Too Much of a Good Thing?

My last blog talked about the basics of mathematical models and how they can be used in game balance. Almost universally, when players play a game, they’re encouraged to look for “powerful” cards, characters, abilities, etc. to reach certain goals. Even in fully cooperative games, players gravitate to what they perceive as strong and shy away from weaker options.

Since the goal of the game, by definition, is to accomplish the goal of the game, it makes perfect sense for players to seek out the tools that will be most effective at helping them reach that goal. It also makes sense for players to stratify the available options. It even makes sense for them to critique certain options as “overpowered” or “underpowered” when those options continuously rise to the top or fall to the bottom. It also makes sense, however, to dislike a game because it is too balanced.

I’d be willing to bet that most readers have never claimed a game was too balanced or heard other gamers do so, but without some differentiation between the capability of different cards, characters, abilities, etc. in an asymmetrical game, there is very little meaningful player choice. If playing any given card, miniature, tile, etc. in any way it could be played had no net impact on whether a player won or lost the game, the game wouldn’t be enjoyable. There needs to be some differentiation to encourage players to interact with the game, to explore its possibilities.

Too-balanced games aren’t typically criticized for being “too balanced,” though. They’re dismissed as “boring” or as not having “meaningful player choices.” Given that games need some degree of imbalance to be enjoyable, it begs the question “how much is enough?” The answer depends on the game in question.

For casual games, the degree of imbalance should be very small. Games like Lanterns and Sushi Go give players choices, but the difference in score between a player making the right choices and a player making the wrong choices is typically fairly small. Scores are very close, options are narrowly balanced, and that suits these games very well.

For intermediate games, there’s more leeway for imbalance between game components. Players want their various characters, monster races, kingdoms, etc. to feel varied in their strengths and weaknesses. Some might excel slightly or lag behind slightly, but having lots of flavor is more important than perfecting the balance. Plenty of board and card games fall into this middle category, as do most dungeon crawl games and role-playing games.

For hardcore games, the balance pendulum swings back again. If a game has frequent large-scale tournaments, it qualifies as a hardcore game that needs tight game balance. The various games that fall into the category of “esports” certainly fall into this category as do many hobby miniatures games and collectible card games.

With such an emphasis on balance, though, how do such games avoid the trap of being boring?

First off, they recognize that only the top choices truly need that razor’s edge of game balance. In a pool of 100 player options (deck builds, heroes, army generals, etc.), it’s difficult if not impossible to make all 100 choices truly unique and truly balanced. But you only really need the top choices among these player options to have such finely tuned game balance. “Lesser” options should still be interesting, creating more diversity in the game and generating additional appeal for gamers approaching it as an intermediate-weight game rather than jumping into hardcore tournament-style play.

Second, though, they recognize the power of situational effects. If one option is more powerful in certain positions, match-ups, combinations, etc., while another options excels in others, it creates additional depth of gameplay without creating an option that is strictly “more powerful” or “less powerful” than the alternative. Collectible card games embrace this direction. Games like Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone have plenty of cards that are more or less powerful than other options based on some aspect of the game state – what you have in play, what your opponent has in play, what you have in hand, etc.

Third, they shake things up on a regular basis. New gameplay formats, new releases, new balance updates, and new editions all force players to reassess the strengths and weaknesses of the tools in their toolbox. Sometimes, players resist or even resent changes to the status quo, but those changes are necessary to keep the game fresh and to keep gameplay engaging.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this look at how a little bit of imbalance is critical for good game balance. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

YTN Episode 015

The 15th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

First, I want to say a big “Thanks!” to our community for making the last podcast our most downloaded show thus far by leaps and bounds. We’ll definitely be sticking to the new format. Be sure to tell us what aspects of the show you particularly like, and we’ll try to focus on similar topics in the future. This episode, Ryan and I are joined by Reese, and we kick things off with a brief discussion of what we’ve been up to lately game-wise.

The second segment covers our featured games, and this episode we feature:

Our topic segment for the episode goes a little bit long as we talk about rebooting franchises, adapting them to new media, and our thoughts on reboots that have been handled successfully and… less than successfully.

YTN_AvatarWe’d love to hear from you! Let us know in the comments or via email if you have any topics, questions, or ideas you’d like us to discuss in a future podcast.

The email is: contact@clockworkphoenixgames.com

Getting Started with Mathematical Models

In an earlier blog, I briefly mentioned mathematical models and how they’re a great tool for game development. Some folks are already familiar with mathematical models in the context of gaming. For those who aren’t, however, I’d like to take a look at the basics in today’s blog.

The goal of using a mathematical model during game development is to assist game balance efforts by creating a formula to help determine the value of similar components. Those components are most often cards, but they can also be miniatures, dice, tech upgrades, treasures, or any other game component that we wish to present as a viable option that is not an overpowered option relative to other choices. A good mathematical model behind the game can save a lot of time in the playtest process or even lead to a better balanced final product.

As noted in the asymmetrical game balance blog, not every game has components that need to be balanced against one another. Even for the games that do, some games are a better fit for mathematical modeling than others.

For our look at a few building blocks of a mathematical model, let’s assume we’re talking about a card game with lots and lots of different cards that fight against one another (a very good type of game for which to use a mathematical model). We’ll assume they have some sort of Attack stat, Health stat, and Mana cost. The most basic place to start our mathematical model is with ADDITIVE terms in our formula. We could, for example, say that “Attack + Health = Mana.” It’s not a terrible place to start, and it could even lead to some decent game balance. We don’t typically see games use this as-is, because the in-game math surrounding the Mana resource would become unwieldy for players. Unwieldy math behind the scenes is fine, but not in front of the players.

So let’s add a SCALING term to our formula. Let’s move to “(Attack + Health) x (Scaling Factor) = Mana.” A scaling factor of 50% is a decent starting point. It’ll reduce the mana our players need to track, but it also introduces some new questions. We’ll have to figure out how to handle rounding, for one. We also need to consider whether the game in question values Attack and Health comparably. We might need to go to “(Attack x Attack Scaling) + (Health x Health Scaling) = Mana.” If the game favors min/max-ing your Attack and Health stats on different cards, we could even start squaring, scaling, adding, and then taking a square root, scaling that, and then… hmm… I seem to be getting ahead of myself.

There’s something else to consider in our cost beyond just mana, though. Playing a card costs mana, but it usually also costs a card. Most card combat games allow just a single free card draw per turn, so let’s put an OFFSET into the formula to account for the cost of the card. This brings us to “(Attack + Health – Offset) x (Scaling Factor) = Mana.” Now we’re cooking. For those who are familiar with Hearthstone, consider “(Attack + Health – 1) x 50% = Mana.” Glance through a few Hearthstone cards, and it sure won’t take long to find one that fits this formula.

On the topic of Hearthstone, we know there’s more to a card than just Attack, Health, and Mana, but the tools we used in our foundation of mathematical models will continue to serve us well! Cards with a specific minion type (like Beasts or Dragons) have card synergy that increases their value. Well, let’s just add a “Minion Type Scaling Factor” customized for each Minion type (typically in the 105% to 115% range). Cards that belong to each Class could also have an additional scaling factor by Class (typically 85% to 95%). Then we’ve got abilities. Yikes! Some simply add to Attack or Health, which keeps things simple, but others get quite a bit more complicated. Some are direct damage. Some are conditional increases to Attack or Health or are conditional direct damage. We’ll ultimately need a lot more terms in our formula.

We’ll also need to add quite a few more tools to our toolbox before we’ve got a comprehensive mathematical model for Hearthstone or for our hypothetical card combat game. This gives an idea of how to start the ball rolling and hopefully gives a slightly better idea of what’s going on behind the scenes. By the time I completed my model for High Command, I had dozens of individual terms in my formula, and some of those terms had separate mathematical models generating just one term.

I hope you enjoyed scratching the surface of mathematical models for game development. The next time you look at the numbers on a card, I hope you can catch a glimpse of the mountain of numbers behind those numbers and appreciate how that card came to be.

The Balance of One

Point costs, mana costs, gold costs, resource costs. You don’t need to be a hardcore gamer to be familiar with costing methods for game components. These costs ensure that the more powerful cards (or miniatures or characters or whatever) require more of an investment than the weaker ones. Costs are a critical tool in the game developer toolbox for creating a balanced and fun experience for the players.

A friend recently asked me if there were any miniatures games out there that use a game balance system other than point costs. There are plenty of miniatures games that use some sort of army composition system and/or field allowance system, but those elements are typically built on top of a point scale rather than replacing it. There are also miniatures games that ignore the concept of a balanced battle between two players altogether and therefore have no traditional point system. And there are also a few miniatures games out there in which each different component always costs “1,” and that’s the type of game I decided to write about today.

Such games don’t usually have a printed point cost of “1” on every card, but that’s the gist of the game’s balance. In certain card games, each card has a cost of “1 card.” In online games like Heroes of the Storm or League of Legends, every hero costs “1 hero.” There is no point system to let you know the value of different cards or heroes. They’re all (theoretically) created equal.

My first experience working on a game that used these principles was on the development team for Monsterpocalypse. While the small-based units in Monsterpocalypse had a cost, the monster figures did not. Each monster had a cost of “1 monster.” This style of game balance leads to unique challenges during game development. In most miniatures games, if a particular model is proving a bit strong in playtesting, the development team can simply tweak its point cost up a little, and if it’s proving too weak, its cost can be reduced accordingly. If a monster figure in Monsterpocalypse was performing too well or too poorly, however, a mere cost tweak was not an option. We’d have to look carefully at the stats and abilities to see what we could change there without overcompensating for the imbalance and without altering the intended strengths, weaknesses, and character of that monster.

When creating new content within such a system, it’s also possible to cheat a little bit. In Arena Rex, most models count as “1 combatant,” yet Titans count as 2 instead. In Guild Ball, a team can have six player models. Four of those models have a cost of “1 player,” but the team must have exactly one captain (who is more powerful than the average player) and one mascot (who is less powerful than the average player). Steamforged Games, the makers of Guild Ball, could even switch things up on us by creating a guild in which the average players were slightly weaker, but the mascot’s power was amped up considerably. Alternatively, they could create a guild in which the captain was a weak player who directed the big plays rather than making them himself, allowing the average player power to come up to compensate. At that point, we’d want to look at the balance of “1 team” to “1 team” instead of the more traditional “1 model” to “1 model.”

Card games sometimes include little cheats in a balance-of-1 system as well. Without any sort of cost stat on the card, it might seem that you’re locked into valuing every card as “1 card,” but game developers can use the word “discard” to give some cards a cost of “2 cards” (or more) or can use the word “draw” to introduce the (dangerous) possibility of reducing a card’s cost to “0 cards.”

Granted, using this sort of game balance system doesn’t guarantee good game balance (or bad game balance, for that matter). Whether a game has some sort of balance-of-1 system or a more traditional point, mana, gold, resource, etc. cost system, the actual balance of the game is still in the hands of the game developers and requires a whole lot of testing and analysis along the way to the finished product.

Developing Resources

In one of the earliest blogs on this site, I wrote about how print-on-demand services and crowdfunding sites have made it easier to get game ideas into players’ hands. Even the best game idea in the world is still a long, LONG way from being a great game, however. Once you’ve hashed out your game design and played through a quick proof-of-concept version of your game, you’ve still got quite a bit of game development, illustration, graphic design, financing, production, and fulfillment to consider.

Just as print-on-demand services and crowdfunding make the financing, production, and fulfillment more attainable, the resources available to aspiring game developers are increasing as well. Since game development is a behind-the-scenes sort of activity, you’re unlikely to find dev groups in banner ads on Facebook or Board Game Geek, but a little bit of searching is sure to produce results, and once you start joining such groups, it’s easier and easier to find others.

  1. Facebook has multiple groups for folks who create Kickstarter projects, are involved specifically in game projects, or are involved in the game industry in a variety of capacities. Because these groups are online-only, they have the same strengths and weaknesses of other online-only groups. They have large communities where you can make some great contacts, but they also represent a very impersonal method of communication. If you find one particular group less receptive to new members, just look elsewhere.

2. There are also numerous groups for local game developer meetups. Their Facebook groups, forums, or email lists can be a bit tougher to find, but it’s well worth the effort. These groups can be an excellent resource, because they allow you to actually sit down together and test games! Different developers approach games in very different ways, so getting a broader perspective on your design can be a huge benefit to your game development process. As a bonus, local meetups also get around the impersonal nature of the online-only groups.

3. The last resource I want to mention is organized online communities for game developers. Unpub is great example. They run playtest events at stores, conventions, and other venues all over the place. It’s a bit of a quiet season right now as I write this due to the holidays, but in the summer months, you can find multiple events weekend after weekend. You might also be able to find a more regional game development group in your area like Playtest Northwest in my backyard.

The right resource (or resources) for you will vary from person to person. Look at the folks involved, the type of community they have, and the sort of feedback you’ll be able to get on your development. For anyone in the Pacific Northwest, it’s hard for me not to recommend Playtest Northwest. Forgive me for the upcoming tangent, but these guys have a “core belief” message that’s tough to beat:

TEAM – Working as a team makes us all stronger. Designers, artists, playtesters, developers, and customers are all members of our project teams.

TRUTH – Always start from the truth, and the story never changes. Being open and honest shows respect for others and respect for yourself.

TRUST – Earn a person’s trust, and they’ll be with you always. We’re all human, and we all make mistakes – own them, fix them, and build stronger bonds.

Anyway, if you plan on making games or were just curious about how the proverbial sausage is made, I hope you enjoyed today’s blog. If you know of other resources for game developers or wanted to share some positive experiences you have had with a particular dev resource, we’d love to hear about it. Share in the comments below or over on Facebook with your thoughts!

YTN Episode 011

The 11th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

We start out this episode talking about what we’ve been up to lately in the world of gaming which transitions into the topic of what I’m calling multi-games, games where different players are playing different games at the same time to form a cohesive whole. What do you think of this emerging gaming trend? What other games would you put into this category?

Let us know in the comments or via email if you have any topics, questions, or ideas you’d like us to discuss in a future podcast. The email address is: contact@clockworkphoenixgames.com

And if you’re looking for links to some of the things we discussed this episode, here’s where to find more about:

Balancing Asymmetrical Games

Game balance is always a challenge, but asymmetrical game balance has a whole pile of challenges all its own. In Your Turn Next Episode 9, we discussed some of the games we enjoy that include unique elements for each player, and today I’d like to write a bit about how to approach those elements during the game development process. There are three primary methods game developers use when developing asymmetrical gameplay elements, and we’ll briefly explore each of them.

First, let’s define what makes something a gameplay element with asymmetrical game balance. Quite simply, asymmetrical game balance elements are those where the players have different tools at their disposal to try to win the game. Card games where players draw from a common deck of cards and board games where players use a common set of rules use symmetrical game balance to ensure the chances for each player to win are equal. Games where each player has a different character with unique abilities or a unique set of cards or skills at their disposal have asymmetrical game balance. With players’ resources being inherently unequal, ensuring strong game balance can be a real challenge.

The Playtest Method is the first and simplest method of creating asymmetrical game balance. When using the playtest method, a game developer will simply implement their ideas for each character (or faction or deck or whatever) and then playtest, playtest, playtest. The  weaknesses of this method are that it can be very time-consuming and early iterations of the game may have serious balance flaws that color playtesters’ future feedback. The strengths of this method are that it can handle extremely disparate character concepts and can be used regardless of a game’s level of complexity.

The Baseline Method is the second method of creating asymmetrical game balance. When using the baseline method, a game developer will create a single character (or faction or deck or whatever) and then create all of the other characters around that initial baseline. A second character might be faster but weaker, a third character might be slower but be able to take more hits, etc. The  weaknesses of this method are that it requires all of the characters to be relatively similar and sometimes creates the impression that the baseline character is plain or even boring. The strengths of this method are that it generates a strong starting point for final game balance and it typically requires less dedicated playtest time than the other methods.

The Modeled Method is the final method for creating asymmetrical game balance. When using the modeled method, a game developer will list out all of the variables that can differ between their characters (or factions or decks or whatever) and create a mathematical model to set the game balance between them. Mathematical models vary drastically in complexity based on the degree of differentiation between the characters. The weaknesses of this method are that it requires a specific skill set to perform effectively and can falter if the game developer does not understand the strengths and weaknesses of each variable. The strengths of this method are that it can handle fairly diverse characters and generates that strong starting point for final game balance.

Personally, I lean toward using the modeled method. I’m sure part of that is simply that I’m a math guy and find mathematical modeling to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of game development, but I also find that it produces strong results. I’ll switch over to the baseline method if my character elements have only minor differences between them or to the playtest method if the game is simply too complex for a comprehensive mathematical model to be a realistic option.