Video Game Tuesday: Destiny and the curious case of Balancing

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This week for Video Game Tuesday I’m still talking about Destiny, you thought I was done didn’t you? All jokes aside I’m covering the state of Destiny in terms of balancing.

Balancing as a Game Development term: In game design, balance is the concept and the practice of tuning a game’s rules, usually with the goal of preventing any of its component systems from being ineffective or otherwise undesirable when compared to their peers. An unbalanced system represents wasted development resources at the very least, and at worst can undermine the game’s entire ruleset by making important roles or tasks impossible to perform. (Shamelessly stolen, I mean taken with citation, from Wikipedia)

Why it matters: If a game is improperly balanced, like it’s said above, it ruins the game. It doesn’t even have to be on just one scale either. If it’s imbalanced in any way it’s a bad thing. A good design has everything in equality, while still making it interesting to play. What does that really mean in terms of gameplay? It means that a single aspect of the game, be it a weapon or game mode, or even type of play (For instance Player Vs Player[PvP] or Player Vs Enviroment [PvE]) is improperly balanced and it becomes either the only way to play the game effectively, or you avoid that aspect because it’s pointless in doing.

Practical Example: For instance back in my World of Warcraft days during The Burning Crusade Expansion, a common practice for players who were in less hardcore Raiding guilds (meaning they weren’t tackling the newest content regularly and had coordinated teams of players working on a fight for days or weeks to perfect their strategy and gear) often used PvP to obtain Epic gear (The best obtainable tier of item quality in World of Warcraft with the exception of the few Legendary Items that are unique and incredibly hard to get). I did this because my guild was struggling with Karazhan, an entry level raid that only took 10 people instead of the full 25 people it took for harder raids in addition to the gear from Karazhan, and I PvPed every week in order to better equip my character in order to make up just a bit for the less skilled players in my raid team. It got to the point that I hated the system thoroughly, and when Wrath of the Lich King launched it changed the rules completely. PvP gear was now sub-optimal in PvE enviroments, which I lauded. A player should obtain items from the type of play they do that fits that type of play. However not everyone was happy, my by then former guild mates were understandably upset, how were they suppose to obtain gear in order to tackle end game content? Blizzard made it possible by including a system where over the course of many weeks of hard work that a player, no matter how terrible their luck, could obtain some (not all however) gear of epic quality by trading in tokens earned in content that matched the play type. Raiders could get PvE gear by doing a daily heroic, read: hard mode, dungeon and earn 5 tokens each day. If they did that every day by the end of a couple weeks they’d be able to purchase a piece of gear. In that same Heroic content was gear that was obtainable that would make a sufficiently skilled player able to properly enter a raid given they knew what they were doing and had a competent raid team.  This system allowed players of a slower pace, like my former guild mates, to obtain the gear needed to participate in the highest tier of end game content, which at the time meant Raiding or Arenas.

Destiny: It’s been nearly two months since Destiny has launched, as of the writing of this post, and there have already been nerfs (read: Balancing a mechanic or item by lowering it’s effectiveness), and buffs (read: Balancing a mechanic or item by raising it’s effectiveness) to certain playstyles and weapons as well as some bug fixing. This is to be expected of a game that is as close to an MMO as you’ll get on a console, besides FF14:ARR which is a real MMO. MMO’s change over time, hell even most FPS games have balancing patches that come out, although much less frequently then an MMO. However some players are upset that certain things were nerfed, because in their eyes it was unfairly justified. Let me say one thing, if you thought that certain mechanics, like having Auto Rifles being so effective at long range and Shotguns having an excessive amount of range weren’t unfair you don’t understand game balance. If there is only one right way to play, it’s imbalanced by definition. Everyone and their grandmothers were running and gunning with a Suros Regime after week 3 and shotgunning people from 10 meters away in the PvP mode of Crucible. However there are some people who have a legitimate complaint, people like myself, who don’t participate in PvP content and felt unjustifiably weakened by the nerfs to their playstyle in PvE content. There is no real good way of making those people happy, the most often stated solution of separating PvP and PvE content completely (Meaning abilities and weapons act completely differently in those two game modes instead of acting similarly) is often infeasible.

The reason is a key rule of game design. KISS or Keep It Simple Stupid, is behind the core of all good game design, having abilities and weapons act differently in one instance over another is highly confusing to the standard player. More hardcore gamers, like myself, may be able to maintain the ability to separate their playstyle when switching between those activities, but that is a skill that takes years of mastering and isn’t simple to do. This isn’t even mentioning the hundreds of man hours it would take to redesign each and every gun, ability and game mode around those new abilities. If a perk acts one way in PvE, but completely differently in PvP how do you convey that to the standard gamer? It would take either a wall of text for each and every perk listing both effects or it’d require you to hide the effect that isn’t currently active at the moment. Doing so prevents some players who might train how to correctly use a weapon, like a fusion rifle, in PvE in order to use it more effectively use it in PvP. If it acts differently and they want to practice it becomes impossible to do it outside of that game activity, and everyone hates losing. I don’t care how masochistic you may be, no one likes to lose.

So before you start complaining on the forums of your favorite game about how the most recent patch, or round of hotfixes, has ruined the game for you ask yourself if the change was necessary and if it was don’t complain. If it wasn’t necessary, for example the change that makes Atheon the last boss in the Vault of Glass in Destiny choose 3 players at random to be sent into the time stream instead of the 3 farthest away, you may complain. I personally think that the change should only have affected Hard Mode Vault of Glass, as those players who don’t know what they are doing shouldn’t be in your raid group. Allowing players to choose which people get sent in is a good mechanic for a normal mode Vault of Glass, for example you have a new guy who just joined your group and whose never seen the time streams, to be helped out by two more experienced players in the time stream. This allows the player to contribute and learn the mechanics of a fight by having more experience players help them out. It also makes the Hard Mode version of that encounter actually much harder because each player is by that point expected to know what to do for the normal mode of that encounter by heart, which allows the game designer to throw more curveballs at a group without making the encounter too hard to complete by those players sufficiently skilled enough to do so.

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A word about Exploits: I find that some exploits are either hilariously funny (usually graphical bugs that have no effect on gameplay whatsoever like the picture above), Interesting use of game mechanics to make something slightly easier for the player (Something like crawling into a corner with boxes to avoid gunfire and have the opportunity to shoot back out “cough” Valus Ta’Aurc “cough”), or an outright exploit that allows a player to bypass core mechanics of an encounter thereby making the encounter incredibly trivial and too easy to beat (Like pushing Atheon off the edge with Grenades). The first two aren’t that bad and usually are left in to allow the player who is more knowledgable than most others to complete a task in quicker time, or for just laughs in the case of the graphical bugs. Using that hiding spot in the Valus Ta’Aurc encounter isn’t an exploit as you will eventually have to leave that little corner to continue damaging the boss and it’s really only allowing a player a place to rest with little to no fear of being overwhelmed. If you could sit and shoot the boss without ever having danger of him killing you it would be an outright exploit and I’d expect that to be fixed. However most “exploits” aren’t really worth fixing because it’s an interesting use of game mechanics. For instance on the final boss fight of Ocarina of Time you can roll under the bosses legs to avoid all his attacks, thereby making that part of the fight ridiculously easy, however doing so was difficult for most people and required you to be very precise in terms of timing and distance to pull it off. I’d classify that as an interesting use of game mechanics and not an outright exploit.

Overall: I hope everyone’s a learned a little more about what goes into making games this week, and remember Balancing in a game is a good thing, even if your favorite playstyle gets nerfed it often deserved to be nerfed in order for the game to continue to thrive.

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6 thoughts on “Video Game Tuesday: Destiny and the curious case of Balancing

    • True, although somethings like the Valus hiding spot are useful, I don’t feel particularly bad having to use cases like that. Other things like hiding under the deck for the Archon Priest fight are true exploits.

      • I can relate to those helpful spots that don’t seem bad, regardless they are altering the design of the approach and really shouldn’t be taken. If the game seems infeasible without it? Probably isn’t that good or you are thinking about it wrong.

  1. You are forgetting the part where I talk about interesting use of Game Mechanics. Using that cover to hide for a bit before going out and dealing with enemies is perfectly reasonable, it just happens to be more effective than most cover spots. And with games like Destiny or other MMO’s like Warcraft people will always find ways to turn game mechanics to their favor.

  2. Pingback: Video Game Tuesday: The 2nd Rule of Game Design | Windborne's Story Eatery

  3. Pingback: Video Game Tuesday: The 2nd Rule of Game Design

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