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As you work through these aspects of balancing your game, you may be tempted to dive right in and change everything at once. The playtesters say they want more of “X” and less of “Y,” they want to change procedure “A” and make a new rule “B.” Before you know it, you have a real mess on your hands—your balancing process is out of control.
On the following pages are some techniques for keeping a calm head and making changes that truly improve your game.
Obviously, these apply at all stages of revision, but right about now is probably when you need them most. If you master these techniques, you will be able to take a game that works marginally well and fine tune it without making changes that lose your previous work.
Most games aren’t comprised of a single system, but a set of interrelated subsystems. A good way to simplify a game is to think in terms of modularity. Breaking your game up into discrete functional units allows you to see how the mechanics of each unit interrelate. If you think of a game like WarCraft, it has a combat subsystem, a magic subsystem, and a resource management subsystem. Each of these subsystems is a part of the greater game system. The more interconnected the various pieces, the harder it can be to make alterations because one change can throw off the balance of seemingly unrelated parts of the game.
The key to dealing with this problem is to isolate the subsystems and abstract them from one another. This type of functional independence is a critical part of large-scale game design. It’s similar to object-oriented programming, where each object is clearly defined with a set of input and output parameters, so you when make a change somewhere else in the code you can track how it affects every other object. The same holds true for game design. If you keep your subsystems modular, when you tweak one element of your game, you know exactly what impact it will have on the other parts.
Along the same lines, try to design your game with a purity of purpose, meaning every component of your game has a single, clearly defined mission. Nothing is fuzzy, nothing exists for no reason, and nothing has more than one function. To accomplish this, break your game mechanics down into building blocks using a flow chart and define precisely what the purpose is of each block. This will help you to avoid creating a morass of rules and subsystems, which will grow increasingly convoluted as your game evolves. When this principle is adhered to, tweaking an element only changes one aspect of the gameplay, rather than several aspects, and the job of balancing your game will become methodical, rather than a haphazard guessing game.
Exercise 9.11: Purity of Purpose
Think about your original game prototype. Are there any extraneous elements—elements that have no purpose? Remove the least important element of your game and test the system without it. Does the game still function? Is it complete? Balanced? Remove another element. Continue stripping elements from your game and re-testing until you reach a point where your game no longer functions. Now again answer the question—are there any extraneous elements in your design?
Train yourself to make only one change at a time. Limiting yourself to just a single change often feels cumbersome because after each change, you have to test the entire system again and gauge the affects. However, if you change two or more variables at once, it becomes difficult to tell what affect each of those changes has on the overall system.
When balancing a game, nothing is more valuable than a good set of spreadsheets. As you design, you should track of all your data in a spreadsheet program like Excel. This will make the job of balancing your game much smoother.
If possible, your spreadsheets should mirror your game’s structure. This will allow you to better communicate with your programmers. We strongly recommend sitting down with your technical team and laying out the spreadsheets together. Each subsystem within your game, whether it is combat, economic, or social, should have its own set of interconnecting tables. Apply the same principles of purity of purpose and modularity to your spreadsheets. Look at the spreadsheets as both your starting point—a great tool for laying out the game design—and your ending point—a tool used in refining and perfecting the gameplay.
Exercise 9.12: Spreadsheets
Take the game variables you listed in Exercise 9.5 and put them into a spreadsheet program like Excel. Make sure that the structure of the spreadsheet parallels that of the game system. Now you can use this tool in balancing your game.
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