Friday, April 01, 2005


Anyone who's done much game design knows that game balance is a real pain. The more factors that are involved, the more difficult it is to balance.

Having accidentally resurrected an interesting game idea a few days back, I was thinking about this. I've learned so much about game design in the past two years that the old design seems like cave paintings. I spent a few hours updating it, this game of turn-based grand strategy and space-age combat, and did a bunch of tweaking and creation of play fields and all sorts of stuff that makes it exciting to consider, as opposed to 'just another tactical game'.

But I've run into a problem: the actual GAME BALANCING has grown SO incredibly complex it isn't even remotely CONCEIVABLE. It's totally MIND-BOGGLING. In the previous version of a game, it was essentially 'build troops, move troops to destination, fight'. In that sort of situation, it's fairly easy to determine the effectiveness of a space ship. It deals such a damage at such a range such a percentage of the time. It has a certain amount of ammo, certain armor, certain speed, and a certain difficulty to hit.

Now, however, it's dramatically more difficult because of the introduction of strategic play. That unit - it's weak, but stealthy. It tends not to show up on scanners. But that depends on what scanners the enemy has, now doesn't it? How good is stealthy, then? How close can you get while you're being 'stealthy'?

That unit, it's a carrier. Okay, so what's the balance for a carrier? How fast can it launch other starships? How much space does that take up? Well, hell, this means that a carrier can have the interstellar drives, so the fighters don't have to. That totally messes up the balance of the fighters, since now they have a bunch of space they can stick more guns in.

Given this plus my natural predeliction towards HIGHLY EMERGENT gameplay, it is mentally impossible to try to get this to be balanced ahead of time. Obviously, it's intended to be a computer game - so what I really need is a kind of alpha test...

Then a happy thought hit me. I'm used to worrying about 'dominant strategies'. A player finds out 'the best' way to do things. But that's not a problem in this game. Every gameplay facet is opposed by an enemy with access to a countermeasure.

Stealth? The enemy might be forced to have scanner units. If they skimp, they'll be vulnerable to stealth. If they splurge, even people who are stealth masters will be detected at some point. If stealth is too powerful, players would adjust by investing in anti-stealth units.

More powerful fighters? Well, duh, I'll do the same, and we're even again. We might be more fighter-centric due to their increase in strength relative to, say, frigates, but the balance of power is not upset.

So long as I make sure there are counter-plays available, the game will - to some extent - balance itself. I'll have to make sure the counter-plays are feasible, and I'll have to make sure that you can't get CRUSHED INSTANTLY by a play you aren't prepared for... but I won't have to try to carefully squeek everything into the same exact effectiveness.

I hope.

1 comment:

Darren Torpey said...

The complexity of balancing is a demon I do my best to avoid fighting as much as possible... at least in theory.

My recent approach to this is to try to keep my designs as simple. Thus far, this goal seems to be in direct opposition to my desire to see emergent gameplay. That is, unless I cop-out and say, as you seem to have considered, that the game needn't be perfectly balanced in order to work.

In fact, that may be true; but I'm not convinced of it yet.

My hope is that I might, by some stroke of inspiration or by a gradual, iterative process, come to learn how large, complex designs gell together well by studying small, simple designs and experimenting with various aspects of them.
I guess you could see this as an example of my attempts to steal the best ideas from science and engineering and bring them into my design proces.

We'll see how that goes...