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Buying a game piece by piece.

An older reprint from my blog where I use the idea behind the new micro transaction BattleField game to talk about game balance where the player can just buy there way to the top.

Recently while watching X-Play they looked at the upcoming Battlefield Heroes title, which will be the first Battlefield game to be free to play and be set up with micro transactions. My dislike of EA is already known, and I can't help but feel cynical that they're going to mess this up. Micro transactions are already on a slippery slope as is and I hope for the gamer’s sake that they did their homework on the right way to do it.

Whenever you have games that allow players to buy in game items you will always have arguments about what makes an item good enough to be worth real cash to have it. The issue is that if someone plays a game and masters it, should someone who just spends $20 on items be able to take on that master? Which leads to the great debate, what should determine who is the better player, the items they buy or their skill level? For this entry I'm going to look at how games with micro transactions are done right, and the concept of balance between players who will spend money on equipment not available to anyone else. To begin, let's look at a game where I believe it's done right.

Albatross 18 is a free to play arcade golf title, with numerous items, characters, and equipment available for purchase using real cash. The players can buy items without spending cash using the in game currency, but there is always better stuff available for those willing to spend cash. However the player will begin with everything they need to play competitively against other players. Now here's the important part, the items will augment the player's skill but will not make up for a lack of it. I know if I go up against someone who has no skill but a $100 worth of items, I will win with my free stuff. However if I play against someone who has skill and a $100 worth of items, I expect to get my ass kicked and that's how it should be. The game play is about getting the timing for shots down as well as understanding the path the ball will take. Just buying the best clubs and characters will not make up for the fact that you hit the ball too hard and it went into the lake.

In competitive games, everyone is looking for a leg up against other players, the catch is that items should not be some kind of magical trump card that will win every time. Skill should always trump items, and items should never be able to replace the need for skill. Looking at FPS titles for example if someone can just spend $15 for a rocket launcher that is a one hit kill even if it doesn't connect that is unbalanced. The other side of this argument is that there is a point where skill can only go so far. For example let's take the world's best race car driver and put him in a car that has a top speed of 40 MPH, now let's have him race a newcomer in the fastest sports car , who do you think will win? That racer may be the best in the world, but with suboptimal equipment I doubt he will win the race. Which brings us to that important question: How much should items affect the outcome in a competitive match?

That my friend is the big question, at what point should skill no longer help and items will be required to advance? Should someone with the weakest gear be able to become the top player in the game? There is no easy answer for these questions, but I can answer an easier question on what makes a balanced item in a micro transaction title. I believe the following conditions need to be considered when designing an item:

1. The item must never be better then everything else currently available. One of the first rules of balance is that nothing should be able to beat everything else. 2. Items should not be a replacement for player skill. 3. Items should not be so good or powerful that every player needs to buy it. I think I should go into more detail about #3, as you might be asking yourself "wouldn't I want everyone to buy it?” If you have an item so vital that everyone needs to buy it, then you have an overpowered item that really should have been given to everyone to begin with. I'll give you an example of the wrong way to set up an item and the right way. Here's the wrong way:

Body Armor: increases player's health by 100 points.

The problem with this item is that if anyone doesn't buy it, they will be left at a huge disadvantage. It would be like everyone having guns except for you who have a plastic fork. I can just imagine some untrustworthy designer after two weeks putting up an item that increases health by 150 points. Now here's a more interesting idea:

Body Armor: increases player's health by 100 points, but players will take double damage from back and head shots.

This version gives the player a strong advantage, but also a disadvantage to keep in mind. A skillful player who always watches their back and avoids standing in one place would make the most use of this. However a newcomer who just stands around is going to get decimated by players if they use this item. Items could be made that could also have their own disadvantage for removing a disadvantage from another item. As we move into the realm of micro transactions, game balance must be kept in check for your player base. So the game doesn't become a race for whoever spends $1000 first wins.

Josh

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