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kerryl

Unit Balancing: Just Play Test?

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So am I missing something or is the only way to really test unit balancing through frequent and excessive play testing? I''m kicking around developing an RTS but need to have a clear plan in so far as quality control. Sure, my units look balanced on paper but I want to avoid killer combinations, unit repetition, etc. I''m curious as to whether there are any recommended methodologies or a way of automating the task since the number of combinations quickly makes the problem seem insurmountable. As a multiplayer game there isn''t much in the way of AI except for a rudimentary system to trigger missions so I can''t easily plop down a set of shirts n skins and watch them duke it out. Any ideas? Point me to a url or recommend a book maybe?

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Ooh, one of my favourite subjects....

IMHO, unit balance depends a lot on the style of the game. I suppose that for a more conventional RTS in the mold of SC/RA/AoK balance is very important. However, a lot of us would like to see a more strategic game in which the player''s freedom to choose his armies is somewhat restricted - in this case, balance is not only less important, to a certain extent is is undesirable. But I digress.....

I think that the Rock Paper Scissors system is far too simplistic a method of balancing for all but the most dumbed down games. If your game rules are simple enough, you may be able to balance things mathematically, but assigning values to certain attributes or abilities such as vision range etc. is ultimately subjective and must be therefore be playtested.

So in short, I imagine that the only way you can balance your game is by extensive playtesting. You can give yourself a good start by looking hard at the details on paper and thinking about the following observations....

1. Ranged units: Obviously, the longer the range of a units attacks, the more powerful that unit is. Less obvious, is that the units value does not increase proportionally with its range, but much quicker. Bear this in mind particularly if you have melee only units in your game, unless you want them to be completely useless. Even in well balanced games like AoK or SC I still find that I rarely bother with more than a handful of melee units, if any at all.

2. Numbers: Most players I know prefer small groups of powerful units to huge swarms of wussy ones. If on paper, 20 of unit A is equivalent to 5 of unit B, then unit B is more valuable than 4 of unit A. Reason? It is far easier to keep track of and control 5 units than 20, and it is also far more likely that the units wont get in each others way etc... This is particularly true if the unit AI is a bit ropey.

3. Cost/build time: cost and build time alone are IMHO poor ways of balancing a unit... why? Because once you have paid the cost and waited for a very powerful unit, that unit no longer has any disadvantages, it is now a super unit. All I need to do is build crap units to keep my defences up, and once I have enough resources I start building the super unit. From then on, they dominate the game. A unit must be balanced with factors that are in play for the whole game, not just for the length of time it takes to get your resource production up to speed.

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Thanks for taking the time to reply, Sandman...

re: Numbers
Ideally, if 20 of UnitA are comporable in strenght to 5 of UnitB shouldn''t UnitB be 4x the cost of UnitA? Would Units A & B then be "balanced"?

re: Cost/build time = poor balancing strategy
But isn''t player 1 at an advantage while player 2 is still building? That provides a balance, right?

As an example: Player1 has superior military capabilities to Player2. Player2 has invested his money in a BigGun instead of tanks like Player1. But the BigGun takes a long time to build so his risk is in getting stomped on by Player1 but his reward is that he will have an advantage if he can survive long enough. Those are the choices we want our players to make, right?

And now here''s the fly in the ointment:

Let''s say that this RTS game is on a grand level...it''s a persistent multi-player environment. And for arguments sake, let''s say it''s a space game with one offensive and defensive weapon. A laser and a shield. When a laser is created, it does 1 point of damage with a range of 1. When a shield is created, it can absorb 1 point of damage before failing.

Since information is one of the hardest things to control and really doesn''t make much sense for a persistent multiplayer game (see below) let''s give the players the ability to make gradual improvments rather than climb through a tech tree. For x "points" I can increase my range by 1, or increase my shield defenses by 1...per unit, not globally.

Then unit balance is more closely coupled to how quickly you can get money to build and increase units, right? It seems like it is a simpler approach to balance because:

1) Anyone can create a shotty little laser...who cares.
2) If I invest heavily in offense then my defense is weaker.
3) Continued balance is handled by the players in an attempt to be competitive and gain an advantage.
4) New player disadvantage is a whole nother thread, I suspect.

The only flip side would be to prevent someone from creating a mega cannon which in the RTS kind of game I''m thinking of, saboteurs could be employed so that you can''t just create a big cannon, you also have to have a good anti-sabotuer rating. Thus forcing the player to invest elsewhere helps prevent tipping the scales beyond recovery.

(sarcasm) So we''re done! It''s balanced! (/sarcasm)

By all means, shoot holes in my theory...that''s why I''m asking in the first place..

----------
Info is hard to control (reality): no matter how hard the US tries to control information, every country on the planet could probably find a way to make a nuke or bioweapons - they just might not have the resources to construct it.

Info is hard to control (game): how long does an area exist on a game persistent world before you can download it from a fan site? your character doesn''t know that info is because maybe they never found the mapmaker or completed the quest but you still have it.
----------

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Numbers:

Unit a Strenght X
Unit b Strenght 2X
Unit a Cost Y
Unit b Cost 2Y

I''d probably prefer unit b, because it''s easier to control one unit than to control 2.

If you follow a cost/strenght method, you have to make sure that the number of units used matters. If a game favors a gameplay that uses as many units as possible (maybe two units attacking one unit gives an added bonus), then all players will pick unit a. If a game favors a gameplay that uses as few units as possible (no bonus or advantage at all for using many units) then all players will pick unit b.

Your gameplay would have to be designed to give
a) an incentive to use one big unit
b) an incentive to use multiple small units
Each choice should give the player a different gameplay. Both choices should be balanced (how to balance that is another question... try the ''holistic'' thread)

One more thing about balance...

To me, a game that is TOO heavily based on balance will forever feel like a race for power. I''ll feel like I have to make all the right decisions, every second I play, or I''ll fall behind.

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quote:
Original post by Silvermyst
To me, a game that is TOO heavily based on balance will forever feel like a race for power. I''ll feel like I have to make all the right decisions, every second I play, or I''ll fall behind.



Never thought of it from that perspective. Thanks!! Definitely something to think about...

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KERRYL:

It''s just that that''s the main reason why I never liked PvP RTS games. I always felt this huge pressure of time... pump peons, pump peons, build buildings in the exact right sequences, build the exact right type of units at the right time, send exactly the right number of units to opponent... rush, rush, rush.

If you DO want this rush in your design (hey, Quake etc are all about that adrenaline rush as well, and there''s nothing wrong with it) you''ll have to provide me with an interface that allows me to do all the things I want to do without giving me a headache. I like adrenaline, I just don''t want to see it spill all over my keyboard.

To balance or not to balance, that''s the question.

PS I happen to agree with Sandman: balancing a game is a lot of fun to think your way through. Especially when multiple ideas all of a sudden meld together and you go ''EUREKA!''.

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quote:

re: Numbers
Ideally, if 20 of UnitA are comporable in strenght to 5 of UnitB shouldn't UnitB be 4x the cost of UnitA? Would Units A & B then be "balanced"?



They might be balanced on paper, but they may not be balanced in the game. The interface/AI may make it difficult to control 20 of unit A well enough to make full use of them, whereas controlling only 5 of unit B would be easier. So most players would completely ignore unit A and just build unit B.

quote:

re: Cost/build time = poor balancing strategy
But isn't player 1 at an advantage while player 2 is still building? That provides a balance, right?

As an example: Player1 has superior military capabilities to Player2. Player2 has invested his money in a BigGun instead of tanks like Player1. But the BigGun takes a long time to build so his risk is in getting stomped on by Player1 but his reward is that he will have an advantage if he can survive long enough. Those are the choices we want our players to make, right?



The problem is that while these may be interesting choices, they have nothing to do with unit balance. It does effect dominant strategies in the game however - if player 1 strikes early then he wins, if he strikes late then he loses. Hence the abundance of early rush tactics in RTS games - which tends to make later units obsolete. As a developer, you cant win with this method of balancing.

Now onto the specifics...

Your idea as presented should be self balancing. As you seem to have noticed, offensive power is more valuable than defensive power, so in order to encourage players to avoid building supergun units that die after one hit (who cares if they can kill everything else from three screens away in one hit) you need to make defence and unit preservation important. Perhaps you only have a limited number of units available to you at the start of the game, and you cannot build more, (or make it very difficult to obtain more) you only upgrade the ones you have.... that might be interesting. Another way of preventing this is some kind of shields/reactor/guns interaction, e.g:

Class 10 laser needs at least a class 5 reactor, (ideally better, the stronger the reactor the higher the recharge rate)

Class 5 reactors are somewhat unstable, and require at least class 4 shields in order to avoid meltdown. Of course, if you only have 4 shields then it only takes one to fail before your units reactor becomes unstable....

Edited by - Sandman on August 7, 2001 2:41:18 PM

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I could start talking numbers and write pages, but how on Earth would that help you ... everybody have their own point of view.
But it doesnt mean I can''t give you something useful neither

I say (and, ahemm, I have said it before to other people, sometimes I feel like I am nagging), go and PLAY with your game. No, I don''t mean go and write some software, I say do some playtesting !!! There is nothing easier. I remember creating a little battle game with one of my friends when we where 12 to test some ideas, it was a great exercise in balacing (''cause of course, each of us wanted to create the BEST unit )

You don''t need graphics, you don''t need cool drawings, you don''t need any programming... you just need some pens, some paper, scissors to cut your tokens to play with, et voilà! homemade wargame to playtest.

Now go forth and write down a list of units, rules for movements, conflict resolution, and other mechanisms you''d want to deal with, and you''ve a good prototype.

It could be a board game or a free movement game, the problem of real time is dealt with by the way you order the different phases of a turn ... actually, that''s when you start realising all the little problems you wouldn''t have thought of before.

Ah, and if you don''t know where to start, what better than starting by copying from the masters ? Look for the Netepic project on the web. It''s the old version of the Epic40k game by GamesWorkshop, the old rules have the advantage of being extremely detailed, which a computer doesn''t care about, while the new version of the rules are realy cool to play with, but would be much harder to implement in a computer (IMHO).

Now go and make that search engine burn !



Sancte Isidore ora pro nobis !

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http://web.mit.edu/tcadwell/www/gamedesign.html

This is a link to some good unit balance rules and tips. The articles are written by Tom Cadwell aka. Zileas. (Any hardcore Starcraft player knows the name and can backup his reputation.)

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I know a good solution for the "a vs B" problem.

a) Make sure you can repair vehicles, at a lower cost compared to buying them.

b) Make sure a unit becomes less effective when hurt.

When you got 2 of unit A fighting one of unit B, it can be a... strange... battle.

The player with tank ''A'' will have a slight advantage, since only one tank gets hit, while the other one keeps at maximum power. But he is more likely to loose a tank forever.

Player with tank ''B'' will have a problem with the strenght of his unit, since he can take more damage, and *will* take more damage. But, it is also more likely to come out of battle somewhat in one or two pieces, so it can be repaired.

Choices, choices...

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