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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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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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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Those Darn Cheating Computers

December 16, 2007 at 6:06 pm (Difficulty, Game Design, Game Mechanics)

How many times have you died in a video game and thought it was the game’s fault?

How many times when you were sure you pressed the buttons in the right order, but your character didn’t perform the right move?  When you would swear that enemy wasn’t there a moment ago?  When you have accused the game of cheating?

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Rant: Player Control

December 13, 2007 at 11:48 pm (Game Design, Game Mechanics, User Interface)

 This rant was originally a forum post written late on the night of December 3, 2007.  It has been slightly edited.

I’m noticing this in more and more games, and it’s really starting to get on my nerves: otherwise well-designed, well-implemented, professional games still have stupid, trivially fixable mistakes that make the game way more frustrating than it ought to be.

I’m not even talking about bugs. I’ve done a good bit of programming, and I know that bugs can often be subtle, hard to find, and hard to fix. I’m talking about clearly intentional features of the game that make you go “wait, did they even play this game before releasing it?”

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