If you’re a designer on a ‘live’ videogame (as opposed to boxed, shipped-and-done game), then a lot of your time is taken up with questions that you can answer, but will never know if you chose the ‘right’ answer.
As your seniority increases you become more and more responsible for intangible things, like deciding direction, setting priorities, and guiding how the game ‘feels’. Every single game is the result of thousands of these soft decisions, leaving many alternate universes where Game X plays slightly (or completely) differently.
What am I going on about? Let’s take a specific example from Combat Cards which has come up recently. There’s no definitively correct answer to this, so welcome to the ‘I wonder what would have happened if we’d chosen a different answer’ world of being a videogame designer!
A quick recap:
- Combat Cards divides all its cards into factions, and each faction has one or more Warlords.
- Each deck must contain one Warlord, and if they’re destroyed you immediately lose the battle.
- Each Warlord has a special rule, to help guide the cards you might want to include in a deck with them.
- The Tyranid Warlord Ghosar has the special rule ‘Infestation Swarm’, which says ‘each turn, cards of the Tyranid faction gain +2 to their melee attack’.
Naturally, this leads to a couple of obvious deck building strategies – include melee focused cards, and try to keep the battle going for as long as possible (either with high Wound cards or a horde of cheap cards).
Due to a combination of factors, players tend to get Ghosar early, meaning a lot of the decks you play against right now are built around him. And when he appears you’re suddenly facing a Warlord – which you have to destroy, don’t forget – who’s inflicting over 100 damage per attack.
So, here’s the question – should we tone down Ghosar’s special rule? Is it so powerful that it’s what’s known as a ‘dominant tactic’?
If it is, then it’s a big problem, because if video games are defined as ‘a series of interesting decisions’ then making one answer clearly correct will quickly make the game boring. After all, the game is about winning battles, so if one Warlord is definitively the best at that, why bother collecting any others?
But is he actually so powerful as to be ‘broken’? Ideally we’ll use win / loss stats for battles involving Ghosar, so this question will get easier to answer the more countries Combat Cards is released in. But currently it’s only available in Australia and the Netherlands, meaning we don’t have a huge data-set to draw on.
- We should just wait for that data to make a decision, right?
- Except if we’re seeing a suspiciously high percentage of players using Ghosar, or some players are complaining about the card, then surely we should act immediately?
- But players understandably get upset if their favourite card is suddenly reduced in power.
- Buuut, surely a few player complaints now are better than leaving the game with a dominant strategy in it? After all, it’s not good for the long term health of the game if everybody has to use a single card to be competitive?
- Except, I’ve spoken before about how important a ‘healthy metagame’ is, with players finding new tactics to overcome the current, dominant, ‘best’ deck. So maybe that’ll happen here, with players finding ways to shut down Ghosar, making him less popular over time?
- But how long to leave it to see if that happens?
As I said earlier, there isn’t a single, demonstrably correct answer here. We’ll have to use the data we have, our experience, industry best-practice and gut instinct to decide what to do.
Some people might find never knowing if they made the right call frustrating, but these decisions come up every day for videogame designers (and you thought design was all fast-cars and jetpacks).