While usually my posts focus on individual combat, I want to address something a little different this time; running fun and interesting multi-player combat, also known as “battle games.” I originally wrote some of this on request for the Interview with a Dragon facebook page, but I wanted to expand on a few points.
Game Design Examples
There are many ways to talk about good and bad game design. I have chosen to use two battlegames as examples of good and bad game design and focus on how each solves some of the basic issues of battle game design.
The example of poor battle game design I will use is Mutual Annihilation (henceforth MA) with a set number of lives per individual. This game is ghastly. For those never subjected to this game, here is a quick recap: Players are divided into two equally-sized teams of equal skill. Each player is assigned five lives, or the game can be played with a pool of lives equal to five times the number of players. The objective is to kill all the other team’s players off so they run out of lives. Respawn is 60 seconds, with each team having a dedicated spawn point.
The example of good battle game design I will use is The Domination of the Enlightened Soul (henceforth DES). This is a well-designed battle game, created by a brilliant, handsome, and unusually talented Amtgarder. For those who have never enjoyed this game, here is a quick recap: Players are divided into two teams of roughly equal skill. Players have unlimited lives and an instant respawn. Each team has a respawn, on opposite ends of the field. In between these two respawns are some manner of grid (arrangement can vary as desired) of 6 pairs of cones. The goal is to capture each of the six points. Capturing is accomplished by one player (and only one) physically touching a cone and counting aloud to 15. A player gains Enlightened Soul temporarily while counting at a cone. When a cone is captured the player puts his team’s color cone on top. Cones may be recaptured. Play ends after 30 minutes or when all cones are captured by one team.
Now that game descriptions are out of the way, let’s look at what makes these games good or bad. There are a lot of ways game design can fail.
Design Goal: Equality of Player Class
The first requirement of a good game is that every class has the potential to contribute equally to victory. Those of you playing Dagorhir or Belegarth should still this one, since it is possible to design a game so badly that player equipment matters enough to unbalance teams. Everyone is the hero of their own story, so no one wants to be a speed-bump or supporting character in someone else’s epic. In MA, resurrection is a critical spell. Any team without access to resurrection is almost certainly doomed to defeat. Players who can cast resurrection are more useful resurrecting players than doing anything else, and are more important to victory than any other player. Conversely, in DES, there are no essential spells. Resurrection is still useful for popping players back up at critical junctures (especially defending or taking the cones closest to the enemy spawn point), but the game does not require every player to be resurrected constantly to avoid certain defeat. A common “special boost” for one group that I see in battle games, that also applies in Dagorhir and Belegarth, is giving archers special locations where they can shoot at people but may not be struck by melee weapons. Avoid these.
Design Goal: Equality of Player Defeat
The second requirement is that all players have equal value as targets. No one type of player should become a priority target or main victim. Mutual annihilation games make less-skilled players targets, because they are easy kills and can be quickly removed from play so that a team can enjoy numerical superiority. If the Mutual Annihilation game has a life pool, slaughtering less-skilled players as quickly as possible is the key to running down the life pool count. DES, on the other hand, offers no particular reward for killing one player over another. It is what the player is doing (capturing a cone) that makes them worth killing, not their skill or lack thereof. Anyone can capture a cone, so all players are equally viable as targets.
Design Goal: Minimize the Impact of Skill Imbalance
The third requirement of a good game is that a small number of players should not completely dictate the course of the game. This is often a problem for game designers; if you have one warlord who is also amazing at his class and a bunch of newbies, how do you make a balanced game? In a game like MA, the problem rapidly manifests as the warlord single-handedly wipes out the other team over and over until the game is over. The problem is solved by the laws of physics in a game like DES. No matter how skilled the warlord, he can only be in one place at a time. While he is taking one cone and slaughtering all comers, the other five are open for the other team to take. If the warlord decides to player defensive, he still won’t be able to sprint between all six cones and kill everyone in the fifteen seconds it takes to capture all the cones. Even if he could, with an instant respawn everyone can just immediately go back to cone capturing. No warlords are up for extended wind-sprints.
Design Goal: Opportunity for Player Contributions
The fourth requirement is that everyone can contribute to victory. In a game like MA, if you’re not good at killing over players, you’re not doing anything to contribute to victory. In fact, there is a good chance that your team would be better off without you if there is a life pool; you’re costing the team more lives by participating than you are contributing by killing other players. That’s a terrible position to put a player in. In DES, every player is valuable. If your only skill is standing still, you can be capturing a control point while others defend you. If you’re good at battlefield awareness, you can pick out undefended cones when the focus of battle shifts, bringing your team a surprise victory or staving off a sudden defeat. If you’re good at the confrontational part of your class skills, you can slaughter/crowd control people defending or taking a point. A support player can heal the injured and res slain fighters in an intense battle on top of a control point.
Design Goal: Maximize Play Time
The fifth requirement is that everyone should get to play as much as possible. With the drawbacks we’ve seen so far to life pools, some people try to run MA games with individual life counts. However, that means that those who are easier to kill end up dying faster, and end up watching the better players play Amtgard. Everyone should be playing Amtgard together, not watching some elite subset play. DES, with unlimited lives, means that every player gets to play the entire game. Dying still matters; killing an opponent usually gives enough time to finish capturing a point, but the slain opponent is quickly back in the game.
Design Goal: Minimize the Impact of Defeat
The sixth requirement of a good game is that the impact of defeat should be minimized. This is not losing the game, but the temporary defeats that come from losing any particular fight. Usually this means taking a death, but it could also be a crowd-control spell or other type of defeat. The newer or less-skilled players are going to be subjected to these defeats more often. The more skilled players should win more; that’s the point of a skill-based game. However, the impact of that defeat should be momentary and transitory.
In MA, a less-skilled player is going to die more often to a more skilled fighter, possibly a lot more. Each death means a minute hanging around waiting to respawn. MA then doubles-down on this penalty, by also costing the player a life, reducing the amount of time they’re going to get to play if they have individual lives, or penalizing their team if they have a life pool. Death is a double whammy of hurting your team and not playing, as well as the other penalties like losing your enchantments and leaving your team outnumbered or disadvantaged on the battlefield.
In DES, death has a single penalty; you are no longer able to capture or stop the capture of a single point. It is over as quickly as a player can get back to the spawn point (something the player can control). Repeated deaths by a more-skilled player do not come with an ever-increasing cost, which diminishes the impact of losing to someone else over and over.
Note that there is still a penalty to death in all good games. However, the penalty in a better game is a loss of the ability to accomplish or thwart a goal, and being a less-skilled player does not compound the penalty for death.
Design Goal: Durable Game Balance
The seventh requirement of a good game is that it should remain balanced. Too many games are designed such that, as one team gains an edge, this advantage compounds until defeat becomes inevitable for one side. This snowball effect makes the game fun for only part of the game, then just a beat down for the remainder.
MA is not the worst offender in this regard, but it still exhibits this behavior. As a team has players start running out of lives, the team starts to become more and more outnumbered. In a life-pool game, this only happens near the end of the game, but in a per-life game this happens fairly early on. In both cases is makes the final result more and more inevitable and eliminates the chance for any sort of heroic last stand or brilliant save.
DES, on the other hand, not only has durable team balance, it also self-balances as one team starts to dominate. Typically a team captures and holds the cones closest to its own spawn point most easily, meaning that the cones closest to the enemy spawn point are the last captured. This means that the winning team has a longer trip back to respawn, which effectively gives them a slower respawn rate. This means they will have fewer fighters able to battle for the last point than the losing team, who will have a short trip to respawn. This gives the losing team time to rally and capture other, uncontested, points and turn the tide of battle. (Which often does, in fact, happen.)
Those are the some of the main goals that a good game should fulfill. There are some additional, bonus, goals that mainly apply to larger games, company battles, or multi-team games.
Bonus Goal: Force Conflict
A game must force conflict. Most two-team games do this, which is why I made this a bonus goal. However, if you have a three-team MA you have created a scenario where “not fighting” is how you win. You let the other two teams slaughter each other and you conserve your precious lives. Any time you have more than two teams, you need to ensure you have game objectives that reward the team that fights the most, not the team that stands around watching other people play Amtgard. This is a common failing in large battle games at events, especially company battles. A common variant of this is the battle game that only rewards teams for fighting at the end of the game. A game should reward continuous engagement and play at Amtgard. A three+ team DES variant that does this is to have the reeve award a point to each team for every cone they hold at one-minute intervals, with the team with the highest point total winning.
Bonus Goal: Balancing Multiple Teams
A game with three-plus teams should not encourage ganging up. A common game design mistake is to make a game where teams benefit from ganging up and beating up another team. This simply reduces the game to a two-team game with wildly unbalanced teams. If you want to have a hideously unfair game, just warn people in advance so they can do something else. A common form of this problem is to have objectives, and whichever team does not have an objective is eliminated. Teams can gang up on one team, eliminate them, and then play an even battle game between the final two remaining teams.
Bonus Goal: Balance Unequal Teams
It should be possible to balance teams by some mechanism other than having teams with equals numbers of equally skilled players. DES, for example, can be played with a fairly high skill imbalance, as long as the less-skilled team has more players and the total number of players is small. This works great for smaller parks with only a dozen or so players. If one team has more players than the other, they have more people who can be capturing control points. Numbers are critically important, and the further teams get away from equal numbers the greater the imbalance. Since there are multiple points to control, a team that is too small simply can’t compete at dominating all the points no matter how much more skilled their players are. Having two “dials” to adjust for team balance that both have a strong impact (team size and average player skill) makes it easier to balance teams.
Teams can also be balanced by making small tweaks in how the rules apply to each team. One team can be given an additional spawn point, allowing them to be closer to the action when they respawn, while the more capable team has a longer trek back to respawn. One team can be given a slightly high respawn count. You could, for example, give the weaker team an instant respawn, and give the other team a respawn time equal to the difference in total orders of the warrior between the two teams. One team can also be given shorter objective counts to capture points, destroy walls, or whatever the game objectives are. The weaker team can be given a monster, or special “captain” abilities, depending on the scenario. There are a number of tweaks to the game that can be made to balance uneven teams beyond simply trying to make the teams identical in skill level, or making one team much larger.
It should be noted that there are limits to how effective this sort of adjustment can be. It is possible to create a balanced game where one side has all the warlords and the other side has all the newer players, but that doesn’t mean the game will be equally fun for both sides. As a one-off, this might be fun. As a regular thing, people will eventually tire of dying in endless waves just to drag down one titan.
Bonus Goal: Backstory
A good game has a fun back story. “Mutual Annihilation” doesn’t sound like any sort of cool backstory, and people rarely come up with an sort of justification. DES, on the other hand, just from the title, sounds like it has some sort of interesting back story. Moreover, the game design makes it easy to come up with one. Six kegs of dwarven ale are waiting to be tapped, and your warband wants to tap them with your mystic spigots so only your warband gets booze at this evening’s feast. Six wellsprings of eldritch power have appeared in the forest. You must set up binding stones on them so your monarch’s grand wizard can tap them for the good of the kingdom, or you must unbind them so the wild forest magic can run free.
The Bad Ideas
There are some things that have proven to be bad ideas over and over again. They make games less fun and result in unhappy players and terrible battle games. While an extremely lucky and talented game writer can make these ideas work, almost everyone screws them up, badly. Avoid them. To provide some contexts, I will provide an example of each of the bad ideas I have encountered.
Bad Idea: Nerf the Strong Player
One mistake game designers make it deliberately trying to nerf the strongest players by forcing them to fight with a specific weapon style, forcing them to die on limb shots, or some other form of weakening.
There are several problems with this approach. First of all, it is unfair to the player to force them to play at a handicap. Everyone’s fun is equal and it is unfair to single out a player for nerfing, especially in a game that is intended to reward skill at the game. Second, it often will not work. Players who feel they have been unfairly nerfed will often work even harder to win and overcome the nerf.
Sometimes players will voluntarily play at less than full effectiveness, but the key here is that the player is doing it voluntarily, and can stop doing so if it stops being fun. They’re defining their own fun, not having it circumscribed by someone else.
Terrible Example: This is actually the one bad idea that I hear all the time but have never encountered. I’ve been told a few times that, because I am a skilled fighter, I have to accept some handicap no one else is held to, but I’ve always just told the person “no” and worked with them to provide proper balance in a better manner.
Bad Idea: Unkillable Monster
All too often, someone comes up with the idea of the super-powered monster, either that is entirely unkillable or so overpowered that they’re mostly unkillable. This is a great power-trip for the person playing the monster (often the monster was also their idea), but it’s not a lot of fun the other people who have to play supporting roles in someone else’s power fantasy. A game designer should always ask themselves, “Will this be fun to play against?” If your answer is, “Yes. People will have tons of fun because they’ll get slaughtered over and over again,” then you are wrong. And a moron.
Terrible Example: I once played in a quest at an event where the monsters had “Death” as one of the monsters. To describe it in v8 terms, he had six points of magic, ancestral armor, wounds-kill, shield destroying, armor-destroying weapons, and he was immune to magic. If you killed him with anything except a Sphere of Annihilation, he respawned in 30 seconds. The questers didn’t have that spell, so he was essentially unkillable. Of course, the guy playing the monster is also the guy who wrote up that monster. The quest slowly lost questers as more and more people got frustrated and quit.
Bad Idea: PvP is On
PvP is not always bad. If the teams are correctly balanced, then PvP is not going to cause many problems. Where PvP becomes problem is in quests, where quest groups vary in power. In those scenarios, the stronger teams often quickly realize that plundering other players is as profitable as plundering monsters.
Terrible Example: I once fought in a quest where each party was self-chosen, and parties were trying to complete quests to amass gold coins to buy artifacts. PvP was on, and players could loot coins from other players. Unfortunately, the quest was not well designed and several teams got bored. PvP broke out, and soon the strongest team was squatting on the main road between the questers and the bank, ready to way-lay any party that had money.
Bad Idea: Magic Will Balance the Teams
Often the belief is expressed that magic will balance out fighting skill. Magic can, indeed, mitigate a disparity in fighting skill, assuming the mitigating person is skilled in their casting class. However, game-designers need to keep in mind some caveats. Skilled fighters can also benefit from class abilities, either by using them for themselves, or by receiving enchantments from others. Class abilities can strengthen less skilled fighters by providing non-melee skills to achieve game objectives, but they’re not, on their own, going to always balance teams.
Terrible Example: I fought in a battle-game recently where one team got most of the casters, including all the level 6 druids, and the other team got both warlords. This resulted in a team where everyone had two points of magical armor, and two of those players, as Golems, had it every life. The warlord team still slaughtered the other team, completing objective after objective.
Terrible Example: As a bonus, there is another way this can go wrong. In a recent game I was fighting single sword, as a way of challenging myself at a lower-skill park. However, casters kept using the Heat Weapon spell against me, which was largely keeping me from playing. Since I come out to Amtgard to play, I solved this problem by picking up a second sword. Rather than countering me, magic encouraged me to become more powerful so I could have fun.
Bad Idea: Fixing Failure
One common mistake game-runners make is trying to fix a failed game. If a game is horribly unbalanced and one team is dominating to an extreme degree, it is better to simply call the game, declare that team the winner, and then rebalance teams or change rules. Or simply run an entirely new game and go back to the drawing board with the broken game. The problem with trying to fix a game is that you are taking a victory one team is earning, and arbitrarily taking it away. You can also cause confusion as people switch teams or rules change. Worse, sometimes the fixes don’t improve the game, and the game-runner double-down on failure and keeps trying to patch the broken game.
Terrible Example: I once played in a game where my team accomplished five of the six objectives in the first few minutes of the game and was effectively spawn-camping the other team. A hold was called, and another player and I were moved over to the other team. Then that team crushed the other team, which made them mad because they’d lost their first picks and because they’re been about to win before the reeve interfered. Then the reeve called a hold and change the objective criteria, which resulted in some people using the old method and some people using the new method. This also didn’t fix the game. I ended up convincing the reeve to just call the game, but not before all the players, who had originally been in a good mood, were irritated and grumpy.
Bad Idea: The Neutral Whatsit
All too often, game-runners try to solve the problem of one overwhelming player by making that player “neutral.” This results in one of two equally awful scenarios. In one case, the neutral player dominates the game, and both teams end up trying to appease and cajole the “neutral” player so they can win. Eventually the “neutral” player decides which team gets to win by helping that team until the game is over. Other times, the “neutral” player acts as a force of chaos, continually thwarting the winning team. This is great for the ego of the “neutral” player, but not so much fun for the team that keeps getting victory snatched away by the sudden allegiance shift of a supposedly neutral party.
Terrible Example: I have played several games with a “neutral” healer. This player, even in the best cases, was constantly undoing the efforts of the other players. They would finally kill a high-value player, and then the neutral healer would resurrect that person, undoing the work they had died to accomplish. Worse, when they wanted to attack the neutral healer to prevent the resurrection, the healer would tell them that if they attacked him he would stop helping their team. The healer was able to browbeat players into letting him do whatever he wanted.
Bonus Bad Idea: Segregating “Flurbs” and “Stickjocks”
The idea that people who love to fight and excel at it can’t also love roleplay, or those who love roleplay can’t be good fighters is a long-standing stereotype in Amtgard.
This stereotype is very divisive. It typically paints one group as ‘bad’, because they are not interested in what the other group is most enjoys. It demeans the interests of the other group. It also divides people into one group; you’re either one or the other.
This stereotype is also wrong. Most Amtgarders are interested in anything fun, whether it is role-play or fighting. It is only when it stops being fun that people check out. In the Wetlands, all the warlords enjoy roleplay, and some of the most die-hard role-players can be found on the ditch line before or after battle games, and are seeking out warlords to learn more about fighting.
Finally, both terms are somewhat insulting, though people have tried to embrace and convert both terms with varying success. Insulting your fellow players is not a good way to make a good game.