Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 5, 2011
I swear I’m not writing this article to justify any laziness on my part in balancing Frayed Knights. Honest! But I sometimes think that of the failings of modern RPGs to capture some of the magic of older games (and face it: as a jaded gamer who’s been playing CRPGs for decades now, it’s always going to be hard to capture that magic) has been that they are simply too streamlined and balanced.
Now, balance is a good thing in general. It’s important to make sure a games’ challenge doesn’t become so easy it becomes boring, or so difficult it becomes frustrating. It comes in many forms.You’ve got level-scaling, made notorious by The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. You have item restrictions that prevent you from obtaining too-powerful items early in the game which would make combat boringly unchallenging for your current level. You’ve got class balancing to make sure the game isn’t too easy or difficult for a particular class (in single player) and that all classes can compete on reasonably equal footing for slots in groups and raids in multiplayer games. And then there’s the effort that gets put into making sure that the various abilities and powers don’t interact in such a way that they create a serious loophole or exploit that nullifies the game’s challenge.
But taken too far, it makes the game too even, too balanced, and boring. I want a game to have spiky, imbalanced edges. Not something that wrecks the game, obviously, but I’m a believer that not every power should scale equally, and not every encounter should be defeatable at your current level. And finding magic items should be – well, magical. Nothing helps that sense of discovery and anticipation more than knowing that maybe – just maybe – you will find an item that’s truly a game-changer – at least for a while.
A couple of years ago, I spent a couple of weeks tinkering with a remake of Telengard, one of the first CRPGs I ever played. It’s an ancient game, and it shows. It’s pretty generic and random game – so much so that it makes “exploration” of the dungeon pretty useless (as there’s little advantage to doing anything beyond finding the next stairway down, as waiting in place will cause encounters to come to you). A misstep took me to a teleportation trap that dropped me many levels below. I had a scroll of recall to return to the surface, but rather than using it I figured I’d see what happened. After all, unlike the original, I could restore a saved game if I died, right? (And using the scroll of recall would make me lose all my gold). I had to flee from a couple of encounters, but in my hanging-out I found a really over-powered suit of armor in a pile on the floor, and a high-level elf decided he liked my body and gave me an extremely powerful ring of regeneration. Upon my eventual return to the surface, I was hell on wheels. The two items gave me a huge advantage, but it didn’t take long before I had partly ‘caught up’ to my equipment and their advantage was reduced to merely exceptional. You know what? It was a lot of fun. It felt like an adventure.
Many years ago, when I was first starting to play Dungeons & Dragons, a friend of mine in another group had come across what he called a “freeze wand.” He was only third or fourth level, and the magical wand he’d discovered was really overpowered for his magic user. But for two weeks, if you brought up the topic of D&D, he’d want to tell you about his freeze wand. Until it ran out of (very limited) charges, he got to be a superhero. Yeah, you can complain about Monty Haul Dungeon Masters all you want. But it was fun. It made the game for him. And while it would be arguably “inappropriate” for game balance at his level, it didn’t really wreck the game after all.
A feature of many older CRPGs that is too often missing today is a “soft boundary” of an improbably difficult gatekeeper preventing your progress to another part of the world. Now, it is possible for a good player to defeat the gatekeeper and progress deeper into the game before the game designer thinks they are ready or have hit all their marks. HORROR! Or, not. Unfortunately, players these days have become trained to expect that any monster they encounter in a game is there because it is supposed to be fought and defeated, now. And they will get extremely frustrated if it is somehow unbeatable at their current level.
The late Gary Gygax, one of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons, wrote about an experience he had running his “killer” module Tomb of Horrors at a convention many years after its initial release. It has a reputation for being unfair and deadly, but many of the players were not only long-term veterans, but had actually played the module before. Much to everyone’s surprise, they fared very poorly. Much, much worse than players (sometimes the same ones) almost two decades earlier. Why? The players had gotten used to a much more even, fair, “balanced” approach to the game which assumed players would run through room-by-room, trying everything out, defeating every monster, and overcoming each obstacle as it was encountered. They’d gotten used to a gaming style that didn’t reward a cautious, thoughtful approach. They’d gotten used to a game that was, effectively, too carefully balanced and even-handed. They were no longer used to running away from danger that was beyond their character’s abilities to resist. They had forgotten how death could come instantly and without a saving throw. In my experience, they’d forgotten how those divination spells could be far more powerful than the fireball spells in figuring out how to approach otherwise unfair, nasty surprises.
“Iggy Chaos” recently wrote about this as well, in his blog post “Here. Have a Sword Sandwich.” In his major example, the game was broken by a bug, which eventually led to his losing interest in it. But it sounds like it compares favorably in his eyes to the ho-hum progression of Borderlands (which I’ve not personally played). But even up until the bug made his character uber-powerful (programmers will get a kick out of this one – I wish I knew which game he was talking about), this kind of exploration and chance of getting in over your head (and stumbling into power Beyond Your Station) in an RPG is the sort of experience I crave.
Balance is important. But too much balance makes things feel static, and — well, boring. Designers need to loosen up – balance is overrated. Let players run off the rails a little more. So what if they get the Sword of Disaster a few levels early, or manage to nuke the Vampire Lord in two rounds due to a clever combination of spells and a good chunk of luck? Those are the kinds of things stories are made of, not that carefully measured incremental advancement you’ve so painstakingly worked out on spreadsheets and flow charts.
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