19 April 2011

[Literature] Game Balance ch7 - Advancement, progression and pacing

My notes from course 7 of the Game Balance class of Summer 2010, by Ian Schreiber.

Progression is ... in games that are ...
absolute PvE/single player
relative to other players PvP/multiplayer

Flow has two problems: different player audiences have different skills, and players learn throughout the game.
Balance = overall game difficulty, does not solve these problems. Balance only matches audience expectation.
Progression/Pacing = keeping the player in the flow zone. As player skill increases, so do challenges. Progression ensures the game ends in the time frame said by the box (1min for arcade, 40h for RPG, etc.). If the game is endless, then progression = end-game rewarding structure(s).

When transitioning from mid- to end- or elder game, the objectives change from progressing to something else. Game designer has to find something for the player to do. Ex: WoW guild raiding or making your house cute in Farmville/Sims. Problems: some players may like the progression game but not the elder game. The power gathered during progression game should be available and enjoyable during elder game.

  • As playtesters test the game, they become experts => the game gets tuned harder => make the game easier at the end, and/or keep some playtesters for the end.
  • Let players adjust the difficulty themselves (more challenging but also more rewarding levels or adjusting the difficulty level at any time). In PVP, difficulty adjustment should be voluntary (handicap, resources at the beginning, ...).


Perceived difficulty = (game power challenge + game skill challenge) - (player power + player skill), with:

  • Game power challenge = stats (doubling opponents HP makes the game harder)
  • Game skill challenge = new enemies or better AI, direct challenge to the player's skill (you need to play better) and not a player's power (you need more hit points to win). A game designer can control power-related, but not skill-related components of difficulty.

Large luck component or shallow mechanics: a short increase in player skill as the player masters what little they can at the beginning. Then skill plateau (player is as good as she can ever be). A minute to learn, a minute to master. This is the design of educational games (where skill is not the priority).

Giving practice zones where new weapons or powers are acquired makes players learn/increase their skill faster. Skill gating = progressively harder challenges, guarantee that if players complete a challenge, then they are ready for the next. Skill gating != practice zones.

Psychology: “reward schedule” or “risk/reward cycle”: you don’t just want the players to progress, you want them to feel like they are being rewarded for playing well. Reward not too rarely and not too often. Many small rewards are more efficient than a single big reward. Regular rewards = bad. Reward for something players were looking for (otherwise the game seems too easy) and not for a random event (eg "inflict exactly 123 dmg"). 3 kinds of rewards related to progression: increasing player power, level transitions, and story progression.

Increasing player power

If the most fun toy in your game is only discovered 2/3rds of the way through, that’s a lot of time the player doesn’t get to have fun. How do you actually keep the player engaged when you've given away all the cool toys early in the game? One way is if your mechanics have a lot of depth, you can just present unique combinations of things to the player to keep them challenged and engaged. Warning: this is really hard to do in practice. You can also use other rewards more liberally after you shut off the new toys: more story, more stat increases, more frequent boss fights or level transitions. Also, toy upgrades.
Better shorten the game than have it too long and boring.

Level transitions

Each level takes a little bit longer than the last: fast progression at start engages player into the game, later levels can be longer because player wants to know the end of the plot.

Story progression

Story really IS a reward. There should be a match between story complication/climax curve and the difficulty curve. Ex: tutorial = exposition scene, miniboss = rising action, final boss = final climax. Final boss should not be as demanding on player skill as kill 10 rats.

Pattern: do not reveal the story only during level transition; instead, revealing additional background story immediately after a fight (even an easy one) makes players feel like they earned it. (But do not do that all the time otherwise it becomes predictble!)


Acquiring more power than opponents = primary reward. PvP has more options to play with than PVE because everything is relative, there's no defined level/stats to reach to be "strong".

negative feedback loops => more power when behind and less power when ahead => best player alternates => depends on opponents, no one is left behind (ex: Mario Kart with dynamic difficulty adjustment).
positive feedback loop => more power brings more power => best stays best => independent of the opponents, game ends faster, bad start is deadly (ex: League of Legends).

  positive sum negative sum zero sum
Definition sum of all player resources increases over time players lose power over time. Goal = lose power more slowly than opponents. fixed amount of resources on the table
Example Catan, Agricola Chess Poker
Positive feedback
Negative feedback

Each player spends time in the lead before one player's final blow ends the game.

When both players have realized who is going to win, the game should end quickly.

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