When I first started out as a UX designer, I did a little bit of everything. We’re just like any other designer. Our workload is uneven and in some cases it is heaviest at the start of production and in pre-production and gradually drops off as the game is nearing completion1.
Despite having been a UX designer for almost 9 years2, but I’ve only shipped two games with that title. Mad Max and The Game That Shall Not Be Named, in case naming it summons it.
Anyway, one of the things I do as a UX designer is to play the game a lot. Why? Because you can’t really know how the game feels to play if you don’t play it. Getting the sense of the experience of a game is part of what I do as a designer.
For Mad Max, I think this was fortunate. Having wrapped most of my duties at the end of production, I sat down to check out the balance and the progression.
In this case, balance meant finding out how skills, health, food and water was distributed among the many locations in the game, and how the progression felt which ties in tightly to the balance.
If you’ve read my blog, you know that I’m a completionist, which did have an impact. I started playing and I had this vague suspicion that we were handing out way too many Griffa tokens, aka skill tokens.
I found that the Griffa tokens were seriously unbalanced. By the time the player reached rank 3, if they weren’t distributing the tokens evenly across skills, they could be heavily skewed in one direction.
Leaving that aside for a moment, in Mad Max, there are several systems that tie in to one another. Food and water, for example, are used to regain health.
Griffa tokens affect skills that tie into the food, water, scrap collection, scrap cost for upgrades and ammo resources. In short, Max’s abilities give perks that affect almost all other systems in the game. If one of those abilities skew early on, it has an impact on how the player plays the game, but also how they learn about it.
One such issue is this: imagine I can max out (pun intended) my health early in the game. This means that I might not have to learn how to block or dodge early in the game, because I can take a punch.
What happens when I reach more difficult enemies? That’s right/ I might not be able to handle the combat, because I was overpowered early on and I didn’t have to learn.
This was actually one of the issues in Mad Max. I could max out health fairly early, walk through the game, and then hit a wall when the skills I never had to learn were all of a sudden required.
The issue wasn’t only that I had no caps on my abilities per rank (which would have helped with that specific issue) but also that we granted tokens for everything, and this would have Max rank up fast.
If that happens in a game, all your rewards are front loaded and the player may feel that there is no real reason to keep playing.
This is what progression, pacing and unlocks are all about. Give the player something to aspire to in order to keep them playing the game.
Rewards can fall into multiple categories:
- Progress skills and abilities
- Progress narrative
- Unlock objects or items
- Unlock locations
So what did we do to fix the issue? We introduced a rank cap on abilities, meaning the player had to spread the tokens out across multiple abilities. We also reduced the number of tokens the player would receive so that the ranks were more difficult to attain.
This impacted not only rank and abilities for the player, but also unlocking missions and upgrading the vehicle. That meant that from having been able to overpower Max and rush through the game without actually learning the game, the player was now forced to pace themselves.
While this may sound boring it’s all part of the aspirational gameplay, what keeps a player hooked to the end of the game. I can plan ahead what I want to do, and by having the game reward me for my planning, I will also stick with the game for longer, instead of maxing out and stopping playing.
In addition to balancing tokens and to some extent challenges, I also looked at stuff like water and food. When we set out, the water wasn’t marked on maps, and the food was often placed early in the enemy camps.
This made it hard to play tactically. A camp usually had food and water, but it was placed before a fight area which meant that the player could eat and drink before the fight, and then – if the fight went badly – exit without much food or water.
This prevented the player from “planning ahead” and from being able to play tactically. Not knowing if a camp had food or water could lead to death, not because of carelessness, but because of a lack of information.
We solved this particular issue by marking the water locations on the map. This way, the player could choose a location with water if their health was low or their canteen empty, thus making it possible to play smarter.
Honestly, there were a ton of issues that had to do with balance and progression and the takeaway should be that you, as a developer, need to play the game to get a feel for it.
I know this is an easy thing to say, and not so easy to do. Especially with crunch culture that can be devastating. Rushing towards larger games with more content is also putting a lot of pressure on the game team to create content. The more stuff there is, the more stuff we need to test and the more things can go wrong or skew systems that were previously well balanced.
Personally, I refer 10 – 40 hour games that know what they are and are not trying to be anything else. Being a completionist, it is also easy to determine of a game is balanced or not. Being a completionist, the chances are that I’m always somewhat overpowered, but if the game is well balanced, it won’t matter as much.
A game you can play several times without getting tired of it is either very well suited to your play style, or it’s well balanced and “feels good”.
Balancing involves the whole game, not just moment to moment gameplay. In order to find issues and address them, you just have to play the game.
Balance is about looking at the game holistically. If that feels good, well, then you have a winner.
- This is valid for one and dones, games that are released once and does not have a live component.
- I’ve been in the industry since 2001 or technically 2000. 10 of them as a game designer, 2 as a producer and the rest of them as a UX designer. Well. Actually, 2 as a level designer, 6 as a one woman design team and 2 as a pure game designer, but who’s counting? Right! All the gate keepers! Keep on gating folks.