General game design: Zero, or +1?

One of the more important but abstract principles in balancing a game -and I'm not talking about just competitive balance here, I'm talking in terms of making options valid that are intended to be valid- is whether the developer design assumptions shoot for a target of Zero, or of +1.

In this case, by '+1' I mean 'better than a baseline', where by '0' I mean 'there is a baseline, and anything that goes above that baseline in one realm must needs be below it in another realm'.

In other words, +1 would be saying that base stats for all species is 3 in each stat, and then saying each species has an area of specialty where they have two extra points. Zero would be that there's a 'baseline' species that has 3 in each stat, and each other species has a +2 in one stat and a -2 in another stat.

Concrete example of how this thinking matters:

I've talked a fair amount about XCOM: Enemy Unknown on this site, and in particular I've gone over how it's got a lot of severe imbalances in skill choices. The game intends for the player to consider each pair of skills on a class level-up to be equally valid, and in so many cases one is just plain better than the other. In several cases, a big part of the problem is that the game is shooting for Zero as its design goal, and doing so at each step.

Suppression is a big offender, and so a good illustration of the principle. A Heavy that has access to Suppression is one that chose that over Shredder Rocket -selecting Suppression at all is a Zero, in that it carries the opportunity cost of not having taken Shredder Rocket, as opposed to being pure gain. (Where eg Will To Survive is a +1, because you get it at Major, no competition or anything) Then when you're considering using Suppression during a fight, Suppression is 'balanced' by three factors: it eats 2 units of ammo to initiate, it has a cooldown so you can't spam it every turn, and it happens in place of taking a regular shot or some other useful action. (Four things, really, since Suppression can be forcibly ended by taking damage) In exchange you lower the target's accuracy and will take a reaction shot 'for free' (But not actually: remember, you already spent 2 units of ammo, instead of the one taking a shot at all would cost you) if the target moves. This isn't even really a Zero, it's more like -1 or -2, but the point is that using Suppression in a fight gets a bunch of flaws/costs/limitations to 'counterbalance' its positives. -in addition to the trade-off you're already taking of having not taken Shredder Rocket.

Then the reaction fire portion of Suppression is, itself, 'counterbalanced': a reaction fire shot has an innate Accuracy penalty (Probably to offset the fact that normally if reaction fire is occurring the target has no Cover) and is forbidden from getting a critical hit. So reaction fire is shooting for Zero, and honestly ends up at -1, or more realistically -2 or -3.

The net result is that Suppression being used by a Heavy is hampered at literally every design stop by having tradeoffs to limit its effectiveness, taking away from its utility.

The +1 version of Suppression would look something like this:

The Heavy gets innate access to Suppression as a class feature for free, the only 'cost' being that you're using the Heavy instead of some other class. And who else has access to Rockets? That's right, nobody.

Suppression itself is a regular shot that applies the Suppression benefits if the target survives the shot. (That is, Suppression tries to do damage just like a regular shot, and if the target survives they become Suppressed)

You can use Suppression whenever you want, but if you're using Suppression that's a turn you didn't fire your Rocket, didn't reload, didn't lob a Grenade, etc. It doesn't cost additional ammo (except when you do get a reaction shot) and has no cooldown. (The ability for enemies to end it doesn't have to be removed for the purpose of this point. Imagine whichever you prefer)

The reaction fire mechanic wouldn't need to be modified at this point for Suppression to be a +1 design target example, but if we did re-imagine reaction fire as a +1 mechanic instead of as a Zero/-1 mechanic to boot, then it would simply be a regular shot that occurs during the enemy turn, with proper Accuracy and full crit potential. In that scenario, the factor discouraging going into Overwatch normally would be that you're trading away control and risking the enemy simply not activating it at all -meanwhile, the payoff would be about getting to ignore Cover! That would actually be pretty amazing of a decision-making process, instead of just being an obnoxious turn optimization mechanic.

Now, to be clearer: the reason Suppression is so godawful on a Heavy is precisely because Suppression has to bear the costs of each attempt to provide disadvantages -the fact that you're forced to pick between options when you level up, the cooldown/ammo cost/opportunity cost of not doing something more useful with your turn, and the reaction fire having impaired accuracy and no crits- and there's not really any way for the game to provide a 'separate' advantage at each step.

In a design oriented toward +1 end goals, this wouldn't be a problem. There could still be balance problems -most obviously 'whoops we made Suppression too good'- but Suppression would no longer have the problem of losing much of its validity because it struggles to compete with your basic shooting action, nor be burdened by a stack of disadvantages.

This is already a subtle concept, but it gets more subtle: a common design failing in games with level-up mechanics is to drastically overestimate the value of 'active' skills. In most games with a customizable level-up system of some sort, it's optimal to get a few useful active skills and then dump the rest of your points into passive skills, because the passive skills benefit you pretty much no matter what you do. Passive skills are a +1, just making you better. Active skills are a Zero, or even a negative, as spending a turn using a special skill is a turn not spent on something else. (Or mana, or seconds, whatever) This doesn't have to be true, but game designs shooting for Zero-type balance on level-up frequently extend it to the active skills themselves ie they aren't clearly better than a regular action.

As a common example, in an RPG a spell that burns a turn -and some mana- trying to instantly kill an enemy is usually not worth using, and by extension not worth buying in a system where that applies, unless it's extremely reliable. (For myriad reasons, games usually avoid making instant-kill effects particularly reliable. So usually instant-kill spells are garbage) The reason for this being that they're 'balanced' to be 'equal' to just plain performing an attack action (Zero-type balance), when said attack action is innately available. (That is, you're not booting up the game and picking whether your character's core offense action is 'perform a regular attack' or 'attempt an instant kill')

A passive skill that makes your regular attack have a chance of instantly killing an enemy? Worth grabbing. It might be an overpriced point sink you avoid buying until you're done buying the good passives, or it might not be worth putting additional points, or otherwise some qualifier gets attached in strategy guides, but it will usually be worth grabbing in some capacity just because it's a free boost. +1 design, where the spell is 0 or, in actual practice, generally -1. (Because you spend a turn that could've been spent on something else -Zero-type balance- and burnt Mana/whatever on it, where your basic attack action has no equivalent additional cost)

Personally, I tend to feel games that start from a +1-type balance approach are all-around better than games starting from Zero-type balance. They have a lot more flexibility to come up with interesting concepts, they're less prone to suffering from 'why would I use X when I could use Y instead', and they're also less prone to suffering from the stacking-up of disadvantages I laid out with Suppression. There's some contexts in which Zero-type balance is critical, but my experience is this is so much the exception that it's rather bizarre to me that Zero-type balance is so consistently the default approach in game design. Starting from +1 balance and just being willing to switch to Zero-type balance in cases where +1 balance is clearly not working seems a lot more sensible to me.

I'm curious what, precisely, has made Zero-type balance so normal for literally decades.


Popular Posts