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Balancing Multiplayer Games – Identifying Bad Gameplay

Overview

The method discussed in Balancing Multiplayer Games – Intuition, Iteration and Numbers provides a framework that allow you as a designer to create a structure to measure and compare units relative to one another. This represents the first step towards achieving balance, as it creates a very clean baseline which allows you to measure and track a units performance relative to other units. This method has a number of short comings particularly when it comes to measuring subjective variables. Within the context of Company of Heroes, these variables might include a units mobility or even its weapon range. As a designer, we need to apply our knowledge and understanding of the game relative to our design goals to finish the task of balance from this point. We review a number of different variables to help us make the right decisions about a units performance, the functionality of an ability, or the structure of a mechanic. This article will explore those variables relative to Company of Heroes, outlining the reasoning behind some of our recent gameplay changes which have come about in the last few months.

The Goal of Balance

The ultimate goal of balance is to make the game enjoyable for both players. When balance is off, one player typically feels cheated, annoyed, or frustrated as a result of an outcome. The level of enjoyment will likely vary for the winner and the loser, but overall the game should be considered fun for both players. Balance is not simply about something being ‘fair’ for both sides, there is far more to it than that. You also need to balance fun between players. It also looks at the gameplay and mechanics at the core, adjusting their functionality to better suit the design goals of the game. I would largely argue that balance on Company of Heroes 2 was nearly completed back in February 2014, we could have easily stopped supporting the game at that point and it would have been completely viable to play and win as either faction.

We came a point where we could finally stop focusing on trying to adjust the meta, instead we had the time to look deeper at the core gameplay and determine ways to improve both the tactics and strategies inherent within the game. I think we took some major risks and invested a large sum of time into making this happen, but the overall sentiment from the community was that the game felt significantly more tactical.

Design and Balance

I used to think design and balance were things that had to be done separate from one another. This was reinforced by a similar sentiment which I encounter both at work and throughout the design community. That is not to say they are not both fields of design, but creating new content vs. balancing new content required completely different mind set. The designer is focused on creating innovative interesting decisions where the balancer is focused on making those decisions all equally appealing. The reason for this point of view is largely rooted in the belief that thinking about balance too early limits or restricts the creativity of the designer. I would imagine a number of colleagues might still share this belief, let me see if I can share some reasonable doubt to convince you otherwise.

Assuming you believe a balancer to be different from a designer, would you agree that both share the same goal of creating or maintaining interesting decisions within the game. As a designer, do you design with or without consideration of how your work will impact other parts of the game? In other words, would you ever add a feature without consideration of its impact, are you simply adding decisions to the game or are you trying to multiply the number of interesting decisions. I argue that the process of considering how your work modifies other aspects of the game is at its core balance.

I believe a designer needs to always be thinking about balance, separating the process of balance from design will only decrease the efficiency of your content creation and supports lazy design. I do not believe balance considerations limits your creativity as a designer largely because these considerations need to be made as a part of the design process. The key is to know when to make each set of considerations. This is something I would like to go into more detail in my next blog, I’ll update this thread with the link when its complete.

The Secret to Balance

Quite simply, play your game and look for aspects of the game that result in frustration. The trick is to separate your emotions from your objectivity, play as a dev and not a gamer. This can be fairly difficult at times but its necessary in order to properly understand the issue and why it might be occurring. Once your find areas of frustration, try to break down the issue by asking the following questions:

  • Was the required resources in line with the produced outcome of the actions within the scenario? If I am able to do something very powerful, the associated costs need to be in line. This can be in game costs, or external costs related to the actual human player. i.e. the amount of mental effort or ‘focus’ required to execute a tactic
  • Could I have done something to prevent or modify the outcome of the given scenario? Check against question 1, would it require more resources on my end to counter? If so, is this justifiable? This requires an analysis of risk vs. reward.
  • Is the scenario consistent with the design goals; as a designer do you want this type of scenario to be possible. For example, should building just one unit type be a viable strategy to win a game?

These are the primary questions I always ask, although a multitude of additional questions will likely need to be asked in addition to these depending on the game. The point is to provide an example of some of the questions we ask, you should be able to determine questions relative to your project easy enough.

Conclusion

Play your game and look for areas of frustration. Getting other players to play will be critical depending on how complex your game is, its important to explore all possibilities when possible. Testing in a closed environment with the same individuals will typically make this difficult, as most players tend to play in a similar manner depending on their style and preferences. Once you identify areas of frustration, break down why they are occurring. The next post will focus on problem solving these issues, highlighting some of the techniques we use to work through these issues.

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