GDC 2010: Design in Detail XIV

If you were disciplined in writing your paper design, and stayed firm while doing setting up the rough balance, this stage should be very rewarding and exciting.  If not, it is going to be disappointing and frustrating.

The timing for this stage is tricky.  If you start too early, your balance changes will be swallowed up by the churn of new features coming online.  If you wait too long, the rough balance will become entrenched and the team will object to changes.  Generally, this coincides with a “First Playable” build where everything is at least in the game and functioning.

It’s crucially important to communicate this new phase to the rest of the team, so they know what to expect and understand that now is the time for them to give the feedback they have been patiently waiting to deliver. One way to do that is to implement a controlled opportunity for them to play the latest build and provide their feedback in a structured format.  Make sure you tell them what you are currently working on, so their responses will be relevant, but don’t tell them exactly what has changed or you may bias their opinions.

So how do you balance a Sniper Rifle? It is not by adding weaknesses!  Don’t undo the work you did in making it powerful!  Balance it by narrowing its role through limitations.

The best way to detect which elements need to be limited is by watching for the game to become predictable.  If the same strategy is being used in a variety of different situations, to the point where players are no longer required to think about which strategy to choose, it means an element is too useful outside of its designated role.  If the Sniper Rifle is not only the best weapon at long range, but players are carrying it indoors and using it against vehicles, it needs to be constrained.  Give it some time first, because the playtesters might just not have figured out the new balance yet, but if it is consistent for a few tests, start looking for ways to limit the dominant element.

On the other hand, if the game is completely unpredictable, it is a sign that the elements are not effective enough at their roles.  A truly random strategy should never be as good as intentionally selecting an element that is strong in the desired role.  It may also be a symptom of a role going unfulfilled.  If there is no Sniper Rifle, the Shotgun and the SMG are equally terrible at long range combat, so it doesn’t matter which one you choose.


GDC 2010: Design in Detail XIII

Certain things about the Sniper Rifle make it strong. (Here are a few of them, for reference.) Just like with the Fun Knobs, you want to know what makes something strong, so you can avoid backtracking. Once you move on to the polish stage, resist changing the strength of an element. (At least without admitting that you are doing it, and reflecting in the schedule.)

Don’t do half measures, if you find something that works, CRANK IT! This is especially true of power. Make everything overpowered without fear! To paraphrase The Incredibles… If everything is overpowered, nothing is.

This is the most important slide in the entire talk! It’s so easy to understand, and so difficult to stick to without wavering.

So at this point, the Flow Knobs are set, The Power Knobs are set… It’s time to flatten the rest! Eliminate the chaos and noise, put your design through the cleansing fire and get rid of all the extraneous detail. This stage takes discipline, it is the point at which you must stop adding new ideas, and start closing out the design. Luckily, if you set a determined course, you will find yourself with plenty of time at the end to add all the fine detail and polish that you want.

Assuming you are working on a game that has both single and multiplayer, you should balance for multiplayer first. Multiplayer balance is very unforgiving, live opponents will exploit any loopholes. The AI in singleplayer are a lot more flexible and malleable, so the balance doesn’t need to be as precise.

Against Iterative Design

“We practice iterative design”  You hear it in virtually every studio profile, every GDC design lecture, and it’s a buzzword game journalists equate with exceptional game design and a high level of polish.  Apparently there is a magic formula for making good games, and it goes something like this.

  1. Start with a fun game
  2. Make a tiny change (usually after exhaustive debate)
  3. Playtest extensively to see if those changes made the game better
  4. If they did, keep them; if not, change them back
  5. Repeat until your publisher makes you ship

It’s a pretty straightforward process, anyone can understand it and imagine executing on it.  Acceptance of this model leads to some pretty obvious ways to improve your design skills, too.  Make smarter changes.  Iterate faster.  Find better test metrics.  Take more time.  And now we know why Valve and Blizzard make better games than anyone else, right?  They take more time discussing changes, they have better tools for iteration, they playtest more than anyone, and of course, they ship when they are ready.  And it’s true, to some extent; a game that went through several rounds of polish will be better than one that didn’t.  But if you adopt iterative design as your primary design philosophy you will be doomed to making mediocre clones of better games…

First, let’s examine iterative design applied to other creative forms.  Want to write the next great novel?  Start with a book you really enjoy, like “The Count of Monte Cristo” and start iterating!  Pick a random chapter, change a crucial detail, and then read the whole book again and see if it is better.  Clowns are funny – let’s make Dantès a traveling circus performer instead of a sailor.  Over the course of 1400 pages, assessing that change is virtually impossible, except that the occasional clown-lover might comment on it.  Although no one change will be measurably worse, by the time enough alterations are made to create a substantively different novel, it will be an incomprehensible mess.

What a Dumas!

Pourquoi cet air si sérieux?

Let’s take a look at a concrete example of how iterative design can fail, specifically in determining the number of weapons the player can carry in a shooter.  In Wolfenstein 3d, the player could carry 6 weapons.  In order to improve this, an iterative designer would try playing through with 5 weapons and with 7 weapons.  Clearly, 7 weapons is better than 5 because the player has more choices.  So then the designer would try 8 weapons, which would also test better because “more” always tests better.  At some point, the designer would probably decide the gains from adding an additional weapon no longer justified the expense, and the game would ship with the player carrying 25 weapons at all times.  The iterative designer would never arrive at the solution introduced in Halo and adopted by virtually every shooter since, of reducing the number of weapons the player can carry, because the benefits of that system are not apparent until you reach 2-3.  In mathematics, this technique is known as hill climbing and it can only be used to find a local maximum because it cannot cross gaps to reliably find the global maximum.  Every designer knows that a game is never fun at first, so it is likely that even a good change is going to feel like a bad one for a short period of time, and an iterative process will reverse course too early.

Finally, a use for a math degree!

You can't get there from here...

The main reason that the iterative process is a siren song is implicit in Step One, “Start with a fun game.”  How can anything dramatically new be created if you are only allowed to start with something that is already successful?  If you something is already fun, stop iterating on it and work on the parts that aren’t fun.  And if something isn’t fun, the iterative process won’t get you there.  In the end, iteration is a polishing technique, not a generative one.

GDC 2010: Design in Detail XII

Notice that these guys are getting stronger and stronger as we go?

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.

If you design by committee, you end up like these guys.

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]