Delayed Reciprocity

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Gameplay actions that helps others and are motivated by the hope or expectation that they will result in returning favors.

In some games, players can have the possibility of helping each other even if they are not in the same team as long as they are not directly in opposition. When the game does not provide mechanisms for repaying those actions immediately, players have to rely on Delayed Reciprocity which may or may not be guaranteed by the game system.


In Diplomacy the player can beside using them to invade areas, order his armies to support other players' invasions. This also means that if, for example, the player controlling Italy supports a French Army in attacking Spain, that player does not get anything in return immediately but must trust the one playing France to later repay him or her. While attacks in Diplomacy can be successful without help from others, in So Long Sucker players need help from others and must convince them to rely on Delayed Reciprocity. Intrigue has a similar design but sets up different commitments of Delayed Reciprocity against each other so not all can be fulfilled.

FarmVille and Mafia Wars allows players to help each other with the various tasks they have. Since players may not be playing at the same time they cannot expect help back at once, and instead have to trust in Delayed Reciprocity.

Players in the Left 4 Dead series can be incapacitated by damage or by falling off heights. They can be saved by other players and the other players are motivated to do so because the promise of Delayed Reciprocity will increase their own chances of completing levels.

Using the pattern

The basis for having Delayed Reciprocity in the game is to have player actions, which can benefit another player without any immediate benefit to the player performing the action, and that there is a possibility of having situations where the return is paid back in the future. This makes the pattern typically require other players (i.e. that the games are Multiplayer Games) so that their is a receiver of the benefit and trust in a future return, but Agents can be used also. Generally, Delayed Reciprocity can be created through allowing Altruistic Actions which do not have guarantees of being returned or by the agreeing to Committed Goals which can be considered a form of Investment.

One explicit way to achieve Delayed Reciprocity is by making players complete Collaborative Actions that just provide a Reward for one player (e.g. attacks in Diplomacy), have Player-Decided Distributions or Player-Decided Results under the control of one player (e.g. distributing funds after a vote in Junta), or not all players do at the same time. These all build upon Delayed Effects, Individual Rewards and that other players will hold their part of a bargain and make for Complex Gameplay. Another way is to have Penalties that cause Helplessness in players (e.g. hanging from a ledge in the Left 4 Dead series) that other players can free them from. While both these ways include an element of Risk/Reward due to the possibility of a future Betrayal, Free Gift Inventories as found in games such as FarmVille do not cost players anything to do (except possibly not being able to give the gifts to some but not others). Although Mutual Goals can be used to create Delayed Reciprocity, if these goals have predetermined Shared Rewards or are part of what determines the success or failure for Teams they make it more difficult for situations of Delayed Reciprocity to occur. In contrast to Teams, Parties can make Delayed Reciprocity emerge between their members since membership is not defined as strongly through common gameplay goals - members may have individual goals and common goals may be implicit.

Regardless of the above, players many typically require convincing or reassuring to enter and maintain beliefs in Delayed Reciprocity. Games can enable players to give each other this through enabling them to Gossip with each other.

Symbiotic Player Relations are a way of encouraging players to do actions based upon an expected Delayed Reciprocity since they can see that the other player has a benefit of performing certain actions in return. One example of how this can be created is to have Social Organizations, since these are formalized Alliances based around some form of Delayed Reciprocity. However, the similar situation can arise in any Cooperation or Trading situation where there is a possibility of a perceived differences in the benefit for the involved parties. For example, in Settlers of Catan the players can trade basic Resources and one player can agree to a less profitable trade expecting that the favor will be returned later in the game.

Delayed Reciprocity does not require that the players have agreed upon the details of an exchange beforehand, or that the return is paid back to the same player. The Altruistic Actions sometimes seen in Massively Multiplayer Online Games where high level players help new players in seemingly random ways create Delayed Reciprocity situations where the new players after having reached high levels return the favor by helping other new players.


Delayed Reciprocity gives the waiting players Anticipation of Delayed Effects that are Rewards, and thereby create Hovering Closures. For those that are in position to return favors, it instead provides an Exaggerated Perception of Influence - at least when it occurs between players in Multiplayer Games.

When the Delayed Reciprocity is not guaranteed it makes Betrayal possible, and requires players to make Risk/Reward considerations before making Leaps of Faith. Delayed Reciprocity combined with time delay and the possibility of not getting anything in return due to a Betrayal, brings in Tension between the players involved in the situation. However, the situations involving Delayed Reciprocity also create a social bond between players and thereby promote Social Interaction even if it may be through the Social Dilemma of Guilting. Delayed Reciprocity situations can also be used to give rise to Uncommitted Alliances as these basically are Delayed Reciprocity situations where there can be more than two players involved and that there is a mutual agreement of some kind between the players.

In games with Persistent Game Worlds or Drop-In/Drop-Out gameplay, returning a favor may need to be done during a later play session and thereby create Encouraged Return Visits.


Can Instantiate

Anticipation, Betrayal, Guilting, Hovering Closures, Investments, Leaps of Faith, Rewards, Risk/Reward, Social Dilemmas, Social Interaction, Tension, Uncommitted Alliances

with Collaborative Actions

Complex Gameplay

with Drop-In/Drop-Out or Persistent Game Worlds

Encouraged Return Visits

with Multiplayer Games

Exaggerated Perception of Influence

Can Modulate


Can Be Instantiated By

Agents, Alliances, Altruistic Actions, Committed Goals, Cooperation, Free Gift Inventories, Helplessness, Multiplayer Games, Parties, Player-Decided Distributions, Player-Decided Results, Social Organizations, Symbiotic Player Relations, Trading

Collaborative Actions together with Delayed Effects and Individual Rewards

Can Be Modulated By


Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Shared Rewards, Teams


An updated version of the pattern Delayed Reciprocity that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[1].


  1. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.