Thursday, 12 July 2012

Thoughts and theories on game development (I) - balance and variation

It seems that this is my first time posting nothing in the past 30 days...anyway here's another project or longer studies on game development. The topics listed below are a bit irrelevent each other, but they actually surround the consideration on the attractive force between players, game and developer.

Sometimes I'm simply too lazy to type stuffs in Chinese (in fact there's a passage about RPG systems in this blog in Chinese, typed several years ago), but using English won't affect how the systems be described.

1) Balance and variation on different games
2) Classifying card and chess games
3) Theories developed based on games: walkthroughs and techniques
4) Theories developed based on musical games

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Definition. A balanced game implies that in long term, when a player is repeatedly making decision based on similar choices given, his/her choices won't be skewed seriously, but making decision averagely on different choices available. Sometimes it may refer to the average of entire player population.

On another hand, variation is rather a "clear" concept, where more different elements, characters, items or story lines are given.

Notice that both criterion are closely related because the how the game decisions are balanced act as a "multiplier" on how the game can vary because what the game available isn't exactly what the player plays. In a very unbalanced situation, e.g. choosing a particular character makes the game easy to play while it's nearly impossible to play with the rest of the character, a large proportion (the rest of the players are usually refers to the challenger group mentioned later) of players will take the easy route and it greatly restricts how the game can perform.



One classic example would be street fighter or the KOF series. With beginners wondering how the versions make differences but it really does deliver a huge difference starting with details. The game begins with choosing characters and this is significantly important. By deafault the three characters listing together form a team (related to the storyline) and each of them has their strength and weaknesses so that they can cooperate each other. At the same time, players are asked to play against more than half of the entire team before the final boss, and it forces players to choose a balanced team (unless players' ability is significantly higher than the CPU, but this won't happen in higher-level competitions). At the same time, players has numerous selection on the formation of the team, and has a wide range of opponents. With more different encounters, the theory on usage of a character/against a character is quickly developed among players. The "walkthrough" actually provides incentives for new players to use a wide range of characters which is a looping which keeps on promoting the game.

Another feature about fighting games are about power gauge and super moves. The super moves deliver a large damage but with certain defensive response they could be blocked. It has been a very difficult and interesting topic to discuss among advanced players. In order to hit the opponents with the super moves, one must deliver a long command string when the opponent can't defend, for example in the mid air or under attacking breaks. How hard the super moves defendable greatly affect the strength of a player. On another hand, in later versions of KOF there's another gauge for summoning the 4th teammate in a team to perform an assisting move, and the concern is actually how this extra hit affects the original combo of the character. If the character can successively attack the opponents with the assisting hit, this could be a very monstrous combination which is fatal to the opponents with even 1 mistake and this shouldn't be happening in the game because errors should be forgiven so that reversing the game is possible. Considering these two criteria KOF98' is actually one of the favourite among the KOF series not the rest, although more players know the later version like KOF00' or the version on Xbox, etc under promotion of the new versions with commercial consideration, and the producers won't really talk about the old but good versions because it won't increase how many they can sell.

Besides action games, RPG games is another field that balancing settings rule. One of the epic RPG games, Fire Emblem did a wonderful job by setting the weapons and "job" available. There're two cycles: sword < lancer < axes < sword, and holy < elemental < dark < holy, and each occupation has their types of weapon limited. In the game resources are explicitly restricted (one can only get money in the villages) players must apply a balanced team (otherwise, for example, a pure heavy-armor teams is too weak against axes, and too slow to complete the tasks within the round limit), and it actually provides a greater horizon to the players, on the interaction between characters, and a comprehensive tatics could be developed.

However, not every single game requires balance droughtly, especially when the game is more like a "chess" game, for example, the "advanced war" series. With some complicated alogarithms, we could show that a fixed tactic is the most beneficial and some certain types of army is produced significantly more than the rest. This is not a serious problem because the problem is inverted: sample population make diversified decisions while advanced players specified in one tactics and the game system allows a single tactic. This is not a problem as pro-players used to make the same decision every time because he's more familiar with it (note that this is not contradictory with balancing the game), and in a chess-like game a mathematically best solution is a must-solutions for people trying to get the top scores.

Recently we can see that game developers are spotting for a large gaming population, including ladies and the elderly. One famous example is the Wii sports in Wii where simple games for basic players. The motivation of playing games can be simple classified as:

i) Just for fun and relaxing. That's what basic players do.
ii) Challenge themselves and test the limit, or for competitions with other players. They are usually advanced players.

These two groups of players requires different hardness in the game, and as a result recently games are made with various difficulties to fit both target groups. comparing with Super Mario land or Super Mario GB in 1990s where the game is straight forward: staring from 1-1, then 1-2...until you run out of life and you'll lose the entire game and have to restart from 1-1, Mario games these days store the state everytime you pass a stage, and you are not required to start all over even with a failure. For advanced players, what they'll try is to beat the game as fast as possible (speed-run), without damage, or re-creation based on mario gaming system (mario print, or creating music by making a "automatic map") and it has been successful.

Another field that makes significant differences in easier and harder sections are the musical games, typically TnT (Taiko no Tatjusin), despite how the music were made, extreme maps are produced constantly and the top players keep on feeding the machines with coins to beat the map for whatever reason.

To make a conclusion, balance and variation are closely related, and systems attract more players, and this is the most basic measurement of the sales of a game, of course it's not easy to achieve due to the complexity of the game, especially in real-time action games.

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