Free-For-All Falls Flat

January 27, 2008 at 12:38 am (Game Balance, Game Design, Game Mechanics, PvP)

As a general rule, I don’t like free-for-all-style games (also known as “every-man-for-himself”).  In this category, I include games with more than 2 teams, even if the teams are larger than one player each.

More precisely, I don’t like the fact that they’re free-for-all; there are many individual free-for-all games that I rather enjoy, I just wish they were organized differently, and I tend to enjoy them less than other people seem to.

Like many of my gaming preferences, I imagine this is partly just due to my own individual personality, but I also think it’s partly that free-for-all games tend to suffer from several systemtic problems.

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Teetering on the Edge of Balance

January 22, 2008 at 12:17 am (Game Balance, Game Design, Philosophy)

In a previous post, The Tangled Concept of Balance, I argued that balance should be thought of as the game’s stability, or ability to maintain the shape of its gameplay under the stresses of players who are trying to win.  Actually achieving balance is hard.  Balancing a game is often a long and laborious process, requiring designers to carefully explore the large possibility space of different game strategies and search for problematic special cases.

There’s no “magic bullet” that is going to make this problem go away, but there are good design practices that can make it easier.  In this post, I’m going to discuss my favorite trick:  building in stability.

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Single-Player Co-Op

January 17, 2008 at 2:28 pm (Brainstorming, Game Design, Game Mechanics)

I recently discovered an amusing little flash game called Cursor*10, which was described to me as a “one-player cooperative game.”  Like many other games, you control several distinct avatars that work together to complete the game, but unlike most games, you control these avatars in sequence, rather than in parallel:  after playing out the entire game with the first cursor, you move on to the second, and watch as the first cursor moves around and does all the things you did with it.  The knowledge gained and supporting actions taken by earlier cursors are critical to winning the game with the later ones.

This is not the first time I’ve seen this idea, though I think it’s the first successful implementation I’ve played.  In a talk I heard about Sly Cooper 3 (previously mentioned in this post), it was revealed that they had tried to develop levels where you’d play several characters in the same area, one at a time, with each character able to watch the actions of the characters you’ve previously played as they repeated what you’d done.  Sadly, Sucker Punch was unable to keep the replays consistent–even with extensive measures to synch up the random number generators, things just wouldn’t play out the same way.

Cursor*10 barely scratches the surface of what could be done with this idea, and I’ve already heard speculation on various ways the concept could be extended, but the failed attempt of another game to incorporate this idea raises a red flag.  What steps should future games take to avoid a similar fate?

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Why I Hate Hate

January 15, 2008 at 1:28 pm (Brainstorming, Game Design, Game Mechanics) (, , , , )

There is a particular game mechanic that is now used in almost all MMORPGs (and a few other game besides) for controlling group combat.  It’s variously called “aggro,” or “threat,” or “hate,” and it’s what makes a monster attack one player rather than another.

And it’s holding the genre back.

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Simulated Skill

January 12, 2008 at 9:15 pm (Game Design, Game Mechanics) (, )

One of the indelible properties of games is that people who play them get better at them; players develop skills that allow them to play more consistently and effectively.

A more arbitrary notion is the concept of the player’s avatar becoming more “skillful,” through a convention commonly known as “experience points” (XP) or “levels.”  The idea is that, within the secondary reality of the game, the character (or other entity) controlled by the player is also practicing, learning, and growing in power, presenting the player with new or enhanced options within the game.  While most closely associated with role-playing games (RPGs), this mechanic is now pervading a wide variety of games, from shooters to puzzle games, rewarding the player’s accomplishments with additional powers, and sometimes greater options for customizing his avatar.

While initially this may seem like a nice secondary feature, easily attachable to a wide variety of games, the addition of this mechanic often substantially alters the way a game is played and balanced–not always for the better.

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Power Now, Pay Later

January 10, 2008 at 1:10 pm (Game Balance, Game Design, Game Mechanics)

Short-term advantage vs. long-term advantage:  a common strategic trade-off in games, and one that resonates with modern economic systems, based around credit and interest.  Do you make a strong move now, or position yourself for a stronger one sometime in the future?  Do you build infrastructure, or seize the low-hanging fruit?

While simple and common, this seems to be another over-used tool, applied without understanding the conditions that make it work.  There are some fairly specific preconditions to making this choice compelling, and as always, some games just don’t meet them.

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Conspicuously Absent Controls

January 8, 2008 at 6:36 pm (Game Design, User Interface)

Making good user interfaces is hard–harder than many people realize.  There are a lot of trade-offs.  How do you balance the need for an indicator to be easily visible against the other demands for screen real estate?  How does one weigh the advantage of making it easy to do something against the risk that the player will do it accidentally, with disastrous results?

Video games have come up with many creative user interface designs, which are often copied or adapated by similar games.  The pieces of a user interface become better as they’re used, because players become more familiar with them, and can use them more easily.

Yet I’m continually surprised that many games refuse to implement some simple interface improvements, even after they become widely known.  Here’s a few things that I think should be included in pretty much every game:

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The Tangled Concept of Balance

January 6, 2008 at 1:40 am (Game Balance, Game Design, Philosophy)

Game balance is one of those terms that is used frequently in discussion, but difficult to define.  Most people seem to have a general agreement about what the term means, but articulating it is problematic.  People agree that a fighting game where a particular character consistently beats another is unbalanced, based only on that one fact, but the same people will also agree that a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors is balanced even though paper has a 100% win rate against rock.  People agree there is a balance problem in a RTS game where a particular unit is too weak to justify its use in a competitive game, but see no problem in the fact that many combinations of units are too weak to ever be used effectively.  How can this be consistent?

Of course, there are also cases where people flatly disagree about what is and is not balanced.  Sometimes these are disagreements about the particulars of a game, but sometimes they seem to be disagreements about the theoretical meaning of “balanced.”  How are we to discuss game balance in such cases?

Is there even a common concept underlying all our ideas of balance?

I’ve wondered about this for a long time–years, in fact.  I’ve tried and discarded theory after theory.  At long last, I think I have a satisfactory answer.

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