Resourceful Comparisons

March 11, 2008 at 1:32 pm (Game Balance, Game Design, Game Mechanics) (, , , )

I have previously argued that a game will only be balanced if players’ capabilities are good at what they’re intended to be used for without usurping the functions of other capabilities.  In order to determine whether that’s the case, we need to consider the effectiveness (for the player) of taking each of several options in a given situation, and compare the usefulness of each.

One of the hardest parts of comparing the effectiveness of two player options–for example, turning invisible versus hurling a fireball–is often finding a common basis for comparison.  Let’s face it, in terms of their immediate effects, those probably accomplish completely different things.  They probably synergize in different and complicated ways with a whole host of different circumstances and strategies, so we don’t do them justice if we consider simply swapping in one for the other in an otherwise identical strategy, and their effects on the game’s final outcome are probably (intentionally) virtually impossible to predict in the general case.  We’re comparing the proverbial apples to oranges.  Where do we even begin?


As usual, there’s no silver bullet, but one widely-applicable strategy is to abstract the game state as a set of resources, by which I mean quantifiable assets that can be expended to change the course of the game.  For example, ammunition is a resource–you can use it up in order to fire your weapon, which is one of the ways you can affect the game’s outcome.  “Mana” (or energy, power, etc.) often serves a similar role in fantasy-themed games.

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Just Your Luck

February 17, 2008 at 4:14 pm (Game Balance, Game Design, Philosophy) (, , )

Though the phrase “games of chance” tends to refer to gambling, random elements show up to a greater or lesser degree in many other games.  In fact, in many genres, they are so ingrained that it is difficult to imagine playing the game without them.

On the face of it, this is rather odd.  Games are fundamentally about making decisions–whether strategizing or just “playing around”–and adding in random outcomes can only reduce the amount of control the player has.  Why would so many games engage in such an apparently self-defeating behavior?  Other than the ones that are doing it to get your money, I mean.

Well, I think there are three significant reasons a for game to include randomness…

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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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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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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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