I actually got this bug. Not only is it balance feedback presented with the authority of a bug report, it’s so incredibly early in the process, there is no way to know if the Sniper Rifle was balanced or not, since most of the game didn’t even work! Ideally, production would help shield a designer from this kind of inappropriate feedback, but in all likelihood they are the ones filing it in the first place. [Pause for laugh]
Remember, you are getting paid to be the designer, it is your duty to use your best judgment and not swing back and forth based on the latest feedback, especially at this early stage. Hopefully the team will understand that and you will get to see it through.
The quality of seeming to be true, of resembling reality
Why is Wii Bowling like a Hemingway novel? (Beside the fact that they are each made better by adding alcohol.) They both benefit from the effects of verisimilitude. Authentic characters and believable dialog enhance the reader’s engagement in a story; they do not call attention to the fact that they are fictitious by violating our expectations about what might really happen. In the same way, the way the player’s movement in Wii Bowling matches the form and timing of real bowling avoids the awkward break with reality many people feel when playing video games.
Verisimilitude is important for many aspects of game design. Poorly tuned physics systems, bone-headed AI behaviors, inaccurate collision tests, unrealistic lighting, and scores of other common problems all result in a game feeling “off” or “fake”. That is why players can complain about an “unrealistic” space marine pulse rifle; even though no such thing actually exists, they have an intuition of what it would be like if it did exist.
However, nowhere is a lack of verisimilitude felt more strongly than in poorly designed controls. If an in-game action clashes with the input method to which it is mapped, it will always break the player’s flow and they will never be comfortable with the controls. Ideally, when the player is engaged with a game, the controller fades into the background and they are no longer aware of it, but an awkward or discordant control scheme is a constant reminder that they are playing a game. Here are some guidelines to avoid mismatched mappings:
The duration of an input should match the duration of the action. If a single button press is mapped to a melee attack, the animation for the attack needs to be short and responsive, just like the button press. If the animation needs to be longer, it should require several presses, or a press and hold, that takes roughly the same amount of time for the player to execute. Rapidly tapping a button during a grapple is a bit cliché, but it works because it extends the duration of the input to match the onscreen action.
Do not map discrete actions to analog inputs. A game where the player initiates a melee attack with the throw on a thumbstick is using an analog input (the range of motion of the thumbstick) to trigger a discrete action (punching a Triad thug in the face) which makes the player feel detached and removed from the action. This is often described as “soft” or “unresponsive”.
Do not map unrelated actions to integrated inputs. The D-Pad is not a set of four buttons, no matter how many games treat it as such. It physically represents four cardinal directions, and it is virtually impossible for a player to get comfortable with treating them separately. In the same way, a thumbstick is not a an arbitrary number of discrete buttons arrayed in a circle, and using them that way will prevent most players from engaging completely.
Do not use two-step inputs for single-step actions. The easiest way to add inputs to the controller is to use chords, two buttons pressed at the same time. This works great for “zoom” and then “shoot” because it is a two-step action, but is jarring when used for actions that appear to happen all at once.
If an action cannot be mapped to the controller, it should be cut. This is the hardest rule, but the most important. Some actions conflict with one another on a fundamental level, and though it may be tempting to cram them both on the controller, the game will suffer for it. It’s better to have a single action that players can execute confidently and competently than multiple actions that are confusing and cluttered.
The first way to develop a sense for strength is to change the balance constantly. People hate it because it resets their competence, but it will prevent them from optimizing their skills and their strategies. One theory about Beginner’s Luck is that when you first attempt a new skill your brain is very engaged and thinks the entire action through very carefully. On subsequent tries, your brian gets lazy and tries to take shortcuts, so you are more likely to be successful on your first try than on subsequent tries. Also, development is hard, and deadlines are approaching, so the temptation is to lock things down as soon as possible. Resist temptation and keep the balance changing until you find the true strength of the game elements.
As you strengthen an element, the other elements become relatively weaker. After a pass through the elements, you will find that the first one can no longer compete, and must be strengthened again. Keep doing this until all the elements feel powerful.
Pro-players often complain that “The guys making decisions suck at their own game” and it’s true! I’ll admit that I’m not very good at Halo. I’ll even claim that I’m not good on purpose! The problem is that the dopamine released for being a good player is the same as the chemical reward for being a good game designer. Since you can’t tell the difference, you may mistake the thrill of winning for the satisfaction of balancing the game. You should always feel like you are learning about your game, and if you start to feel like you have mastered it you need to change something so you aren’t good again.
You must acknowledge your own tendency to optimize and ignore problems once they have become familiar. Don’t work on the same element for too long, don’t become comfortable. If something feels so familiar you stop noticing it, change it.
At the same time, if something is right, if it is just perfect and you don’t want to lose it, you need to play it so much that it becomes part of you. I can still, after years and years, drive a new Warthog and tell you if it is tuned correctly or not. I’m known in the Animation Pit as “Three Frames” Griesemer, because if they added a single extra frame to a Halo melee attack I could tell immediately. You need to hone your sensitivity by playing with a finely tuned element over and over until it is ingrained in your muscle memory.
Achievements (and other platform reward structures like Trophies) satisfy a very important human need for validation. We want social approval and an “official” recognition of our accomplishments is valuable to us, it endorses our decisions and allows us to believe that we make a worthwhile contribution to our community. Achievement points may not have material value, but they are not meaningless. Denigrating them as “epeen” mischaracterizes the near universal human aspiration they fulfill.
A Great Achievement
Xbox Achievements are particularly well designed as reinforcing rewards. They can be Expected. Even before a game is on the shelves, the list of Achievements is available on the internet. If a player meets the requirements, the Achievement is given and the points are awarded. There is no random chance, no potential for missing out. That is why the current trend is to award all the Achievement points over the course of a campaign, where every player can get them, instead of in multiplayer or for defeating exceptional challenges. Any uncertainty in earning Achievements might drive players to another game that hands them out more reliably.
Achievements are Efficient. Especially with a new game when the easy ones are available. The more time spent with a game, however, the harder the remaining achievements become. At some point, it is going to be more efficient to abandon the current game and buy another one for the easy points. Even a game that is worth playing to completion must eventually run out of its allotted 1000 points and stop meeting the need served by Achievements.
Achievements are Essential, are even required as part of the certification process. It would be unthinkable to ship an Xbox game without them. And they have become such a fundamental aspect of gaming that a momentous event in a game doesn’t seem that important without Achievements attached.
Achievements are Exclusive. The platform holder is the only source; they cannot be found anywhere else. They can’t even be liquidated and taken to another platform. They are unlimited, new points can be added at no cost to the platform holder, but maintain value because there are unbreakable rules about how they are handed out.
Exploit, Embrace or Eclipse
In so many ways, Achievements are the ultimate reward for investment… and that is the problem. The reason so many developers are uncomfortable with Achievements is because they know that nothing confined to a single game can compete with a permanent, global, visible Achievement system. The need for public validation has replaced whatever aspirations their game was meeting, and now their game and the rewards it offers are the extrinsic, separable part. In light of this understanding, there are three possible responses for game developers.
Achievements are a powerful motive force, and they are available to every game on the platform. It is tempting to exploit their power, to offer players 1000 effortless points and make a quick sale. How many games have sold more copies than they deserved because reviews cited “easy Achievements”? A cynical path, but so is putting out a stream of cheap sequels to a poorly made licensed game.
The most common choice is to embrace Achievements and try to use them to help players enjoy the game. Doling them out at a reasonable rate, so the player reaches 1000 points at about the same time they have seen all the game’s content. Avoiding situations where the drive to earn Achievements would clash with the game’s other objectives. Designers learned quickly not to award points for betraying your teammates or leaving your Xbox in matchmaking for 24 hours straight. Approached in this way, Achievements can bring players in and drive them through the game’s content, but they will inevitably be swept on by that same powerful tide.
The final, most difficult option is to accept that players enter your game looking for Achievements, and then offer them something better. Meet a different need than validation. Or form a community around your game that is so tightly bound up together that the connections it provides are more significant and personal than the vague validation of a high Gamer Score. Eclipsing Achievements is difficult and time-consuming, but the result is a loyal and evangelical community.
In his excellent, exhaustive (though ultimately inconclusive) GDC 2010 lecture “Achievements Considered Harmful?” Chris Hecker raises the issue of extrinsic rewards, specifically platform achievements/trophies, and asks whether they might be having a negative effect on the industry as a whole. (Chris is sort of the unofficial conference gadfly and often uses his talks to generate further debate.) After an overview of the current backlash against behavioral psychology, he explains that while the literature is extensive and often contradictory, most researchers agree that “for interesting tasks, tangible, expected, contingent rewards reduce free-choice intrinsic motivation.”
Since “fun” seems like an intrinsic motivation, he warns of a “nightmare scenario” where Achievements and other extrinsic rewards are added to a game that is already fun, destroying the intrinsic motivation of the player while simultaneously pushing designers to add even more extrinsic rewards like digital drug dealers until every game becomes a Skinner Box.
Of course, Chris acknowledges that more research must be done to determine the likelihood of this “worse case” outcome, and ends his lecture with a call for more psychological investigation into gaming and gamers. I propose that the situation is less dire, but that Achievements are potentially threatening for a completely different reason than the ones Chris suggests.
First, let’s take a look at one of the classic psychology experiments performed by Edward Deci as far back as 1969 that demonstrated how extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic ones. Two groups of test subjects participants were asked solve puzzles (called Soma Cubes) on three consecutive days. The first day, each group was asked to solve three puzzles in an attempt to instill an intrinsic motivation by showing that the puzzles were fun because they fulfilled the need to demonstrate competence, especially in front of a judgmental audience of scientists.
On the second day, one of the groups was paid a few dollars for each puzzle they completed, adding an extrinsic motivation for them, but not for the unpaid group. At this point, the need to look smart and competent was replaced for the paid group by a much more powerful need for financial gain.
On the final day, neither group was paid to solve puzzles. The participants that had never been paid worked just as hard as previous days, their need for competence was still being met, but the group that had been paid was now unmotivated and quickly abandoned the puzzles. Their need for financial gain was no longer being met, and their natural tendency to avoid losses made the puzzles seem pointless.
Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Rewards
Part of the difficulty of interpreting the results of this experiment lies in understanding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic. Especially since extrinsic seems to carry negative connotations. Extrinsic does not mean “external to the player,” all needs are met by an external good. Extrinsic doesn’t mean “materially beneficial or useful,” almost every need is directed at accomplishing some goal. Extrinsic certainly does not mean “bribery” or “added with an immoral ulterior motive,” all rewards are intended to meet needs more effectively, and there is nothing selfish about achieving an aspiration.
An extrinsic reward is simply one that is “separable” or “nor part of the essential nature” of the activity used to obtain it. Since making money isn’t an inseparable aspect of solving a puzzle, it can be removed and suddenly puzzle-solving fails to meet the money-making need. At some point, parents will stop buying their children pizza for reading books, because pizza is not part of the essential nature of reading. This lack of reliability is the true source of the demotivating effect. And it is made worse when a reward appears to be intrinsic because it is “tangible, expected, and contingent” but is ultimately extrinsic and unreliable.
Every single Xbox 360 game is required to have Achievements. They are inseparable from the activity of playing Xbox games. Achievements are no longer an extrinsic reward, they are part of the essential nature of console gaming. (And increasingly part of PC and mobile gaming, as well.) This means that even Chris’ nightmare scenario avoids the demotivating effects described in the psychological research. If a player’s needs are met by demonstrating competence, gaming will continue to be appealing. And if their needs are met by collecting and investing in Achievements, gaming will continue to be appealing because we have an unlimited number of Achievement points to distribute.
Well… actually, Microsoft, Sony and the other platform holders have an infinite number of Achievements to dispense, and that is the real nightmare scenario for game developers…
Now that we have seen how games meet a player’s needs through gratification and rewards, how can a game be improved to do a better job of meeting those aspirations and therefore appeal to more players? There are four aspects of how a need is met that make it more likely.
Would you rather have $50 dollars or a 50-50 chance at winning $100? Study after study confirms that humans are pre-disposed toward the “safe bet.” In fact, the most famous studies show that people will choose a more certain payout over a chance at a much a larger payout, which is why this tendency is called the Certainty Bias. Players, being mostly humans, will prefer games where they have an expectation of meeting a need, rather than just the possibility of it. So, a singleplayer campaign is a better place to meet the need to demonstrate competence because the AI enemies are guaranteed to eventually take a dive and let the player win. (At least in a well-designed game, they will.) However, success in multiplayer is always uncertain, and so it is less appealing to players looking to demonstrate competence. If a designer knows which need their game is intended to satisfy, it is often possible to make those rewards more certain without cheapening them.
The human brain is a fantastically efficient decision-making instrument, capable of analyzing complex models of the world and making subtle strategic decisions, all while using less energy than an average low-watt light source. (Which is why you should take “dim bulb” as a compliment to your biological optimization.) We will always prefer activities that fulfill the most needs for the least effort, known in psychology as “laziness.” The processed sugar in a few M&Ms provides as many calories as a double-handful of broccoli, and we all know which one our taste buds tell us is better for us. Players evaluate games in the same way. If two games both satisfy the need to defeat a human opponent, but I am already good at one of them, I’m probably not going to sacrifice efficiency by trying out the new game. Which leads to a small number of franchises dominating the multiplayer community, with new games getting little or no traction. If a designer understands which aspiration they are fulfilling, they can make their game more efficient at it than their competition.
The current vogue in behavioral psychology is to rail against the dangers of extrinsic motivation. The primary argument is that if an activity is interesting on its own, encouraging the activity by adding an extrinsic reward actually decreases the activity’s intrinsic value, so maybe designers should stop reflexively dumping achievements and trophies and levels and loot into every game. Since games cater to aspirations, not physical needs, and since they are exotelic activities without a concrete result, it is nearly impossible to determine the difference between an intrinsic reward and an extrinsic one. The issue is often over-simplified as “external rewards are bad,” meaning external to the player themselves, but since all needs involve an external good paired with an internal lack, every reward is cast in a suspicious light.For the purposes of this discussion, however, we can sidestep the issue entirely by appealing to practical concerns about schedule. If a game is fun early in production, it is meeting some need through its essential gameplay, the core of the experience. Rather than add non-essential systems and rewards (incurring non-essential costs and delays) it is a better production decision to focus on improving those essential activates. Any motivation caused by an essential activity can be assumed to be intrinsic to the game and therefore safe from demotivating side-effects.
The absolute best way to meet the player’s needs better than the competition is to not have any competition! Find a need that is going completely ignored by the market, and then craft a game specifically targeted at that aspiration. Admittedly, this a risky and difficult proposition, but nearly every major gaming franchise has been successful because they created a new audience by fulfilling an unmet need. If you are fortunate enough to be working on a game like this, it is even more important to understand the unspoken desire you are fulfilling and hone your game to be even more effective, or some other developer will.
Eventually, I’ll have to supplement this self-indulgent experiment with a real job. (Turns out retirement isn’t actually that exciting.) And when I do, I’d like to be able to continue writing about game design, which means I need to make this site a little more manageable. To that end, I made some changes to the format:
- Added a twitter feed, so there will be something interesting to read between substantive updates and I’ll have a more immediate way to interact with readers.
- Extended the table of contents to include the breadth of topics I would like to explore, and no more. It’s featured prominently on the new sideboard.
- Transformed my reading list links into a bibliography and updated it with what I am currently reading.
- Chose a theme that is more suited to slowly building up a large amount of content. The old theme looked nice (especially on mobile devices) but it was easy to miss updates and harder to follow the thread through multiple posts.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the new layout. Hopefully it will help me stay focused when I once again join the ranks of the gainfully employed. (Speaking of my job search, if you know of any interesting design positions (especially in the Seattle area) check my resume and drop me a note!)
The primary difference between gratification and reward is the timing of the need fulfillment. If the need is satisfied during the activity, then the player experiences gratification. If the need is satisfied as a result of the activity, the player feels rewarded. A well-designed game will satisfy the player’s needs through both methods at the same time, but many needs are more sensitive to one or the other.
The need to demonstrate competence, especially competence under low-pressure circumstances, is an aspiration best met through gratification. Because competence is theoretically achievable by every player, it feels hollow to follow a demonstration of competence with praise, loot, or some other form of reward. Successfully following instructions and getting through a tutorial hardly seems like much of an Achievement. In fact, by the time the reward is awarded, the player’s need to display competence has already been met, so the reward feels like an afterthought, the over-enthusiastic encouragement of a parent at a soccer game.
Gratification, on the other hand, happens at the moment of execution and amplifies the player’s experience of meeting their need for competence. The audible pop as an enemy’s head explodes from a headshot, the giant red number floating up after a critical strike, or even the silence of a battlefield after the final attacker is defeated, all of these enhance the moment of success. They make it more gratifying. Even activities that take virtually no skill at all, but only require the player to do an obvious, trivial task, can be made gratifying by the right sounds and visuals. In some games, the “Press Start” screen is empowering and need-fulfilling.
Some needs are better met by rewards. These can either be something the player expects and has been building toward, or an unexpected acknowledgement of something the player has achieved, but are always awarded after the activity is finished so the player can fully appreciate them. Usually it is a good idea to slow the pacing and provide a lull for them to bask in their accomplishment. Rewards generally ought to be something useful, but since they are highlighting the fact that a need has been met, they can simply be a trophy signifying that event.
Although it is very similar to demonstration of competence, the need to demonstrate excellence is better suited toward rewards than gratification. Perhaps the method that a player used to get the final kill in a multiplayer game wasn’t that special, and there is no need to add spectacle to enhance the death itself, because the real reward is a slight delay followed by the announcer saying “Team Eliminated” and the winner’s rank going up. Picking up the loot from a downed boss doesn’t need much in the way of effects and sounds because the items themselves are the rewards for an excellent display of skill. Xbox Achievements and Playstation Trophies are better used for rewards for excellence precisely because they aren’t that gratifying and feel awkward when awarded for more mundane accomplishments.
[To be continued]
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.
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…]
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?
[To be continued…]
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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]
This slide is for the Engineers. Design needs to start doing rough balancing in the middle of production, probably before you hit any kind of Code Complete milestones. Properly supporting the designers this early in the project is going to be mean violating several best practices, but we need as much time to iterate as possible.
First, we need a solid build at all times. Easy for me to say, right? But stability is important. If the build is broken it interrupts the balance process and I have to start over. And if you don’t maintain the gameplay systems the whole time, the game will not have time to get fun. It sucks, but that’s why you are working on games and not productivity software.
I know the theory is to “optimize at the end”, but it is impossible to balance a game with poor performance. Not everything has to run at a playable framerate; you can turn off lighting or textures or whatever it takes, but designers need a responsive platform on which to build. Imagine coding if you couldn’t see what you typed until two seconds after you typed it. That’s what it is like trying to tune a game with bad framerate.
For example, I have seen this in playtest after playtest. If you a level doesn’t have good lighting in a playtest build, the AI will score lower. People will think it looks stupid for some unknown reason. I don’t know why, but it shows how performance problems make it hard to balance the game.
In What the Dog Saw, Gladwell tries to figure out why there are 50 kinds of mustard, but just one kind of Ketchup. He concludes that Heinz is the best because it has all of the tastes in balanced proportions.
Heinz Ketchup has every flavor your tongue can taste. Here’s some of the ingredients: tomatoes (bitter), vinegar (sour), corn syrup (sweet), salt (uh… salt) And then you put it on french fries (umami). Every flavor is strong (ie has a high amplitude) but they are still balanced against one another.
Halo is like ketchup! It has lots of very strong elements, but since they are all strong they blend together into a balanced whole. In fact, without strength balance is much more difficult, because random factors destabilize the experience. A game with weak elements is like ketchup with weak flavors; if they become weak enough you start to taste the plastic from the bottle and the rat poop from the bottling plant.
[To be continued…]
Betting Against the Bank
A dizzying array of factors fed into the current global financial meltdown. Sub-prime mortgages, anti-market regulation, credit default swaps, a real estate bubble, global conspiracy, global warming, alien sabotage… the list is endless. But when it comes to the collapse of specific commercial institutions like Bear Sterns, it is pretty clear that short-selling accelerated or even guaranteed their failure.
A short sale (or shorting for… uh… short) is when an investor sells stock borrowed from a third-party with the intention of re-purchasing the stock and returning it at a later date. If the stock goes down during that time, the investor gets to keep the difference as profit. On the other hand, if the stock goes up they have to buy back the stock at the higher price and risk losing a great deal of money. In March 2008, Bear Sterns (a global investment bank) became strapped for cash because it had over-invested in mortgage-backed securities and the bottom fell out of the housing market. They might have been able to borrow the money to cover themselves, or at least gotten a bailout, but so many investors were short-selling Bear Sterns stock that it looked like collapse was inevitable. This self-fulfilling prophecy ended with the company being sold to JP Morgan Chase a few weeks later.
Shorting the Fun
Designers do the same thing, only instead of bringing down financial institutions, they bet against their mechanics and doom their game to mediocrity.
Take a Sniper Rifle, for instance. Long and sleek, capable of putting a bullet through the head of a distant enemy faster than they can hear the sound of it being fired. It has everything going for it. Lethality to make it feel potent. Precision to give it a high skill-ceiling. A steady cadence with plenty of anticipation; each shot counts, but a miss isn’t a disaster. Usable beyond the range of any counter-attack, even the hanging contrail it leaves behind is a testament to the thrill of each shot. A designer couldn’t ask for a more perfect example of flow.
Then why do the Sniper Rifles in so many games suck out loud? It just isn’t that hard to make a satisfying Sniper Rifle, so how do so many designers mess it up? The surprising answer is that most Sniper Rifles probably started out fun, but at some point in development a designer got nervous about game balance and began to hedge their bets. They made it less accurate, or decreased the damage, or added some weakness like an unstable crosshair or a really long reload time. They were so afraid that they wouldn’t be able to make the Sniper Rifle work with the rest of the game, they shorted it and ended up losing a great deal of potential fun.
That’s how you get a Sniper Rifle that takes three shots to kill someone. Or a tank that drives two miles an hour. Or a spell that costs so much mana your mage can never use it in a fight. Or any awesome and fun element with a crippling weakness that makes it all but useless. Designers sabotaging their own games because they lost sight of what made something worth including in the first place!
- Adding a Weakness – It may seem like the best way to balance an element that is too strong is to give it an equally large weakness, but it just doesn’t work out that way. Either the weakness will not be enough, in which case you will have an element that is still too powerful and no longer fun to use. Or it will be more than enough, in which case you will have designed an element that has a weakness as its defining feature instead of the original aspiration. I would play as the invincible ninja character, but he has taken a vow of pacifism and doesn’t have any punches or kicks.
- Creating a Counter – Another common way to address an overpowered element is to design a second element whose sole role is to counter the first. Not only is this second element probably not fun on its own merits, but everyone will be saddled with choosing an option that they secretly hope they don’t have to employ, just to prevent everyone else from choosing the fun option they desperately want. I will choose the unenjoyable anti-tank mine so that nobody else can have fun using a tank.
- The Old Switch and Bait – Many games, especially those looking for a sense of progression, will initially introduce the player to a hobbled version of an element, and then unlock the truly fun version as a reward. Of course, this ignores the fact that players usually won’t invest in a game that isn’t fun, and even if they do eventually earn the right to have fun, a vast majority of their experience will have been struggling through a crippled, unenjoyable game. If I kill 300 more rats with this blunted shovel maybe I’ll get to use a real sword!… in this game that is ostensibly about swords.
- Death of a Thousand Tweaks – Perhaps the most outwardly reasonable (and therefore the most nefarious) way of shorting fun is to make an endless series of minor changes, each one leaving the element a little less fun than it was. Slightly less accurate, a touch less damage, a little longer reload, a smidge more recoil, a fraction less range, etc. In this parody of the tuning process, the element gets gradually less fun until it is “unfun enough” to be included. The problem is that tuning is more delicate than balance, so the element will lose the qualities that made it fun long before it becomes fair. It will also leave players frustrated; if only this gun had been tuned better it would be really fun!
So, ignore the analysts and the pundits! If an element or mechanic has the tiniest spark of fun, a designer’s job is to protect and nurture it, not smother it because it might out-shine the rest of the game. No matter how tempting, there are always better options, so don’t short the fun!
So what are the alternatives to shorting the fun?
Certain settings have a lot more impact on how fun an element is than others. Usually they must be set precisely in order to maximize the player’s flow. Make sure to note these values for later so you know what you can change and what you should avoid messing with at later stages.
In general, flow knobs tend to be those that are limited in one extreme. You can’t make a sniper rifle round travel faster than “instantly”. You can’t make it more lethal than “always lethal”. Try to set these knobs to the extreme without compromising. It is tempting to hedge and compromise because you know you will have to balance their strength later, but the game will be more fun if you find another way.
[To be continued…]