Personalization is one of the best ways of giving players progression and choices in games. Being able to create a character or army to the player's specification allows them to connect more to their character and is a great motivational mechanic to keep people playing. Team Fortress 2 with its bevy of items is one of the best examples of providing replay-ability and longevity to a game. Because of the popularity of personalization, more designers are experimenting with it in their designs.
With Diablo 3, players can mix and match active and passive skills for each of the five classes, allowing two players using the same class, to be very different in terms of utility. While in Age of Empires Online, you can equip every build-able unit and structure with a variety of gear and take advisers into battle that provide age specific bonuses.
While all this looks great on paper, personalization needs to be kept in check as we're seeing cases where designers are not able to see the forest for the trees with balance. To talk about game balance and personalization, there are two areas we need to focus on: single-player/cooperative, and competitive design.
Age of Empires Online
The False Choice Syndrome:
Cooperative design is where designers like to give players a variety of choices, seeing as how they can design and balance them around player's working together (or solo) instead of using them against each other. The problem which I talked about in my post about the difference between masochism and challenge in design: Is when to make a game difficult, the designers make some choices useless.
Diablo 3 is a different game when we look at the early to mid game (normal-nightmare) vs. the end game (inferno.) As it stands, many skills outright become ineffective for inferno, reducing survivability down to a number of pre-defined builds. Compounding this issue is that it's hard to determine base-lines for enemy values due to Diablo 3's system.
Because of how the primary attribute for each class dictates damage and defense, players who aren't able to find loot related to it will have a huge disadvantage. But for people who use the auction house system, they can render the game a lot easier by just buying the best loot related to their class.
The problem is that there are so many permeations to a character, that it makes the end game near impossible to balance. They have 5 different classes with all the skills and runes, plus randomized loot for people who don't use the auction system, and then they have to adjust for people who did use it. Blizzard didn't just shoot themselves in the foot; they took a chainsaw and chopped it off.
In Demon's Souls, game balance was far easier to achieve due to equipment placement and the leveling system. The designers had a good idea of what would be the base line attributes of a character at each stage of the game thanks to pre-defined equipment locations and altered enemy attributes accordingly. Of course, expert players who knew how to get every little bit of power out of their equipment and attributes could blaze through the game, but that's alright. As balancing a game around the hardcore minority usually leads to boring design. This becomes even more challenging when you throw competition into the mix.
The Competitive Angle:
While balance is important for cooperative design, competitive games live or die based on how balanced they are. Gamers who play professionally will comb over every inch of the game's design to find any little tricks or issues with the design for an advantage. If the game is not balanced, professional gamers will not touch it and the competitive scene will die.
The importance of balance is one of the main reasons behind the popularity of Starcraft on the professional scene. Not only did the designers balance 3 asymmetrical races, but they fine tuned them down to the decimal point of every unit's attributes. Starcraft's design is one of those games that deserve to be studied on this fact alone.
The detail that makes balance achievable in competitive games is a closed system. This means that there are no variables to the equation: a SCV in Starcraft will move and gather the same amount of minerals at the same rate every-time, no questions asked.
What happens is that when designers add the ability for the player to personalize their strategies, it adds variables to the equation. If any one of those variables leads to an always optimal strategy, a professional gamer will find it and exploit it until it is changed. For a game to be considered competitive, the gamers’ skill has to be first and foremost the factor in winning or losing. If someone can just equip better gear through time or money and can beat someone with several more hours at the game, no competitive gamer will want to play.
Strategy games in particular are easy to analyze due to how open they are in terms of numbers. The numbers game becomes an important learning tool for anyone who wants to be competitive at a strategy game. In Age of Empires Online the variety of items and premium upgrades that can personalize units is great, but they get in the way of providing balance.
Case in point: An Egyptian Spear-man can be upgraded to a champion via a premium upgrade. This upgrade not only increases the attributes of them, but removes the gold cost which is normally 10 per unit. What that means is that if someone researches it, after 15 spear-men the research has paid for itself. This is a huge deal and major advantage if two players are against each other and one hasn't spent money on their civilization, then that player has a huge disadvantage.
With items, they can effectively break the balance of the game. Giving an archer unit enough defense and offense can make something that is only supposed to be effective against archers, now able to hurt everything. Combined with defense, even if another unit is strong against it, having 30% more health can be a huge deciding factor.
Team Fortress 2
Imagine if players could choose special upgrades in Starcraft 2 before the match began: such as all Hydralisks have 0 vespane gas cost, and picture how bad the balance would be ruined with that.
Providing ways of personalizing the experience requires a careful eye for balance, and there are some tips designers can follow to prevent things from getting out of control.
1. An Open-Closed System:
Competitive games as mentioned require a set system for players to learn and build their strategies around. But that doesn't mean a designer can't give some leeway with variety.
In Command and Conquer Generals: Zero Hour, the expansion took the three playable sides: US, China and GLA and gave each one, three sub factions. Each sub faction took their respective side and altered it to emphasize a specific strategy. For example, the US air general removed the majority of tanks a player could build, but gave them more air units and made them cheaper in the process.
This gave gamers a chance to use these specific factions to alter their strategy during vs. but even though this introduced variety, the system was still closed as the player could not alter the sub factions. Recently Sins of A Solar Empire: Rebellion went a similar route, splitting each of the three races into 2 sub factions. Each one had different bonuses, units, researches and a super unit they could build.
Sins of A Solar Empire: Rebellion
2. A Variety of Limits:
Giving players multiple ways of affecting their character may lead to imbalance if left unchecked, but it can be reign in by providing limits. In Age of Empires 3, players had shipments in the form of resources, additional units, and upgrades that could be sent to their base during play. However, while the player can eventually unlock access to all of them through playing online, there is a limit of how many they can take into a match.
Because of that, it allowed players to create "decks" of different shipments built around different strategies for their civilization. Do you focus on the strengths of a civilization? Or work to counter their weakness? Or go for a jack of all trades route? No one could make their side unbeatable, as there weren't enough slots available to fit every shipment in. Contrast to Age of Empires Online where players can equip everything with better gear. Meaning that the longer someone plays, the better their Civilization will naturally get.
3. A Side Order of Balance:
A discussion of personalization balance cannot be complete without another mention of Team Fortress 2. Valve has gone to great lengths to keep Team Fortress 2 as balanced as possible, even with more items then I can count. In the past there have been a few items that did slip through the cracks (the original medic hack saw upgrade for example,) but Valve has improved over time.
"Side-Grades" as they are called, provide unique bonuses to the classes, but they also come with a negative factor as well. From reduced damage, less ammo and many, many more are factored in to prevent any one item from being the optimal choice for all situations. The best part is that this prevents having more time spent playing Team Fortress 2, to beat out people with greater skill. It doesn't matter what sniper rifle you're using if you can't aim accurately.
What's important to remember is that for this to work properly, every item has to be a side-grade in some way or another. As having an item that beats everything else, defeats the purpose of the side-grade system.
Giving players more options of how to play the game always seems like a no-lose solution, but the more variations available, means more areas that need to be tested. If the developer wants to add more choices or even the option for PvP at a later date, they need to make sure that the foundation of the game is steady, or the whole thing could fall apart.
Reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye