Game Planning/Design – Pt. 5: GAME-BALANCING — Appendix

As Game Balance is a major subject I have decided to include a couple more points from gamedesignconcepts’ blog, as it is a great resource for those whom are looking to get a quick brush-up or overview of skills used in the game-design environment.

More Game Balance Techniques

Here are a few other random bits of advice I’ve picked up, in no particular order.

Be aware of the different objects and systems in your game and their relationships. You should already have done this during your initial design of the game, of course, but it is easy to forget the big picture when you start focusing on small details. There are two things in particular that you should return to first, whenever you make changes to your game:

  1. What is the core aesthetic of your game? Does this change support the core?
  2. Look at the interconnections between systems. If you change one thing, you should know what other things will be affected. Individual game elements rarely exist in a vacuum, and changing one thing can have ripple effects throughout the game. By being aware of the relationships between systems and objects, it becomes easier to predict the second-order effects of a mechanics change.

Make one change at a time. We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. If something breaks after making a change, you know exactly why. If something breaks after making ten changes, you don’t know which change (or combination of changes) caused it.

Learn to love Excel. It can be any computer spreadsheet program, though Microsoft Excel is the most popular among game designers. Often, students look at me like I’m crazy when I suggest that a spreadsheet is useful in game design. (Like, aren’t those things only used by corporate finance dudes or something?) Here are some examples of how spreadsheets are used:

  • Excel makes it easy to keep lists of things and organize them. List all of your game objects and their stats. In a role-playing game, list all weapons, items and monsters; in a tabletop war game, list all units and their stats. Anything that you’d find in a reference chart in the instructions (or a strategy guide) probably started off its life in a designer’s Excel sheet.
  • Excel is great for keeping track of tasks and status, which is useful for a complicated game with lots of systems and components. If you’ve got a table with a couple hundred monsters and all their stats, it might also have an entry for whether the art for that monster is done, or whether the stats for that monster have been balanced or playtested yet.
  • Spreadsheets are good for collecting and manipulating statistics in your game. In a sports game where each player has a list of stats, are all of the teams balanced with one another? Sum or average all of the stats on the team, and you can get some idea of the overall strengths and weaknesses of each team. In a game with transitive relationships, is each game object balanced? Add up the costs and benefits in a spreadsheet.
  • You can use spreadsheets to run statistical simulations. By generating random numbers (in Excel you can use the RAND() function and press F9 to reroll), you can generate random die-rolls for things like damage within a range, many times, to see the overall range and distribution of outcomes. (Statisticians call this a “Monte Carlo” simulation, in case you were wondering.)
  • Spreadsheets help you to see causes and effects of changes in the game. By creating formulas based on specific values that you want to change, you can change one value and see what happens to the other values that depend on that one. For example, if you’re working on a Massively-Multiplayer Online RPG, you could use Excel to compute the damage-per-second of a weapon and then instantly see how that changes when you modify the base damage, accuracy, or attack speed.

Use the Rule of 2. Suppose you have some number in your game that you know is too high, but you don’t know how much. Maybe it’s just a little bit too high, or maybe it’s quite a bit off. In either case, cut it in half. Likewise, if you have a value that you know is too low, regardless of how much too low it is, double it. If you aren’t 100% sure of what the correct value is, double it or cut it in half. This is the “Rule of 2.”

At face value, this sounds rather ridiculous. If the cost of a gemstone is only 10 to 20 percent too low, what could be gained by taking the drastic measure of doubling it? In practice, there are some reasons why this works. First, you might think that it’s only slightly off, and you might be wrong; if you only make minor adjustments and the value really did need to be doubled, it will take you much iteration to get to where you needed to be in the first place.

There is a more powerful force at work, though, when applying the Rule of 2. Game design is a process of discovery. The fact is, you don’t know what the correct numbers are to balance your game; if you did, the game would be balanced already! If one of the values in your game is off, you need to discover what the correct value is, and you do this by changing the value and seeing what happens. By making a major adjustment, you will learn a great deal about the effect of this value on the game. Maybe it did only need a minor adjustment, but by doubling or halving the value, you will learn so much more about your game.

Occasionally, you will also find that by making such a large change to your game, it changes the dynamics in a way that was unexpected but (accidentally) superior to your original design.

Balancing the first-turn advantage. In turn-based games in particular, it is common for there to be a very slight advantage (or disadvantage) to going first. This is not always the case, but when it is, there are a few common techniques for compensating:

  • Rotate who the first player is. In a four-player game, for example, after each complete round (where every player has a turn), rotate the starting player to the left for the next round. In this way, the player who goes first on this round will go last on the next round. (When I was growing up, my game group used a pencil to mark the first player, so we dubbed this the “Pencil of Power” technique.)
  • Give the disadvantaged players some extra resources. For example, if the objective of the game is to score the most points by the end of the game, give each player a different number of points to start the game, with the last player having slightly more points to compensate for the disadvantage of going last.
  • Reduce the effectiveness of early turns for the first players. In a card game, maybe players typically draw four cards at the start of their turn. You could modify this so that the first player only gets to draw one card, the next player draws two, and so on until all players are drawing four.
  • For very short games, play a series of games where each player gets to go first once. This is common with card games, where a complete game is played in a series of hands.

Write down your own rules as you learn them. As you design games, you will have successes and mistakes. You will learn from both (especially your mistakes). When you find a “law” of game design or a new game balance technique, record it and review your notes periodically. Tragically, very few designers actually do this; as a result, they cannot pass on their experience to other designers, and they sometimes end up making the same mistakes on multiple games because they forget the lessons learned from earlier ones.

The Role of Balance

In my early days as a designer, I was very passionate about game balance. “A fun game is a balanced game, and a balanced game is a fun game” was my mantra. I’m sure I annoyed many of my seniors with my rantings on the imbalances in our games and why we needed to fix them immediately. Such is the privilege of youth.

While I still believe balance is important and a key skill for any game designer, I now take a more moderate line. I have seen some games that are fun in spite of being unbalanced. I’ve seen other games that are fun specifically because they are intentionally unbalanced. I have seen some games that have done astoundingly well in the marketplace, despite having egregious imbalances. These are rare and special cases, to be sure. But let this serve as a reminder to you that the techniques and concepts discussed today should never take priority over the ultimate design goals for your game. Let these techniques be your tools, not your master.

Game Planning/Design/PM

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