Tuning for Interest

Tuning is a tricky thing. You can have an impeccable balance and terrible play, or vice versa. Some games just aren’t sturdy enough to be tuned. But it is important – there is more to Tuning than just “tweak that variable 5 points” or ensuring you can reach the end of a level. Tuning affects the fundamental balance and rhythm of your game, and can ensure players come back for more.

So with that in mind, here are few rules to consider:

Interest First

Starcraft is the most popular RTS game ever made, and it’s not because they use Space Marines. It’s because the design broke away from the old industry path of chess-games, where two equivalent players would face off against each other, to one of unequal but competitive forces. With three completely different races, the balance is always off, swaying one way or another, but each player has a chance to swing it the other way. The result? A fundamentally more interesting game.

What I’m getting at here is that you can’t be paranoid about game balance when you tune. Players want to make interesting choices and trust that the game can police itself. If the the best you can do when tuning the difference between a gun and a sword is half a point of damage, the player is going to treat it like it’s not a choice at all.

Tune for interest first. Make sure it’s fair later.

Variety is the Spice of Gameplay

Front Mission started out as a game with basically only two weapon types – melee and long range – and the game suffered for it. The sequels made every weapon different, with obvious advantages/disadvantages. The number of mech configurations multiplied exponentially as players went looking for uniquely configured types to handle the game missions. Hell, you could argue that half of the game is just in the shopping phase.

This kind of variety may seem initially bewildering. Perhaps not even something you can balance with a spreadsheet. But players are adventurous. They are going to try different things, perhaps even things you can’t predict…and that’s part of the fun! Simple upgrade paths and an unchanging balance dynamic may sound easy to document by comparison, but perfect balance is checkers. It’s not fun.

It’s not enough to reinvent rock-paper-scissors. You need to give players the rules and let them sort out the details. As long as they can make their own interpretations, they might even enjoy it.

Encourage Cause & Effect

PixelJunk Monsters is initially one of the hardest games in recent memory. The monsters come through the forest relentlessly, dodging your feeble towers to eat your tribe and end the level. The player is constantly at odds with their decision making because every placement has more factors than can be accounted for in real-time. Strategies that seem to be initially successful turn out to either be problematic or just plain wrong!

Now, I’m not saying make your games hard – I’d rather ask the opposite these days! – but I’d argue that cause and effect is more useful as a feedback loop than success can be. I’ve asked above to allow for a both interesting choices and variety of them, but neither of those solutions will stick if the player always makes the right choice.

However, if they almost always make the wrong choice – but get closer and closer to the right one – then chances are something is working out alright.

Going back to my PixelJunk Monsters example, think of what the player is doing: buying and placing towers. At first it seems like anything along the path will hit a monster, but in practice, any turret along the far edge of the path becomes rarely used. Money could be poured into a central defense, but fast monsters will walk right by it.

In reality, what is going on is that the player is slowly learning that the layout of the level itself may be a lie, and that only his own experiences with monster walking patterns can dictate where to place turrets and why. (For example, a player might place turrets in zones where monsters double-back, or stick to splash weapons in areas where there is no room to miss.) In learning their own rules to apply to the levels, the player is fundamentally more interested in the game than they would be if they could just focus on upgrades and money collection.

Think about it this way:

  • Interest (rule #1) is definitely important because the tower types have radically different functions. Some towers have more appealing effects than others, but finding out what makes the most sense is an ongoing – and never quite solved – process.
  • The player has a variety of choices (rule #2) in what towers they can build and where/when to place them. They can build a bunch of upgraded cannons. Or maybe save up for a few flamethrowers. What about that Mortar or Hive? Maybe hedge my ground/air bet with arrows instead?
  • And our final rule comes into play because the player is making only informed guesses about their choices. Only on acting can they begin to learn and correct their mistakes. The solution isn’t crystal clear, but as long as the player can refine their answer in the right direction, the rule is validated.

I think it’s difficult to stick to hard-and-fast rules when it comes to game design – the saying “there’s an exception to everything” rings a bell – but try to give some consideration to these 3 rules when you tune, and maybe the fix you’re looking for might be a bit easier to see than it looked on paper.