GDC 2010: Design in Detail XI


So how do you recognize strength when you see it? How can you train yourself to appreciate strength?


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.


This guy is really good at Halo…


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.

GDC 2010: Design in Detail IX


Ok, now you have a flowing Sniper Rifle and all the other weapons are fun by themselves. How do you put them together?


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.


During this pass, you are balancing strength.


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…]

GDC 2010: Design in Detail II


In order to develop a sense of balance, you need to understand how your brain works. You have an Orbito-Frontal Cortex; It’s called that because it is located behind your eyes, but it’s really your Gut.  When you learn something new, it goes through a process where it builds a model of the world and makes predictions about that model.  If it is right, it releases Dopamine, which cements the model a little bit.

If you are a designer, you need to familiarize yourself with how this process feels, because your ultimate goal should be to get the game inside your head.  You want the model in your gut and the game in the world to be the same.  You should be able to predict how the game will play in a given situation before actually picking up the controller.


Ok, back to Halo 2.  We had to patch, even though we didn’t want to.  Patches are risky and expensive.  Luckily we had network bugs, so we were going to have to patch anyway.  (I’m not sure we would have gotten to patch Halo 2 strictly for balance changes; I’m glad we didn’t find out.)

Choosing what to patch was harder.  You want to tweak everything, but you can’t because then testing gets out of hand.  Games that have the ability to easily change the gameplay often over-patch fopr precisely this reason.

Choosing what NOT to patch was hardest.  We didn’t change the Sniper Rifle because it was right below the line of what we could safely re-balance

Which brings me to my final theme:  Make the hard choices.  Balancing is hard because it requires you to do things you don’t want to.  And it is tricky because there are so many ways to confuse or talk yourself out doing it properly.  But the worst thing you can do is leave the decision up to chance because you can’t make a tough call.


Why are these choices hard?  Again, the answer is your brain.  You also have a Pre-Frontal Cortex.  It’s called that because… Who knows?  We call it your brain.

It is a poor tool, but it’s what we have.  You can’t reason out everything, in fact you can’t reason out very much at all.  There are so many ways that your logical mind has to trick you.  You must confine yourself to reason on the detail scale.  You just can’t hold enough factual information in your brain to make rational decisions about very complex situations.


Radiolab is a great show on New York Public Radio.  They have a podcast, you should subscribe!  In an episode called “Choice” they describe this experiment where psychologists give people a number to memorize, 2 digits to 10 digits.  Then they send them to another room to repeat their number.  On the way, they have someone interrupt them (All good psychological tests are about fooling the subjects) and ask them if they want an Apple or some Cake.

The people with short numbers pick Apples at a high rate; Apples are better for you, fewer calories, watch your waistline.  Those trying to remember longer numbers more often choose Cake.  They are so busy with numbers, they make the decision emotionally.

That’s right, 7-10 numbers are enough to completely fill your rational brain!  My high school calculator had more horsepower than that!

So when you have to think rationally, think about details or you will get hopelessly lost.  And fat.


Ok, here are the four themes of my talk:
– Balance is longevity
– Balance in passes
– Develop your sense of balance
– Make the hard choices

I am going to use these themes to explore the Detail.  Now let’s get to the Sniper Rifle!

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GDC 2010: Design in Detail


Ok, so when I gave this talk at GDC I didn’t have time to finish, even though I was talking very fast.  I did better when I gave it at Blizzard, until my voice ran out and I could barely speak.  So I probably should have cut some ideas out and saved them for this year.

I do see the irony of failing to trim a talk that advices designers to drastically reduce the scope of their game as early as possible.  But to me, the value of GDC has always been that it makes me think about my own problems from a different perspective and inspires new ideas as I listen.  So I wanted to cram as much idea-fodder into the talk as possible, not produce a fluid, polished experience.


I did not make the call on the Pistol, I didn’t even know about that call, it was made directly to the cache file after everything was supposed to be locked down, in fact… but I’m not bitter about it.  I did decide to give the BR some spread, which has been the topic of much debate.  Luckily Reach has been even more controversial, so nobody remembers it anymore.  It’s interesting that every single Halo game has had major controversy over the MP starting weapon, I bet you could write an interesting talk about that.


In 2009 I was at the Art Institute of Chicago visiting my family.  (I grew up in and around Chicago.)  I saw one of the most famous paintings of all time and took a picture of it with my phone.  I actually did have the idea for this talk at exactly that moment, at least vaguely.  Any guesses as to the painting?


It’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grhand Zhot” by Zhorzh Soo-rah (I really wanted to pronounce his name right…heh)  This painting inspired my talk (and its very long title)  Still don’t recognize it?  Here it is from a little farther back.


(I showed you the part in the lower right by the monkey)
This painting isn’t famous for how it looks, or what it shows, but how it was made.


Seurat lived in the 1800’s.  He was very interested in how we perceive color.  Scientists were just discovering that what we see as one color is actually a mixture of different colored light.  To demonstrate this fact, he invented Pointillism, the artistic process of using tiny dots of basic colors to produce an image.  The same way your printer does.

There is a really great play called Sunday in the Park with George that I recommend you see if you are interested in learning more.  You can skip the final act, though.

So I started thinking…  What happens if we take Halo 3 and break it into it’s tiny details…


And analyze just one of them.  Take one tiny Decision, and explore it exhaustively.  Specifically, the time between shots for the sniper rifle.  (I had a lot of fun putting together the pictures for this slide deck.  I never tried to pointilize a screenshot before.)


So here is the actual title of my talk.

If you have been to GDC, you know that most of the talks are too broad to be really interesting.  It doesn’t get much more specific than this!  (Of course, I took this narrow topic and used it to explore lots of subjects and theories, but still…)


My opinions may not represent Bungie management.  In fact, I know they don’t.  (If I only knew the irony of that statement at the time!)  My opinions may not represent reality; this is the past as I remember it, but as we will find out, brains are not reliable.  All examples, even negative ones, are from good games.  I tried to pick on games that everyone knows are great, to avoid controversy.

This talk was really hard to write! Really hard. The more specific the topic, the more there is to say.  It ballooned to almost 300 slides, editing took forever (and it turns out I still didn’t edit it down enough!)


First, some context from Halo 2.


Halo 2 wasn’t just popular, it was popular for years and the Sniper Rifle remained balanced the whole time.  It never needed to be changed, limited, banned, it was still fun.

This can give us a practical definition of Balance:  Balance is Longevity.


(X= 3, I told them my talk would appeal to Engineers!)

Balancing an equation is a process.  But game balance is a state that either exists or it doesn’t.


The 4th rule of Jenga makes it clear (say it with me):

4. Your turn ends 10 seconds after you stack your block

It isn’t balanced unless it lasts.  (I bet you didn’t expect to see a Jenga reference!)


There have been other talks about Halo 2’s crunch; I’m not going to re-hash them.  My really quick personal post-mortem:  Don’t set yourself up to try and fix bugs in the Tutorial and balance the Weapons at the same time, It’s not going to work.  At least not without wrecking your personal life.

Production is always worried about a repeat.  (As you can tell during this talk, Production and I have a love-hate thing going.  It is mostly a joke, but Deisgn and Production have very different goals and the game is only going to work if they cooperate.)  They were always asking me when I am going to be done, so I invented the Balancer’s Paradox.

Balancer’s Paradox
– I can’t balance the Sniper Rifle damage until we set the Player’s health
– I can’t balance the player’s health until we know the engagement distance
– I can’t balance the engagement distance until we set the Sniper Rifle damage.

But after using this for awhile, I actually had to invent a solution…  Balance in passes.  The Sniper Rifle always has to be balanced! You could ship at any time!  So you keep it balanced all the time.  But there’s balanced, and then there’s balanced…


At the end of each pass, the game is balanced to a certain level.  Once a game is balanced to that level, do not backtrack.  Basically, what this means is that if you have balanced the strength of a game element, don’t make it weaker in order to limit the roles of that element.  Unless you have to, of course, in whic case it will impact the schedule so you need to let Production know.

Halo 3’s Balance Passes are listed here.  I think they would work for most games.  They match with stages of game development and I’ll go over them in more detail later.


Remember: Balance is Longevity.  And we could tell by playing it that it wasn’t going to last.  We all had the same feeling and we didn’t really doubt it.  But how did we know?  We had developed our sense of balance.


In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell lays out his 10,000 hour rule.  This makes me the world’s only expert in trying to balance the Halo Sniper Rifle.  Sort of a narrow expertise, I admit.

Niels Bohr offers this definition of an expert.  This also makes me the world’s foremost expert in trying to balance the Halo Sniper Rifle (and in Driving too Fast for Conditions.)

But what are time and mistakes? They are just experience.  So why is experience so much more important to being an expert than training, knowledge or talent?  Because of how your brain works.

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