Thursday, March 31, 2011

What is Balance and why do we bother?

I talked a lot about balancing games in my last few posts.  In particular I talked about balancing Final Fantasy 1 recently but the idea of creating balanced games has been a pretty constantly popping up on my blog.  This should be no great surprise because the idea of balance is ubiquitous in conversation about games though I think most people don't really understand what it means.  I am going to try to define what I mean by balance in the general sense and why I think it matters.

A balanced game is one that has a large variety of ways to play well while retaining a much greater number of ways to play badly.  In particular when choosing a strategy and game style there are many different choices that are optimal depending on which of the possible game states the strategy is being used for.  Game balance is drastically more important when player's performance is being compared to one another and when choices that require large investments to change are substantially different in effectiveness.

One of the most talked about types of games in terms of balance is the MMORPG where players choose characteristics of their avatar and then go about trying to do things within the game world.  Game balance is particularly critical here because players are often compared directly to one another and if a particular choice the player has made (most generally class) is undesirable or weak it is often infeasible for the player to change it and thus the player can easily end up simply unable to play or compete at all.  If, for example, Rogues are simply terrible then the player who has made their character a Rogue has no alternative but to start again from the beginning and this is extremely demoralizing and unpleasant for the player.  It is for this reason that many MMORPGs that first come out have huge problems because they start out with enormous power differences between classes and players correctly reason that their performance and measure among their peers is dependent less on their skill and more on an arbitrary, necessarily uninformed choice when first choosing the game.  The power differential between classes does not need to be zero but it needs to be such that an above average player will beat a below average player no matter what their class choices were.

Balance is drastically less critical in single player games for obvious reasons.  Even if a player makes a bad choice it is often not impactful enough to stop them from beating the game anyway.  They may take longer to achieve the same goals as a player that makes a better choice but they can generally win because few single player games allow characters to make such tremendously stupid choices that the game is unwinnable.  Of course the game designers rely on people to not do things that are *obviously* stupid and try to make all the choices where the answer is not obvious ones that can be worked around.  When the benchmark that a player must achieve is fixed then playing optimally is unnecessary because usually practice or grinding can get them past the hurdle; this is not true for multiplayer games where other players make the choices and set the benchmarks.  In FF1 there are some obvious choices to make a more powerful party but *any* starting party can win and in fact the game is beatable even with playing with only 1 character instead of 4.  The main difference is that a bad party takes much more time to win.

The main reason I see game balance as being at all relevant in single player games is replayability.  A big part of the fun in a game is figuring out exactly what the best technique is and how to most easily overcome obstacles.  When that answer is obvious because there are very few or only one optimal choice sets then the game is quickly mastered.  Certainly there is some replayability even in games where optimal choices are easily come by but it is much less than in games where it takes far more time, experience and analysis to determine the perfect strategy.  For example, Diablo 2 was a tremendously fun game.  However, if you were playing a Barbarian you had only one choice - be a Whirlwind Barbarian.  (WWB)  If you tried any other strategy it would be unbelievably painful and you would be easily defeated by many obstacles that a WWB would crush with ease.  While the game was successful as it was it could have had even more replayability if there were a half dozen different combat skills that were at least competitive with WW.  Players would be curious to find out exactly how the different skills worked and in what situations they shone if the answer weren't so bloody obvious - always play WW.  The same could be said of Hammer, Multishot, Corpse Explosion and Static Field - once you see the best in action nothing else is even under consideration.

Essentially I see game balance as providing the player with a greater distance between being totally uninformed and being completely sure of the optimal choices.  If you consider WOW raiding for a moment it is easy to see how balanced it is by this criteria since although it is easy for nearly any player to determine that a party of

Priest x 3
Warrior x 2
Rogue x 5

is absolutely atrocious for attempting t11 raids it is only a truly exceptional player that could tell you accurately whether a party containing precisely 1 of each class is better than a party containing 2 priests, 0 rogues and 1 of each other class instead.  There is a lot to think about there and if you asked top tier raiders to list the best possible raid composition for the entire tier you would end up with thousands (at least) of different combinations that are all very competitive.  FF1 or Diablo 2, by contrast, have a very limited number of optimal choices, probably only a handful.  This doesn't make them bad by any means, but it does mean that have room to improve.  An MMORPG balanced as poorly as FF1 would have a really hard time in the current market since its competition is so much better and balance matters so much more in that genre.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

FF1 balance changes

I didn't actually get any submissions for my FF1 balance contest.  This didn't hugely shock me as it isn't like everyone goes through a 'must play random old video game X' phase at the same time.  That said there were some interesting discussions in the comments so I figured I would post what I came up with anyway.

Magic Changes:

1.  Intelligence does something!  Intelligence adds to your chance to hit with spells.  This makes the Black Mage significantly better at casting attack spells than Red Mage / Ninja and that all that Int the Black Mage gets is useful.  Base success rate of spells reduced from 148 to 128 for players so that overall spell damage does not inflate too much.

2.  Many bad single target spells now hit all applicable targets.  I would have included Rub in this list but since several mobs cast it on the party and it is already brutal when they do this I don't think changing Rub is a good idea.  It means Rub is still bad for players to cast and devastating when used against them.


Fire, Lock, Lit
Ice, Tmpr
Sabr, Blnd, Brak


Lamp, Invs
Pure, AMut

3.  Several bad spells doubled in efficacy.  As part of this all buff/debuff spells no longer stack.  Specifically the dodge spells need to not stack so that ridiculous situations like the whole party being invulnerable to physical attacks don't occur.  I realize this makes the White Mage only party totally useless but I am okay with that.


4.  Changes in spell levels:  Pure to L2, Soft to L4, Mute to L6.

The idea behind these changes accomplish 2 things.  First, to make spells that were almost never worth casting actually decent, which is true for most of the changes.  The other major shift is to make the low level BMagic damage spells decent.  Low level BMages are total junk compared to melee because they get only a couple of decent actions before they are back to swinging uselessly with daggers.  Now BMages will actually have a few totally awesome actions before having to resort to useless swinging instead!  RMages might even learn and cast attack spells before Fir2 also.  Obviously beyond about level 10 this stops being very relevant, which is fine, because at that point BMages have enough spells they can contribute pretty consistently.

Thief and Fighter changes.

Mostly people agree that all the classes have good and bad points and are reasonable inclusions in a party except for Fighter and Thief.  Fighters are flat out the best to the point that it is probably almost as quick to win with 2 Fighters as it is with a 4 person party including 0 Fighters.  Thieves are unbelievable junk.  The primary reason for this is Fighters get the best attack progression, best weapons, best armor, best HP and best damage progression and Thieves get to be either average or terrible at pretty much all of these.  Changes:

Base Attack%:  5  (was 10)
Attack%/level:  1  (was 3)

Base Attack%:  10  (was 5)
Attack%/level:  6  (was 2)

With these changes Thieves hit about as hard as Fighters used to and Fighters hit about as hard as Thieves used to.  Fighters will still be massively tough and fantastic for filling the front line but for hard hitting physical attacks you will want either a Thief or BB.

Difficulty changes.

These last changes are designed to make the parts of the game that were simply too easy significantly more challenging.  I don't mind some parts being easier than others but in any fantasy setting the final boss is supposed to be a real challenge and the fight should take awhile.  Many of the game's dungeon bosses are simply too weak and die too quickly - it is common for a fairly challenging dungeon to be ended by a boss fight that lasts only 1 or 2 combat rounds.

Vampire, Lich, Kary, Kraken, Tiamat, Chaos:  Health increased by 100%.
Pirates:  Health increased by 900% to 60.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

FF1 challenge

I talked a little bit about Final Fantasy 1 in my last post and I wanted to extend that discussion a bit here.  In particular Sthenno replied that he thought that FF1 would not be a better game with the changes I had outlined for the Fighter and the Thief to bring them much closer together in power.  It is entirely true that the game is beatable with any random party with sufficient grinding since no matter how bad your party is you can grind up to very high level and beat the game, even if that party is just 1 Thief I suspect.  Certainly if your party is 4 Thieves you will find the game very long and much of it very boring but you certainly will win.  My contention though is that even though the game is clearly beatable with any group, and in fact is not that hard with any reasonable group, the game would be better if there were more ways to build a powerful group.  Clearly you can be foolish and make lots of terrible decisions and the game needs to have those bad choices as an option to make it interesting at all.  However, I have an issue with decisions that are

1.  Irreversible
2.  Not easily testable or obvious from a numbers/game advantage point of view
3.  Not matching the intuitive roleplaying (RP) sense that players have

being very impactful towards overall party power.  For example, taking a party that has no healing magic is going to have some significant disadvantages but because that is easy to test at any point in the game, obvious and matches the RP intuition players have I don't have a problem with it.  The same is not true of thieves since there is an assumption that thieves, being a character class, are probably good for something and that assumption fails. It is not easy to test this out because you need to play through most or all of the game to understand how good the class is going to be and it isn't obvious to the player because most of the mechanics that make thieves bad aren't listed anywhere.

What it boils down to is I consider a game poorly constructed if someone with no previous knowledge can sit down, look at descriptions of things and make decisions based on common knowledge and those decisions will often be extremely stupid.  Note that it is okay if those decisions are stupid if the player can test them and change them relatively easily - in WOW if you want to test out a character spec or particular talent you can do so and then change your mind if it turns out to not be as good as you thought initially.  In FF1 some decisions are like that in that you can buy a spell, discover it is terrible, and then buy another.  You can try putting your White Mage in the front line and after watching them die you try a Fighter instead and notice that it works much better that way.  Choosing class composition for your party is not something you can change or easily test so it needs to be much more balanced and robust so that making really stupid decisions is obvious without extensive testing. A veteran who has completed the game 50 times isn't much inconvenienced by game balance like the Fighter/Thief but a new player really would be.  I like having lots of interesting choices as long as testing or changing those choices don't require sinking another 50 hours into the game.

I want to have a little contest.  Specifically I want to see what other people would do to balance FF1.  The main points:

1.  Don't bother with bugs.  Assume the bugs in the game are fixed (there are many) and work from there.

2.  Try to be succinct.  The smaller your list of changes (while still accomplishing the same end!) the better.

3.  Try to increase choice without increasing power.  For example, the Fog spell is terrible and I never cast it.  Making Fog give enough of an absorb bonus that you regularly but not always use it in combat is a good change - it is still decreasing damage taken but won't hugely boost party power if done right.  On the other hand, adding new healing spells to L2 White Magic would hugely increase party power pretty much no matter how good they were because that spell level has no healing right now.

4.  Try to make the classes comparable to one another keeping in mind the current progression of equipment.

5.  Think about class power in all game phases.  BlackBelts are useless in early game and overpowered in extreme late game.  You can use that as a balancing mechanism if you want but keep it in mind.  I personally don't much like 'sucks early, OP late' or the reverse as a balancing mechanism but some people don't mind it.

6.  Use exact game mechanics if you know them, if not just be as specific as you can.

7.  Remember that balance does not mean everything is the same - it is just fine for some choices to be good in some circumstances but not others.  Having lots of casters is good for huge packs of undead, having lots of melee is good for magic resistant monsters.  What I want to avoid is choices that are always bad in all situations.

8.  Send your document to me at  or just include the changes in the text of the email.

9. and have useful information and formulas.

I will post the entries and my thoughts on them on tuesday next week.  Have fun!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When is it okay to be bad?

I have been inspired by Ziggyny's Final Fantasy experiment and downloaded a NES emulator and FF1 so that I can replay and relive Final Fantasy 1.  This game holds a very dear place in my heart as the first and probably most beloved of all the RPG single player games I have ever tried.  I remember the trouble this game got my brother and I into as we both wanted to play but the cartridge could hold only a single saved game - I accidentally saved over my brother's game once when he was halfway through and the crying and apologies that followed that little incident were legendary.  Thankfully I don't have to play it on the original NES system though and can play on an emulator where I can speed up the action when things get tedious and save at any point instead of only in towns.

Ziggyny is a lot more hardcore than me about going back to FF1.  He is playing a party of a single thief, which is certainly a trying and painful endeavour.  Thieves are by far the worst class in FF1 for a variety of reasons.  First, their special ability is running away from fights which is both bugged such that it doesn't work properly and is very weak even if it does work.  Being able to run away is fine and all but eventually you have to fight some really hard monsters and at that point you really need to be powerful rather than fleet of foot.  Unsurprisingly the parties that are powerful and can beat the hard bosses are also powerful enough to just beat all the random encounters too.  This leaves the thief as a good character when you have no plans to do anything of note and since adventurers in fantasy games have a tendency to do things that are important thieves have no value.  A single thief is much, much more challenging than a single fighter because thieves are useless and fighters are seriously overpowered.  In one particular encounter (Astos the dark elf) Ziggyny is looking at getting his thief up to level 26 to have a real shot at winning and might not be able to do it until level 28.  I went in with my solo warrior at level 12 and smashed Astos easily on my first try.  It is even more ridiculous when you learn that Ziggyny needs 270,000 XP to get to level 28 and I needed 20,000 to get to level 12, most of which I got just by playing the game up to that point.  He, on the other hand, needs to kill monsters over and over for ~25 hours just to have a chance.

So thieves are terrible and warriors are overpowered.  Question is, does this make the game bad?  I think that in general having a particular choice be really bad (or really good) isn't a problem given a few conditions.

1.  There must be a variety of reasonable choices.

2.  These choices must not make player vs. player play extremely narrow

3.  The choice must be something that can be unmade.

FF1 fails on 1 and 3 and since there is no PvP it can't fail on 2.  I think 3. is the most powerful argument against having really drastic power differences between various characters.  The game takes a long time to play and you can't change which characters are in your group after you first begin.  If you started a group with several fighters you would almost certainly find the game not that rough whereas if you started with several thieves you would find it extremely brutal and it would necessitate a lot of boring grinding.  An example of where having serious power differences is okay is a fighting game like Street Fighter.  There are lots of reasonably balanced choices with different styles and you aren't bound to any one choice for any length of time so having a character or two that absolutely sucks is no problem.  The player can try them, discard them, or continue to play them just for kicks but they never need feel like they made an uninformed choice that made the game overly hard or long, nor a choice that made the game trivial.

In any game where PvP is a large component it is necessary to have many comparable options.  They need not be identical but they all have to be competitive.  Rock/paper/scissors matchups are one way to achieve this but there are many others.  In those situations it is fine to have a few bad options but it is terrible to have a few overpowered options since those will be the only ones anyone plays, reducing the real choice players have substantially.  In a game without PvP having one particularly powerful choice still seems poor but it restricts player choice a lot less since many people will still choose a suboptimal route to experiment.  As long as many routes can be taken that succeed in defeating the game things are never too bad.  If there were only 3 classes in FF1 then having 1 bad, 1 good, 1 medium would be a disaster.  The only variety would be in how easy the game is.  If there were 15 classes then having 1 bad option would give the choice of a 'hard mode' while still leaving a huge variety of good choices.  6 classes, which is what FF1 has, seems like it is on the cusp between 'few' and 'many'.  I think the game would have been a lot better if the fighter were substantially nerfed and the thief substantially buffed but it isn't a catastrophe.  After all, the game *was* a hell of a lot of fun.

My proposals to level the playing field between classes:

Thief:  4% hit/level instead of 2.  Base %hit=15 instead of 5.
Fighter:  2% hit/level instead of 3.  Base %hit=7 instead of 10.
Fighter:  Base Str = 10 (was 20), Luck = 10(was 5), Int = 5(was 1)

There are a million and one other game alterations I would make to smooth things out even more but these would at least make the Thief a very heavy hitter and make the Fighter much wimpier in terms of damage output.  Doing this would actually have the Fighter fill the role of the tank who has a ton of HP and armour but doesn't hit very hard and would have the Thief fill the role of high damage dealer who is fairly weak on defense.  You would still certainly want a Fighter in the ideal party as the front line damage soaker but you wouldn't also want tons of them in the back row because they hit harder than anyone else too.  :)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fighting with the interface

My guild has recently started working on Heroic Atramedes.  One of the key things to the fight is dealing with Searing Flame, which is a channel by the boss that does hideous amounts of damage to the raid and has to be interrupted by clicking on a gong.  You cannot click early or it just delays the Searing Flame and wastes one of your very limited gongs.  The trouble is that Searing Flame ticks extremely quickly and even a half second delay pretty near guarantees deaths of raid members either to the Searing Flame itself or a follow up AOE attack.  When you must click in a time window of significantly less than 1 second or the raid wipes you have a great recipe for an extremely random encounter.  Due to totally normal latency and realistic human reaction time you are simply going to have regular failures no matter what you do.  Even on normal mode we found the mechanic of mandatory interrupts on a cast that is exceedingly quick (and without a proper UI notification, no less) really unpleasant.  On heroic mode you have no room for error and a slight delay is certainly fatal instead of just really bad.

People noticed this of course and developed an ingenious and hilarious workaround.  There is a mod that places a circular spot on your screen that you cannot click through.  The idea is you place that circular spot over the gong and click furiously on it when the Searing Flame cast is coming and the mod will remove the spot the instant Searing Flame begins.  Thus you should have roughly a .1 second response time to the cast and it should be interrupted every time.  Hardmode raiding is absolutely full of 'do this right now or die' moments, probably epitomized by Heroic Chimeraon, but those actions simply should not require reactions in less than .5 second time windows.  Blizzard noticed the huge effect the mod was having on the success of raids and changed the Searing Flame mechanic to a guaranteed tick at the start of the cast and then new ticks every 2 seconds.  This means that players have a really reasonable time period to interrupt that can be hit every time under normal latency conditions.  The new mechanic forces you to pay attention and play right but skilled players with normal connections will take precisely 1 tick every time and win, which is exactly as it should be.  Unfortunately Atramedes already lent itself very strongly to another mod which allowed everyone to see each other's sound levels.  Because this is simply not necessary on heroic (if you get too much sound you just die) I am a little less worried about it, but it is somewhat silly that there are gongs to hit to get people's sound down and yet there is no way to know what someone else's sound is without using a mod.

I am all for challenging encounters but I think the types of challenges involved need to be ones that do not so easily lend themselves to mods rather than intelligent decisions.  Any time you create a challenge that requires proper allocation of resources or strategic alterations then players must respond appropriately.  Challenges that are simply reaction time checks really have a minimum time window where they can be dealt with by players rather than machines and keeping all checks like that above that minimum is important so as to not make running specific mods for each encounter necessary.  The casts on Maloriak (which we just downed on heroic!) are a good example of where this is challenging but doable.  Once the cast time slow is applied there is sufficient time for a skilled raider to figure out which spell is being cast and interrupt it in time.  It isn't perfect, of course, because having a boss mod give a 'shake and rumble' when the cast you care about starts is very powerful.  That said, it is entirely doable without.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Testing against Jon Finkel

Jon Finkel is a Magic:  The Gathering legend.  Acknowledged as one of the top players of all time even currently he was a beast when at his best.  I recall I story about Finkel from back when I was playing a lot of Magic in university.  It goes vaguely like this:

Finkel was testing some tournament decks against another player to find out how strong a particular deck was.  They played a number of games and Finkel won 80-20.  The other player was pretty dismayed because he felt like the matchup should have been much more in his favour than that and was concerned that his deck simply wasn't viable because it was so bad in this particular matchup.  They decided to swap decks and play some more and Finkel again won 80-20.  It turns out that the decks they were playing were roughly equal overall but that Finkel was just so good that he could turn a 50-50 into 80-20 in his favour ... even against another pro.

I was pretty decent at Magic but I sure was never in Finkel's league, despite the fact that I ended up playing Forbiddian (Finkel's signature deck) in the same formats he did pretty regularly.  I find though that this lesson is one that I see when I try to test FMB.  I have played more games of FMB than everyone else on the planet added together.  This means it is no great violation of modesty to say that I am by far the best player alive by a substantial margin; if I had logged as many games as I have and was not that much better than everyone else I would certainly feel like a bit of a failure.  The trouble with this is when I change a mechanic or add a new one I need to test it and to test properly I would need an opponent that can go 50-50 against me so I can determine if the mechanic is a problem overall.  Normally I win all my games roughly 35-45 so I have some guideline - if I use a particular artifact and then win 30-45 there is some reason to think that artifact is really spectacular.  Problem is that there is a fair bit of randomness in those results and separating out the effect of one particular artifact or spell from the noise of strategy, other cards, random luck and other factors isn't really feasible.  Certainly winning a handful of games with a larger or smaller margin than usual would fail even the most forgiving statistical analysis so unless I have extreme amounts of time for games I really can't rely on points spread for my data.

You might say "Play against yourself!"  You might say that, and perhaps there are people who can adequately play two sides of a game that has hidden information and play properly but I certainly cannot.  I always find that one of the teams becomes 'my team' in my mind and I find myself trying to get that team to win.  It is also quite silly to play knowing your opponent has 


when I really shouldn't.  Compartmentalizing my mind such that I can accurately determine what I would have done if the other part of me held an unknown card instead of that particular one just isn't something I am capable of.  I don't know that anyone (who would otherwise be considered sane) could do it, but I sure can't.  A part of FMB too is faking the opponent out and making moves that indicate a particular card when you don't have it to convince them to guard against an attack that will never come.  Bluffing, of course, goes out the window and I can't figure out how I could adequately model that with full knowledge.

I suppose that playing against nearly any other player isn't going to make that any different though.  The number of people who actually know FMB isn't large, and the number that are familiar enough to actually try to bluff me is less than a handful, if any.  Most likely I just need to look at the card and think a lot about it and then take it in a few games to see if anything shakes out in actual play that I did not think of in abstraction.

Spell:  Trickery

Cast:  During your Spell phase

Effect:  Choose two units on either team that are not inside a Fortress or on a Mine.  Swap the locations of those units.

Spell:  Tunnel

Cast:  During your Spell phase

Effect:  Choose one friendly unit.  Move that unit onto any unoccupied Mine you control.

These are the two spells I have most recently been testing.  Both are extremely complicated to calculate the value of and definitely require in game trials to establish their value.  I played them both in a couple of test games and in both cases they got cast fairly quickly, had some real value, and felt comparable in value to other spells.  I think Trickery has the greatest potential of any spell to create huge swings but it also has the potential to be absolutely wretched if the opponent responds with spells to counter the intended plan.  Tunnel is fairly innocuous and after a bit of testing seems like a fine spell but nothing exciting.

Artifact:  Queen’s Diadem

Use:  During your opponent’s Spell phase

Effect:  Choose a unit.  That unit cannot be attacked this turn

This is an artifact being tested that also was hard to be sure of.  Would it end up being really overpowered?  So far it seems to be quite powerful occasionally, pretty near useless occasionally, and usually useful.  All my tests so far on these new cards have been done either playing against myself, which I acknowledge as not very controlled testing, or against 1 other new player who is a good gamer but clearly not 50-50 material.  I guess I need a gazillion geeks all over the internet trying to break my game and find the best strategies so that they can write articles for each other on how it is done.  Maybe gigantic online tournaments where all card choices and results are recorded so I can peruse a database to find which cards and strategies were emerging dominant.  Also, I would like a pony.

A few more cards I am testing right now:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Crafting things

Tobold talked about crafting today and it made me think about how crafting works and how it ought to work.  WOW crafting has a few different issues, some of which would require a total overhaul to fix and some of which would be easier.

1.  Each individual craft used to level up is trivial.  When I cap out a profession I have to make 500 different things so there is no possible way those things could be individually relevant.  They end up being junk, food for the vendor.

2.  Everyone takes the same path to capping out.  This makes levelling a profession boring because every person does it precisely the same way.  There is no sense of discovery.

3.  Every crafter is the same.  Once you get a recipe there is no difference whatsoever between the best and the rest.  The fact that there is no way to be a more skilled crafter is a loss.

The way I would address these if I were designing a system from scratch is to firstly make every craft much more relevant.  Rather than creating 500 (or even 300) things I would want crafting to take many less crafts, maybe more like 30.  The trick to making this work is that of course each craft would need to be much more challenging.  I would set up a system where a crafter would have 3 new recipes available to them.  To learn more and advance their craft the crafter would have to complete one of the recipes in their log, much like completing a quest, and then a new recipe would pop into that spot.  All recipes that have ever been completed would go into the crafter's permanent repertoire to be crafted again whenever the crafter wishes.  Since the acquisition of recipes is random everyone would take their own course through crafting and would need to make 1 of everything to learn all the recipes available to them.

I would make it such that completing a craft requires a combination of items you get acquire from the Auction Hall, vendors, and personal collection/questing.  Because you have 3 crafts available at all times you should be able to collect the ingredients as you quest and move through zones to make appropriate gear.  Because these crafts would require a lot of effort rather than just buying the materials I would definitely want there to be a substantial experience award for completing each one.  I would think that awarding experience for subsequent crafts of the same recipe would be fine, but the additional ones would be worth much less than the first.  The idea would be for crafters to be able to earn a lot of experience through crafting but that levelling purely through crafting would be not ideal.  Essentially I would be aiming for the 'optimal' levelling path to be to level professions alongside doing level appropriate quests.

The final major change to crafts is I would want them to produce variable results.  I would achieve this by implementing a mini game for each craft that would be necessary to complete each craft.  For example, blacksmithing could require a game of Minesweeper to complete a helmet.  If the player plays Minesweeper terribly the item would end up being:

Str 5
Sta 5
Crit 4
Hit 6

If the player plays perfectly the final item would look like:

Str 8
Sta 9
Crit 8
Hit 9

The idea would be that items have a substantial range in power and that range is determined by how well the crafter plays the minigame associated with that craft.  In this way crafters would actually be very much distinguished by their skill and a particular person could produce top notch goods while someone with less skill and practice would make things that were decent, but worse.  The idea would be to create a variable market for goods of slightly varying quality.  I would aim to have the items produced by appropriate level crafts with moderate skill to be more powerful than items acquired by questing or from drops.  Basically if someone levels up their crafting as they adventure I would want all their completed projects that are class appropriate to be the best equipment they can acquire for a substantial length of time.

I would hope that these changes would integrate crafting into levelling much more smoothly and make each part of the process feel much more rewarding.  Crafting would worth pursuing even if you had no intention of making endgame equipment both for the experience and the equipment acquired along the way.  In theory someone who really wanted to just craft could even level to the cap by crafting and establish a name for themselves as the best crafter of their kind around because their results could actually be superior to nearly anyone else.  They could find a real role in the world without having to kill anything.  In a fantasy fighting game I don't think being a crafter needs to be the optimal path but I like the idea of it being possible.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I'm gonna get that Bismarck

I was playing CiV today and Bismarck was talking the smack.  Out of the blue he pops up onto my screen and informs me that:

"I couldn't help but notice how pathetic you are.  And when I noticed, I couldn't help but share."

Oh, so you wanna talk some trash, eh Bismarck?  Time for me to cram some battleships up that ugly German butt of yours.  Despite the fact that Bismarck is not angry at me because he is an AI and has no emotions, and the fact that I really cannot get any revenge on anything that will notice, I send my battleships after the evil dictator Bismarck and smash him mightily.

Lots of people hate this.  They get really angry that the AI dials them up just to spew insults, but interestingly the reactions are split into many quite opposing camps.  Some people just hate the fact that the AI does this at all because it upsets them; they are willing to engage in warfare and destruction but being directly insulted is not something they want out of a video game.  The most amusing camp to my mind is the camp that wants the ability to insult the AI back!  They clamor for the option to call up an AI leader and pick from a list of insults to hurl at them, acknowledging all the time that this option doesn't even have to have a game effect.  The final group is simply angry that the programmers did this at all because it breaks immersion; they feel like leaders of nations don't act that way towards one another.

I do not fall into the 'hate this' camp.  I think it is wonderful!  I get all irritated by the AIs that choose to call me up just to act vitriolic and bitter and I either declare war to teach them a lesson or nurture deep dark hatreds and plan to destroy them when the time is right.  Mwahaha!  The pure game of numbers and tactics holds my attention well enough, and sometimes I just ignore the personalities being simulated and just play the game.  Other times though I get really personal with my civ and I have a lot of fun reacting in entirely emotional ways.  Sometimes it makes tactical sense to kill one civ but instead I go after another just based on these illogical, emotional responses triggered by AI cutscenes.  I even have my favourite leaders, and my favourite punching bags.  I get along just fine with Gandhi and Montezuma but Oda Nobunaga and Bismarck are high on my hit list - you just can't trust those guys!

I suspect a lot of the haters are just bitter that they got insulted and couldn't do anything about it.  Their natural irritation at being insulted appeared but there is no option to insult back and open warfare often isn't possible if you are trying to win.  I think adding in the ability to counterinsult the AI would be a hilarious and awesome addition to the game, though at this point it isn't the most pressing issue by any stretch.  Perhaps there could be a minor diplomatic penalty for doing so that only lasts a little while, just enough to cause leaders on the verge of war to go over the edge and attack.

"That's right Bismarck, Germany has bad food.  And beer sucks.  What you gonna do about it, punk?"

Also, I have many battleships and a desire to use them.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Designing upgrades

In my last post I talked a bit about CiV design decisions.  Ziggyny questioned my stance, at least in part basing his criticism around the idea that upgrades that come later in a game don't have to be as good as earlier ones - in fact they can cost more and be worse and still be good to take.  His primary example was Starcraft 2, which uses that exact model.  For simplicity, SC2 upgrades look like this:

Cost: 100
+1 damage on all attacks.

Attack2 (requires Attack1)
Cost: 200
+1 damage on all attacks.

Attack3 (requires Attack2)
Cost: 300
+1 damage on all attacks.

Now since the player in SC2 generally starts with a small army and gets bigger as they go along the upgrades make a lot of sense.  The later upgrades are still very much worth it because they affect so many units.  Of course they aren't as necessary as the early ones; you might skip the later levels of upgades.  This system works fine.  To extend this to CiV mechanics though, imagine that there was a set of upgrades just like the ones above, but there were also two other sets of upgrades available.

Cost: 100
-1 damage on all damage taken

Defend2 (requires Defend1)
Cost: 200
-1 damage on all damage taken.  Heal 1 damage every 2 seconds.

Defend3 (requires Defend2)
Cost: 300
-1 damage on all damage taken.  Heal 1 damage every 2 seconds.  -20% damage taken.

Cost: 100
+20% movement speed.

Speed2 (requires Speed1)
Cost: 200
+20% movement speed.  +20% attack speed. 

Speed3 (requires Speed2)
Cost: 300
+20% movement speed.  +20% attack speed.  +20% training rate.

Nobody is ever going to take Attack2 or Attack3.  They cost a lot, just like the other upgrades, but they aren't even remotely comparable in power.  On a really huge map, if you were doing a mission for an hour, you might run out of other upgrades to take and eventually break down and take Attack2 or Attack3.  Until you get to that point where all the useful things are taken though you are never going to be interested.  The Defend and Speed trees above are roughly analogous to the Science, Culture, XP, Food and Production building tracks in CiV.  The more modern buildings have really powerful effects and large costs to go with them.  However, their powerful effects are so good that you definitely want to acquire and build them as soon as possible.  You can't get them all, so you need to figure out which ones are best in which cities, but unlocking a new building is important - you probably want to build them right away.

If you have a building track that looks a lot like the Attack tree it is going to be absolutely ignored.  The later buildings will never get built since you won't run out of actual good things to do so having them there just isn't relevant.  Of course, you might not really know this in your first game and you might well build them.  I don't think 'trap for newbies' is a particularly good niche though.  Lots of games get by on very shallow gameplay where after a few tries a good player will know exactly what to do in every game because so many of the options are so terrible.  The best games have a number of options all of which will be selected by good players depending on game state.  This means that games will take many different forms and lots of strategies will be feasible.  

In the unmodded game of Civ, for example, the only buildings that are relevant are universities and colosseums.  Nothing else matters.  If you are playing optimally you will never under any circumstance build more than 3/4 of the buildings in the game because they simply aren't good.  This leads to incredibly repetitive play and poor replayability.  A big focus in my modding has been to make sure that lots of different things are reasonable.  Sometimes I need more money so I build some banks.  Sometimes I need more border expansion so I build temples.  Sometimes I need a powerful army so I build barracks.  I know I have done something right when figuring out the optimal choices is difficult and I know that small changes in the game would have changed my choice.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Fixing it wrong

At launch CiV had some really interesting balance choices.  It is possible to justify some of them based on bizarre logic but it is clear that mostly they were made pretty much randomly as exhaustive testing wasn't done.  Example:

Cost: 120
Effect:  +25% Gold in this city


Cost: 220
Effect:  +25% Gold in this city

Stock Exchange
Cost: 650
Effect:  +33% Gold in this city

Who the hell thought that this was a good design decision?  The trouble is that Marketplaces come along when your city may well be producing 2-4 Gold a turn so their return is wretched.  The other problem is that Banks and SEx cost so much and are quite likely to never recoup their cost because their effects simply aren't big enough.  When I built my mod to try to make this chain of buildings decent I changed them to:

Cost: 120
Effect:  +3 Gold

Cost: 220
Effect:  +33% Gold in this city

Stock Exchange
Cost: 450
Effect:  +50% Gold in this city

Note the SEx is cheaper and better, the bank is better and the Marketplace is entirely different - a fixed Gold income is useful in the early game when the building appears.  Firaxis apparently agreed with me that Marketplaces didn't work because low % returns on early game buildings are terrible (in the early game).  Here is their solution:

Cost: 120
Effect:  +25% Gold in this city
Effect:  +2 Gold

Cost: 250
Effect:  +25% Gold in this city

Stock Exchange
Cost: 500
Effect:  +33% Gold in this city

They lowered the cost on SEx, good.  They gave the Marketplace +2 Gold, good.  Wait a minute... the Bank is identical to the Marketplace except it costs twice as much and has a strictly inferior effect!  What the *hell* guys, don't you look at your changes before publishing this crap?

The crazy thing is they made lots of good changes in this patch.  I actually went through and deleted a ton of my code in my mod because they fixed things up so that my changes weren't necessary.  This is a good sign!  It sure isn't a good sign though that a single person can look over the new game for an hour and come up with a stack of ridiculous contradictions and bad decisions that they made with their updates.  I guess I need to start hassling them to hire me to the coding team.