Another day, another podcast. This time I was compelled to write this article by the conversation on Battle Field Heroes in the 8/27/08 episode of GFW Radio. If you haven't listened to this podcast, you should probably do so now. The conversation on Battle Field Heroes is fairly short but very interesting.
In the dialog, the brodeo commented on some balancing issues in the closed beta of Battle Field Heroes. In this game, each player can customize the look of their character as well as their charcters battle attributes. Instead of making a well rounded character, by maxing out a particular attribute the GFW crew was able to push the dynamics and balance of the game into deconstrutive routes. The coterie went on to comment on how MMOs often have similar balancing issues.
If you're no stranger to this blog, you know that there are two genres of video games that I frequently put under heavy criticism: FPSs (or shooters of any kind) and RPGs. From a strict game design point of view, there isn't anything wrong with either genre. However, the conventions that have been established for each genre yield games that are filled with abstractions, which work to deconstruct a game from its core. One such convention is customizable stats.
This article is focused on uncovering the damaging effects of customizable statistics/attributes to core gameplay systems by examining 3 genres: RPGs, Shooters, and Strategy games. Let's start with RPGs.
RPGs commonly have a hard time creating concrete mechanics, interplay, and reducing the exorbitant amounts of static space. When the basic mechanics of ATTACK, ITEM, MAGIC, MOVE, EXAMINE fail to create dynamic resulting actions (a reduction of hit points is not dynamic) then adjusting the statistics behind these mechanics can do little to create dynamic gameplay. In other words, when the difference between a sword attack, fire spell, and an upgraded fire spell is mainly a difference in damage points, customizing the stats behind these attacks only changes the gameplay by allowing the player to optimize their offense linearly according to damage dealt. The more damage dealt, the better. For most RPGs, this statement is a universal truth.
In the end, whether an attack is buffed or stats fall, the lack of dynamics within a game's core design greatly diminishes the effectiveness of stat customization. The less dynamic a game is, the less customization matters. In contrast to RPGs, the next genre to be discussed contains more concrete, dynamic mechanics.
When fighting in Call of Duty 4's online multiplayer, nearly all player's appearances fall into one of two categories: Allies or enemies. Due to the fast pace of the combat, encounters are started and finished in a few blinks of an eye. Even if players get a good look at an opponent with enough time to make an informed decision, there are few visual cues (forms) to indicate the custom abilities of the opponent. Most of the custom stats or "perks" in COD4 cannot be discerned from how the opponent's character model. In other words, trying to anticipate and react to a player with specific custom abilities is essentially a guessing game. Furthermore, all players have the option to switch between a number of alternate custom characters making every possible encounter, even between the same players, very unpredictable. Unfortunately, the way the game system is set up, the greater effect these perks have in battle, the more abstract the gameplay becomes. To communicate many of the opponent's hidden or invisible custom attributes, specific icons contextually appear on the players HUD. In the absence of informative forms, COD4, like most FPSs, relies on abstract HUD.
The lack of interplay or gunplay in FPSs only becomes more apparent when a customizable stat system like the one in Call of Duty 4 is present. Extra grenades, stopping power, juggernaut, martyrdom, and last stand are just a few perks of many that give players advantages without any drawbacks. For example, starting off with extra grenades has no designed drawbacks. In the typical COD4 match, grenades don't hurt allies so players can throw their extra explosives about recklessly. Because players can die and respawn so quickly, the repeated use of these grenades can further expose the lack of friendly fire, an abstract element of the game that goes against the function of a grenade. Unlike in Halo, in Call of Duty 4 fallen players don't drop their grenades so that others may pick them up. To sum up, a perk like extra grenades boosts the player's abilities, more easily exposes the game's abstractions, and leaves little to no room for interplay.
If the core design of COD4 was balanced before adding perks, the lack of disadvantages in each upgrade inevitably works to unbalance the game. Even if the all the perks balanced each other out, the developers would have sacrificed the game's visual design (form fits function) just to bring things back to a balanced game or back to where they started. In a game where there are no drawbacks for having special abilities, on the road to becoming a perfect soldier, the only downside to accepting more power is that you can't have it all. Not at once at least.
In the end, augmenting stats in any genre puts pressure on the core design. Adding customizable stats in an FPS can easily add more abstractions to the gameplay. Considering that the conventional FPS features a stressed cored design, perhaps this genre should keep things as simple and concrete as possible. Halo 3 does a good job of that.
Grit, a laid back, lanky, long range specialist, automatically has stronger than normal long range units and weaker than normal direct attacking units. What's important here is that Grit's advantages and disadvantages are created out of the basic core mechanics, which are a part of the game's dynamics, decay, and depth.
When advantages and disadvantages are designed out of the basic core mechanics of a game, accepting the advantages becomes a much more difficult choice than if there were no disadvantages. In Grit's case, having stronger long range units is something that every player wants. But when it comes at a price of weaker direct attacking units, players must consider their new weaknesses, what they're willing to lose, and new strategies. In this way, the core balance is maintained. To get more one must give more.
But what about that first Advance Wars game for the DS? Advance Wars: Dual Strike's core gameplay incorporated many new stats for customizing one's COs, which in turn makes it the worst Advance Wars game that has come to the American market. Take Grit in Dual Strike for example. The disadvantage of weaker direct attacking units can be nullified and even reversed by equipping specific "perks." The balance and beauty of the variation within a game when done correctly comes from how every enemy/character/move/attack takes up a unique design space. Giving players the option to customize any CO to be more like any other CO makes every unique element of design less unique. I can make a Grit that plays like Max, or a Colin that plays like Sami. If I can do all of this, then what's the point of having unique CO's in the first place? It's kind of ironic that giving the player the ability to customize stats reduces the variation in a game. Because these CO perks don't have any disadvantages, like the perks in Call of Duty 4, an unnecessarily amount of complexity is added to the game that works to diminish the unique attributes of the COs while greatly disrupting the balance of the game.
Compared to the relatively simple design of a FPS, the delicate, carefully balanced intricacies of Advance Wars: Dual Strike take a serious hit due to the customizable stats. For any game that is designed and balanced around mechanics, dynamics, and interplay, any augmentation should accompany some kind of disadvantage keeping in mind the forms and functions of the core design. Separate these elements, and the game inevitably separates.