Balancing Act

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Balancing Act

I get the impression as I sit down to write this that I’m probably not finishing this the same day I started. I mean, I already wrote a bunch of stuff this morning, and otherwise had a good day developing levels. I got to thinking about an age old game design fact – when developing the game is too damn hard. That’s what it is. I find Paper Zeppelin challenging, but I designed the game and have a very thorough understanding of every little bit of it. Frankly though, I’m going to need to figure out how to correctly balance this thing, and hopefully quickly.
First though, although I’ve mentioned it before, I need to go into what exactly I mean when I say “Balance” in terms of a game mechanic.
First, let’s get something out of the way. Balance is not making a game fair. Fundamentally, almost every single player game is built to be unfair. By default, you’re almost always against impossible odds. Taken together, you shouldn’t be able to win. Think about it for a second. In Super Mario a fat plumber is put up against the legions of Koopa Troopas and must single-handedly liberate the entirety of the Mushroom Kingdom. Master Chief of Halo fame is pitted against the galactic empire that is the Covenant. None of these things are fundamentally fair if you compare them to something like Chess.
On the other hand, as a player you are always a stupendous bad ass. So much so that your bad assery is almost never in doubt. I mean, in Call of Duty Modern Warfare, I’m pretty sure that you are the only regenerating soldier in the world. You know who else has regenerative powers like that? This guy. So in those kinds of situations, a player can usually win by attrition.
So, fairness and balance are not the same thing in a single player game. Note that I keep referring to Single player games. Player vs. Player games derive their fun from their inherit fairness. No, instead when I say “balance” I mean, “balance of meaningful choices.” In a game, it is the goal of the designer to offer a player a set of meaningful choices. Using Final Fantasy as an example, there are 6 classes, each of which is good at specific kinds of things. However, none of those choices is wrong, and none of the combinations of specific choices is incorrect either. You can beat the entire thing with 4 White Mages if you feel so inclined. Further, your choice leads to explicit and unique outcomes. Playing without a healer in the party is far different than having one. That is an example of offering meaningful choices.
However, the other kind of choice is worthless choices. These are choices that are offered to the player where the outcome is a forgone conclusion or irrelevant. Again, with Final Fantasy the ability to Defend while in battle (later ones anyway). You’re getting hit anyway, only for slightly less damage, but by doing so you’ve added to the length of a combat situation. That “option” doesn’t really offer a meaningful choice to the player.
So the “balance” that game designers toss around in conversation refers to, for the most part, the balance between the different kinds of choices, and whether each option is meaninful, and if any of them is consistently the “best.”
The ability to hand out choices goes one step further. You see, when a player has too many choices, they begin to freeze up and wonder if they made the correct choice in a specific circumstance. Then they begin to overthink it. What a designer needs to do is limit the amount of choices that a player has by making them as distinct as possible. Halo did a good job with this by limiting the number of weapons a player has available at any given moment. The core of the Halo gameplay revolves around the triangle of choices that are guns, grenades and melee attacks. If a player could carry more weaponry, then that would add additional weight to the guns part of the triangle, giving implicit encouragement to always go with the guns option. Limiting the redundant choices expanded the player’s access to more meaningful options.
The other thing to worry about is the idea of the Optimal Choice. Players, like people, are kind of lazy. Once they have discovered a way to maximize their reward for playing, they will continue to follow those exact same steps every time. Because there is a choice that is better than every other choice most of the time, it renders all of the other choices irrelevant. This, is a terrible breakdown in every sense of the word. Last time, I had brought up a specific game flaw in Paper Zeppelin. Basically, if you were above the enemies at all times, you were reasonably safe. A player could hug the top of the screen and avoid anything that didn’t actively shoot at them. This was bad. The reason that is a breakdown in the fabric of a game, is that it makes the game no damn fun. Once a player has defined the Optimal Choice, finishing a game is just a matter of doing that exact same thing for as long as it takes the game to give up the goods. There’s another word for that though – work. Work, almost by design, isn’t any damn fun. Doing the same thing over and over again as a way of receiving some kind of reward is exactly that.
So, we have defined “Balance” as a way of offering a player a variety of pre-selected choices that are all equally valid. Well, that’s almost right again. At one point I said that games, are not Art. I stand by that. However, there is an aspect of Game Development that I consider to be its uniquely artistic endeavor – Level Design. It’s not the architecture, or the textures or anything so blase. No, the Art of Level Design is that it is creating play spaces. It is the act of leveraging the mechanics of the game into a usable space and form. I could write and code a dozen games without levels, but all they are until the levels are built are ideas. The Levels are the expression of the idea made into a form that somebody can play with.
So what does that have to do with Balance? In a word – Everything. By design, a level seeks to limit the choices the player has. This forces the player to utilize different bits in the toolbox that the Game Designer has offered them. Stealth levels in otherwise action games are terrible examples of this, but examples nonetheless. However, if the design of a level removes choices that should be valid, then we get into that hard to define area of the world known as “cheap,” as in, “that was cheap…and lame.” When a player has grown accustomed to certain options that are useful, not having them work in an expected way, especially when they should be available, makes a player unhappy. Again, stealth levels in action games are an example of this. Why, after shooting through hordes of enemies, are you suddenly hiding in the dark from a bare handful? Worse, why do you lose automatically if they see you?
So in a game like Paper Zeppelin, I try not to limit the choices that a player has really at all. Instead I’m trying to design levels that simply encourage certain behavior while not penalizing players for choosing to play a different way. So while I certainly do not encourage player’s to fly under enemies, it’s their choice. By doing this I am not limiting a player’s choices, which is key to making them feel like any mistakes that they made, they did all on their own. They didn’t get killed because I limited their options so much are to leave them powerless. Instead the options were their, it was their choice and ability to carry out that choice that led to their downfall. Best part of that though, is that if you die because of that you still want to play.
With all of that out of the way, let’s get a little into the idea of a Balanced Mechanic. Like I’ve said before, a Game is just a series of interacting mechanics. Mechanics are just rules. Complex rules, since they usually are pretty variable based on what is happening within the game at any given moment, but rules just the same. Now, whenever I consider a mechanic to add to a game, I spend quite a bit of time trying to figure out in what ways that new mechanic or modification will affect the other mechanics. Affect how? Well, does it render any of the other choices irrelevant? Say I wanted to add a gun while developing Thief, the ability to shoot would make the whole sword fighting mechanic moot, and most enemies as well. So that get’s thrown right out. Consequently, when I think about balance, I always consider “Balance” to be a quality of a mechanic. Does it offer meaningful choices? Does it avoid creating an Optimal Strategy? Along with specific questions like : Does this add to the concept of the game design? Will this fundamentally change the way the game plays?
So that’s what I have for today. I’m sure I left a lot out, but this is what I have time for tonight. Now I have to go back and design spaces full of delicious options.