getting hit costs you a significant amount of firepower, meaning that defeating enemies will take longer and you're more likely to get hit again.
  • Cho Ren Sha 68k awards bonuses at the end of each stage: 20,000 points per bomb (up to 5 bombs for 100,000 points total), 50,000 points if you have a shield up, and 50,000 points for each life in stock. Staying alive and racking up points means you'll earn those every-1,000,000-points lives much faster than if you keep fumbling, and those extra lives in turn will earn you more points. Additionally, dying resets your shot power back to minimum, meaning that a single life lost can begin a cascade of drawn-out boss battles, more mistakes, and a much lower score by the end of your credit.
  • In Hotline Miami, completing a chapter with a high-score will reward the player with new weaponry and masks (which grant them unique bonuses when worn). As a result, skilled players will find the later chapters to be noticeably easier.
  • R-Type was definitely one of the most brutal instances of this. Dying (in one shot, natch) would strip you of all power-ups, including speed upgrades and, most essentially, the Force unit that was so fundamental to the series that it was always your first weapon upgrade. Without your speed upgrades it'd be even harder to weave between bullets to pick up power ups without getting shot down again, while without a Force unit you couldn't block enemy projectiles. You'd be sent back to the last checkpoint every time you died, which was a mixed blessing- while it meant all your progress was lost and you now had to do it again while even weaker than before, you got another chance to reacquire at least a couple of upgrade, rather than being forced to press on to face the next boss with only your basic cannon (which in several cases would render them close to Unwinnable). This at least got marginally less-severe as the series went on and speed upgrades were removed altogether, being replaced by a permanent controllable throttle.

    Simulation Games 
  • In the City-Building Series:
    • Worker shortages can quickly send your city into a spiral: if your public services don't have enough workers to support your houses, people start to move out of the city, exacerbating the shortage. This is especially severe in Caesar and Pharaoh, whereas later games allow more precise control over worker allocation.
    • Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile: Your Prestige score caps your city's population of expert workers and decays if not regularly maintained. If your Prestige falls — as it always does when your current ruler dies, for example — you might lose some of the workers you need to keep it from falling further.
  • This is the core of the economic part of Harvest Moon. Choosing Friends of Mineral Town for illustration, you start out the game with 500G. By the end of the first spring you can use foraging and turnip sales to earn yourself 30,000G, tool upgrades, and some animals. By the end of the first summer, you can take that 30,000G and make well over 300,000G from pineapples. By the end of the first Autumn, you can take that 300,000G and make well over 3,000,000G from sweet potatoes. 3,000,000G is enough to buy essentially all the purchasable things in the game.
  • In The Sims Medieval, starting a quest with low Focus can screw up most of the quest. When you have low Focus, you're more likely to fail at quest tasks or get bad results from responsibilities/chance cards. These events give you negative buffs, which cause you to lose even more Focus. And if you take too long recovering your Focus, you get Behind on Quest...which, you guessed it, decreases your Focus.
  • War Thunder:
    • Bringing airplanes to ground battles (and even more helicopters at higher tiers) can provide a significative advantage since you can bomb enemy tanks, even knowing in before where they are if one killed you thanks to the killcam, as long as you are a good enough player to use them effectively. The thing is, in order to spawn an aircraft you need to get spawn points by performing successful actions in game, and if you get them, it means that you are already doing well (i.e. killed enemies or capped zones). This means that more often than not, close air support in ground battles becomes a curb-stomp to an already struggling enemy, which is then forced to either spawn SPAAGs (which are usually too weak to engage tanks) or fighters (which have limited ground strike capabilities) to counter the flying attacker, who now might as well return to a tank.
    • After a game, destroyed vehicles become damaged and you can't deploy them again unless you wait for a countdown timer to expire representing off-screen free repairs. This timer ranges from a few minutes to even days or weeks, depending on the vehicle level and your crew skill. Alternatively, you can just spend some of the in-game currency to instantly repair the vehicles, the price is called "repair cost". In some cases, these are designed to act as some kind of soft balance in game, by limiting how often players can field some vehicles that are too strong for their level, but not enough to be put at a higher level, and are hard to balance in other ways (e.g. a propelled heavy bomber that has enough payload to destroy alone everything on the map and enough machine guns to fend off enemy planes, but can't be placed at higher tiers because it would face jets with missiles, becoming useless). When the after-battle repair costs become too high, players are induced to wait for the free repair timer, rather than spending their credits, thus the vehicle is less often encountered in battle. The developers even use an algorithm to track the performances of vehicles and automatically adjust repair costs, according to how well (costs increase in subsequent patches) or bad (costs decrease) are their battle statistics. The problem is, when repair costs skyrocket, the only players who use these vehicles are those good enough to take advantage of their characteristics to the max extent, while less skilled players avoid entirely for not wanting to even think of the bill. This leads to a vicious cycle: vehicles are used well by experienced veterans, their performance stats increase, their bills increase, other less skilled players don't use them so there are less battles with the vehicle being destroyed, veterans can use their overperforming machine against weaker opponents, the stats increase even more and so on. And since skilled players earned a lot of credits thanks to their performance, chances are they won't even care of repair costs because they can afford them, unlike less skilled players. Thus, facing vehicles known to have high repair costs usually means that you are also facing a very skilled player using a very good machine (with few situational exceptions), and if the game mode allows it, he/she will also have backups: good luck with that.
      • Unless the developers also change the battle rating of that vehicle, then it will face stronger opponents and even skilled players will start to struggle. The new problem is, they too now avoid using the vehicles because either it has become unplayable or they don't want to pay constant repair bills that can't be mitigated anymore by scoring enough kills, instead waiting for weeks for the free repair. Since the vehicle is not used anymore as before, its stats don't change in a significative way and the algorithms don't change its repair costs, inverting the trope and also becoming a Catch-22 Dilemma. This has become absurd in late august 2020 when the american B-29, which suffers of insane repair costs, as been moved to a rating that puts it almost exclusively against jets. Almost every B-29 player stopped using it, unless in private sim battles where squadrons agree to simply bomb without interfering (a behaviour that further increases its stats, since the bomber doesn't get killed while also scoring a lot of points).
    • Stock syndrome could be this as well. Many vehicles are very underwhelming or even unplayable when first purchased, requiring to unlock components that enhance their performance. High rank vehicles require a lot of research points to unlock these modules, which means annoying, painful, slowly grinding them through battles and battles, suffering many deaths until the vehicle becomes good enough (unless you pay with real money for a premium account, indeed). Thus, many players use less often those vehicles due to frustration. Skilled players, however, can manage to quickly unlock all the modules by winning somehow and then see a significant boost to their performance, at the expense of those who just got the vehicle or rarely played it. This too became particularly outrageous in august 2020 when stock projectiles for high tier tanks where changed to the weakest shells, which are nigh-to-useless. Those who get a stock modern tank now should expect increased suffering against other players that have armor piercing shells.
  • In Wolf, you need to be in good form to hunt food and avoid human hunters. If you are injured badly (either through a hunter's bullet, prey animals fighting back, or a fight with a packmate over dominance), you will be unable to take advantage of your Sprint Meter, making staying alive much, much harder. While you might be able to find a carcass to eat from, good luck limping away from a human hunter.
  • Yes, Your Grace: The Player Character's revenue comes mostly from taxes paid by the general population. The gameplay is arranged in such a way that choices have to be made between helping people in need, army upkeep, and buying expensive items for the royal family. Helping people can increase taxes recieved, while refusing to provide help can decrease them. Getting too few taxes means not being able to afford the bigger material help packages or the salaries of the agents who can be sent to deal with problems on site, resulting in more people getting turned away. Because of this, a single turn of turning all petitioners away (or a few turns of accepting to help too few people) to be able to spend the resources on other things can result in a downwards spiral budget-wise.

    Sports Games 
  • In Mario Super Sluggers, the better you play in a given baseball game, the more stars you will get. The more stars, the more star swings/pitches, and the more good plays that will net you more stars. So if you're doing poorly, it'll be hard to come back. Especially if your opponent has a ton of stars.

    Stealth-Based Games 
  • The first two games in the Thief series have an interesting way to deal with this: The loot you steal on your previous mission is used to purchase weapons and upgrades for your next one, but any unspent gold is lost and the stuff you buy doesn't carry over to following missions, so there's no point in hoarding it. You always have to buy your entire loadout (except for a few default items) using only the gold you collected on the previous level. Deadly Shadows does away with this.
  • Splinter Cell: Double Agent deliberately does this with its Trust Meter, as having more confidence with the JBA gives you more lethal low-tech weaponry while more confidence with the NSA gives you more non-lethal high-tech weaponry. The lethal low-tech stuff like frag grenades and shotguns make it harder to pursue NSA missions like sparing civilians and sneaking through JBA HQ, while the non-lethal high-tech stuff like the OCP Pistol make it harder to pursue JBA missions like sweeping enemy forces or assassinating targets, so the further you go to one side the harder it is to claw yourself back.

    Survival Horror Games 
  • In Darkwood, looting is vital to win the game, thus players who leave their hideouts carrying as little gear as possible and returning with a full stash of valuable items will have an easier time advancing into later parts of the game. On the flip side, players who leave carrying a great deal of gear to help them survive in the wilderness — or die too often and keep losing half their gear and loot note  — will bring less valuable items back to their hideouts and have more difficulty surviving later portions of the game. This gets even trickier on Hard Mode where you only have a certain amount of lives before losing the game, and in Nightmare Mode you can only die once. To challenge those who got too good at looting and stashing away a great deal of useful gear/items, the game will not allow the Bicycle Man to visit the Swamp Hideout and deliver your stash of loot from chapter one into chapter two, meaning you can only bring what you can carry and must start over looting again in a dangerous environment.
  • Sweet Home (1989) combines Survival Horror resource management and permanent character deaths with RPG-style Random Encounters, i.e. infinite enemies. The game becomes an utter cakewalk if you can level up enough, because your party is always given first chance to attack, but it is a very big "IF."
  • The earlier Resident Evil games had this owing to a finite amount of health and ammunition found in the game. If you're bad at the game earlier on, which forces you to either use ammunition to rout foes or healing items to recover after, the late game basically becomes impossible since you will not be able to deal with the later game enemies. In fact, it is actually possible to render the game Unwinnable by Mistake if you go into the final battle without enough ammunition to bring it down. Conversely, being good at dodging the zombies will make the late game a cakewalk since you'll have double-digit ammunition to gun down the hunters and like with impunity. Starting with Resident Evil 4 a Dynamic Difficulty was introduced that throttles the difficulty in accordance with your performance — scaling it down when you struggle and ratcheting it up when you do well, and dynamically adjusting item drops (rather than having the fixed item drops of previous games) to ensure you, for the most part, get what you need to survive.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Many Tabletop Games give injured characters penalties to their ability to keep fighting, which of course tends to result in rapidly decreasing odds of winning the fight. This is commonly called "Death Spiral", and whether it's a good or bad thing is a common cause of argument.
  • Ars Magica: Wounds and fatigue both inflict stacking penalties on all of the character's actions, making it harder for them both to attack and to defend themselves against further harm. Also, a wounded character who exerts themself is at risk of making their injuries worse.
  • Sanity in Call of Cthulhu. When you fail a roll, your Sanity decreases, making it easier to fail rolls, to represent the descent into madness.
  • Blood Bowl had so much of a problem with this that most of the changes in the fourth edition were intended to fix it. They actually managed to do the exact opposite, and the so-called Living Rulebook was created to fix that damage. Nowadays Blood Bowl is more boring but also more balanced.
  • Dungeons & Dragons doesn't have special rules or cases to enforce this, but like any resource management game it can be a concern.
    • In earlier editions, having one or two of your big spells fizzle can make your Wizard a walking liability (especially at early levels, before you have a few dozen spell levels full of backup fodder). In 4th Edition, the designers realized just how devastating it could be to a party's resource structure to miss with a Daily power, and so made most Dailies still have some effect on a miss (or, in the case of Reliable powers, not be expended until they hit). Essentially, most fights of average size last between three and five rounds, and missing out on a round's worth of actions for any reason can reduce your combat effectiveness by 30% or more. In a big setpiece fight with a solo monster you're Damage Racing, getting stunned or missing with your best shot can make all the difference.
    • Several early editions of (A)D&D modify the amount of experience received for a game by a percentage based on the character's (class-based) "prime" attribute(s). So not only will e.g. a stronger fighter already perform better in combat than a weaker one because of the to-hit and damage bonuses resulting from that high strength — he or she will also advance more quickly just for being that strong and thus pull ahead of his or her weaker fighter-colleagues in that respect as well.
  • Monopoly: This trope is the foundation of the original game's moral: wealth inequality's tendency to worsen itself. Per official rules, players who obtain more property earlier charge higher rent from opponents who land on such, giving them a massive advantage.
  • A problem in any sort of Turn-based Wargame, most notably Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy Battle.:
    • This is because both players will inevitably start out with the same amount of units, but one player will always go first. This means that he gets one turn to fire weapons at his opponent with impunity, which results in the other player logically starting with a handicap (as statistically some of his troops are going to bite the dust before he even gets to move).
    • A lot of games compensate by having the player who goes first also place his troops first, so the second player has the compensatory advantage of being able to take his opponent's troop placements into account in his own deployments. In the above examples, the Reserves rule was implemented in 40k specifically so that you can hold some of your troops back from the initial volley of shots, at the expense of them not being able to do anything until they come in from reserves.
    • The issue also compounds in bigger games; while theoretically the forces scale up and casualty percentages remain constant, the dice roll doesn't. If 10% of all your shooting would be ineffective, then it would greatly matter if that 10% would be enough to save a model or not. In small games, that might not be enough to actually remove a model, thus removing the opponent's combat efficiency. In large games you might have just removed an entire squad holding weapons unique to them.

    Third-Person Shooters 
  • In the Star Wars: Battlefront series, a team who holds the majority of command posts will cause the other team's reserves to start dropping, thus creating an incentive to keep grabbing command posts instead of spawn camping and ending the game faster if one side gains a significant territorial advantage. This also occurs if one side destroys an important objective (Hoth's power generator, Endor's shield bunker).
    • In the sequel, the game host can choose whether hero/villain characters are given to good players as a reward or to bad players to give them a a chance.
  • In Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault, the online mode can become this. Owning nodes will generate money for you, and capturing a node you haven't had in the game yet will let you acquire a new weapon. However, it's possible to shut the other player out by killing them when they try to get nodes and taking them for yourself. This will allow you to get new weapons and more money, which will let you put up barriers over the nodes you own and capture the other nodes faster due to being able to kill the enemies that spawn near them quicker. By doing this, you can leave the other player stuck with their starting Combuster (pistol), and no money to buy base defenses, player upgrades, or an invasion force to attack the enemy base.
  • Splatoon:
    • In all of the games, getting splatted takes a chunk out of your Special Weapon meter. This means that the longer you're able to go without getting splatted and the more turf you ink, the more specials you'll be able to use (and some of them are extremely powerful, especially if more than one player on your team has them).
    • In Splatoon 3, during a Tricolor Turf War, if the defending team manages to keep both of the attacking teams from claiming an Ultra Signal for the entire match, they stand a good chance of winning the entire round, considering their number advantage. But if even one of their opponents can sneak through and grab a Signal, it will summon a Sprinkler of Doom that inks a huge area of turf in their team's color for the rest of the battle. If this happens early enough, it will take all of the defending team's coordination and skill to clutch out a victory, because they'll have to focus on both keeping the attacking teams away from the center and inking the turf the Sprinkler of Doom covers, while the attackers only have to push through to the Ultra Signal.

    Turn-Based Strategy Games 
  • In general, any turn-based strategy game that has persistent armies, unit dieoff, and no upkeep cost for maintaining old units will at the very least not inconvenience you for keeping old troops alive. In many cases, the game is balanced for a certain rate of dieoff, and going below that rate will make your army more effective, allowing you to avoid dieoff even further. (Heroes of Might and Magic is a good series to see this in action—it's possible to beat many scenarios in the fourth game without ever losing a unit.)
    • Whenever goodies can be carried over into next scenario, there's a possibility to linger there after the last enemy base is crippled, hopelessly besieged and then left alive just enough to avoid triggering the victory condition — or, even better, spawn hapless XP fodder slowly enough to never become a genuine threat. Generally, units that require lots of XP to improve at least need to be carried through a few victories, but anything "balanced" only by being too expensive and time-consuming to build can be stockpiled at leisure. Time restrictions for a mission may avert this, or may shift the instability into early growth, because what little time you may get to prepare for the next mission becomes this much more valuable.
    • Similarly, any strategy game that allows you to train powerful persistent Hero Units, especially across maps in a campaign, can lead to snowballing situations where your high-level heroes can take on entire enemy armies by themselves at the start of the map, plowing through any resistance and allowing you to secure an overwhelming advantage against your enemies. If the same goes for Design-It-Yourself Equipment, said Hero Unit easily turns into One-Man Army.
  • In more turn-based games, giving a player an extra turn for doing well (extra turn for throwing a six in a simple board game, for example) can cause this via too much positive feedback. Snooker offers an excellent example of this; it not being too uncommon for fairly evenly matched frames between world-championship-level players to have frames won by over 70 points... let's just say the final of the World Championship is played as a best-of-35 for a reason.
    • The PSP game Jeanne d'Arc would have the same problem, were multiplayer available: when the title character is in Limit Break, killing an enemy gives her another turn. It's not all that hard to set up the battlefield for her to leapfrog around one-shotting everyone.
    • Another example is mancala, in which the objective is to pick up and collect as many stones as possible. At least one variant of the game is "solved," mathematicians having worked out which pit to start with in order to guarantee yourself a dominant position.
  • Sunrider: After every mission, the Sunrider earns funds equal to the value of the enemies destroyed minus a repair fee of the damage taken by friendly units. The less well you do, the less money you earn, and the less money you have to upgrade your units, making your odds worse going forward.
  • The third Valkyrie Profile game, Covenant of the Plume, uses overkill damage to determine what rewards you get from Mistress Hel after each battle. Score a lot of overkill damage? You get extremely nice stuff, such as powerful weapons or in a certain route, an item that actually increases the maximum amount of Sin you can get from each enemy from 100 to 120. Score an insufficient amount? Good luck with the Realmstalkers, Hel's servants that almost force you to use the Plume just to get rid of them. Given that usage of the Plume automatically gets you closer to getting owned by Freya and/or the bad ending, but nets you enough points to outright ignore the overkill situation, it's probably her way of saying "you moron, you want to kill Lenneth or not? Don't fuck up."
  • In Battle for Wesnoth, every unit has a name, a level, and experience points. Units from the previous scenario can be "recalled" in subsequent ones as an alternative to recruiting new ones, and this is pretty much the only way to succeed: you get already developed units right away, instead of recruiting the weakest units. The computer, on the other hand, can recruit preprogrammed load-outs of pre-leveled units by the bucketload. This tends to make things difficult if too many units die or you fail to soak up enough experience points early in the campaign.
  • Paradox Interactive's Hearts of Iron II avoids the problem of conquering an empire becoming too powerful to defeat in a few ways:
    1. Whenever you officially annex a country, instead of receiving all of its IC (Industrial Capacity, the units of production in the game) and manpower, you receive only 20%.
    2. Recently conquered territories will not like being under your rule, and you will have to garrison a number of divisions of troops to prevent partisans from rising up against you.
    3. Supply lines are abstracted as your TC (transport capacity), which becomes strained as your army, your foreign conquests, and the aforementioned partisans grow in size. If these exceed your TC, the effectiveness of your entire armed forces will start to decline.
    • The same company's Europa Universalis series also tries to avert this with its "Stability" mechanic: Every country has a Stability rating that fluctuates many times during the game, often being lowered by certain events. Stability affects both revolt risk and tax income. Where this trope comes in is that each province a faction holds adds a little extra to the cost of raising its Stability (though a nation's "core" provinces have much lower costs); an empire holding a large number of low-income, non-core provinces might actually cost more to keep stable than it's worth.
    • Crusader Kings games tend to balance advantage of outward expansion by giving you more vassals who can plot agianst you to manage.
    • Paradox games have another feature to avert this. They typically have an invisible "Bad Boy" score that goes up if you go on a conquest spree, which will (in theory) cause countries to unite against you before you can get big enough to run away with the gamenote . The united forces against you are supposed to be more challenging and interesting than mopping up nations one-by-one.
  • Crusader Kings II has a mechanic for religions called Moral Authority, which governs a variety of religious mechanics, including the likelihood of heresies spawning, county conversion rate, willingness of unreformed pagan rulers to convert to organized faiths, ability to excommunicate, grant invasions, and call crusades. A religion that is doing well, winning religious wars, and controls its holy sites, will have little heresy, be able to relgiously consolidate its gains, and reliably wage crusades. Meanwhile, a religion that is doing poorly will bleed moral authority with each heresy that pops up and wins a revolt, which increases the odds of more heresies spawning, which can also take holy sites out of the religion's control, further hurting moral authority, and a ruler trying to slow the bleed by fighting holy wars against the heretics will find their efforts to convert them back hampered by their own poor moral authority, giving more time for the heretics to revolt again. And for unreformed pagans, as their faith loses moral authority from rulers gradually accepting foreign missionaries or convert to protect their lands from holy wars, the rulers led astray and converted holy site holders will hurt the faith's moral authority and make other rulers more likley to convert, making it ever harder for a player to reform the faith.
  • German strategy game Battle Isle has a predefined deployment of troops on the map of every scenario of the campaign, but these units can carry over their experience from previous mission. So it comes with a huge advantage to take care of your units. Battle Isle III even has an extra mission that deploys your units in such a fashion that you can't save all of them, diminishing the effects of this trope for the following final missions a little.
  • Most of Nippon Ichi's games (Disgaea, Phantom Brave, Makai Kingdom, etc) have some game mechanic (repeated reincarnation in Makai Kingdom, failure fusion in Phantom Brave) that can be abused in order to make extremely powerful characters or equipment fairly early. While the games often have secret events, post-game storylines and random dungeons that will put these advantages to proper test, the main questline will be too feeble to offer any challenge.

    Turn-Based Tactics Games 
  • In PVP Advance Wars, your number one priority is to get your infantry out there to capture properties and to stop your opponent's infantry from doing the same. If you fail to do this, you'll either have to divert your main units to do it or let your opponents capture properties, both of which put you in this scenario: diverting your main units means you're not building up as good of an attack force as your opponent and the latter means your opponent gets more resources than you, both of which make it impossible for you to catch up. Your opponent will eventually win if you don't stop them on both of these fronts in the early game, and is why most pro players claim the winner of a match has already been determined by around the day 7 mark. It's what makes Jess so difficult to use in Black Hole Rising and why she was buffed in Dual Strike to address this, as her weaker infantry basically made it impossible to out-capture your opponent without wasting your main units to do it.
  • X-COM uses this very hard. If you do well at the start, you'll have more money and therefore can hire more scientists, getting you better technology, improving your odds in battles, etc. This results in the game being very hard at the start but ridiculously easy toward the end. This is partially accounted for by more powerful aliens sequentially appearing throughout the game, and them being better armed, but not sufficiently to make the game's difficulty smooth. Many self imposed challenges have originated from this.
    • Also, since soldiers gain ranks for participating in missions and killing aliens, the more you use the same soldiers over and over again (and therefore the more experience they get), the more incentive you have to keep using them, barring wounds, and the less incentive you have to level your reserves from scratch, especially in the late game. It may be jarring to get a top soldier wounded (or, worse, killed) and be suddenly forced to fill the spots with rookies and squaddies and level them all over again.
    • Game Mod The XCOM Files exaggerates this to almost ludicrous levels, while also managing to reset it several times. At the beginning of the game, you have very few resources, weapons, and people, and you have to spend your very limited research budget just cutting through the red tape to get such basic things as decent weapons and literally any armor. Once you've successfully completed a few missions, you'll have more research avenues to explore, and you'll quickly expand to be able to deal with the threats you're facing, as the initial cults and monsters are only really dangerous when you don't have the gear to deal with them. Once you do deal with them, though, you uncover additional conspiracies that quickly make your advancements either outdated or completely ineffective, and you have to come up with new strategies to deal with them. To the point that by the time the alien invasion actually starts, the aliens can be the least of your problems, because at least your current tech is (hopefully) enough to deal with them before they ramp up.
  • XCOM: Enemy Unknown changes the equilibrium to make the late game play very differently from the early game. To detect UFO attacks, you need to have satellite coverage over a country, but you start the game with only one satellite (out of 16 countries), and new satellites are prohibitively expensive (costing almost half of your starting budget for just one). Satellite coverage is necessary to get funding from the nation that the satellite is stationed over, and having all the countries of a continent covered by satellites also gives you a not-insignificant bonus. By the late mid-game, you should have all or almost all countries covered by satellites, giving you a significant amount of funding each month (so you can afford the expensive toys you've researched), prevents abduction events in all covered countries (keeping panic in check), and lets you focus on the tech and events you need to win the game.

Non-Gaming Examples

    Fan Works 
  • This is one of the main reasons behind the Apple Trust's titanic power in RainbowDoubleDash's Lunaverse. Because they can afford to buy the latest Magitek and fix up their infrastructure when it breaks, they can produce far more crops with the same amount of labor, which in turn gives them more money and influence.

  • In Children of the Jedi this is what makes it difficult to reach the control room of the automated dreadnought Eye of Palpatine, since the passage leading to it is guarded by a grid of automated blasters. A Jedi can (and did) try and rush down it by using the Force to deflect or avoid the bolts, but there are simply too many to avoid and each bolt that hits makes it harder to maintain the focus they need to protect themselves until they're overwhelmed. Callista (who died attempting this and only survived to describe the experience through Brain Uploading) describes it nicely:
    The more that hit you, the more that will...
  • Chrysalis (RinoZ): A monster that makes serious mistakes in its early development, such as evolving before condensing a core, will find that it Can't Catch Up with one who properly optimised things. If they don't max out their mutations and fully reinforce their core before evolving, then they've permanently missed out on the extra evolutionary energy that they would have received, reducing the benefits that they gain by evolving — and furthermore, the strength of one's evolution governs how much the core can be further strengthened, so a monster with a weak evolution can't gather as much evolutionary energy for next time. This is a big part of why Anthony has the advantage over the monsters around him; as a reincarnator, he's much smarter than typical monsters and is able to optimise his build (although, lacking knowledge of the System, he still doesn't get everything right).
  • Discworld has the "Sam Vimes Theory of Economic Injustice" from Sam's own pondering on boots. A rich person can spend $50 on a good pair of boots that last years and years whereas a poor person can only afford a cheap $10 pair of boots that have to be replaced much more often. Therefore on a long timeline, he spends twice as much as the man who can afford fifty dollars up front (and he would still have wet feet.)
  • Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks?: All mothers in the MMORPG the characters play are granted extremely broken gear and stats at the beginning. They gain experience and new skills by the truckload at the drop of a hat for seemingly no reason at all, while their children have to face the burden of Early Game Hell and having all of their kills stolen from under their noses by their mothers. To put it into perspective: answering a question correctly nets Masato 10XP, while Mamako gets 30 just for being there.
  • The Four Gospels: In the Gospel of Matthew, there's a verse alluding this trope:
    "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath." (Matthew 25:29, King James Version)
  • A Drinking Game described in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy involves using Psychic Powers to pour a bottle of "Janx Spirit" into your opponent's glass, which they are then obligated to drink. It is noted that one of the side effects of Janx Spirit is suppression of psychokinetic ability, making the game harder with every round lost.
  • In KonoSuba, Experience Points are given to whoever deals the last blow to an enemy, rather than being distributed amongst the party. This leads to Megumin, whose only spell is an endgame Fantastic Nuke that One Hit Kills everything she uses it on, being a few dozen levels higher than Kazuma, who never gets the last hit in and struggles to get his level above the teens due to her penchant for Kill Stealing.
  • The Salvation War: Discussed in "Pantheocide". When the humans try to resist Uriel via their willpower, they are told that they cannot afford to take any losses or else the survivors will get disheartened, which will allow Uriel to kill more of them, which further weakens the survivors, locking them into a Cycle of Hurting.
  • The Thrawn Trilogy: Thrawn is able to launch a successful, major offensive to the New Republic thanks to this trope. The fabled "Katana" Fleet is comprised of two hundred Dreadnaught-class heavy cruisers built by the Republic Navy before the Clone Wars. Thrawn is able to smuggle the fleet and add it to his forces and, even if they are outclassed by Imperial Destroyers and Mon Calamari Cruisers, their sheer numbers prove to be a force multiplier that only snowballs as the story progresses.
  • In volume 2 of Torture Princess: Fremd Torturchen, the Grand King inflicts a curse on Elisabeth that puts a Power Limiter on her ability to generate mana. The curse would be broken if she killed the Grand King, but the curse prevents her from generating enough mana to do so. Kaito solves the problem by forming a contract with the Kaiser, the only known demon more powerful than the Grand King, who is, therefore, able to break the curse for her.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Black Mirror: In "Nosedive", it's repeatedly shown that while high ratings don't always lead to more 5-star ratings, they definitely help, while low ratings inevitably engender more low ratings. Some drivers even ding a hitchhiking Lacie just for having a low score, putting her further into the pit.

    Web Comics 
  • Lovely People: The fact that one's Social Credit score impacts that of one's friends, both positively and negatively, leads to this trope. People with high scores will have an easier time making friends, since connecting with such people is beneficial for one's score. People with low scores suffer the opposite, with their friends and family cutting ties with those people to protect their own scores.

    Web Original 
  • Ernest Adams discusses this trope from a game designer's perspective in two of his articles: "Balancing Games with Positive Feedback" and "Preventing the Downward Spiral".
  • Danbooru has a limit to the number of images a user can upload at any one time pending approval. It increases with the number of approved images and decreases with the number of deleted ones, and anything that isn't approved within three days of upload is automatically deleted. This means that users who have an eye for good-quality art or at least the stuff moderators favour and thus get more approvals will be able to upload more, while users who haven't become able to discern good art or are disfavoured by the moderators will find their ability to upload gradually curtailed.
  • Similarly, Derpibooru had the "Three Day Top Scoring" feature, which would show the four highest-scoring images to have been uploaded in the last 72 hours. Since images to appear in this would get more exposure and be seen by more people they'd continue to score higher and higher, creating an even higher disparity between them and images that didn't make the cutoff. To say nothing of how it would be almost exclusively NSFW material (which tends to get more upvotes) than SFW material (which comprises 75% of the site's uploads). To address this, the list has been changed to the "Trending Images" section which randomly picks four images from a pool of the highest-scoring images uploaded in the last 72 hours but also judges highest-scoring by Wilson Scorenote  which gives a much healthier mix of images. To quote the site's owner:
    The Smiling Pony: The purpose of the "Trending Images" highlight isn't a "rich get richer" pit, it's to expose people to a variety of images they might like. So far we've found that the current scoring system provides a higher variety of quality content than the previous system and allows more artists a chance to get some exposure.
  • SCP Foundation: Possibly unintentional in the case of SCP-4054, aka The Seventh Door. Due to the electrical charge the game produces to bypass being locked out of the NES system, every time the game is reset it damages the game's hardware a little more, causing increasingly frustrating glitches until the game becomes unable to be played.

    Western Animation 
  • The Legend of Korra: The Pro-Bending ring is designed intentionally with this trope in mind. The teams start out in the zone nearest to the arena's center and must fight to remain there because, once pushed backwards, they cannot return to their previous position. This puts the player and their team at a disadvantage since attacks from longer distances are easier to deflect or dodge.

    Real Life 
  • In sociology, this phenomenon is referred to as the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage, named after the Gospel of Matthew. It applies to fame, status, or economical capital and can be explained by preferential attachment — i.e., you are rewarded in proportion of what you already had. A person born with richer parents, for example, has access to better opportunities that later will make them more prone to acquire a better-paying job. Similarly, the descendants of famous people are likely to be famous by association, thus whatever deeds they do are more noteworthy. In smaller scales, people with a good standing in their communities tend to splash their status onto their loved ones — the child of a generous vendor will have a higher chance of convincing people to do them a solid and, in general, be regarded in a better light by others. The opposite is also true. People from poor backgrounds, non-related to anybody famous, or somehow associated with a person of low social status are often dealt the shorter end of the stick and receive less for the same amount of effort.
  • In the U.S. and U.K., there is a correlation between which part of the year a person is born in and their success in school and/or sports. The theoretical reason for this is that, in the early grades, the oldest children in a grade will be physically and mentally more developed than the youngest. This allows them to understand and retain more information/ get more practice, while the youngest are dragged down by an early poor performance. Subsequently, the older children start the next school year with an even bigger head start. The advantage stacks year by year.

    To counteract this phenomenon (or perhaps to take advantage of it), some parents purposely delay enrolling their children in preschool or kindergarten for a year. This is referred to by some researchers as redshirtingnote , which seems to have mixed effects.

    This is thoroughly explored in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, most effectively early on with respect to the Canadian junior hockey league, in which most of the players are born early in the year, with birthdays later in the year becoming vanishingly rare. This is because the league is yearly, and at the earliest ages a difference of a few months makes a big difference in coordination. By age 17, that advantage is gone and has been replaced by years of being given more and better training. School systems that avoid differentiating children until later ages don't see the same birthday gaps as those that differentiate earlier.
  • It would be interesting to see this effect explored in sports where increased age is a disadvantage, such as gymnastics and figure skating. For elite-track gymnasts, the age race may be so profound that parents and coaches deliberately seek out children with later birthdays — for example, much has been made of the fact that Gabrielle Douglas, a member of the USA Women's Artistic Gymnastics team, has a December 31st birthday. Thus she was eligible for the 2012 Olympics at 15 years and 9 months old, compared to competitors who mostly ranged from 16 to 18.
  • "The rich get richer, the poor get poorer". To grossly oversimplify, the rich can afford to take spare cash and invest it, gaining more cash. This cash can then be invested for even more cash. The poor struggle to meet their daily necessities - or, for the worst off, do not even succeed in doing so - and remain poor. Even when they get external aid, the most common form is through a loan. If they can't capitalize on the loan well enough, they'll have to pay out debt on top of everything else. Laws can be created to stabilize this, but take a wild guess at what you need to get laws passed. Explored further in a Cracked article.
    • This is called accumulated advantage or the Matthew Effect in sociology, as detailed above.
    • The saying typically comes up in relation to the Boom-Bust Business Cycle. In a Boom, the first people who buy in are the people who already have money, and they usually wind up selling their assets to poorer people who either took out loans or got a windfall during the Boom. When the Boom Busts, the value of assets plummets, allowing the rich - who sold to the poor during the Boom for cash - to repurchase the assets at a net profit. The cycle repeats, each time transferring money from poor to rich.
    • Communities with high crime rates discourage businesses from moving into the area. This results in a lack of local jobs, increasing local unemployment. Many of these unemployed people believe society is stacked against them, and look up to local criminals as role models, leading to more crime.
      • Once the crime rates drop and the area becomes safe, gentrification often swiftly kicks in. This creates another cycle— because many poor people rent their property rather than own it, once an area stops being awful, people will quickly move in and purchase the cheap real estate, then raise rents. The poor people in the area are unable to pay the rents and are instead replaced with better off people. The poor people now need to go find new housing, and will likely only be able to afford to live in a poor, crime-ridden area, putting them back where they started, just in a new location.
    • Historically, malnutrition and disease were more common amongst poor people, who couldn't afford to feed themselves properly. This resulted in poor people being more likely to be unable to work, increasing their poverty.
    • Poverty trap is the term used to describe these positive feedback loops that reinforce poverty. Some of the ones observed include bad infrastructure (no money to pay for roads; bad roads mean businesses don't want to invest there), education (lack of money for schools; low education means much fewer opportunities to escape poverty), health and war (caused by desperation and lack of options, fueled by the frictions associated with poverty).
    • It is also the case that good quality stuff lasts longer and so is cheaper in the long run. Poor people can't scrape together the larger one-off cost and so have to buy cheaper versions that wear out much more quickly. This creates an odd sort of paradox where poorer people actually spend more money over time than the wealthier people, despite having less money to begin with.
  • America's Republican and Democratic primaries. Winning in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire enhances a candidate's stature, even if they don't actually provide very many delegates, and makes them more likely to win other states down the road. Because of this, candidates will spend immense amounts of time campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire even though they're fairly small states. Big states like California and Texas provide many more delegates, but come later in the year and so have less impact (voting on the two most popular candidates, rather than the whole field). The resentment got to the point that states started moving their primaries earlier and earlier (including Iowa and New Hampshire, who treasure their frontrunner status), such that now nearly half the states have their primaries on the same day.
    • This wound up defied in the 2020 Democratic primaries, though. Joe Biden hinged his campaign on a belief that he was not likely to win either Iowa or New Hampshire, both fairly rural, mostly white states that did not reflect his base of support (African Americans and middle-class suburbanites) or the party as a whole (increasingly dominated by non-whites and city/suburb-dwellers). Pundits thought that he was insane for more or less skipping the two most important early primary states and kneecapping his momentum in favor of a strategy that relied on winning a blowout victory in the South Carolina primary, leaving Iowa and New Hampshire to be dominated by Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, especially after Sanders followed those two early primaries with a landslide win in Nevada that seemed to make him the frontrunner. However, Biden's plan was vindicated when he won exactly the sort of landslide in South Carolina that he was counting on. This shifted the momentum of the race overnight and caused Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer, Biden's closest rivals for moderate voters, to drop out and endorse him, and soon after, it flowed into a massive wave of victories across the "Super Tuesday" states, the first real delegate haul of the race. By April, Sanders had dropped out and endorsed Biden, and now there is talk of putting a state other than Iowa first on the Democrats' schedule (though the Iowa Democratic Party dropping the ball on election nightnote  also had something to do with that).
  • Economy of scale and mass production. A larger company can afford to scale up their production lines to produce more goods at a lower cost per unit of good. Lower prices allow them to acquire more market share, which means they make even more money. This can lead to them producing even more goods at low prices, as well as having more money to spend on R&D, making better products. Thus, large companies often produce better products for less money than smaller ones.
    • This is most readily apparent with some online companies. Google, for instance, has the goal of giving everyone all the information they need instantly. They not only serve the masses, but because they're so good at it, they can move into new sectors of information presentation and dominate them, because why bother to go to some other website when the one you already use does it just as well, if not better? And indeed, their vast resources allow them to do many things better than their competitors, including improving their core search function.
      • Note that monopolies like this are actually good for consumers - as long as they stay like this - because the company produces everything for very low prices (in Google's case, free), and does it so well that people don't want to use other companies— and the company keeps producing better/cheaper products because they want to keep it that way. Abusive monopolies are when someone dominates a market, drives out all competition, and then jacks up prices because high capital costs prevent competition. The issue with (and common stance against) monopolies is that there's nothing preventing a benevolent monopoly from becoming an abusive monopoly, and the more "essential" a monopoly is, the harder it is to punish them or prevent abuse if they decide to become evil.
  • Fighting. Being hit hurts, and makes your body slow down in order to avoid hurting itself more. Which makes you easier to hit. Which, as previously mentioned, hurts. This is, of course, the reason for tropes like Heroic Resolve or Critical Existence Failure in media— because watching someone get struck and the fight largely being over from there, just not immediately, is fairly boring. Henceforth, the reason why most fighting styles develop 1) killing blows, or 2) pincer moves. Sumo matches quickly turn into who can maneuver into a better "locking" position and then maintain the hold.
    • This is also why team-based martial arts sports (see the Team Fighting Championship) tend to rarely go anywhere. Once one opponent gets taken down, the person they were fighting can go help out a teammate, at which it becomes a two-on-one fight and therefore an easy victory, and then it becomes a three-on-one fight for another teammate, and so on and so forth. Consequently, you might as well just surrender once a teammate gets pinned or knocked out.
    • On the other hand, in Professional Wrestling, tag team matches routinely zig-zag this trope for drama: the heels keep one of the faces away from their partner and take turns beating them up, until the face finally does manage to tag their well-rested partner to come in and kick some ass.
  • Within your body:
    • Having sex regularly is said to make the body release hormones that adds shine to hair, relieves stress, and promotes an individual's overall core health. That's right. The sexually active get sexier, and anyone not getting any don't improve. Dramatically, at least.
    • Stress causes sleeplessness. Sleeplessness aggravates stress. The cruel punchline? One of the best ways to relieve stress is adequate rest.
    • Similarly, if one is starved for long enough, they ironically begin to lose their appetite. The best way to correct malnutrition is through eating, but a diminished appetite means you can't stomach enough to return to good health.
    • With various psychological disorders, having just one episode increases your vulnerability to having more, and then more. Depression is an excellent example. Being depressed means you have little energy and don't want to do things - which means you're staying in one place and not doing things that would help you get out of the depressive episode. Plus, if you have work or a friend wants to hang out, typically you either don't go - making you feel worse for not being able to, even disregarding the other problems it can cause - or you do go but don't do as well/enjoy it as much, which also makes you feel worse, either because you were at work or might feel you know you should've enjoyed it more and feel bad for not doing so.
    • Your body has several feedback loops in place to maintain its status quo parameters, but sometimes these feedback loops can worsen the situation, because it can't distinguish what's causing the problem. For instance, if your blood pressure drops, your heart pumps harder to compensate, which is all fine if there's no disturbance to circulation. If this blood pressure drop was because you lost a lot of blood from a large wound, your heart will pump harder as usual, but this will just lead to more bleeding if the wound hasn't closed yet, with no significant restoration of blood pressure.
    • Physical fitness works a lot like this, owing to muscle memory (no, not that one). Someone who has never worked out before will have a harder time burning fat and building up muscle than someone who was in good shape but just fell off the bandwagon. A lot of fitness machine and supplement companies use this to dodge false advertising accusations: by having fit actors put on a lot of fat and then quickly burn it off on their product, they can legally claim that the man lost X number of pounds in a single week (if you were wondering why so many subjects in "before" photos seem to have such well-defined muscle tone, now you know).
  • Jared Diamond posits that this is how civilization as we know it arose in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel: People groups that were early adopters of agriculture and animal domestication eventually accrued so many advantages over those that remained subsistence hunter-gatherers that the latter were forced to either adopt a settled lifestyle themselves or die out.
    • Similar theories exist regarding early tribal religions. Tribes that developed a concept of religion were motivated by their belief in that higher power and thus were more driven to survive and advance. This explains why religion is so deeply ingrained into civilization across the globe, the tribes with religion went on to found civilization where the tribes without died. Evolution at work.
  • Markovnikov's Rule in Chemistry - when hydrogen is added to an unsaturated hydrocarbon, it will bond with the carbon that already has the greatest number of hydrogens attached.
  • In sailing, boats behind and around you interfere with your wind, making you slower. Anyone in front of the pack goes faster, increasing the distance between them and the pack, which constantly decreases their interference with your wind.
    • A similar effect occurs in automobile racing, particularly NASCAR: on larger tracks, if two racers begin racing side by side trying to get ahead of the other, the resulting aerodynamics will slow them both down allowing anyone ahead of them to increase their lead and anyone behind them begin to catch up.
  • In crowdsourced funding, you have the true believers who jump on early with minimal prompting and the diehard naysayers. Then you have those sitting on the fence. Some of these may be waiting to see how the wind blows. If the initial wave of believers push the funding near to or past the minimum needed, it's likely that these will jump in too, causing the funds to grow even more. However, if the initial wave fails to make it, these may refuse to lend their support, which further drags down the project being funded.
  • According to Skinner's theory of operant conditioning, most people respond to punishment by learning to stop doing what prompted the punishment. For those with antisocial psychological disorders, however, punishment makes them more defiant and rebellious, leading to further and harsher penalties, leading to more antisocial behaviour...
  • Studies have found that the longer one is underemployed, the harder it becomes to get meaningfully employed again.
    • Looking for work in general is this. It's much harder to get hired if you don't have the experiences and especially professional references and connections to show you're worth hiring. Positions that ask for professional references are a huge pain in the ass if you don't have any such connections, as even employers seeking minimum-wage employees won't consider those who don't have at least three references to their name.
      • There's also the issue that those who have jobs are more likely to be hired and given a higher salary than those who are unemployed. There's a bias that believes that even if people were laid off rather than fired, they likely did not have the skill set to make their previous employer try to retain them over other employees. Those who still have jobs, especially after a layoff, are viewed as being more valuable to their current employer, which makes them more likely to be valuable to the prospective employer.
    • Not to mention the old catch-22 of "I need a job to get work experience, but I need work experience to get a job." Adding to that is the rise in the requirement of unpaid internships, meaning that people who are already financially able to work for free are more likely to get the job that pays over somebody who simply can't afford to work without being paid.
  • In many sports being successful increases a team's income. More money allows you to hire better players and better players make it more likely that the team will be successful.
    • In European football, for example, the Champion's League is the richest and most prestigious competition. The top clubs in each league qualify and this makes it easier for them to attract the top players, which in turn makes it more likely that they will qualify for the Champions League next time. It's also the case that bigger, better squads not only make that team better, but deny those players to the other teams.
      • This also works the opposite way, however: the loss of income and/or players from just one below-average season can be enough to trigger a downward spiral that can destroy a team's competitiveness for decades, if not permanently. Case in point: Leeds United, who reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2001 but then narrowly failed to qualify for the next two editions. Without that extra prize money, they were unable to pay off the debts they'd accrued in order to reach the Champions League in the first place, were forced to sell off their expensive and highly-skilled players just to stay afloat, and by 2007 they'd plummeted to the third tier of English football and were on the brink of collapsing entirely. It took them until 2021 just to return to the Premier League, and with the rich teams having gotten even richer in the meantime, the odds of them ever reaching the Champions League again are next to zero.
    • American professional sports avert this with salary caps and revenue sharing, with an eye towards making teams more competitive. This is most obvious in the NFL and NBA, where aggressive salary caps and drafting programs help to make sure no one team ends up on top of the league forever just because they can afford to hire all the best players.
      • The salary caps only work to their fullest extent if every player is prioritizing their financial stake above all else, which often does not occur. Players are free to take less than they're worth for other reasons, such as wanting to join a team that has a high probability of winning a championship. In the NBA post-LeBron James' 2010 decision to team up with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami, a lot of star players are willing to be paid less than they could get from undesirable teams in order to team up with other stars on desirable teams. This has led to only a handful of teams having any chance of winning the title each year, and a lot of teams with absolutely no shot.
  • Similarly this can happen with professional wrestlers. If the wrestler is popular then the company is more likely to give them screen time, increasing their prospects. If a wrestler can't get screen time then they have little chance to increase their own popularity and it is likely that the company will continue to ignore them, making it impossible for the poor wrestler to get over.
  • Truth in Television in World War Two: once the Allies landed in France, Germany could no longer get bombers to England, making it possible for the Allies to carry out operations there without interference. Also, Allied control of French airfields made it possible to bomb targets throughout Germany, slowing industrial production - including production of flak, fighters, and anti-aircraft guns. By the end, Germany had developed the world's first jet fighter, that was twice as fast as the best the Allies had, but most of them were destroyed on the ground or lacked the fuel to be effective. This could have happened in the Franco-Prussian War and World War One as well, but the former was over too quickly, and defensive advantages were too great on the Western Front in the latter.
  • This happens a lot in politics. A straight-forward example exists for politicians that have a reputation for being book dumb or making dopey quotes. Once they start being known for this, usually due to one really overt gaffe, anything they do that feeds into it, even if fairly minor, is more likely to be caught, furthering their reputation. If a politician without that reputation (yet) or who just isn't popular in general did the same thing, it would more likely be seen as a regular human slip-up and largely ignored.
  • Rural flight. Urban areas by definition have a higher concentration of facilities, jobs and social opportunities through population density, luring the young away from sparsely-populated, less well-equipped rural areas and the Small Town Boredom that accompanies them. As this goes on, more and more rural youth and young adults uproot in favour of the cities, and outsiders see less and less reason to invest in the countryside for want of infrastructure and worker base to tap. In the end, unless countermeasures are consciously taken by central governments, rural towns and villages will be ever more left with only elderly residents who will die out soon, and the municipality with them.
  • If a Video Game Console's initial sales are high, developers will make more games, which will attract players to buy the console to play the games, which in turn encourages developers to make game for the system. However, if initial sales are poor, developers will hold back development work for the console until sales pick up. Since there are not many games to play, players hold back on purchasing the consoles until there are games, leading to a vicious death cycle for the unsuccessful console.