Rewarding Play

Previously, we’ve defined games as “interactive experiences constrained by mechanics designed to reliably satisfy common exotelic aspirations“.  In other words, humans have needs.  Some of those needs are aspirational, meaning they aren’t necessary, but produce a positive emotion when met.  And some of those aspirations are exotelic, meaning they are not fulfilled by getting something, but by being used for some other good.  Games are the ideal source for meeting these needs because they are entertaining (required for aspirations) and interactive (required for exotelic experiences.)  But how do games meet this sort of need?  What is the process by which a game is fun?  And by understanding this process, can we make them more fun?

Lacks and Goods

Every need consists of two complimentary halves, an internal lack and an external good.  If someone has absolutely no desires or requirements, or those desires and requirements can be met completely internally, than they never suffer from a lack and therefore never have any needs.  Those people do not play games… because they do not exist!  The human condition is rooted in our imperfections and our inability to make ourselves whole.  This means that needs can only be met by some external source.

On the other hand, most external objects do not meet any sort of need; a specific external good is necessary to fill a given internal lack.  That is why games are particularly suited to a certain type of need, and totally useless when it comes to others.  If a pet rock could really meet the need for affection and companionship, all of our needs would be instantly met by a pile of gravel.

You guys rock

Actually, I do feel a little better...

When an internal lack is paired with the right external good, the need is met. When the need is a requirement, we refer to the feeling as “satisfaction” or “contentment” because it eliminates a source of negative emotion and leaves us feeling neutral. But when the need is an aspiration we commonly describe the experience as “gratifying” or “rewarding” because it is generally more positive and leaves us uplifted. Gratification and reward are the two most important tools in a game designer’s repertoire for meeting a player’s aspirations.

[To be continued…]

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GDC 2010: Design in Detail X


A big part of knowing if something is strong or not is Affordance, a visual clue to the function of an object. Strength tends to be obvious; it’s not a hidden feature that a player is going to have to guess at. If an object doesn’t have affordance, it probably doesn’t have a strength. [Read more about Affordance]


This book is a hardcore textbook and it rocks. (And by that I mean it is dense and hurts your head.) The authors define competence this way and try to show that the desire to show competence is a major human motivator.


Sniping starts off hard, but the more you learn, the more competent you get. In general, strengths are things you can get good at, meaning you can demonstrate competence at using an element’s strengths. But why is competence so important?


Because competence is an implicit motivator and remember, balance is longevity, so you need your players to have long-term motivation.

[To be continued…]

Balance of Power II

Tank Beats Everything

Even in the case where an element cannot be limited by role, it can be limited by availability.  Sometimes the Player should feel overpowered, either as a reward for a good player or as a temporary boost for an average player.  A game that is nothing but a relentless competence test can become monotonous, especially once a player has reached the limits of their physical ability to get better.  Giving them an occassional taste of unmitigated power relieves the pressure to perform and is an excellent palate cleanser.  An element that is fun and fulfills a player aspiration but can’t be limited to a single role is an excellent candidate for this experience.

No mana?  No problem!

Take that, Rock, Paper and Scissors

A successful transition from “balanced” to “overpowered” usually requires some changes, though.  It needs to be exaggerated so the sounds, effects, even the fiction, match the new power level.  It should become a featured element on a single level or two, the player should feel special for getting to use it, and the enemy resistance should be ratched up as well to highlight how strong they have become.  The element should also be made as modal as possible, so the player knows when the “overpowered” experience begins and it is clear when it is supposed to end and resume normal gameplay.

In a Corner

Let’s say an overpowered element doesn’t fit in any of these categories.  It isn’t just a perceived imbalance, the other elements can’t be strengthened to an equivalent power level, the role can’t be limited or enforced, and it isn’t appropriate for an over-the-top set piece.  If nothing else can be done, it has to be weakened somehow, right?  Let me tell you about The Needler

The Needler is a weapon from the Halo series.  It fires a stream of neon pink projectiles that actively track enemy targets.  On impact, each needle embeds itself into armor or flesh, remaining there for a few seconds before detonating and causing further damage.  If a character ever has more than 5-6 needles attached at any given time, they all explode in a particularly lethal chain-reaction known as the “Pink Mist”.  It first appeared in Halo 1 and was the bane of my existence for 10+ years because it was incredibly fun to use, but equally impossible to balance.

Like this, only a couple feet lower

I feel a headache coming on

It would start out too powerful, so we would weaken it.  Which would make it useless, so we would change the mechanics.  Which would make it effective in too many situations, so we would limit its placement.  We ended up drastically weakening it right before we shipped to prevent it from wrecking the game.  Three times!  The amount of effort, thought, debate, programming and art resources, playtesting surveys, data analysis and sleepless nights that were poured into the Needler far outpace any four other weapons combined.

So, even if an element cannot be balanced in any other way, the answer is still not to weaken it, but to cut it completely.  It is too difficult to weaken an element without destroying what made it fun in the first place, and the end results won’t be worth the hassle.  It’s best to just save it for another game where it will fit without compromise.

Balance of Power

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another”

-Proverbs 27:17  [ESV]

“The whats-it is too powerful.”  It could be a weapon, an RTS unit, a character in a fighting game, a multiplayer class… it doesn’t matter because all chronic balance problems follow the same general pattern.  The game starts to revolve around a single dominant element, which is inherently overpowered and reduces the game’s strategic complexity, ultimately limiting its longevity.  Nobody notices when a single element is too weak, because they just avoid it.  And nobody complains when a dominant element increases strategic complexity, because that makes the game better and more fun.  And a simple problem, like a damage value that is just set too high, usually has a simple solution that is quickly applied.  But for chronic, fundamental balance problems, the designer is repeatedly faced with the same decision.  Should the dominant element be weakened for the sake of balance?  (Hint:  The correct answer is always “NO!”)

Perception is Reality

First, it is important to recognize that the only “balance” that matters is the balance that players perceive.  The goal of balance is longevity, and if players continue to play because they believe the game is fair, it doesn’t matter if it is objectively balanced in some measurable sense.  In fact, if a large enough community perceives the game to be balanced, but your metrics claim it isn’t, then the metrics are wrong.

Nice Gear

Sometimes power is deceptive

So often the problem isn’t that an element is too powerful, but that it feels too powerful.  Maybe its a gun with a really great firing sound.  Or a new unit that players haven’t figured out how to counter yet.  Or perhaps it appeals more to skilled players or everyone is using it because it is new and novel.  These problems usually fix themselves if they are left alone.  I changed the perception of an “overpowered” weapon during Halo’s development just by announcing that I had fixed it (even though I hadn’t actually changed anything.)

The Tooth Fairy is Overpowered

In almost every case, there is no such thing as an “overpowered” element; there are well-tuned elements in a crowd of underpowered, ill-tuned alternatives.  The Sniper class is implemented and all of the sudden you can’t take three steps without being headshot from across the map.  The problem is not that the Sniper is strong, but that the Medic and the Engineer are weak.  It’s easier to make a potent Sniper, so it immediately outclasses the rest.  Instead of spending time figuring out how to cripple the Sniper, focus on making the other classes equally awesome.  Or better yet, ditch the ones that will never feel as powerful as the Sniper and choose different classes that have their own natural strengths.

Get it?  Because neither one exists!

His only weakness is his terrible agent

 

Too Powerful, or All-Powerful?

In the paper design balance pass, every element should have been given a role to fill.  Sometimes an element breaks the balance by breaking its designated role.  An anti-vehicle missile that can be used against a crowd of infantry.  A “glass cannon” that can hold his own in a melee fight.  A long-distance weapon that is just as effective at point-blank range.  The solution in this case is not to weaken the element, but to restrict it so that its strength cannot be applied in as many situations.

Often it takes ingenuity to limit a weapon without weakening it, but it isn’t as difficult as it might seem initially.  A global weakness will affect the player in every situation, so a heavy-handed global weakness will be a constant irritation.  But a specific limitation will only be felt when an element is being used outside its role, which a player can learn to avoid, eliminating the annoyance entirely.  Nobody complains that their fancy sports car doesn’t work underwater, they just stay on the bridge.

[Continued in Balance of Power II]