…and now for something a little more concrete. I’m taking a look at the backbone of character progression in a game I’m designing and digging a little into why I’m making my choices and how I’m incorporating “balance” within the game, specifically how it relates to pacing and balancing player abilities against the game’s design. (I’ll handle other balancing aspects of the systems in another article.) Let’s call it a practical theoretical exercise, since I’m not sure this game will ever actually be created much less published, but I’m designing it as if it were something I’m happy enough to put out there as a finished game. One that I’d even buy and play, at that. (So if you’re sitting on money with nothing good to do with it, by all means, build something good with this system, or make it better. All I ask is for steampunk in there somewhere.)
At its heart, my game is a hearty blend of Final Fantasy Tactics and Battletech mechanically (tactics on a hex grid), with a slight zombie flavor and a wacky premise with room for such weirdness as this hippopossum I sketched (yay for sketching in ballpoint pen!).
There’s even a bit of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days in the mix, so that’s where we’ll start. In that game, character progression is based on placing panels on a grid (that expands as the character levels up). These panels come in a variety of sizes and shapes (some like Tetris pieces, for example) as well as the occasional mutually exclusive choices. It’s the character’s gear, skills, magic loadout and level, as well as FFX’s Sphere Grid or FFXII’s License Grid all rolled into one, with some quirks. (OK, that’s a bit of an insufficient explanation, but it’ll do for now.)
My game uses something I’m calling the DNA Codex, a riff on those systems with some flavor for spice. It combines my older idea of autopilot character progression and high flexibility that I’m so fond of, up to and including the potential to “break” the game.
In a nutshell, it’s a customizable grid (3 rows of 5 hexes at level cap, 2 rows of 3 at level 1) that allows a bit of “skills-based” wiggle room within a sort of “class-based” shorthand. I really want to reward exploration and experimentation within the game’s systems, without penalizing those players who just want to get on with things. Players who really dig into the system should be rewarded with varying levels of brokenness or crazy fun, while those who don’t want to bother with the “skills” can simply play and be assured of adequate tools to meet the challenges.
It could almost be suggested that there’s a balance between broken near-abuse of the systems, which requires one sort of skill (“systems analysis” if we’re being generous, “munchkinizing” if we’re being snarky), and playing with the default tools, which requires a different sort of skill (better strategy and tactics, generally). There’s actually nothing that says those are truly mutually exclusive as far as players are concerned, as a player can have both skill sets, the balance comes in when considering pacing and player vs. computer play. Conquering the game’s challenges requires mastering one or the other or some balance of the two, allowing tactical geniuses to cruise through on their strengths, and munchkins to do their thing. Total mastery of both tactics and systems would be effectively overpowering the game. At least… on Normal mode.
It might be noted also that there’s a third rail here that gets used in some games, but that I’m undecided on here. That’s the leveling fudge factor. Players in many games that incorporate levels as a character progression tool (and I am, though only 20 levels) can often forge their own edge by grinding for a while, making their characters stronger than they otherwise would be at a given point.
On the other hand, some games totally ignore this, say, something like a Fire Emblem. Those games typically demand players learn the game and play near-perfectly. There are harsh punishments for failure and no opportunity to grind up experience and gear by killing inconsequential foes for a while to overpower the game’s challenges with brute force.
Deep down, I really like the leveling fudge factor, as it is a way of letting players self-regulate the challenge of a game. On the other hand, some masochists love games that demand a lot of the player. I think in the end, I’ll include a leveling fudge factor, but turn it off for higher difficulty levels. It seems a fair compromise.
Speaking of difficulty levels, though, that’s another factor to consider. Who is the average user? What is their anticipated skill level? Can the game be tuned well enough to be able to challenge a spectrum of players, maybe even reactively to player choice “under the hood” instead of something as heavy handed as difficulty settings? Are the Easy, Normal and Hard modes appropriately spaced on the bell curve of player ability? (Say, almost anyone can get through on Easy, Normal asks a bit more, and Hard demands a high aptitude… and Hardcore will punch you in the head and take your lunch money, then mock you for not asking to be hit again.)
This isn’t so much balancing game design elements against each other to make the game internally consistent and interesting, it’s balancing the game against the potential players. Perhaps it could be called a sort of “metabalance”, but considering that games tend to need players at some point, especially if there’s even a vague hope of commercial viability, it’s still something useful to consider.
There needs to be a default setting, where the bulk of your target audience can handle the game and derive fun from the experience. In this case, as it’s a tactical game, I believe that I’m generally looking at a smaller audience, but one more acclimated to a harsher climate. Kinder, gentler difficulty settings might open the game to more players, but then, how many casual players pick up tactical games in the first place? I’m not convinced it’s a large number of people, which is sad, but a consideration for the market.
Within the game itself, this “default” is the automated character progression I’ve written of. Players will automatically have their units on autopilot when it comes to developing the DNA Codex (though they will be notified the game is doing this, and they can override it at any time). A strength-based melee unit will automatically slot melee skills focused on strength into their Codex. An agility-based ranged unit will pick appropriate skills, all without the player ever needing to dig into the Codex. Those skills will provide the player with adequate tools for the challenges at hand at relevant levels.
On the other hand, someone with different tastes might dig into the Codex and start tuning their units to their particular playstyle and tactics. That’s where the RNA Codes come in. Here are a few for a strength-based melee unit: two special attack Codes, a five-cell Joust and a three-cell Grand Swing, one two-cell defensive Code, Counter, one three-cell healing code, Regenerate, and two single-cell utility Codes, Shove and Flare.
These are the components that a character is built on. These typically offer specific tactical abilities or passive buffs for a unit, though there will be a variety of RNA Codes. Because these are shaped specifically to fit into the DNA Codex in certain ways (there will be no rotation), there will be choices to make regarding which Codes are used in which combinations. A 5-unit long powerful Code won’t cooperate with a 3-unit tall utility Code, for instance, as they would overlap in the grid, and that’s not allowed. Players will choose which puzzle pieces are important to their particular game aims, and tailor their units to their preferences.
The hope is that this will allow for a variety of playstyles. Those who prefer higher risk might load up their units with potent offensive Codes, but skimp on defense. Players who prefer long, slow grinds through a level might prioritize defensive Codes and naturally wind up with a mediocre offense. There should be a spectrum of possibilities between those, even including some tricky utility options for gimmicky builds. (I’m reminded of Stasis Bubbles or Assault Shuttles in Master of Orion 2; quirky strategies in spaceship combat that can be employed to devastating effect with a little care, but it’s also possible to just outfit ships with big guns and go start a scuffle.)
It’s also probably worth noting that these RNA Codes are layered on top of a unit’s baseline abilities. In fact, you could even take all RNA Codes out of your unit’s Codex and play through the game, it would just be harder. Not impossible, just more difficult. (See also “No Sphere Grid” runs in Final Fantasy X.) While I actually like the ability to make “gimped” or dysfunctional builds, I’m going to assure that a RNA-free unit will be usable. RNA Codes will be bonuses, not baselines.
With those in mind, what all this leads up to, the overall balance and pacing will be established around the autopilot DNA development. Players who ignore that aspect of the game can play the purist game “as intended” without a fuss (though I’ll certainly include hints that the DNA system could be useful; there’s no reason to make the system totally irrelevant). Players who want to flush their RNA will be able to make life harder on themselves. Players who try to abuse the DNA system can make the game easier. It’s on their head if they want to step off the dock and swim in weird waters, and the trick will be in making the default experience enjoyable as well as making the customization choices viable and fun. (Notably, this means being able to change one’s mind. None of these choices will be irrevocable.)
Anyway, this article is already more massive than any of mine in recent history, so I’ll dig more into some more specifics of the design in another article later. I’d like to write a bit about some “Rock-Paper-Scissors” triangular balance elements that I’m using, and step back and show a bit more of the DNA Codex and some further implications of the design.
If you’ve gotten this far, apologies for my long-windedness. There’s a lot to consider in game design, and it just all doesn’t fit neatly into 1000 words, even if there were One True Way to design games… which I don’t believe there is.