Balance

At GenCon, I was talking with Kevin Wilson (Sid Meier’s Civilization: the Boardgame, Arkham Horror, Descent, a million others) about balance and playtesting. He said something which I politely balked at: that a simple game needs a lot of testing because it can be easily broken. A very large game needs a lot of balancing and playtesting as well because it is so interdependent. But medium-large games don’t need a lot of playtesting as long as they are complex enough that players can adapt strategies that self-balance the game – focusing on things that maximize their chances and ignoring slight imbalances as rounding error.

I disagreed at the time but was too polite to say so. Now the more I think about it, the more merit it may have. What if many of our games that we find to be paragons of balance are that way because of organic player behavior? I know from experience that balance is largely a guess and check endeavor. I’m playing League of Legends with folks from work lately and I am astounded that there aren’t obvious dominant strategies with such diverse character abilities. Is this because of rugged playtesting and post-launch tweaking and nerfing or because the system is complex enough to allow for self-balancing? What if games that seem needlessly complicated or fiddly (Arkham Horror is a good example) are that way to allow for player flexibility in the hopes that the player, rather than the designer, finds the balance?

F2P Links

It’s amazing to me that in the course of five years we can go from “consumables are the artifacts of greed” to “F2P is the strongest pillar of the industry”. When EA put consumables into Madden 2007 (I believe that was the year), there was an entire shitstorm of rage from the commentariat. Now, consumables are 68 percent of F2P spending and allowing entire distribution types that did not exist previously.

Gamasutra has a great article up by Simon Ludgate on the economics of that particular market that I find incredibly interesting. Designers and companies deserve to get paid for the products and services they provide. If this model helps breed innovation in game design and doesn’t just become a mechanism for extracting revenue from users (nee Zynga), then I welcome the sea change.

Coworkers have introduced me to League of Legends which is confounding in many, many ways, but I have to admit to finding how the business merges with the design to be fascinating. My one worry about these games are their ephemeralness–once Riot moves on, the game is done. There are no artifacts to leave behind. If that is the unfortunate dynamic of privacy prevention, then we all lose.

Tape Delay

TwitShift is a service that will set up a parallel Twitter account that will post what you have posted or retweeted exactly one year to the moment that you tweet or retweet. Last year was a particularly difficult year for me. I had moved to New York City with which I almost immediately fell in hate. My job that moved me there turned out not at all to be what I expected. Watching “Past Zack” tweet for the past few months has been strangely unnerving as the growing angst and depression started to seep into my outward-facing persona.

In January, I was wide-eyed and hopeful. In just two weeks, I’d start to get disenfranchised:

January 19 – First day at new job. No one told me what time, so I’m going in for 9. Strangely nervous!

January 20 – The inspiration. I found it? This is what it felt like?

January 26 – I may finish the draft of this GDD by Wednesday after all… 5200 words in two days ain’t bad.

January 27 – Blarg. My 33 page doc is in the wrong format, needs to be totally reorganized. Here we go!

January 28 – Balls. My design proposal got vetoed.

February 17 – Just saw the most masturbatory design document I have ever seen in my life.

February 23 – I think my team just formed a new band called “Rage Against the Gantt Chart”

By March, I was starting to learn that I wasn’t being respected and it was getting to me:

March 2 – Grr. Breathe. Relax.

March 31 – Unbefuckinglievable.

April 1 – Why do I let myself get this stressed?

April 12 – I totally understand Alan Smithee

April 13 – You know it’s bad when delicious Polish food, getting a game from Germany in the mail and walking home with my love couldn’t cheer me up.

April 26 – No! My beautifully balanced system tumbled like a Jenga tower!

April 27 – Today crossed that line from frustrating to so ridiculous that you have to laugh. It’s a good place to be.

On April 29, my creative frustration must have boiled up and it led to my famous Mario + Tutorials post and everyone started telling me I’d get fired.

May 4 – Wholly depressed. Best time to try writing.

May 5 – Seriously, if I get fired for that I’ll probably kill myself since there will be no one with a sense of humor left in the world.

May 17 – wegyrgwuegroqrgtqwiergfylqwgeflqwergfqpw;re8tyq9rwehfrgbkhgwwuoewr830ywe97wte23gui34hkr32gifewkbfewaoywfeuo412h43hjv532vhj532h23589y532ghi90

May 21 – Quick! Shoulder me out of the way because if you don’t stand 1 inch from the subway door, you won’t be able to get out! i hate ny

June 1 – Some of my work got nuked, but I hid a backup in a place no one would ever think to look – the GDD.

By June, I’d given up and was a downright mess. Our project that had given me so much stress over the past half-year was cancelled for reasons way beyond my area of impact. Nothing looked like it would make sense and I had nowhere to turn.

June 16 – head kablooey

June 28 – Only saw three crimes on the subway this morning. #mondayinnyc

June 28 – Filling up documents with useless data. Thinking about adding some lorem ipsum to see if anyone reads it.

July 6 – It’s so hot out that the area of high pressure has reinflated my hopes and dreams.

July 8 – I’m gonna choke a bitch.

July 12 – The least annoying thing happening in the office right now is the drilling into metal sounds.

July 13 – If enough people believe that our project is uncancelled, then maybe it will be? @radmartigan get working on that.

July 19 – Fast, Good and Cheap. Pick all three.

July 19 – On the verge of totally flipping out. #keepsayingitsfriday

July 19 – When I feel like I am about to lose it, I read “focal feature” as “fecal feature” in a GDD and all is right for a moment.

July 21 – Watched world’s worst mother berate and abuse her child on the subway this morning. No civilized person can live here. I’ve had it.

July 28 – I can just tell this will end poorly.

July 29 – Cells in this s.sheet that are important are highlighted yellow. Cells of cut features are also yellow. Then we just made some more yellow.

By August, despite my internal attitude leaking out to Twitter, I was still creating prolifically and working hard. But when you push yourself to the bone and then you are essentially called worthless, there is little you are left to do.

August 10 – 25 pages of design doc in one day. Not bad.

August 13 – Left Gameloft today. Definition of a poor fit. Anyone know of any openings? RT if you can.

Damn do I feel bad for “Past Zack”. His tweets really do feel like they are coming from a different person. The Twitshift application is a lot different than just reading your old blog or diary. Since it happens in realtime alongside the tweets of real people, it really does feel like you are watching an external real person. Except you have this burden because you know how his story will go before he does. I want to message him and tell him to hang in there, that everything gets better really soon. But I can’t and it breaks my heart.

By October, Past Zack will have moved away from New York but will be really vague about where he is and what he is doing. He won’t want to tell people that he, a grown man, will have moved his things back to his parents house to save money while he looked for a new job. He won’t tweet about the crippling depression he is trying so hard to hide from everyone. In fact, he will try and stick mostly to retweets and quips about football. I think what is more disturbing to me is my knowledge of what is going on behind those tweets, why they get farther apart and why they become less relevant to the things that actually interest me.

By the way, things are completely great for me right now. What a difference a year makes!

Etched

Too long and wonderful to tweet:

Enough pronouncements and posturings about game design as problem-solving, of finding the most effective solution, or the most powerful trump card, and wielding it in the air like an autistic Achilles. Let’s make games. Let’s make good ones. Let’s try to figure out what that means for each of us. Let’s help our colleagues and our players and our critics understand it.

Ian Bogost

I’ve unfollowed so many of the so-called designers-to-follow out there because of their egotistical and unsubstantiated pronouncements on design that X is dead, long live Y; that because they consulted on some obscure title or read some obscure author that they have the true design principles, carved into stone by the hand of God. I’m no relativist, but I cannot believe that what passes for GDC lectures need be read by students and designers alike as gospel.