CAP 211 - Interactive Design and Game Development

Chapter 11 - Game Mechanics Must be in Balance

Objectives:

This lesson discusses material from chapter 11 of The Art of Game Design. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Types of game balance
  2. Methods of balancing
  3. Balancing economies
  4. Dynamic balancing
  5. The Big Picture
Concepts:

Chapter 11 is another long chapter. It discusses balancing various elements in a game to make the experience of the player better, and it offers more lenses than any chapter so far.

The chapter begins many pages on Types of Game Balance. This is also a discussion of the merits of different types of games. Twelve types of balance:

  • fairness
  • challenge/success
  • meaningful choices
  • skill/chance
  • head/hands
  • competition/cooperation
  • short/long
  • rewards
  • punishment
  • freedom/controlled experience
  • simple/complex
  • detail/imagination

The first type of balance is Fairness. Lens 30, the Lens of Fairness, asks whether the game gives every player a chance to win.

  • Should the game be symmetrical with regard to resources and powers you give to players? As a practical matter, this may be impossible for physical games, but it is easier to accomplish for card games, board games, video games, and other games that do not depend on the body of the player.
  • Should the game be asymmetrical? The text lists several reasons for doing this, such as
    • simulating real, historical events
    • allowing the player to have different powers and skills each time, to encourage replay
    • to allow the players freedom to choose their character profile
    • to let the game be easy for beginners and harder for experienced players
    • to create challenging and interesting games
  • Is it more important that the game be an accurate measure the skill of all players, or that the all players be able to enjoy the game? The difference is clearer if you think about sports. Can just anyone play a professional sport? No. Should there be non-professional games that children and regular people can enjoy? Yes. Are they the same game? Only in respect to their names.
  • Can we make allowances in the game for players of different skill levels to play together? As noted above, this may not be possible in some games.

Mr. Schell discussed the idea of balancing increases in challenge and increases in skill in his discussion of flow. He refers to it here, and lists some classic ways to balance challenge and skill levels:

  • increase difficulty with each success - the game gets harder each time the player completes a goal
  • let skilled players get through easy levels quickly - a beginner may play slowly at first, but a skilled player may speed through levels that are too easy, avoiding boredom
  • let there be a minimum and maximum score for levels - this lets the beginner get through with sufficient effort, but challenges the experienced player to get all the points from a level before going on
  • players get to choose difficulty level - lots of computer based games have two or more difficulty levels to choose from, again allowing the player to start at a comfortable level, or move on to more challenge when needed
  • playtest with skilled players and beginners - this avoids having your test apply only to one kind of player

Lens 31, the Lens of Challenge focuses on the challenge aspects of the game:

  • What are my games challenges?
  • How hard are the challenges?
  • Can the challenges be met by players of different skill levels?
  • How does the level of challenge increase?
  • Do we have the same challenge over and over, or is there variety?
  • Does the game have a maximum level of challenge? Can a player overcome it? Some games are not meant to be won, it would seem.

The third type of balance is giving the players Meaningful Choices in the game. Mr. Schell points out that several choices that lead to the same experience are not really choices. Likewise, a player may find that there is only one choice of strategy, or one choice of character type, or one choice of anything in the game that stands out as much better than the others. Making this choice is what any good player would do. When this situation happens, the game has a dominant strategy, which keeps the other strategies from being played, because no one aware of the dominant strategy would choose the others. This is a situation to avoid.

Another point about choices: how many choices should we have? At the recommendation of a few students in 2009, I played Oblivion for quite a few hours. It is a good game, full of choices, and I enjoy it. However, the game asks a player to make lots of choices early on, choosing to be one of ten races, one of twenty-one classes, and more. This led me to the situation Mr. Schell describes on page 180.

  • If the player has more choices than desires, the player can be overwhelmed. (I was. There was no logical real reason to choose any of the itmes from those long lists.)
  • If the player has fewer choices than desires, the player can be frustrated. (I felt this way about weapons in the game for a few minutes, but this quickly changed to the situation above.)
  • If the player's choices equal the player's desires, the player feels freedom and fulfillment. (This is the sweet spot that a good game provides. To its credit, I reached this point several times in this game.)

This leads us to lens 32, the Lens of Meaningful Choices:

  • What choices must the player make?
  • How are the choices meaningful to the player?
  • Are there too many or too few choices?
  • Does the game have dominant strategies?

The next lens, the Lens of Triangularity requires a definition. What is triangularity? The players should feel like they are on one point of a triangle. On another point, there should be choices with low risk and low rewards. On the last point there should be choices with high risk and high rewards. The players should be given choices that let them play with more or less risk for each situation in which this is possible. There is a short list of questions for this lens:

  • Does the game have triangularity, or can we add it?
  • Do the rewards on each point match the risks on that point?

Lens 34, the Lens of Skill vs. Chance tells us to consider whether a player advances by skill or chance in our game. In games that contain both, Mr. Schell tells us to consider alternating their control of the game. Skill, in this definition is meant to include strategy and other playing options that a player can control. This means that skill vs. chance can also be thought of as player control vs. random events.

  • Will my players advance by skill or by chance?
  • If players advance by skill, they may see the game as more serious. Does this work for my game?
  • Are parts of the game boring? Can we make it more exciting with elements of chance?
  • Are parts of the game too random? Can we add more strategy to give the player more control?

You should consider whether or not the game you want to make is meant to make a player think. Lens 35, the Lens of Head and Hands asks whether this is a game that is meant to be a mindless entertainment. You may argue that any game that includes choices is not totally mindless. Some games are meant to be diversions from a stressful life. I described playing Oblivion a few lines ago. That game invited me to think a lot about customizing my character before I played very long. Lots of thinking could be involved. I took a break, went into another room, and found my wife playing Bloink, a computer game I downloaded for a child a few years ago. She volunteered that she wanted a game that would not make her think too hard.

  • Does the audience for my game want mindless action or intellectual challenge?
  • Would the game be better with more puzzle solving (or other activities that require thought)?
  • Does the game have parts where the player does not have to "think too hard"?
  • Can the game offer the player a choice between head and hands activities? Fallout 3 has lots of safes linked to computer terminals. The player can typically choose to pick the lock (hands) or hack the computer (head).
  • If we imagine a spectrum that runs from all physical to all mental, where does our game fall on the spectrum?

Mr. Schell offers three lenses that are related, all variations on cooperation and competition. Lens 36, the Lens of Competition, is just for the competition aspect of games:

  • Does the game measure player skill fairly? Competition should be skill based, and the judgment of skill should be fair, or no one will play it.
  • Do players want to win the game? Why or why not?
  • Are winners proud of winning?
  • Can new players compete in this game? A "no" answer might mean that players should not compete until they know the game well. (Play in solo mode until you are good, then go to the online game?) Can experienced players compete? A "no" answer might mean that the game only works until players understand it or find the dominant strategy.
  • Will experts always defeat novices? This is not necessarily a good thing, but it may be unavoidable. If so, we need to create levels of competition.

Lens 37, the Lens of Cooperation, applies to the team aspect of games.

  • Teams have to communicate to cooperate. Does the game support this?
  • Can the game enhance communication between players? Can it cause them to want to communicate?
  • Does cooperation between players enhance or detract from the game experience? (Guess which we want to avoid.)
  • Do players have specific roles, jobs, or positions on the team?
  • Does the game have tasks that must be done cooperatively?
  • Does the game have tasks that must use communication?

Lens 38, the Lens of Competition vs. Cooperation, offers the predictable advice that we must balance these two quantities in games that have them both.

  • What is the current balance of competition and cooperation? Should it be changed?
  • Can players choose one over the other?
  • Does the audience for this game prefer competition, cooperation, or a mixture?
  • Does this game work better for teams or solo players?

Lens 39, the Lens of Time, addresses the balance of short games vs. long games. Mr. Schell writes about an arcade video game that was particularly difficult for new users. The problem was that the game was too short for an unskilled player to enjoy. For those of you who don't know about such things, this was in the days before home game machines, when players had to spend twenty-five or fifty cents for each game. Doesn't sound like much, but players hated popping in a quarter and getting no game time. The solution in this case was to guarantee a minimum play time before the player could lose the game.

  • What determines the length of a game?
  • Do players think the game is too short?
  • Are players bored by the game being too long?
  • Would the game work better if played against time, like some sports?
  • Would players like the game better if it was broken into a series of shorter parts?

It seems logical that games have to offer a rewarding experience for players to want to play them. The text lists many kinds of rewards that a game might include, in addition to a score, the keep players playing. Be aware that a reward may cease to feel like a reward if it comes to the player too often or too easily. Lens 40, the Lens of Reward asks questions about these issues:

  • What rewards does my game give to players?
  • Do players care about the rewards?
  • Do players understand that they are getting rewards? Should they be told more clearly?
  • Are the rewards given too regularly? Too predictably?
  • Are the rewards related? Remember that the goals of a good game will be related, so the rewards might be as well.
  • Is the challenges get harder, do the rewards get bigger?

If we consider rewards in a game, we should consider punishments. The list of punishments on pages 192 and 193 may be compared to the list of rewards on pages 189 and 190. Mr. Schell points out that several items in the lists are opposites. Lens 41, the Lens of Punishment, questions our game's punishments:

  • What punishments are in the game?
  • Why are my players punished?
  • Are the punishments fair, or do the players complain about them?
  • Can we turn the punishments around, make them rewards, and improve the game?
  • Are big punishments balanced by equally big rewards?

Three more balance types to go. Mr. Schell does not offer a lens for the next one: freedom or controlled experience. The question is whether we let the player have choices for everything in the game (total freedom), for nothing in the game (total chance, or total control of the game), or some mixture that the players enjoy. Games, like life, are rarely all or nothing. Finding the right balance give the player moments of specific experience that illuminate the experiences generated by their choices.

Lens 42, the Lens of Simplicity/Complexity, is just what it sounds like, except that it is concerned with innate and emergent complexity. A game has innate complexity when the rules of the game are what makes it complex. This is not necessarily good. It has emergent complexity when rules that are not complex lead to richer, more complex play.

  • What parts of the game have innate complexity? Are they too complicated?
  • Can we simplify the game, but still lead to emergent complexity in the way the game is played?
  • Does the game have emergent complexity? Can we add it if we don't have it?
  • Are there parts of the game that are too simple?

Lens 43, the Lens of Elegance, is related to the Lens of Simplicity, but not the same. Elegance occurs in a simple game that is more than the sum of its parts.

  • What are the elements, the parts, of the game?
  • How many purposes (different values it adds to the game) does each element have?
  • Can we combine elements with few purposes, so that we have fewer elements with more purposes?
  • Can we load more purposes into any elements?
  • Could this chapter have possibly been made more elegant? (I get the feeling it will never end.)

Switching direction again, Mr. Schell reminds us that a game (or a story, or a film) can be simplified too much in pursuit of elegance. As an example, can you simplify the story of Romeo and Juliet down to one page? How about two paragraphs? How about two sentences? Yes, you can, but you lose the character of the play, the quality that makes the difference between the original play and West Side Story. Don't take out so much detail that you ruin the story. Lens 44, the Lens of Character, examines this.

  • What parts of the game do players want to talk about?
  • Does the game have elements that are unique?
  • Does the game have flaws, or other unintended elements that players like?

The last balance type asks how much of the game is detailed for the player, and how much is left to the imagination? Mr Schell offers a list of advice this time, about how we can leave some detail out of a game if we provide enough other detail that the player imagines what is missing. Lens 45, the Lens of Imagination:

  • What must the player understand to play the game?
  • Can the player's imagination help them understand the details we provide?
  • What details must the player be given to play the game?
  • Can we make the necessary details realistic, or high quality?
  • What details cannot be provided in high quality, and will imagination be enough?

The chapter moves on to methods for balancing games. Most are new:

  • Doubling and halving - when we think an attribute in a game has the wrong value, this technique finds a more desirable value by approaching it in large jumps that get smaller as you zero in on the answer.
  • Guessing exactly - this is the opposite of the technique above; it tells us to try to guess the exact value that an attribute ought to have. Does this mean that it doesn't matter which technique we use? No, it means that we try one, and if it doesn't work, we try another.
  • Let the players do it - Mr. Schell lists this one, but does not recommend it, advising that the designer, who is aware of all the game's elements, should do the balancing.

Another aspect of a game that simulates a world is its economy. How do players earn money or points for whatever they must buy in the game? Consider the list of aspects that an economy affects on page 204. Mr. Schell points out that the game's economy has an effect on many of the lenses above. Lens 46, the Lens of Economy, has some familiar questions:

  • How many ways can players earn or get money in the game?
  • What do players have to buy in the game?
  • Is it too hard or too easy to get money?
  • Are the choices about buying items meaningful in the game?

Two more points to make in the chapter. Mr. Schell discusses dynamic balancing, the automatic change that a game might make to accommodate a better or worse player. His stand is that this is a bad idea, since it leads to the player intentionally playing badly to get an easier game. It also makes it impossible to improve by playing against a more difficult challenge, since the challenges would not increase until the player improved.

The last concept of the chapter is lens 47, The Lens of Balance, which considers the game as a whole. The Big Picture view of the game asks one question:

  • Does the game feel right?