• kentona
  • 02/05/2008 12:00 AM
FUNdamentals of RPGs
Part VI - Balancing

By kentona
Based on the book Swords & Circuitry by Neal Hallford and Jana Hallford.

In exploring what makes an RPG fun to play, this article series will explore the following areas:
I. The Role of the Player
II. Attributes and Skills
III. Story
IV. Quests and Objectives
V. Rewards
VI. Balancing

And now for the chilling conclusion to the FUNdamentals of RPGs series...

Principles of Balance
The effort spent balancing your game is truly effort spent making sure all the components of your game - roles, attributes, skills, story, worldbuilding, quests, risks and rewards - fit together in a coherent and satisfying package. Here is a list a few general principles to keep in mind when designing and implementing your game.

Give Players Problems, not Puzzles
Try not to put any obstacle in the player's way that can only be overcome with one specific method. It forces the player to try and read your mind. Every obstacle ought to have multiple methods of completion. This goes for battles (one of the most common obstacles), too.

Gamespace is for Gameplay
Don't bother adding dead space into a game, such as empty rooms, mindless filler NPCs, or overlarge, mostly empty world maps. It may seem like that adding such things increases the game's realism, and hence making it more fun, but in actuality, it is just wasted effort. If you want realism, don't play games. There must be something for the player to discover or interact with in all gamespace.

Never Trap the Player
Players should always have a way forward from whatever situation they are in. It is absolutely unacceptable to ever force them into a situation where they're stuck through no fault of their own. Traps, enemy attacks or punishments that result in the instant killing of the avatar fall into this principle. Remember, frequent deaths and reloads are one of the greatest deterrents for players to playing a game.

Warnings are Mandatory
If there is some element to your game that may have negative consequences, you must provide them some sort of indication that something is out of the ordinary. Atmosphere is an effective tool for getting this message across. For example, if there is a trapped chest, litter the surrounding area with skeletal remains. Play sinister music in dungeons. Players have a right to know what they may be getting themselves into.

Build On What the Player Knows
When designing the next area, consider all the things the player has likely learned by this point. Build on those concepts, and implement elements that allow them to apply that knowledge to do new things. Game playing is all about learning, and humans are hardwired to find learning fun. Afford your players the opportunity.

Make the Reward Equal to the Challenge
Devise rewards that make the risk worth the player's efforts. Never beat up them player and then give them nothing in return. Monsters that guard empty rooms or trapped chests that hold nothing are simply sadistic tools of bad game designers. Reward hard work.

Reward Curiosity
If players are willing to explore your universe, you should be flattered! Reward them for their efforts. Hide treasure or non-essential tidbits of story or history throughout your game. Bonuses like this really motivate some players.

Let the Masses Finish, Let Few Get the Glory
When you take a step back and look at your entire game, ensure that virtually any average player with a modicum of concentration would be able to go from beginning to end. Put everything the player needs to finish reasonably close to the main path of the game. Once the Happy Path is set and built, go back and create the sidequests and extra content that would please the hardcore gaming masochists (if you so desire).

The Difficulty with Difficulty

It is very easy to fall into the Difficulty Trap - punishing players for making progress.

This scenario often plays itself out: taking into consideration the toughness of all the monsters, the value of the items to be found, the skills and equipment available to the player, you'll see that game designers have created experiences that get steadily harder and harder from the beginning of the game up to the very end.

Definition of the Difficulty Trap:
As the avatar gets better, the difficulty of the game is increasing at the same rate, so the player is effectively standing still from a gameplay perspective.

Mistaking constant increase in difficulty for challenge is a common misconception.

In order to avoid the Trap, break up your game world so that the player has absolutely no idea how easy or how hard the next area is going to be. The value of a game that uses a modulating difficulty scale is that players have no expectation either good or bad about what awaits them around the next corner. Before, in the Trap, the player simply expects things to get worse - a major turnoff. Now they don't know what to expect, inciting their curiosity and driving them to explore further.

Follow up insanely difficult areas with simpler ones. Have times where the difficulty increases gradually and other times where it increases sharply. Even consider adding a difficult plateau period. This kind of game design will go a surprisingly long way to making your game more enjoyable.

Objects, Spells and Technology

A key component of gameplay balance lies in the implementation of the various items, spells, equipment and abilities in a typical RPG database. Here are some general tips to creating good objects, spells and technologies:

Be Generous Early
Give players lots of goodies early in the game, and give them the opportunity to learn how to use them before the point at which they really need them. This helps to instill in them an early sense of mastery and confidence that they will be provided with what they need to complete the game.

Limit One-Time Uses
Avoid giving players a skill or object that is designed to be used in only one situation in the game. The one time application of a skill violates the principle of building on what the player knows.

Do Not Duplicate Uses
Comb very carefully through your spell and object list and eliminate items that create essentially the same effect. Redundant items add to the mental overhead of learning the game while adding nothing of value. For example, if you have a spell Sleep and a spell Stun, both which paralyze a monster for a few rounds, try to eliminate one, or at least modify one of them to have a slightly different effect (perhaps changing it so that Sleep affects a group of enemies, for example).

Avoid Dead Squirrels
Any item that you have to ferry around for quest purposes that does not provide any benefit whatsoever to you is known as a Dead Squirrel. Give some sort of bonus or use for lugging around this deadweight.

Avoid Irrelevant History
Don't bother loading your game with books or messages going into a laborious history in which no real clues are being offered about some element of the gameplay itself. It's fine to sprinkle in back story, but at least make it relevant to the story. Endless reams of exposition abuses your player's attention, and they will eventually ignore it if nothing of use comes of it.

Encourage Use of Resources
If players are finishing the game overloaded with potions, something went wrong in the design. Most likely the player didn't know when they should use the item, or they were reluctant to use them for fear that they would need them for some unknown event in the future. The source of the issue is an information flow problem. Sadly, it often takes a death and reload to learn that you should have worn the Armor of +1 Lightning Defense against the Gorppledemon of Doomy Doom. Give clues and indicators where appropriate to encourage use of resources - identifying monster names or graphics are a good option, as are warnings and advice from NPCs. "Don't attack the Whelk when it is in it's shell!"

Consistency in Gameplay

Here I will simply state that you must remain consistent in your application of gameplay concepts. Hopefully, the value of this piece of advice is self-evident. Rules, structure and balance considerations must be consistently applied in the game's design for a game to feel cohesive.

Rules provide a definition of how everything will work within the fictional universe and the ways in which the player will be able to exert their will. Structures provide a framework for the events and causes that the player may choose to follow or reject. General principles of balance ensure that the player's experiences are tilted in their favor. Together, they make the game fun to play from beginning to end.

With consistently implemented rules, players will be able to predict and anticipate future actions. With that knowledge in hand, they will be able to strategize appropriate measures to overcome challenges. Pokemon is a great example of this: Water-types are always very susceptible to Lightning attacks. With that knowledge, a player will be able to plan out their attack against water-types by having a Pikachu handy. It works for Ash.

On the flip side, arbitrarily making a water-type immune to lightning invalidates previously acquired knowledge. Avoid this kind of rule-breaking at all times.

Comprehensible and well-crafted rules help players understand how your universe works and gives them the tools to develop strategies they can apply throughout the gameplay. Players will trust that you are playing fair with them if they feel as though you are being consistent in the way that you apply your rules.

Structure is an important part of framing your ruleset. Start with a list of things you'd like the player to be able to do, and then work backwards up the chain of causality to a set of rules that must exist for that experience to be possible. If you want the player to be able to easily dispatch wolves with poison, you may arrive at a rule where Animal-types are susceptible to poison based attacks.

The rules serve only to make possible the gaming scenarios that the creators had in mind in the first place.

Questions you might like to ask yourself are:

Can certain objects, like barrels, shelves and pots, be searched?
Can certain objects be moved?
Can it rain in your universe? If so, how does that affect the avatar?
Does day turn to night and back again? If so, how does the universe change?
Do avatars need to eat or sleep?
Can avatars die? Can they then be resurrected?
How do avatars increase they skills and abilities?
How fast is experience accumulated?
Can different shops sell the same item for different prices?
Does the reputation of the avatar affect price or availability of shops?
Is there a common currency in the realm?
Does magic/technology have an outside energy source? How is the energy source regenerated?
How common is magic?
What is required to get these magics/technologies?
What kind of abilities and AI is available to the enemies?
What kinds of strategies can they employ?
How do things like armor, blessings, and conditions affect combat?

Testing and Polish

The key to successful balancing and game polish can be boiled down to three simple points:

1. Testing.
2. Testing.
3. More Testing.

Things can always look good on paper (or in Notepad, if you prefer), but it never plays out exactly as planned. The only recourse you truly have for true game polish is to play test the crap out of your game. Drawing from the software development industry, the testing component of a project is allocated roughly 30% of the project's timeframe. So, in more concrete terms, if you spent 4 months dreaming, designing, and implementing the most kickass monster, item, character and class database ever in RPG Maker, expect to spend another two months testing your game. Play through your entire game at least twice before releasing it.

Seriously, testing is that important.

Conclusion of Part VI

What? No breakdown of numbers and algorithms for RPG Maker 2003 in an article about Balance?! Inconceivable! Such tangibles are outside of the scope of the balancing issues addressed in this article. Only you can decide if the numbers play out fairly in your game, and the determination of that will largely be addressed through testing.

Instead, think about how the various elements in your game come together to create a balanced yet engaging experience for your players. Think about modulating difficulty and effective item design. Take into consideration how you plan on teaching your players to play the game. That is the secret to a well balanced game.

Conclusion of the FUNdamentals of RPGs

The Eight Ingredients of the Classic RPG

1. Avatar Development
2. Immersive Exploration
3. Epic Story
4. Combat
5. Interim Quests
6. Treasure Hunting
7. Resource Management
8. Problem Solving

This is a brief overview of the irreducible elements of a classic RPG. Avatar development refers to the rules governing the development of the players representation in the game world. Players should feel immersed in your game word, and feel encouraged to explore it's universe. But, there should be a significant reason for their efforts, and often that reason comes from an strong plot. The story needs to invite, intrigue and inspire the player (but leave the actual action up to them). But even that isn't enough - a player's avatar needs to be threatened, and that threat comes in the form of combat in RPGs. Combat tests the mettle and survivability of the avatar, and is often the main draw to the game.

Quests provide short-term and long-term goals for the player, and highlight the plot and story in a concrete, playable way. Successful completion of a task should be met with rewards equal to the risks posed. Grabbing treasure along the way adds to the feeling of well-being. Of course, these resources must me managed and their use encourage to be a true reward.

The last hallmark of an RPG is a presentation of a wide spectrum of challenges, such as combat, puzzles and traps. In combat, the player must continually develop new and different strategies to overcome the enemy. Evaluating options and judging the best course of action with the resources and information at hand is a big part of an RPG.

Finally, a proper balance and consistent application of game rules makes the entire experience cohesive and more enjoyable overall.

I hope that this series of articles has been enlightening and a worthwhile read. Best of luck to you in your efforts to craft the ultimate RPG experience!

Further reading:
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part I: The Role of the Player
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part II: Attributes and Skills
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part III: Story
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part IV: Quests and Objectives
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part V: Rewards
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part VI: Balancing


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how come the the first three letters are capitalized in the title?
It makes it more appealing to the readers. It did to me.
Great article. Balance the gameplay is something I'm having a lot of trouble with, considering my game is 5+ hours.
Did you play Hero's Realm at least twice before releasing it?
I released it many times, but I admit that I rushed the full game out. And look where that got me - I have v1.5 now.
Testing is extremely important. And I agree pretty much 100% with everything the writer said. I'm actually pretty impressed with the thought that went into making this, to the point this should be mandatory reading for any RPG design.

This article makes developers think. Good article, thanks. =)
I agree with Dustsoft (albeit late), but this whole series should be mandatory reading for anyone attempting a serious project (maybe you can get away with not utilizing this for your first test project that you are not releasing to public). However, anything you wish to release should definitely have the benefit of the extra knowledge at your beck and call.
I'm going to tattoo "If you want realism, don't play games" on myself. I bought Swords & Circuitry after reading this series. It's long, and honestly, there's parts most of us here can skip - parts that concern actually working for a game studio - but it's well worth the read. Especially for the interviews with folks like John Van Canegham (think I spelled it right...), the creator of Might & Magic
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