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.
The gradual reduction in sensitivity to a repeated stimulus
I got my teeth professionally cleaned this morning. (One cavity, apparently I need to floss more.) Now I cannot stop running my tongue back and forth over the newly polished enamel. When I woke up today, my teeth were the farthest thing from my mind, unnoticeably insignificant. But now I am obsessively, subconsciously, exhaustively exploring every crevice and gap. This is a side-effect of a neural process called habituation. As a stimulus (like “I have teeth”) is repeated, the electrical and chemical impact of the experience physically decreases to the point where it drops out of conscious thought, and then subconscious awareness, and eventually it is not felt at all.
As a human, this is a very good thing. Imagine trying to have a conversation while consciously aware of the sound of your own heart pumping, the movement of your lungs breathing in and out, every blink interrupting your train of thought, unable to stop noticing the pressure of the chair into your back or ignore the ambient noise of other conversations. It would be impossible to function. Habituation allows you tune out the vast majority of unimportant details and focus on what is new and interesting, like how smooth your molars have become. It’s a miraculously efficient process that allows our embarrassingly under-powered brains to filter enormous amounts of sensory information.
As a player, habituation is what allows us to learn to play a game and subsequently master it. Our ability to predict future events based on current conditions is inseparably dependent on our habituation to past events. A chess master learns to ignore the thousands of poor, but still possible, potential moves and consider only the strategically significant ones. A skilled Halo player moves through a multiplayer map without thinking about it, using all of his attention to scan for his opponents. When Mario reaches the edge of a ledge, pressing the “A” button always makes him jump. If chess pieces could move randomly, or a Halo map suddenly had a dead-end instead of a corridor, or the “A” button threw a fireball, the player would be unable to play the game effectively.
But as a game designer, habituation is your mortal enemy. A tireless, inexhaustible foe, mindlessly obviating the best efforts of your craft, which you can only hope to delay, but never defeat. Fun gameplay is an interactive experience, and habituation inevitably reduces every experience to meaningless static. To some extent, the purpose of every design trick and tactic is to disrupt habituation, to resensetize players to the fun experience and help them continue to enjoy the game. We are hacking our own mental hardware, making it less-efficient.
The truly nefarious nature of this enemy lies in how sneaks into the design process itself. Designers can learn to ignore glaring problems that would annoy or aggravate a new player. Or they can overlook logical loopholes that will wreck the game balance because they are familiar with how the game is “supposed” to be played. Or they might wrongly believe an element has been properly tuned because they are no longer sensitive to the effect it has on gameplay. Understanding and controlling habituation, both their player’s and their own, is a crucial design skill.