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Posts Tagged ‘balance’

I’m not a fan of PvP (Player vs. Player combat) as found in most MMOs.  The prevailing DIKU DNA, manifested in levels, gear and ganking, just doesn’t provide the level playing field that I prefer when it comes to pitting my playing skills against those of another human.

I loved Street Fighter and other assorted fighters when I was in high school.  SF2 really hooked me, and I thoroughly enjoyed several derivative games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, SFAlpha, Killer Instinct, King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, DarkstalkersSoul Edge, and their variants.  Mortal Kombat is too exhibitive for my taste, but for a while there, there were a lot of good fighter games floating around, so there was no dearth of options.  The most expensive game I ever purchased was the SNES cartridge of SF2Turbo ($70 at the time, stupidly expensive, but still a ton of fun).  My friends and I spent a lot of time and money in arcades and at home with fighting games, a not uncommon thing for teens of the 90s.

My skills were never such that I could play in a tournament, but I did hold my own against most arcade players, and won far more often than I lost.  It was very satisfying to play in a hard-fought match and come out on top.  Steamrolling new players wasn’t much fun, and I’d often take it easy on them reflexively.  I like to win, but I like it to be an honest win that requires good play on my part.  Perhaps I was doing a Darwinian disservice to those noobs by taking it easy on them, but I tried to always have fun and try to let the other player have fun too.  It seemed to me to be a better way to spend my time.  Constantly losing to a better player is only fun if you’re learning something  (and if they aren’t a jerk).  Frustration isn’t fun.

The best part of these fighting games was the intricate balancing jobs they did, working with disparate characters and playstyles.  Some games were better balanced than others, to be sure, but on the whole, success in fighting games when playing against other players usually boiled down to player skill.  This made successes sweeter and failures more instructive.  It was also a lot of fun.

Dave Sirlin has made a bit of a career out of writing about SF games and fighting games in general, and he wrote a great article some time ago about how World of Warcraft teaches the wrong lessons.  Everything Sirlin writes is filtered through his SF background and his “Play to Win” ethos, so it’s not going to be a set of assertions that works for everyone, but it’s a solid read, and really strikes at the heart of what I don’t like in MMO PvP.

One of his memorable quips is the suggestion of a “level 60 Chun-li” and the absurdity that such an image presents.  It’s silly to think that player time investment in building a character would outweigh player skill in the fighting game scene, yet it’s precisely that paradigm that drives PvP in most MMOs.  This is why open world PvP inevitably degenerates into a cycle of bullying and “ganking“; players aren’t looking for a fair fight, they are looking to win, or worse, to give grief to other players.  A game system where time investment brings more powerful characters in the form of higher levels and/or better gear doesn’t offer much in the way of a fair fight.  (Notably, it also causes problems even when you’re not playing against other players… there are problems playing with other players against the computer.  Levels do weird things sometimes.)

I might note that a very narrow power band might make for tolerable PvP, of course.  Guild Wars gets close to this.  World of Warcraft, with its endgame characters being orders of magnitude more powerful than new characters, is a bit different.  It shouldn’t take 300 characters to kill one foe.  (Sadly, the video has been lost on that one, and the 300 weren’t even enough, but still… the power of a end game character is absurd compared to a new character.)  Maybe that makes for good fantasy power trips if you’re the powerful one (and that was a Player vs. Environment contest), but it’s awful for PvP.  Puzzle Pirates has a very narrow power band, and the vast bulk of the game is based on player skill.  This is a big part of why I still consider it to be my MMO home.  It just feels more like my skill matters, rather than my time investment.

I want a level playing field for PvP contests.  If I fail, it should be because I wasn’t good enough.  If I win, it should be because I played well.  It’s all about player skill.

I don’t see that in most MMOs, which is one of the reasons I’m a dedicated solo Explorer who occasionally indulges in dungeon prowling with other players.  I don’t mind an imbalanced contest against the computer’s monsters (though it’s nice to have a spectrum of challenge), but when I’m playing with other players, I want to know that the contest is one of skill, strategy and tactics, not a barely disguised measurement of time investment.

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Time is an interesting thing in games.

At a very basic level, you usually have the power to pause a game.  Some games play with time more explicitly, as the recent Prince of Persia games have.  Yet others take time manipulation even further, like Braid‘s suite of time-bending mechanics, or maybe just temporal echoes like The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom.  Like death, time is one of those immutable things that we face in nature that is ripe for fictional and mechanical treatments in games, both in the narrative and in the play.  (That could be an article in itself, though, so I’ll save that for another time.)

On a more specific level, I’ve been looking at time and how it functions mechanically as a game design element, working on my own game design again.  I’ve been pulling in ideas from a variety of sources.  From the differences between “speeds” of cards in Magic the Gathering or the World of Warcraft TCG (instant, sorcery/ability… and then there’s phasing, delay counters and other oddball mechanics) to warmups and cooldowns, from turn-based RPG notions of speed to real-time games and rate of fire or travel speed, there are a lot of ways that time makes a difference in games.  Specifically when considering balance, I tend to look at speed as another “handle” to tweak in order to nudge around valuation of varied game design elements.  Mark Rosewater has written about similar things when talking card design in MtG, so before I blather too much more, may I recommend an article or two of his?

Mark Rosewater Q & A

Plenty of Time

You Make the Card FAQ

Equipment to Be (especially the Topic #6 subsection)

That last one is likely where I latched onto the idea of “knobs” to tweak when defining costs on game mechanics.  I’m pretty sure he’s written about it elsewhere, but durned if I can’t find those articles.  Point being, the cost/benefit ratio for each game design element is an important factor of balance.

In MtG terms, two similar cards might be allotted the same level of power but that power might be expressed in different ways.  One might be an “instant” card with a cheap effect, while the other is a slower “sorcery” card with a more powerful effect, but both have an equivalent abstract power level.  (And yes, something like a 2W 1/4 creature with an ability might have its power balance figured differently against a 2W 3/2 creature with a different ability.  MtG design isn’t always about the card’s speed… but speed is what I’m looking at today.)

So what of turn-based tactical RPG design, since that’s what I’ve been looking at in my other articles (this, a game of my own design, so I can speak with some authority about the thought processes behind it)?

Balance, Part 1: Tao of Picasso

Balance, Part 2: Asymmetry and Art

Balance, Part 3: Systems, Defaults and Munchkins

Balance, Part 4: Triangles, Trinity and Triage

I’ve pulled inspiration from a lot of different sources on this, but four major examples stick out: Final Fantasy Tactics, Band of Bugs (the first game I worked on here at Wahoo/NinjaBee), World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy X.  Some thoughts, then…

Speed

In physics terms, “speed” is distance per unit of time.  Many RPG systems incorporate speed as a core characteristic of units in one form or another.  Sometimes it’s “agility” which affects a variety of things, sometimes it’s a simple measure of d/t.  Band of Bugs expresses unit speed purely as distance (number of squares on the grid a unit can move) per turn.  Each game “turn” consists of a single action (with or without a move) by each allied and enemy unit.  Once everyone has had a shot at doing something (even if it’s only defending in place), a “turn” is over.  A fast unit can move farther each time it gets to move, while a slow unit can only move a few steps each turn.

BoB units alternate activation.  A player gets “action slots” within the turn to move their units, and a turn allocates all of its slots more or less randomly between all of the units on the field, friend or foe.  Players can choose to move whichever unit they like in their time slots.  The first two slots might be reserved for the player, but then the computer or other player might get the next two, then they may alternate single slots, then back to two.  Since it’s not “all my team moves, then all your team” like Disgaea, FFT or Valkyrie Profile, Covenant of the Plume, you’re never sure which unit the other guy will choose to move during their time slots, so it’s a little trickier to plan things out.  This rewards a more conservative set of tactics.  I’ll admit, I’m a bit annoyed that I can’t predict my opponents, and that I can’t gang up or make a front by using my units all together, but it does make for a more chaotic sort of feel, which again, rewards a different sort of play style.  It also makes more chronological sense than “all my guys go, then all yours” as if mortal combat were some sort of square dance with weapons.  …which might be sort of interesting in the right context, but I digress.

Point being, speed in BoB has more to do with how far a unit moves than anything else, and this is pretty common among TRPGs.  It seems to be largely rooted in the “turn” structure, where the balance comes in giving each unit an action per arbitrary large chunk of time we call a “turn”.  True, this may mean an enemy squad that outnumbers the player team 2 to 1 will also get twice as many actions per turn, but that’s just something that designers have to keep in mind.  (On the other hand, if a player team of four units against a computer team of eight units simply alternated these “time slots” without the overall turn structure of giving each unit one action each turn, the player units would effectively move twice as frequently as the enemy units… also clearly a weird notion of balance.  More on frequency below, though…)

Contrast that with Chess, where each player has the same number of units, and they take turns moving a single unit at a time according to that unit’s rules.  It might be said that the Queen has extraordinary speed potential, if framed in distance/move terms.  We might call her flexibility “agility”, while we’re talking about RPG terms, thereby differentiating her from the Rook and Bishop.  All three have the same speed potential (as far as they can see in a clear line), but different agility.  Of course, the game doesn’t track all that well with RPG design; imagine how the dynamics of Chess would change if you could move all of the units on your team once before your opponent got to move anything at all.  It would be almost unplayable.  (Which could lead to discussions about why TRPG teams tend to be small, and turn order advantage…)

Of course, there are the Fire Emblem games that take speed and use it differently.  The FE games use speed to determine whether a unit can attack a foe twice in a combat round, and to determine how likely an opponent is to actually hit you.  High speed means better dodge rates, then, and enough of a speed disparity between attacker and defender may well lead to one getting hit twice per exchange.  Speed doesn’t affect how often a unit moves, then, or how far (the former is determined by the “all my team, all your team” system, the latter is class-based), it affects combat.  It’s probably closer to what most games call “agility”, then, though the two-for-one strike bit does feel like a unit is simply much quicker than its opponent.  It’s such a strong tactical effect that it seems to me that many FE players prefer speed over raw power.

So, there are several different directions to take the notion of speed.  The direction you go with it will depend mightily on what you want the game to play like.  I find I like the effect speed has in the FE games, though I like the tactical utility of letting speed affect motion range.  In something like Phantom Brave, where you aren’t constrained to a grid, it can be even more useful to have a big range of motion.

Warmups and Cooldowns

Timing on actions can also be an interesting knob to tweak.  Final Fantasy Tactics has a quirky magic system (the Faith mechanic is something I’ll revisit later; I’ve used something like it in a tabletop miniatures game I’m designing) that might be parsed easily by a World of Warcraft veteran.  WoW character abilities tend to range from instant cast abilities with a wide variety of cooldown timers (time before you can use them again) through a range of what I’m calling “warmup” abilities; those that require a bit of time between activation and effect, whether it’s a “fire and forget” missile sort of thing or a “stand here and mumble for a while and eventually your effect will happen” thing.  There’s even a sort of hybrid; the “channeled” technique where the effect happens while standing there mumbling, and it keeps happening for the duration of the mumble period.  There’s also the instant-cast, lasting effect sort of spells.  There are a lot of knobs to tweak with timing there, both with the casting and the effects.

By comparison, the FFT system is pretty simple.  It’s just a warmup system where magic spells take time to cast, but once cast, they have an immediate effect.  The only cooldown is waiting for another turn to move your mage and start a new spell (and refilling magic points, I suppose, but combat doesn’t usually last that long).  There is a marked lack of what I’m calling “smart” or adaptive targeting in FFT, though.  In WoW, even your spells with a warmup time are still cast at the initial target, wherever they may be.  (OK, assume your cast isn’t interrupted, anyway.)

In FFT, you choose a target and a spell strength.  Stronger spells take more time to warm up.  …more time to allow the targeted space to change.  If memory serves, you target a place on the ground, and units may move into or out of said target.  (I don’t think you can keep targeting a unit… though if you can, you don’t know where it will move, so you may well hit friendly units with splash damage.)  Using powerful spells then naturally changes into an exercise in prediction and spatial control.  That’s all well and fine from a “depth of tactics” standpoint, or for the “I want the game to hate me” crowd, but the trouble is one of feedback.  It’s been a while since I played the game, but I seem to remember that you can’t tell when the opponent units will move.  You know how long your spell should take to cast, but not exactly who will move between casting and the effect.  It’s hard to pin down what might happen to that targeted space.  That makes it hard to use bigger spells.  If you knew who would move and when, you could predict where they might move thanks to blocking and baiting, but absent that knowledge, magic is little better than slow artillery.  Carpet bombing locations has some tactical value, but it’s an indelicate, imprecise weapon.

It seems to me that the missing piece of “when” is crucial to making that sort of warmup-based location-targeted magic useful in a turn-based system.  In WoW, where everything is real-time, that question largely goes away, since most players can just move anytime (mobility controlling spells aside, of course).  Later FFT games (FFTAdvance and FFTA2) have moved to an “instant cast” system that make tactics simpler and easier, for better or worse.  (I know, old school is the best school, and all that.)  It’s a change I like overall, but I think the predictive potential of delayed warmup magic could be better realized with better feedback on who would move when.

Back to cooldowns, though, WoW tends to use cooldowns to throttle the use of certain abilities.  More powerful abilities tend to get long cooldowns.  Utility and common abilities get short cooldowns so they can be used more often.  Players get the benefit of being able to use something right now if it needs to be used, but they have to wait to use it again.  It’s a nice balance between usability and throttling, permitting powerful abilities without them overwhelming the more common ones.

Similarly, the Kingdom Hearts series has fiddled with its magic in each iteration of the IP.  Early titles used instant-cast magic point-consuming spells (MP being yet another knob to tweak for balancing things, of course).  MP could be refilled by collecting drops from fallen foes, recharging at save points or by using items.  Later iterations of the game have dropped MP altogether and have used cooldowns to throttle magic use.  It’s an interesting change that sort of smooths out the pacing of magic use.  Instead of using a bunch in a flurry then refilling MP, players can use magic spells more regularly over time, but without the temporally concentrated burst of activity they once were capable of.  The spells refill automatically, so resource management moves from keeping track of MP and items, and more into keeping track of time.

Time as a Cost

Or, “where it all starts to come together”.

I really like using time as a cost for abilities, ideally with a mix of warmups and cooldowns.  To really make things work, I want enemy turn order to be crystal clear, so that prediction can work.  When time becomes the coin of the realm for using abilities, as a matter of feedback, it needs to be clear how things change during that time.

That’s where I’m borrowing from Final Fantasy X.  It’s one of my favorites in the FF series, partially because of the combat system.  It’s a turn-based sort of system in that it’s not “real-time, always running”.  The game waits for your input, and your characters and the enemies take turns beating on each other.  It’s a different sort of “turn” from the games I’ve written about above, though.

There’s a timeline that all unit actions fall on.  Units act when they are ready, with the frequency of their actions depending on their speed rating.  Faster units get to act more frequently.  Time itself ticks on underneath the turn order.  There’s no “each of us gets one hit on each other” ad perpetuum, it’s just characters checking against the underlying clock to see if they get to act again.  (I’m not sure what the system does in the case of a tie, but I’m not sure it matters to the user since they know ahead of time and can plan accordingly.)

As for feedback, you always know who takes the next turn and the next handful of turns after that because there is a UI element that shows you the next several actors (not their actions, just who is up to bat next for the next ten actions or so).  Further, those actions can be modified by things like Haste spells (higher frequency of actions) or Quick Attacks (low power, shortest cooldown), and the turn order shifts around to reflect that.  You can also swap characters in combat and the time layout may shift to reflect changes in the order because of the new character’s speed.  You can predict the next few moves very nicely this way and react with much more control.

It’s that sense of “time goes on” that I like, rather than the Red Rover sort of game where teams alternate attacks.  Yes, you will always get some of that “wait ’til I hit you” time stutter-step with a non-real-time combat engine, but I think that the FFX system hits a nice compromise.

This time treatment is actually fairly similar to the World of Warcraft Miniatures game, which I like quite a bit.  It’s not something that functions to the depth of a WarHammer or WarMachine tabletop game (go check out 6 Inch Move for some great articles on tabletop gaming, by the way), mostly as a matter of scale, but the WoWMinis game is pretty solid for a simplified tactical game.  That game also has a ticking time line that progresses all the time (though players track it, not the computer).  Each unit has a personal clock, and they get to act when their clock matches the master clock.  Moving (or doing nothing, actually) costs a tick, and unit attacks or abilities each have a “tick cost”, effectively a cooldown.  Their attacks are balanced against the time cost.  There are no magic points, just time costs.  (OK, if you use the optional ability bar cards, those effectively have a “ten tick round” potential cooldown, as they can only be used once per ten ticks of the master clock, so they function a little differently, but still, that’s a time-based throttle.)

I played a game with my wife where her Orc Warrior was able to use an ability to get some extra range on one of his turn’s moves and then immediately take another turn simply because everyone else was on cooldown.  He subsequently squashed my fragile mage, winning the game for my wife.  That sort of tactical situation (effectively a last-ditch two-for-one double turn) doesn’t come up in a game where you just alternate actions.  Yes, I lost, but it was awesome that the game allowed that sort of thing.

My Turn

So, for my game, I want to have a FFX-like time system, where units act according to their own timing measured against the master clock.  There will be a display of who will be acting for the next handful of “turns”, allowing for predictive tactics.  I love the idea of both warmup and cooldown abilities, and I want to make a system that makes them interesting and fun.  I will probably include a UI element that shows when a warmup ability will actually trigger within the master clock’s queue.  Unit speed will dictate the frequency of their actions (and other subtle effects we might usually attribute to agility), and actions will be paid for with their time cost.

I want the gameplay focus of the game to be on smart tactics based on solid intel.  There’s a place for guesswork, but that will be optional, as players can turn off the timeline UI or introduce fog of war.  At its heart, I want my game to err on the side of ease of use (not necessarily ease of conquering the game’s challenges, mind you) so that the challenge comes from the game’s tactical situations, not fighting the system’s limitations.

One More Thing

A few final quirks of time in games:  Talking is a free action; time moves at the speed of Plot, or as fast as players need it to.

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Balance Part 1: Tao of Picasso

Balance Part 2: Asymmetry and Art

…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.

DNA Codex, empty, level 20

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.

RNA Codes, strength based melee, level 20

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.

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Continued from Part 1, of course…

The left and right sides of this diagram are balanced.

The left and right sides of this diagram are also balanced.

These, too.

…but what of these?

Or these?

So, that in mind, how about I change a couple of labels up there?  Here’s where Street Fighter 2 comes in.

A is T. Hawk

B is Zangief

C is Ryu

D is Dhalsim

I know I grossly oversimplify here, but there’s minor method to the madness.  T. Hawk and Zangief are both mostly one-trick ponies; their strength lies primarily in grabbing the opponent and squashing them.  Ryu is fairly well-rounded, with a decent air and ground game, as well as a few basic throw options.  Dhalsim is also well rounded, albeit in different, tricky ways.

Every single one of those diagrams uses the exact same base, the same “piece of the pie”, I just sliced them up differently and pushed pieces around a bit.  It’s largely an asymmetrical balance, but the variety is generally a good thing.  Strictly speaking, if balance is only a measure of how much black each character gets, they are very precisely balanced.

…but then, that’s the key.  The metrics I’m using for balance let me state that the balance is precise.  This is critical.  Balance functions best when the measurements and means of measurement are very clear.  (Tangentially, this is why so many science experiments flat out ignore tangential data and assume things like a lack of friction.  It’s a way to clean up the signal and set the terms of measurement.)

Y’see, if we want to get picky, the letters also contain black.  The right side of the figure also contains a measure of black in the slight grey background.  Those are just noise, though, because I deem them such.  That inverse image mirror Zangief match actually does the Yin-Yang sort of balance, white vs. black.  These corner cases exist, surely, but they aren’t part of the finely crafted balance I care about.  Oh, sure, someone will nitpick about them, but since I’m the one crafting and defining the balance, those arguments don’t matter.

While we’re talking Street Fighter, though, look at the following comparisons between Ryu and Zangief:

The ground game:

The throw game:

The air game:

If you isolate the part of the game you’re seeing to a particular slice of the overall design, it’s easily argued that these two characters are imbalanced.  Zangief is the clear favorite in the throw game (though it should be noted that a solid block of color like that looks more impressive than it actually is), but Ryu dominates the air and has a small edge on the ground.  Overall, we can argue that they are balanced, but in particular situations, they most definitely are not.  When considering balance, then it must be asked:  “what is the big picture?”  Or, more precisely, “what metrics are these systems using for the overall picture that this design’s balance exists in?”

Speaking of slicing up perceptions, though, there’s another way to do it.  I’m calling it role slicing, but it’s really just a subset of situational slicing.  Compare World of Warcraft’s Druid to the Warrior.  Overall, the Druid looks like it has a significant edge over the Warrior, after all, it has a bigger piece of the action in the big picture:

And yet, if you look at the role slices, (noting that there are indeed overlaps, just by the nature of the game), Warrior and Druid tanking are remarkably similar and nicely balanced:

…and their melee DPS options are reasonably balanced:

Yes, I know, Druid melee DPS is more akin to a Rogue, but for the sake of this (oversimplified) argument, it might also be suggested that all classes that specialize in melee DPS are balanced, just with some tweaks and different approaches.  You get up in the bad guy’s personal space and bring the hurt.  Similarly, a Mage and Druid could be compared in the ranged DPS (when the Druid is in Balance spec, anywho), blasting baddies from the peanut gallery.

These role slices are balanced as opposed to the “big picture” being balanced, and I believe that’s the way it should be for something like WoW with its relatively inflexible roles.  (You cannot switch from offense to defense in a flash like you do with Street Fighter 2’s gameplay.)  This produces some quirks in game design when compared to SF2.

For one, there are more ways to interpret things, so naturally, more excuses to nitpick.  Two, even the designers can slip into thinking that the overall sense of balance matters more than the role, and wind up hobbling the multifaceted Druid in an effort to balance the big picture.  For WoW’s design, the role is key, since that’s what gameplay is designed around.  Tanks tank, healers heal, and DPS…ers kill stuff.  You just can’t generalize and shift roles effectively at any moment.  Three, the “metagame” and “class identity” really do matter to players, but mechanically, when it comes to balance, the function of moment to moment play (the roles) are more important.  Those can clash sometimes, especially since so much of the gameplay is decided by the initial choice of class… and that’s a remarkably unchangeable choice made early in the game with little good feedback.

So, lots of words to say “balance kinda sorta really, well… depends on how you look at it” with a subtext of “each game does it differently, for good reason”.

Oh, and I’d be terribly remiss not to point out the following:

Sirlin on balancing Street Fighter 2 and multiplayer games in general (since it was his job, he knows far more of the particulars than I do; it’s a great series of articles on a great site)

Just to throw some gum in the works, BBB reminds us that:

“Class balance is not a fundamental RPG trait”

Because sometimes, throwing “balance” out the window is actually a smart design choice.  Shunting it off of center stage makes room for different sorts of play.  Or different types of balance.

…and then there’s oddments like crowd control, buffing, out of combat utility like teleporting, crafting suites, cosmetics, racial traits, location modifiers, dice rolls and the hairy topic of randomization and its sometimes deleterious effect on balance…

Oi.

Follow the link tied to that picture to find a fun LEGO spin on Escher’s work.  I love Escher’s art.  Remember… balance depends on how you look at it.  It’s all… relative.

Edited to add, because I forgot it but really shouldn’t have, as I meant to work it in…

6 Inch Move’s take on the Myth of Balance

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It’s a perpetual dance in game design.  Give the players freedom to go do crazy things, or put them on rails so they don’t break your game (or play it the “wrong” way)?  It’s a fine line that “live” games (MMOs, MTG, Warhammer, even) are especially wary of, since they are constantly on the edge between broken and brilliant… especially since that line is different for different players.

So, while the RealID kerfluffle is also stirring troubled waters between freedom and control, the game design of WoW is also testing the waters in the “control” side of the (kiddie?) pool.  I fall squarely on the side of freedom, exploration and experimentation in games.  To me, that’s the point of playing a game; to try something I can’t do in real life, and tinker in new and unusual ways.  That’s my “theory of fun“; messing around, looking around, taking control as a player and seeing what happens.  That’s why my articles on game design are more about giving the player control, not controlling the player.  (It’s also why I consider failure itself punishment enough, and don’t particularly care for “death penalties” and other punishment mechanics.  Just let me play the game, already!)

So, Blizzard wants to take the reins and make class talent trees more like immutable pillars or mini-classes, less like… guidelines.  The goal seems to be to make the newbie experience better, and give class trees their own (dev-defined) identity and playstyle earlier in the leveling curve.

OK, the goal of improving the leveling game and newbie experience sounds good to me so far, and entirely in-theme for the renovated world we’re getting in Cataclysm.  The newbie experience is crucial to getting the game to “stick”, and letting players have a taste of what they can do later is a great idea.  (It’s played differently in things like Metroid Prime… which I’d actually prefer, but that’s not terribly likely here.  Pity.)  The sooner a Warrior can feel like a Warrior, or a Hunter can feel like a Hunter, the better (which is why pets at character creation is a Good Idea, while we’re talking class identity).  It might even make grouping pre-endgame better, as players learn their roles earlier… if you care about that sort of thing.

Thing is, I’d have done it by making the trees more synergistic, rather than locking players into one progression path.  (The very least that I’d do is make respeccing free and easy like Guild Wars, if we’re going to be stuck maxxing a tree before experimenting, and make Dual Spec very cheap and offer it early, say level 20 at the latest.)  Rather than lock players into a choice of one of thirty subclasses and telling them to get used to it, I’d give them more choices and make them all interesting and useful, letting player playstyle dictate direction.  I know, I know, that’s more work, but hey, it’s not like Blizzard’s a charity, hm?  That sort of experimental playstyle also pretty much requires frequent respecs.

I like that a leveling Warrior can pick up a few Arms talents and a few Fury talents and go to town.  As time goes on, generalization tends to be less powerful than specialization, but more flexible.  I love that balance, and much prefer the option to sacrifice some power for flexibility.  That’s why I play a Druid.  (Insert rant about how hybrids are as good as two or three “pure” classes all rolled into one, if you so desire; I think there’s a good argument to be made for making “pure” classes undeniably best at what they do, while still keeping hybrids viable.  I know, I know, in a world where 3% improved crit rate is worth investing three talent points, even a hybrid at 95% potential is going to feel like it’s nerfed… that’s one of the problems with only having three combat roles and 10 classes…)

So yeah, I’m a bit ambivalent about this talent tree overhaul.  All in all, I can’t really find much but personal preference to base complaints in, and I do strongly believe that options are the heart of games.  I don’t like the straitjacketing that the changes represent because I tend to explore and tinker rather than just go with the flow, and yet… the streamlining is probably a Good Thing overall, since it may well make learning the trinity easier earlier, and learning your class more entertaining (rather than only coming to fruition at the endgame).

As long as WoW is stuck in that class-trinity rut, they may as well teach it well.

For now, I’m going to say:

“OK, Blizzard, I detest your business practices with the deepest, hottest fire of a grumpy dragon, and this Game Design thing you do, well, I think it needs work, too, but since you’re dedicated to a path I’d not choose, you may as well do it right, and this change, well… that’ll do.”

…and yes, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the game design and the business design.  They do affect each other in unhealthy ways, but credit where credit is due, after all.  The WoW devs do have a few good ideas here and there.  I do not agree with their apparent core philosophy of control over freedom, but they are at least making a few good changes to make their game better… even if I’d have made a very different game.

It’s like the Cataclysm on the whole; I think it’s a good idea (and I called for “old world” renovation a year before they announced it), but I’d have made the game world more dynamic from the start.  They are doing decent design for their goals and within the box they put themselves in.  Perhaps that’s a bit of “condemning with praise”, but so be it.  I do think they do good game design, but it’s increasingly a game that I don’t particularly like.

A few other thoughts from bloggers with a bit more… class:  BBB, Larisa, SpinksChastity, PvD, Copra

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Just another collection of interesting game design related links.  I found them interesting enough to want to have access to them again, but time is short enough that I don’t have time to do a full writeup on each.  (And some may not necessarily merit such treatment.)

These are tucked behind the More link to keep the main page organized.

(more…)

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Balancing Triangles

While we’re talking about the triangle of Tank/Healer/Damage Dealer, and the alternatives to such, what about balance?  What about the balance in PvP?

I’ll admit, I’m not a huge PvP nut.  That said, when I have the itch to play with other people in a test of skill, I like a flat playing field.  The T/H/D triangle just doesn’t work for 1-on-1 PvP.  It might work for small teams, but even then, the artificial Threat/Aggro mechanic doesn’t work on real people.  Their Rogues go for the Healers, not for the tin can calling them names.  Pure healers die in PvP.  Quickly.  When MMO PvP is a Quake Deathmatch with classes, someone will inevitably be the whipping boy. (more…)

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