Balance

I cannot imagine that the creation of balance, in video games, is easy. It’s like inviting new friends over to your home, for the first time. You want to make sure you impress them, hold their attention, and improve your relationship.

Game developers have to impress you (have certain elements that encourage you to invest into the game), hold your attention (crafting either an interesting story and/or certain gameplay variables that you desire to engage over an indefinite period of time), and improve your relationship (ensure retention through customer satisfaction and decent review ratings).

I feel that the largest challenge the game industry faces, is the need to create a diverse library of games. Titles with either a variety of experiences, or a recurring collection of successful elements that retains re-playability (sports games, puzzle games, sequels to popular titles, Dynasty Warriors ~ lol). They don’t have the flexibility of restaurants or catering services, where you can take your service and literally wash it off for the next customer. If a company makes the same exact game, over and over again, failure is usually imminent (except for Dynasty Warriors).

While I do understand the developer’s plight, I do not understand how some games (today) are created with unbalanced elements. A fair amount of time has passed, with developers learning from the mistakes of the past. There is no excuse, regardless of the budget, the size of the team, or the theme of the game; if you make a game today, you need to ensure balance.

In Breath of Fire 1, Ryu is sent to the Gaia Temple by the King of Nanai. Your mission, to investigate the cause of recent unnatural earthquakes. As you descend, you confront the mastermind behind the quakes: a duplicitous vagrant by the name of Knight…yeah he didn’t have a name. After defeating Sir Nameless, you dislodge the “E. Key” (Earth Key, I suppose) from the QuakeMaster 3000. You faintly remember playing another JRPG with items that you were able to use in battle (For me, it was Shining Force, the greatest game ever made before Dynasty Warriors).

You know what, play this song while reading the rest of this article. Turn off the other song.

That’s better.

You decide to humor yourself. You forgot to buy that boomerang, so you keep picking off enemies with that short sword. You use E.Key … a massive earthquake ravages your opponents and mercifully spares your pitiful mortal body from destruction. WHAT HELL HATH YOU WROUGHT?! At this point, your faith in order is broken. You thought keys were used to open locks….but now they are instruments of destruction?! “WHAT DO I BELIEEEEVE?!

WHATAMIFIGHTINGFOOOOOOOR

Imbalance, in video games, irritates me. I’m not sure whether it is attributed to poor initial design, poor testing, time constraints, etc. Maybe designers wished they had more time or allowance to tweak parameters, but did not have the liberty to do so. So here are two balance issues I frequently encounter:

EQUIPMENT BUILDING

Everyone finds that one weapon they are good with. With action games, like DMC, God of War, or DYNASTY WARRIORS (keep playing that damn song), certain weapons have particular reach, attack speed, and damage properties. Suddenly, another weapon has come into my possession, that renders the current one inept.

After spending considerable time adapting tactics to the weapon, and spending resources to improve it (coins, souls, blood, magic rainbow juice), I feel like I wasted the investment. Now if I play the game again, I just know “screw it, I’ll wait until I get the Bastard Sword of Bastardia“. If that’s the case, then why not start out with the BSoB? That way I can start investing my soul coin blood juice into that, and GET JACKED!

Of course, the building formula doesn’t always apply. In sport racing games, the point is to win money, buy better cars/boats/planes, or buy better parts for cars/boats/planes. In newer FPS’s, you buy better guns. In “dungeon crawlers” you just ditch or sell the old hammer for the new fire-spitting hammer you got off the Orc Captain in the 3rd level of the woods. These games create their own balance, by working from “Wood Sword” to “Gold Sword”, instead of feigning intermittent use of Wood and Gold. So the moral here is, pick a side. Either the equipment is renewable or non-renewable.

SKILL APPLICATION

SKILLZ

I’ve been spending some time with a quirky turn-based RPG called “Adventure Bar Story” on iPhone. So far, I (Siela) am working hard to build the reputation of the family restaurant, and thwart the wicked owner of Cassel Garden from buying the property. Now I must battle ferocious woodland creatures, collect ingredients that have mysteriously dropped on the ground (like several buggies, full of groceries, simultaneously exploded … probably the work of the woodland creatures), and cook dishes to increase my prestige/cash flow. While the game is addictive, the combat is riddled with skills that are absolutely useless.

Let’s perform some RPG nerdonomics: My mage (Alfine) is Level 11 with a max MP of 109. “Flame Ball” costs 8 MP, and does roughly 70 points of damage. That’s pretty good, but I can usually take out the same monsters with just one attack from my warrior (Fred), with assistance from Alfine or Siela, risking minimal damage from our target. “Poison” costs 6 MP, and does no immediate damage, only 8 per turn. So…why would I waste my time using Poison, if I can just toast a bitch for 2 more MP? Better yet, why would I waste ANY MP, toasting ANY bitches, if I can defeat them with normal attacks? Why should I worry about using spells that cannot justify the loss of MP, against the loss of HP? WHY CAN FRED CAST POISON?! That is poor nerdonomics.

Either Rideon just wanted to make sure I was limited in how long I could grind on the field, or they missed the evolution of JRPG’s. For the past few years, turn based RPG’s have developed several different mechanics that allowed the replenishment of skill/tech/magic points to the character. Whether it was equipment based, passive skill based, combat turn or kill based; MP was being restored at given intervals. This creates a level of strategy other than “Too Bad, Go Sleep” or “Grind to buy Ether for 1500 G“.

A game that had an interesting approach to skill usage, was Paladin’s Quest (skip to 0:52).

As you can see, if you wanted to use skills you had to pay in HP. But if you went to town, you could refill your potions at a store. While this was a simple mechanic, it provided a great sense of balance. Allow me to explain why I feel this way, through how I normally view Old school JRPG battles. WARNING: This is not for the faint of nerd.

BATTLE START > What am I fighting? > 1 Goblin > How much HP do I have? > About 70% across the team > Who has the lowest HP? > Axtuse with 23 HP > How much damage can Axtuse take from a Goblin? > About 15 – 17 HP, so a critical hit will kill him > How much MP does my healer have? > About 30% > How many hits will it take to kill the Goblin? > 2 – 3 physical attacks > How many hits from a spell? > 1 Fire spell > How much MP does my mage have? > About 70% > How many times can my mage cast Fire? > 8 times with Max MP > Who usually attacks first? > Mage > OK so we can wrap this up, how far until I get to a place that I can replenish my points? > Roughly 15 fights away > Does my mage normally attack first? > Not against Dire Hawks > How much damage do they do to Axtuse? > 25 – 27 HP > Do I have healing items? > Only 2 Potions for 30 HP, no Raise items > When does my healer take a turn? > Last > Can the team survive without Axtuse? > Not long if we fight Dire Hawks, also when MP runs out, mage and healer will be helpless.

(RESULT 1) Attack the Goblin, take the hit and pray Axtuse doesn’t die, heal after the battle

(RESULT 2) Use Fire, kill the Goblin, pray I keep fighting Goblins, save the potion

(RESULT 3) RESET

Paladin’s Quest cuts a pretty big chunk out of my model, with focusing solely on HP management. I have to decide that the loss of HP with the spell, is greater than the possible loss of HP in unsuccessfully dispatching the enemy with physical attacks. COMBAT STREAMLINED. Brenda Brathwaite once explained her disgust for excessive navigation through in-game menus. “Every time a menu or text box pops up in a game, it actively works to regress any kind of immersion you’ve created into the game world”.

I reference this, because I feel the same way about balance. Anytime an imbalance occurs, we have to restructure how we interface with the game. It impedes our progress, and may cause some to become apathetic to actually engaging the game the way the developer intended. Establishing effective balance helps immerse the gamer into the full experience that you intended to create.

And don’t get me started on technical imbalances, like item spawns in MMO’s. That’s just cutting off the head of the Hydra.

What did we learn here today, friends?

#1 – Balance gives the players more structure to enjoy every element of the game

#2 – Balance encourages the investment of time and effort into games.

#3 – Axtuse really enjoys JRPG’s

#4 – Dynasty Warriors

© 2012-2013 Brett Wooley. All rights reserved. This article can be shared, as long as credit to the author is given. You cannot re-publish this article as your own.

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4 thoughts on “Balance

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