Thursday, April 10, 2008

Maintaining Equilibrium

This week's lecture and content material covered aspects of the term 'balanced' game play in both PvP and PvE game play environments. This is sure to be a hot topic for many gamers of virtually all genre types, as game play balance is usually something of a concern, especially for those who have ever believed they have received the short end of the stick. Worth mentioning from the lecture was the term 'dominant strategy', a term usually given to game play activities or behaviours that are either non-counteractive or have high levels of success for minimal effort or skill exerted. Examples of dominant strategies include such things as tank rushing in Red Alert, Zerg rushing in Starcraft, spawn camping, button mashing (in exploitable fighting games) and even corridor sniping in games such as CS. While not entirely implicitly designed into games, these sort of game play behaviors can often restrict the outcomes of PvP games, and make them more about a race to or match-up between dominant strategies. It is a 'funneling' effect, that can inadvertently make players either adopt to using said dominant strategies, or expect to lose, severely limiting the many other possibilities game play could present.

Below: Tekken 5 - The button masher's heaven

A subtle example is WoW. I hate to have to use WoW's PvP as an example for this, but I do not know of any better. WoW has strong PvP elements, which, due to the nature of the game, could never really be balanced (especially where PvE is concerned). Completely imbalanced on a 1v1 level and only really leveling out where larger groups are concerned (which is fine), WoW's PvP is an intransitive relationship based on a (very) sketchy rock-paper-scissors model between the nine classes of the game. While this system doesn't always work, there are several major flaws with the design that I find both unacceptable and game breaking, stemming from the 'dominant strategy' idea. Certain classes and certain specs (talent point distributions) of certain classes are infinitely more superior than others for PvP scenarios. Admittedly, some of these weaker 'trees' are more useful for PvE situations, with specs better suited for tanking, efficient healing and high sustained dps.

The problem is that many dominant classes and specs in PvP do not have strong 'shadow costs' (ambiguous weaknesses) that even out the differences between them. For example, distributing talent points into survivability may grant a high level of offensive power for one class, and incredibly weak dps for another. A matchup between these two classes becomes skewed in favour of another, even if the class is not considered its counter. Certain classes also have general dominance over a vast majority of others. Rogues at lvl 70 are a typical example, able to negate both physical and magical damage taken by high amounts as well as having effective and reliable escapes and crowd control, some tied directly to dps (combo point abilities).

Below: WoW PvP - kaaaBOOOM!@!!

*Refrains from using TF2 as an example of good class PvP balance in a game*

Footmen Frenzy, a map modification for Warcraft 3, is an example of a massive PvP imbalance. Much to my displeasure, my housemate's relish the idea of this map, where you are given a free, constantly reinforcing army to assist a hero or hero's of your choice in PvP combat in a small area. Games are usually short, the argument often used to play the map, and my reasonings to dislike it as I know exactly why they are short. The problem with this map is that there is too much reward for the victor of an engagement. Killing an enemy hero and his army means you gain 2-3 more levels than him/her, a large sum of gold (to improve your army) and a numerical advantage in the next engagement. The objective might as well be who can kill the enemy hero first and call it quits after that as it is simply an uphill battle for the fallen of the initial engagement for the rest of the match.

Below: Footmen Frenzy - Basically the guy on the right is dominating the guy on the left

Well after a rather tedious post bordering on a rant, what does this information do for me as a games designer? And how will it relate to our game King of the Hill? There is still debate and confusion as to whether direct skill based PvP will be in the game or not, or whether it will based entirely on the roll of the dice. The exclusion of PvP entirely has been suggested, which in my opinion will result in a rather boring game considering the nature that is classic King of The Hill gametypes. I believe that a strong, strategical implementation of PvP where the player can switch between offensive and defensive positioning by simply rearranging their resources will be an excellent way to incorporate balanced PvP. If everyone has access to the same resources (i.e. number of tokens or whatever) then having a strong defensive will result in a weak offensive and vice versa. PvP outcomes could still have a level of unpredictability by including dice rolls in the encounters. Say a clash of 3 tokens vs 2 tokens will result in the total of 3 dice rolls vs 2. Three dice still have a much larger chance of winning, but two dice could still come out on top. Basically it is a battle of resource distribution, with a small element of chance thrown in for good measure. We shall see how this works in our prototyping...

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