Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On game design, game balance, and metagames


As a video game enthusiast, one of the things that appeals most to me is the idea of designing my own game. I'm certain I'm not alone in this desire, otherwise new games would cease to be produced. As one might assume from my previous post, my favorite games are multiplayer games that support highly competitive gameplay. Few things are more exciting than seeing the giblets of your decimated opponents being sprayed across the battlefield. So for the sake of this posting, I'm going to be talking specifically about multiplayer games.

We all want to be the very best (like no one ever was). It feels good to win. We all know this. So when game developers go to make their game, it should be (and in most cases is) the foremost thought in their minds. "How do we make the most amount of people have the most amount of fun?" the lead developer rhetorically asks his team, knowing they all know the answer.
"By making them win!" the annoying suck up that nobody likes shouts from his isolated corner.

But winning isn't as satisfying when it can be done in the player's sleep. And in multiplayer games, it can only be achieved by 50% of the players involved in any one game. And nobody just wants to randomly win half of the time, at that point you're just flipping coins. So the question then becomes one of how to make it a challenge. Well, you could certainly give one team an advantage in numbers, skills, guns, resources, etc. But that makes the game easier for the other team. So what most games do is introduce archetypes into their game.

Archetypes can be classes, decks, or some other way of customizing your individual gameplay style. They act as a way of playing rock-paper-scissors. A series of checks and balances within your game system. In the example of rock-paper-scissors, we have 3 archetypes. I'm going to assume we all understand why there are 3 archetypes, and how they balance each other out, as this is the most universal application possible. The rock crushes the scissors flat, no questions asked. But is that fun for the scissors player? In a longer, drawn out game, should it be futile for scissors to even try? No way! We need to take into account how to best balance those two against each other. Obviously, the rock player should have an advantage against his sharp adversary, but it shouldn't be an automatic win. There should be a struggle involved. They should be balanced. “But isn't only having 3 choices of archetype boring?” our most annoying co-worker asks, much to the chagrin of everyone involved in development.

But he's right. It limits the strategy involved. The possible number of games to be played. So what's the right number of archetypes? Let's look at a favorite game of mine as an example: Team Fortress 2. Each class provides a wildly different play style. Each class has its pros and its cons. Their strengths and weaknesses. A Scout will blow away a Medic most of the time, but it's certainly possible for a well played Medic to turn the tables on his speedy foe. There is no one “best” class. There are always situations in which one class is more desirable than any of the other eight, but in competitive play, Team Fortress 2 has two teams of six players pitted against each other. The standard team composition is two Soldiers, two Scouts, one medic and one Demoman.

There are maps and situations where this isn't optimal, but for the sake of not going off on a tangent about when it's best to use what, I'll spare the details. When both teams bring the standard composition every time, the game becomes stale. There are no curve-balls. No slight advantages for either team. So what can a team do to give themselves the edge they are no doubt looking for? They can find the best counter to the standard team. What counters scouts? What counters soldiers? Demomen? What six of our own counter their six? But what happens when the other team does the same thing? Do they both end up with the same team as counter teams? What happens when they both consider this eventuality?

This guessing game becomes what's known as a metagame. It's not actually a guessing game, but rather the development of strategy based on the knowledge of what your personal strengths are, and the opposition's weakness. Sun Tzu sums this concept up well when he wrote “know thyself, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.” Game development should strive desperately to create an environment in which a metagame can flourish. If there is a clear “best” class, the game becomes extremely limiting in its meta. If each archetype is on exact equal footing as each other archetype, it comes to personal preference rather than effective strategy, which again, is not a meta worth creating.

All of these things (and more) should be considered in great detail when you're developing a multiplayer game. Otherwise you end up making a miserable troglodyte of a game like Champions Online.

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16 comments:

  1. Archetypes are the foundation to any truly good competitive game. And Champions Online does fucking blow.

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  2. Champions online was probably one of the worst games i've ever played. Not going to lie.

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  3. i know how you feel bro. i tried to give champions online a chance but it was too damn horrible.. i was pretty close to throwing my damn laptop outside the window

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  4. It helps if you play with people that are willing to mix it up. Play outside their comfort zone to take you out of the metagaming situation.
    Rock Paper Scissors is still popular today because of the metagame, so maybe we can take a lesson off of that!

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  5. Game design has largely gone downhill, it's just a matter of finding the hidden gems.

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  6. Some people see our current game design philosophy as creating the same thing over and over again. Which isn't really far off from the truth, we take a formula that works we try to improve on it and go forward. Capitalism doesn't really work on the idea that innovation is better.

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  7. to catch them is my real test, to train them is my cauuuse

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  8. great read, the philosophy behind game development is really interesting

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  9. So much infos! Good stuff tho, worth the read.

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  10. game design is such a noble profession. especially with piracy the way it is right now.

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  11. damned decent piece of writing.

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  12. A very intellectual look at balancing out of games. While it is possible, like your example TF2, most devs don't put in enough time and effort to create that balance, that's why in most multiplayer games you have people complaining about "noob tubes" and the like.

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  13. good read. and lol @ champs online

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