Monday, October 26, 2009

On Balance, Part 1: Strategy and Depth

Everyone at all interested in game design should read Sirlin’s series of posts on balance. He brings up just about every important facet of balance relevant to games in general. He uses mainly examples from fighting games to illustrate his points—they work great as examples of the concepts he discusses.

In this post, I’m going to summarize many of concepts Sirlin illustrates (you should definitely read his articles if you have the time). Balance is a critical concept in MMOs and certainly merits a post on this blog.


A strategy is a planned set of actions. Every game has a strategy-space that consists of every possible strategy the game permits.


Some strategies are better than others. The best strategies dominate all other strategies. A strategy is dominant if it is always the best strategy to choose regardless of the state of the game—an expert in the game would always choose that strategy regardless of his opponent’s decisions and the expert would always win.

A strictly dominant strategy is always the best to choose. A strictly dominated strategy is never the best to choose.

There are different layers of strategy. In theme-park MMOs, there are character growth strategies specific to each class (the specific talent builds for a feral druid, a prot warrior) as well as in-combat strategies (a DPS rotation for a hunter or an aggro control plan for a tank). The order in which you complete quests is also a strategy. Each of these layers have different goals and optimizing one may necessitate choosing suboptimal strategies in others. MMOs are fun because there are a lot of strategies that allow us to succeed—success is almost guaranteed—so we almost always feel like we’re being smart players by choosing good strategies, even if our strategies are far from optimal.

Darkfall is a unique example of the strategy paradigm of character growth being turned on its head in an MMO. Any character, as of October ‘09, can max out every skill in the game. Every character is expected to be able to effective perform every role as the game is played now. Most MMOs necessitate character growth strategies that are essentially time-independent, because there is usually some limit to the character’s growth that is set by its class or a skill cap—character growth strategies focus on the character optimizing for a desired role when it reaches the limit of its growth. In Darkfall, all growth strategies are rendered moot in the long run. Every character is exactly the same given a several month span of time. The strategies that matter for Darkfall in its current for are those that optimize the instantaneous power of a character at all points in its life. This problem is significantly harder to solve, but it tends to be less interesting than endgame minmaxing. (There probably can only be one optimal growth strategy in Darkfall.)


Depth is the result of there being enough viable strategies for the number of possible strategic permutations to outstrip the player’s capacity to experiment with many of them in a reasonable amount of time. This results in an evolving metagame where certain combinations become popular.

Depth is, at its root, the result of asking a player to solve variations on a problem that is very difficult to solve. It’s not obvious to the player at any level what strategy will net him the best results, so players will try out many different strategies against many other strategies in search of optimal solutions.


For instance, assessing mid-game positioning in chess can be a monumental task as the number of possible moves grows significantly as the board opens up. Calculating the value of positioning vs material is a monumental task. Usually there is not enough time to come to a definite valuation, if one is possible. Chess has a lot of depth in that you can play it many times without seeing identical mid-game positions, so not only is piece valuation and position valuation a hard problem, it’s rarely the same between games. Different players put different weight on different ways of evaluating board position and material; the metagame of chess has been evolving for at least four hundred years and most players still struggle to gain a grasp on evaluating board positions and possible moves.

MMOs currently lack depth. The problems that a player must face when he sits down to play are severely limited in difficulty. Modern MMOs are mostly built to tickle players with rewards and those rewards are their primary motivation for continued play. If game systems had enough depth to rival the reward addiction, MMOs would be able to get over the Kosterian Curve of rapid adoption followed by devastating desertion.


Dblade said...

I don't really think more depth will help. A lot of people play chess only casually, and the amount of effort to advance in skill is higher than most are either willing to or capable of doing. Not being able to visualize far enough ahead, or be able to memorize openings tends to handicap "advancement" as it were.

In an MMO that would be like if only grandmasters got to the level cap, and everyone else was stuck at level 20-30. The difficulty of going higher would increase till people hit their natural limit, and they'd stop. It's a testament to chess that players keep with it, but with no real sense of progression, an MMO with similar depth would quickly fade.

Current MMOs may be easysauce, but that means most people can reach cap, and partake in endgame content. In an MMO deep as chess, you'd be lucky if you retained players for more than a few months.

evizaer said...

In an MMO as deep as chess, there would be enough depth to allow the best players in the game to play almost indefinitely. There'd be a lot more to do in a deeper game because the number of viable strategies for beating a given encounter would explode. When the encounters are above trivially easy, increased depth means that people will voluntarily try new strategies to beat challenging foes. The culture of raid strat memorization would be severely undercut because players would have to think on their feet and play well in order to win encounters reliably. If you require players to engage with the game more deeply throughout, they'll naturally build skill and knowledge of the game over time and will probably not burn out on the game as is the current trend. This doesn't mean a game has to be hardcore, just that it has to have a learning curve and difficult curve that are actually existent before hard-mode raiding content.

Esaba said...

MMO's are losing alot of depth and strats, but that doesn't mean all MMO's have no depth. WoW, which is what this article references, was created to (IMO) to be an Every-mans MMO where all can compete, play and have fun. From the begining, WoW wanted to target people that has never played a MMO before and bring them into this great genre. From a business perspective, this strategy has worked beyond anyones dreams. WoW currently owns 62% of the MMO market and I think it could be argued that at least 20-30% percent of that was because of the surge in MMO players that came with it. In Short, they expanded the MMO demographic beyond what was considered normal.

The problem with this is the need by alot (not all) of this player base to have instant gratification and not really wanting to work for it. Raid mobs are starting to get easier, and all of the new MMOs that are comming out don't exactly talk about being a challenge. Hopefully, this ezmode mentality will not stick around long. They will either burn them selves out and leave or start to actually want a challenge.

Also, another trend I see that is somewhat concerning to me, is the demand for solo content. I can not understand the desire / want / need for solo content on a MMO. I can understand "some" solo content. But being able to go from lvl 1 - max cap solo is crazy. The whole point of paying 15 bucks a month is to be an active part of a virtual community and help shape the world. Tons of solo content starts erode this, the only "complete" content that should be solo in a MMO is crafting. A good group dynamic, where you have to actually think about what classes you need and how best to fill that need, is what makes an MMO fun. Having more than Just Heals + 5 other DPSer is not dynamic. Learning to play your specific role, be it: Support, DPS, Heals, Tank, etc, and how you interact with the other people in your grp/raid gives you the ability and enviorment for depth and strategy, which == fun. However, you still need encounters that demand this type of thinking. Having run of the mill "tank and spank" mobs and encounters to nothing to help this. There should be a variety of strategies from: Tank-n-spank all the way up to specific scripts that all members of the group must participate in order to beat the encounter and failure to follow this script results in a wipe until you get it right.

just my .02cents

motstandet said...

Damion Schubert's session at AGDC convinced me that Solo is a playstyle which cannot be ignored.

Esaba said...

WOW. After reading through the slide that Schubert put out I can say I am now even less likely to purchase the new Star Wars MMO. I had a inkling from other interviews that bio-ware was looking to absolutely destroy the group dynamic of MMOs and this kinda confirmed it.

Solo game content kills social community. Why will People group? What common good do they have to come together for?

The corner stone of solo play should be crafting, followed by quests in and around the the starting area. The need for grouping should grow , slowly at first, as a char levels and start getting more needed around the middle lvls. However, the want and desire should be there as well. Make grps of xp multiplyers, etc. Make in game solutions for Looking for groups or scheduling

Seriously, I have a great idea. Lets make a game that is built on soloing for 50 levels, they never have to make a group and should be able to level ever couple of hours, then when they hit 50 lets give them raid content (guess from his slide) so we can throw a bunch of people together who haven't grped and don't understand what their role in a group is or how they interact with their group mates.

They have decide to "up the ante" so to speak with this MMO and try to out due blizzard in the BS everyman carebare kind of MMO. We should see how well it does.