As I mentioned in a previous post, most of my development time right now is devoted to playtesting. Game balance is a complex web of mechanics, interactions and visual communication choices, and tweaking even one tiny thing can lead to all sorts of unexpected changes rippling throughout the system.
That’s why theorycrafting can only take you so far. You have to actually build the thing, test it, iterate, try out ideas and see how they feel. Often you’ll be surprised at where this process takes you, design-wise.
An example from the design of System Crash is how players start with 1 Credit (the game’s resource) in their Pool at the beginning of the game, even before they play any Credit Chits. Quite frankly, I don’t like that. It’s a design hack, a fudge factor.
You see, the problem I had was that, originally, when the player started with an empty Pool, the first round or two of a game would feel a bit boring, the player wouldn’t have much to do. There aren’t that many cards in the game in the 0-1 Credit range, and you can play at most 1 Credit Chit a round.
So the first round tended to be boring, with very few interesting decisions to be made.
My first instinct was simply to make all the cards cheaper. Simply knock 1 Credit off the price of every card in the game, and that should keep the relative balance of everything the same while allowing you to make interesting decisions quicker, right?
No, not quite.
(For the purposes of this example, we’ll assume a good resource run, so the earliest you can play an X Credit card is on turn X.)
An 8 Credit Agent discounted to 7 Credits can now be played on turn 7, as we expect. But consider playing two 4 Credit Agents. If you drop the cost of each of those Agents to 3 Credits, the earliest you can play both of them is on turn 6. That’s a 2 turn reduction, whereas the Agent originally costing 8 Credits would only get a 1 turn reduction.
You see the problem? The 1 Credit discount compounds itself across cheap combos. If previously you could have played four 2 Credit cards on turn 8, now you can play the four 1 Credit cards on turn 4! A 4 turn reduction! The balance of the whole game completely changes, with the cheaper combos getting a huge power boost.
So I went back to the drawing board. What I wanted was to keep the balance of the game as I had it, but allow the player to have a better chance of being able to do something besides play a Credit Chit card in the first turn. So…what about just giving them 1 Credit to start? Just skip past the boring first turn?
I tried it, and it worked. The fudge bothers me, it feels like an inelegant solution, but it does work. So I left it in, and try not to get too twitchy over it. 😉
So coming back to my recent playtesting, I decided to try mess with another factor, just on a whim. Currently, each player needs to score 30 Objective Points to win the match. I bumped it up to 50, just to see what that was like.
And lo and behold, I think it actually makes the game much better! What it does is extend the end-game phase of a match. Going back, the 30 OP matches feel truncated, just as you start to get your bigger cards out, the game ends.
And while 20 OP extra to chase sounds like a lot, once you start getting the big cards onto the field of play, 20 OP is something that you can score in a single round, even.
It also, oddly enough, reduces the power of the early game cards. Because you have more breathing room, losing advantage in the early game isn’t quite as much of a disadvantage. A hacker getting off some Smoke Grenades for a few rounds doesn’t leave you feeling quite so helpless, because there are a few more turns afterwards to reverse your fortunes, now. More time for you to pull out some big stompy robots and teach that hacker pest a lesson. 😉
A subtle change, but one that is, I think, for the better. But the real lesson here is that it’s important to experiment with your design, try things, tweak, iterate. The results may surprise you.