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 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.
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…]
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…]