Balance, Part 1: Tao of Picasso
Balance, Part 2: Asymmetry and Art
Balance, Part 3: Systems, Defaults and Munchkins
Last time, I wrote about what I’m calling the DNA Grid, my tactical RPG’s character advancement system. That happens to be only a part of the system, and stepping back a layer, there’s a triangle that I’m using to give the game’s three major factions flavor and unique functions while trying to give them asymmetrical balance.
It’s at least partially built on the old gaming triangle of Paper-Rock-Scissors. Paper beats Rock, Rock beats Scissors and Scissors beat Paper. (Or, as my family has played, Chicken-Pickle-Elvis. Chicken eats Pickle, Elvis eats Chicken, Pickle chokes Elvis. Long road trips and tired kids make for interesting game design.) The Fire Emblem games use other triangles that function almost in the same way, Axe-Sword-Spear, Wind-Thunder-Fire or Anima-Light-Dark. They aren’t absolute triangles, they are just advantages, but they can be key in combat. They also have some outliers like triangle-reversing weapons, knives, ranged weapons and healing, but the core triangle interactions are going to cover the bulk of combat.
DNA Codex Full
My design uses Strength, Agility and Focus. Like the FE games, it’s not an absolute triangle, but rather, it’s a series of advantages. Strength has an edge over Focus, Focus has an edge over Agility and Agility has an edge over Strength. Each should perform mostly the same in the DPM (Damage Per Minute) over time against a neutral target. Strength units hit harder but less frequently and with low critical rates, Agility units hit more often but with less power, also with low critical rates, and Focus units have power between those two, but act infrequency with high critical rates. The RNG (Random Number Generator) makes the Focus units more “swingy” or “spiky” than the other two unit types (with an uneven damage distribution), but over time, all three should be more or less even. Of course, the point is to play to your strengths tactically, and make your units more effective by how you use them. That will be different with each type, if I do it right.
Key to this balance is how the metric for “over time” is chosen, or more accurately, how the DPM is split up into discrete attacks when it comes to balancing numbers. If there are too few samples per minute, Focus units will be too erratic. If there are too many samples required to create balance, the pacing of the game can suffer. I’d like the baseline combat session to have about three segments of “balanced” time, or, put another way, enough time for a unit of each type to defeat three neutral units in roughly the same overall time. If the Focus unit defeats one foe early thanks to a lucky critical hit, it might take a little longer on another unit as the RNG swings the other way, but over those three time segments, it should be roughly on par with the others.
These are rough ballpark guesstimates, by the way. Balance is an iterative beastie, and this may well require some more tinkering. That’s the point of playtesting, and why early playable prototypes are important… but that’s another article, perhaps.
Anyway, back to the DNA Grid, each type of unit, Strength, Agility and Focus, has a separate third of this overall grid (they won’t have access to the whole tripartite grid, just their section). Combine that with the RNA Salvaging mechanic (units can steal RNA from foes they defeat, no matter the unit type), and the flexibility of a unit’s “build” can be pretty crazy. A Focus unit might be able to use a midlevel Strength RNA sequence to shore up its baseline damage, or use an Agility RNA sequence to increase the frequency of its attacks. The shape of the DNA Grid means that each type will have exclusive RNA sequences (and choosing a five-unit long exclusive RNA sequence locks out three-unit long RNA sequences from other types), but there’s room to tinker and fudge things around to tailor the play experience. Since you’re tasked with controlling a squad of units instead of just one, you can make specialists or generalists, whichever befits your tactical style.
This, for example, is a Strength unit using a 5-wide Strength RNA Sequence, a 4-wide Strength RNA Sequence and all three units using the same 3-wide Strength RNA Sequence. Note that the 3-wide cuts off different options for the Agility unit and the Focus unit. The Focus unit could use that 3-wide Strength RNA Sequence and four 4-wide Focus RNA Sequences, but the Agility unit is more constrained when it’s using Strength “offspec” RNA, a simple byproduct of the geometry of their DNA grids.
Strength RNA Sequences
…and yes, I know that I’m going to have to make cleaner and cooler UI design for usability on this. This is by no means the final art. I need to communicate base type and function for each RNA Sequence… though maybe the base type is implicit in the shape. Of course, when you get shapes that bend around a corner into two major axes, well, that’s another thing yet again… and maybe a good reason to just let the shape do the communicating.
But speaking of triangles, what of the (un)Holy Trinity of HP-depletion based game design? So long as there is damage to be dealt, damage to be avoided and a healing fudge factor, are we stuck with the trinity of “tank/damage dealer (DPS)/healer”? Well, a few links are in order to start with, perhaps:
Syl issues a lovely rant/request on the trinity of MMO combat and how Guild Wars 2 is changing the game, and Nils takes that and runs with it, then takes a flying leap into the breach. Big Bear Butt ranted magnificently on it not so long ago. I’ve written about the trinity before, here and there. I agree with these fine authors, that the trinity is functional, but I want something different.
To that end, I’m adopting a triage model, effectively the Battletech “battle of attrition” model with a slight healing fudge factor on top. I’ve taken to thinking of it as a sort of multipart boxing match, a battle less about who gets in the big hits, and more about who can take the hits and keep going. (This being what some boxing aficionados would have one believe is the heart of boxing.) I want a battle of endurance where units aren’t always healing through big unavoidable damage, or finishing a fight in pristine condition. Real fights hurt, and the winner is all too often just the last guy standing, no matter his condition.
As such, I’m going to push healing to the curb a bit. I still like that healing can be a fudge factor for tactical mistakes, but on the other hand, if a single mistake doesn’t hurt as much, it’s not as necessary. That’s where I’m coming from on this, at least. I intend to avoid OHKO (One Hit Knock Out) moves, and make each fight be one where smart tactics of positioning, careful target selection, communication (AI units can communicate across certain distances), focused fire and careful planning carry the day.
Healing will be changed under this triage and attrition model. Each unit can perform a small self-heal or heal another unit, but those actions cost time, and sometimes time is the most important element.
…but time is a big topic for another article. Balance, Part 5… when I get it put together.
Still, when each unit can afford to take a handful of hits, the hope is that healing won’t be quite as necessary as a fudge factor, and the focus can be on smart offensive tactics rather than simply wading in and healing through mistakes. Again, playtesting will be crucial here, to make sure this winds up being fun without being onerous, and that the tactical play can stand on its own without players leaning on the healing crutch. It will be a lot of number crunching, I think, and some systems analysis, but I think it can work.
Battletech is very playable, after all, and it has no healing at all in most iterations of the game. Repairs come after the mission is done, not during combat. (The MechCommander games played a bit with this by including Repair Bays, which changed the game significantly in some cases, though they notably only used them for longer, tougher missions. That seems like a fair compromise to me.) Similarly, Fire Emblem games tend to have sparse and somewhat weak healing, making smart tactics more important.
Short story long, I’m not opposed to healing as a fudge factor, I just want to see if I can shift the focus to a different set of tactics. Healing works, but as with the holy trinity of MMO combat, it’s not the only way to do things.
There’s a lot to consider in my design still, but these, as always, are submitted to public airing in the hopes that they can spur thought and discussion. My design is by no means the One True Way to design games, it’s just the way I’m doing things, for better or worse. And, as noted before, I’m not much of a programmer. I’m not certain at all that this will ever be made. Still, it’s nice to at least go through the logic and think things through, especially if what I present here can help someone else.
See you next time!
Oh, and just for fun, if all this blather of game design hasn’t bored you yet, and the industry interests you, try this:
So You Want to Work in the Video Game Industry…
Maybe there’s good reason I’m instinctively writing first about the game design, rather than start with the story/setting and snazzy concept art. Y’see, I’d rather have substance over style. I can add style very easily (and indeed, the terminology I’m using is certainly not inviolate if I come up with a more flavorful theme)… getting the core game down right is more important to me.
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