PlanetSide Universe - View Single Post - Meaningful Customization & Balance via Tradeoff Decisions
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Click here to go to the next VIP post in this thread.   Old 2011-08-02, 11:57 AM   [Ignore Me] #1
PlanetSide 2
Game Designer
Meaningful Customization & Balance via Tradeoff Decisions

This discussion is one of the key points in the thread about the 20% power difference. This discussion is not about whether a 20% power difference should exist - this is a discussion about how it manifests in the game.

Fundamentally a ~20% or more power difference is not a bad thing for a game, provided it is limited by player choice and trade-off. You can even go higher for more differentiation, as long as there is a trade-off decision.

It comes down to one core principle:

There must always be limits to the number of power gains a player has active at any one time.

This does not mean the player is limited in their total number of abilities - only in the number of those abilities that can be used at any given moment.

Here are 4 examples of this that should be familiar to most everyone.

A) Implants in Planetside 1. A player had several implants from which to choose, but he could only have at most 3 installed at any given time. This was a beautiful way of giving players extra activated abilities but balancing it by making them choose which ones they could have at any given time.

B) Tactics in Warhammer Online.
A player had 'tactics' which were customizations a player could attach to their character. One might be that the player gains 10% additional healing. Another might reduce the energy cost of an ability (or in PS terms might reduce the implant stamina cost). Another was increased damage, but reduced survivability. A player could only have a certain number of these active, but they had a wide range to choose from and they could swap them out anytime out of combat. This was a beautiful system of customization but it kept the power in check. This is really what I'd like to see in PS2.

C) Gadget slots in BFBC2. Battlefield Bad Company 2 featured "Gadget" slots where a player could unlock abilities over time, but each gadget slot had a certain set of abilities which the player must choose. The difference between this and the tactic system above or the implant system is that some of those abilities were mutually exclusive. You could not, for example, have both the 25% gun damage gadget and the 25% armor damage - you had to choose one of the two. This is a good system because it allows you to limit the combinations that you see and keep potentially broken combinations of bonuses from being used together. This is a good lesson to learn.

D) EVE-Online's ship customization. It allowed a wide range of flexibility, but you had tradeoffs in the upgrades that were placed on the ship. Certain number of high slots, certain number of low slots, etc. Some things gave raw bonuses, like increased damage & rate of fire. Some things had benefits and penalty tradeoffs, like lower structure but faster speed. The point was your character may have been able to use all of those ship abilities, but you can only put a small set of those things on your ship at any one time.

One key observation with the Warhammer & EVE examples:

A tradeoff need not be sum-zero. The fact that bonuses are limited and the player must choose them is itself a tradeoff! So if you want more damage you don't need to sacrifice something else to get it. It can be calibrated for example that any given benefit adds up to about 5% net-gain. If a player has 4 benefits total at any one time, there's your 20% difference. That's noticable, but not huge.

If a player wants more than 5% that's when negatives might start coming into the picture to counteract the larger bonus. So for example we might have something like 5% damage bonus as one possible tradeoff (with no side-effects). Then we might have 10% damage bonus but 10% increase in damage taken, so the player has the option of doing more damage and taking more damage, or simply having a smaller damage bonus.

Here is how I would like to see power advancement work in Planetside 2. For the sake of clarity I'll call power bonuses "Tactics", as in the example from Warhammer Online above.

1) Players unlock Tactics via the cert system.
Some tactics are only available by deep investment in a tree and may take months to obtain. This is OK.

2) A player has a certain number of tactic slots that he or she can use.
They are sort of like Implants only instead of being activated abilities they are passive modifications (a customization if you will) of the player's base abilities.

3) Tactics have classifications or groupings, and some are mutually-exclusive with one another and can never be taken together.
This takes the Battlefield BC2 example for balancing purposes. This is just to prevent broken combinations from being used. It also allows the bonuses to be more meaningful since you don't have to worry about them interacting with each other (rate of fire bonus vs damage bonus, for example - a player shouldn't be able to get both because they interact and the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts) These groupings could be along the lines of "survivability" and "mobility" and "quality of life" and that sort of thing.

4) A player must choose which of his tactics to have active.
I may have 100 tactics unlocked, but I must choose a handful of those to be active, perhaps 5 for example to throw a number out there.

5) A player must go to an implant station or something along those lines in order to switch out the tactics
(but they can have loadouts to make it easy). The point is that if players can swap out tactics on a whim then they'll swap them out whenever they change classes and everyone will end up using similar bonuses all the time. By having them switch less frequently you get specialization. That is the person who is primarily a pilot with Pilot specializations will likely be running with those all the time, which will set that person apart from the guy who just happens to hop into a pilot class and fly around for a little bit. This is important to preserve specialization.

The "tradeoff" here is that a player must make a tradeoff decision - do they want to run with more aircraft maneuverability, or more footspeed or something else? They make that decision and they get the bonus. But they don't get all bonuses they have unlocked simultaneously, that's the key.

Squad leader abilities can work the same way - they're like tactics which get applied to the entire squad. You can differentiate squad leaders by which leadership tactics they choose to apply to the squad. You can have SPECIALIZED squad leaders who run with armor or aircraft or max bonuses, or general purpose squad leaders.

And of course outfits can have a different set of tactics that they too must choose. Some types of benefits could be reserved for squad leader or outfit bonuses to keep them appealing.

And best of all, new players can 'catch up' quickly to vets simply by joining an outfit and a squad. They'll still need to unlock some of their tactics but some will be available right from the get-go so they will have something and be competitive. THen over time they're rewarded for their specialization by having more tactical options for their chosen playstyles.

The key thing here is CHOICE and not being able to have-it-all. That is what preserves specialization and makes those customization decisions meaningful. When you just give out a bonus to everyone when they train a skill and they keep that bonus forever and ever is when you have a bad system. That's when power advancement is dumb and ridiculous. I wanted to differentiate the two so the developers reading understand that the beef most of us have with the "20%" thing is that it doesn't lead to customization unless the player must make tradeoff decision.

The power of this system is tremendous. Devs can track which tactics people are using and if a single tactic is overly prolific or being completely neglected it might need some changing. More tactics can be added over time as the game evolves and it won't throw the balance of the game out of whack.

It also allows bonuses to be meaningful, and not piddly 1%-2% here and there, but 10%'s, and 20 and 25%. Again, because a player can't have them all they can have meaningful customizations that change the way they play in significant and noticeable ways. I can choose to be a max specialist or a pilot specialist or a strange sort of hybrid based on my playstyle.

The possibilities here are endless and the bottom line is balanced, meaningful specialization that scales with additions to the game as it evolves.
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