Wednesday 21 September 2016

Game Balance - Key Points

I think I've explored this more thoroughly elsewhere (I think in one of the game design series) but recently been playing a few PC games where game balance is an issue has revived my interest in this topic.

Basically, most game designers "nerf" (or weaken) overperforming ("OP") units and tries to "buff" (improve) underperforming units.  The aim is to have units that can perform to similar levels but have different abilities.  I.e. the holy grail is a game that is asymetrical yet balanced; there are different units for different playstyles, and each unit can be unique and can be strong in particular areas, but none is inherently more powerful in the long run, in a range of situations over a long series of games.

I think I've also done articles on why true balance is inherently impossible, unless units ARE bland carbon copies of one another, but I'd like to focus in on the balancing method, with applies to wargames as well.  Or perhaps, three very common mistakes.

Common Balancing Mistakes
Namely, the tendency to
(#1) nerf/buff several things at once
(#2) nerfing/buffing things dramatically (the sledgehammer approach)
(#3) try to be clever by nerfing/buffing things indirectly, rather than using trying to deal directly with the issue. You know, Occam's Razor and all that....

Changing/Balancing Multiple Factors
The problem with (#1) is buffing/nerfing multiple things at once violates the scientific method of testing - i.e. "change only one variable at a time."    Changing multiple things can result in both unintended effects, contribute to (#2) over nerfing/buffing, and finally, worst of all - you have no idea which change caused the end effect.

Say you have an overpowered unit, which stats and game experience suggest is overperforming.  So you nerf its weapon range, AND rate of fire, AND reduce its armour.  Not only does this often result in (#2) "overbuff"/"overnerf" due to multiple buffs/nerfs often having a multiplicative effect on each other...   ....but perhaps after this "balance"  the unit is now underperforming - but there is a problem. You have no idea which was the significant factor.  Was it weapon range that mattered? Or was it the rate of fire? Or was it the weakening of its defence?  You can only guess - because you changed them all at once.  It wasn't a "fair test."

Making Radical Changes (i.e Sledgehammer Nerf/Buff)
These seldom work out well.  Changing the gun range by 10%, maybe even 20% - means you are adjustingly slightly. Fine tuning, as it were.  Doubling or halving gun range (changes in the 50-100% bracket or more) tend to suggest to me that designer had no clue as to game balance in the first place and is swinging wildly trying to fix a radical imbalance. Changing several factors (see #1 above) at once (say 20% rate of fire, 20% weapon range, 20% extra damage) can have the same effect; even if the individual changes are minor, they often add or even multiply one another to create a massive power spike (or drop, if the changes are negative) - for example in the above example the lethality per round would be increased ~40% (20% damage + 20% more rate of fire) as well as having the "kill zone" extended 20%.   Cumulatively, it's fair to say the buffed weapon is 60% more powerful than the original.

While I'm mentioning WoWs, the Youtube channels of iChase and Flamu are useful sources of information on improving your play...

The Indirect Buff/Nerf
This one will take a bit longer as it's a bit harder to explain.  It's a change that does not deal with the problem directly but indirectly; perhaps buffing a unit by nerfing its counter, rather than directly improving the unit's stats.  The problem with this as it often causes unintended consequences and often results in more sweeping changes to overall balance rather than specific and direct balancing.

I'm going to use World of Warships as an example here, as I've been playing it a bit lately.
Basically, there is a problem at high-tier games, whereas battleships "camp" at far sides of the map, parked stationary and bow-on, and just "snipe" at each other all game at ~20km ranges. No one plays cruisers, as they can get insta-deleted by battleship salvoes.  This is a problem as the game was designed for BB > CL > DD > BB in a kinda paper-scissors-rock.  Destroyers (without cruisers to counter them) launched walls of torps, further encouraging battleships to camp at the back.  In lower tiers, the gameplay is far more dynamic, and all ships have a role. Why is this?

Well, the primary difference between Tier 5 and Tier 10 is battleship gun range, and battleship gun accuracy, relative to both other classes and speed/survivability. There's a big difference between a ~15-20km effective range and a ~10-12km effective range - the ships are still moving ~25 knots so the move:shoot ratio is moved dramatically (50%+) in favour of shooting effectiveness vs maneuver. In contrast, cruiser and destroyer gun effective ranges are more similar between tiers - maybe a couple of km.  The second is the "cost" of damage; if your ship is sunk you "lose" in-game currency and actually go backwards in your game progress.   So we have a circumstance where players are (a) excessively punished for taking damage/dying (b) have the ability to shoot across the map and harm each other.  Due to the excessive penalty, battleships are scared to advance or maneuver tactically where they will attract fire; and instead focus on presenting a minimal target. Due to the gun range, they can still contribute to the fight (albeit at limited effectiveness, but the risk/reward tradeoff is worth it). The range/accuracy boost is a big deal as maps stay the same size; therefore at higher tiers you can take focussed fire from multiple enemies all across the map.  At low tiers, with short gun ranges, you only take fire from the few enemies in your immediate vicinity.

So.... what's the core issue?
Players are shooting at long ranges, camping, and afraid to move to objectives for fear of sinking.  Gameplay is static and boring.   Cruisers are too easily killed by battleships. Fewer people played cruisers, thus making the class cruisers were meant to counter (destroyers) more attractive.

As a wargamer I would say "the dice roll chance to hit/kill is too high, and the move:shoot ratio is skewed in favour of shooting."

The simple solution:
Reduce the maximum battleship firing ranges, and reduce the long range shooting accuracy so it is more proportionate to other classes/the relative speed of the ships, as per the better balanced tier 5.
Further, reduce the "punishment" cost for sinking so players are willing to advance and maneuver and "take risks" to get into positions optimal for winning a battle, not just optimal positions for staying alive.

The roundabout solution:
The WoWs devs have tried to address the problems in a range of ways.
They tried to make cruisers more attractive by giving them radar (thus increasing their ability to counter stealthy destroyers) - effectively nerfing destroyers.  They further nerfed destroyers by reducing torpedo range (and making torpedoes easier to spot and dodge).  Unsurprisingly this did not fix the problems.  Despite the nerfs to their natural counter, battleships did not suddenly boldly advance into the middle of the map for close-range duels, and cruisers did not become more popular.  Because the designers did not fix the core problem directly.

Their latest idea - reduce battleship bow armour so they will advance and not sit parked bow on at extreme range.  I'm not sure how removing battleship armour will make them braver and more willing to advance and risk their ships, but hey...

When balancing a game, don't fall into the common traps. Make sure you
(a) change only one variable at a time
(b) make minor adjustments to stats and percentages (+/- 10-20%, not doubling, halving etc)
(c) identify the issue and deal with it as directly as possible; don't try to be clever with indirect nerfs and buffs that effect the unit through secondhand means (i.e. "flow on" effect).

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Tyranids and Lost Ones; more speedpainting

Another quick and cheerful bunch of minis to inspire the less-perfectionist amongst us.  I deliberately used even LESS colours than usual; mostly craft paint actually.  I'm kinda enjoying the "minimalist" challenge and I feel I'm getting solid result for minimal time investment.

I had an hour; I managed to paint and base 19 miniatures in that time.  The Tyrannids with their brown scheme were particularly easy and was pretty much brown craft paint, tinted appropriately

I wanted my Tyrannids to be more "insectlike" hence the rather dry brown paint scheme.  They will feature more as pulp and fantasy enemies rather than sci fi; as Weird West predators which roam the buffalo plains; fighting against 100 Year War longbowmen etc - I wanted to make them less slimy and "alien" and more "natural" and insectile. The little swarm Tyrannids do look like some sort of giant desert flea-thingie and the big ones do have a bit of a "mantis" vibe so I think I succeeded.

I was really fast, slapping on an undercoat, using a lighter shade for the "shell" or carapace bits, and highlighting with a still lighter shade.  Viva la craft paint!  My only "detail" was the blue tongues.

The Lost Ones are from Helldorado: the conquistadors-invade-Hell theme of the game is very awesome but it was kinda obvious the game was never going to gain traction - I've tended to re-purpose the minis for other games.  They'll make a good savage tribe in a pulp "Lost World" genre pulp game.  In hindsight I should have used a more contrasting light shade of green to drybrush over the top to make the muscles "pop" more.

 Bonus points if you can identify this guy....

Another thing I've been doing is "touching up" old models; perhaps they have chipped paint, or need rebasing, or would benefit from a wash or highlight.  Some merely had meh paint jobs.  This is also fast, and has rejuvenated many of my older models.    Do you have any wince-worthy paintjobs? Perhaps you can simply tidy them up rather than starting from scratch....

Saturday 10 September 2016

World of Warships Revisited

This is a "dad game" - a slow paced PC game with very few controls, and 10-minute rounds.  Cunning is superior to twitchy reflexes.  And of course, it's all about WW1-WW2 warships blasting chunks off each other. You can play with/against other humans or co-op vs AI bots.  In short, it should appeal to the average wargamer.  I've done other posts about this game, so I'm going to focus on changes since the last time I played (~6 months back) and then indulge myself with a rant.

So what has changed since last Christmas?
Well, there's new German battleships, for one.  Sadly this means games are crowded with even more mouthbreathing battleship drivers as everyone rushes to try them out and progress to the best ones.  The Russian cruisers are out and are not at all overpowered (*cough* Russian developer bias *cough*).  The Royal Navy still aren't in the game (after all, the Soviet Navy won WW2, right?)

I liked the new minimap and in addition, the markings that define where smokescreens start and stop are a great improvement.

In the latest patch, their is a very handy colour-coded "armour viewer" which shows the thickness of the armour on your ship, including magazines, citadels, turrets etc. 

Apparently high tier Japanese destroyers have been nerfed (surprise surprise) due to the whining of battleship 'tards and they are going to "rebalance" (i.e. nerf) the mid tiers as well.

There's a nice event on this month giving away two rather good ships (a tier 5 Kongo and a tier 7 Myoko).

Captain Skills have been adjusted (but as usual there are pretty much must-have skills for each class so there isn't really a choice if you want the optimum skillset) and so have ship upgrades.  

The biggest (and least welcome) change for me is the new "matchmaker" which decides what ships you get matched up against.  Basically, tier 5 ships get shafted by always ending up facing superior tier 6 and 7 ships.  Given tier 5 is the most popular, fun, accessible and balanced tier (all the ships are good and there are no "lemons") this is a major annoyance to me as a casual player.

It's a truism that the smaller the ship, the bigger the balls of the captain....

So is World of Warships fun?
Yes, it is.  I've enjoyed getting back into it.  There's a range of playstyles - you can spam your guns and dodge like a madman with a gunboat destroyer, sneak about and ninja torpedo stuff with Japanese destroyers (though they will be nerfed soon due to salty tears of battleship drivers unable to bother to steer left or right and dodge them).  You can drive a mighty armoured battleship (thought most people with these hide at the back of the map as a battleship and snipe ineffectively, fleeing after a single destroyer 5"shell scratches their paint) or be a multirole cruiser that showers things with 6" shells or precisely fires 8".  If you prefer boardgames and don't like ships at all, you can fly planes from overhead view RTS-style as a carrier.   If you have friends and a microphone, there is great potential for teamwork and the relaxed pace means there is time to randomly chat/plan ahead.

The Rant
As you may have inferred, I'm not a fan of battleships.  Actually, I like battleships fine. It's just the players who use them. For some reason this class invariably attracts the biggest retards on the team. "Hurr dur - I haz biggest gunz," perhaps? Dunno.  But for whatever reason, inevitably, the biggest ships on the team are driven by the biggest tools, who are definitely not the sharpest in the shed.

+have the highest average damage done per game
+have the highest win-rates
+have the most armour
+have the most hitpoints
+have the biggest and most long ranged guns
+have the strongest AA
+have the ability to dodge their biggest threat (torpedoes)
+can repair massive amounts of damage

-are slow to turn
-have slow-firing, slow-turning guns
-are not very sneaky

So, as expected, battleships are incredibly survivable and can dish out awesome damage, while being a little unwieldy.  Sounds like a perfect ship for someone who isn't afraid to mix it up, and can plan ahead a little. Sadly, 99% of battleship players possess neither of these traits.

Battleships can dodge torpedoes.  Just most of the time they choose not to bother.  Far better to whine for nerfs on the forums... (4:30 for torpedo dodging using WASD "hacks")

Battleship drivers are whiners.  If there is more than 2 destroyers in the game (out of 15 ships) there will inevitably be a battleship driver whining in chat. What? They may actually have to pay attention to where they are going in case of torpedo attack, and can't simply mindlessly sail in a straight line and focus on shooting all game?  Of course, it's fine if there are 6 battleships - hey, it's the only target they can hit.  In addition, battleship whines have resulted in nerfs to carriers and destroyers (who were designed to stop battleships wandering off alone) which has also indirectly nerfed the usefulness of cruisers (who counter said aircraft and destroyers). 

Battleship drivers are wimps.  Their damage parties can repair more damage than the entire hitpoints (flotation capacity) of a destroyer. Multiple times.  Their armour (if correctly angled - which is a big if given the average IQ) can shrug off capital ship shells.  They can eat half a dozen torpedoes and fight on.  Yet most battleship players run from the slightest hint of "trouble" (this could be defined as a cruiser 1/5th of their size) and tend to snipe from the extreme edges of the map ~20km, where they seldom hit enemies and cannot influence the game.  It's not uncommon to see cruisers and destroyers heading for the objective and battleships heading the other direction. 

Battleship drivers are dumb.  They loftily avoid peasant strategies such as zig-zagging and tend to sail blissfully along in straight lines, presenting their broadsides to the enemy (for more "dakka") which makes them vulnerable to enemy fire and torpedoes.  And in the game, there is a beeping torpedo alert, so it's not like they can claim they are "ambushed."  Most times the average battleship player will avoid the mission objectives and even run away from them if there is a weaker enemy presence there.

So, don't mince your words - tell us how you really feel....
It's so frustrating when the most powerful, toughest ships in your fleet are operated with someone who should not be allowed to use anything more complex than a spoon.  When a ship that requires thinking ahead (the main battleship weakness is they and their guns are slow) is piloted by someone who does not think. Period.  When a ship capable of soaking up immense amounts of fire hides behind smaller, flimsier cruisers using them as meatshields, or snipes from extreme range, running away from the mission objectives.  You'd think having the biggest guns would compensate for having the smallest balls but apparently this is not the case.

I've played hundreds of games over the last year but only seen a handful of good battleship players.  Usually these are fast battlecruiser types (Kongo, Scharnhorst) - so I suspect they were played by cruiser specialists who were moonlighting.

World of Warships is fun, simple, free and very good with friends.  It's full of team mates dumber than AI bots (usually in battleships) and if you want the Yamato/Tirpitz/Iowa be prepared to play a LOT to earn them.   There's been a few good quality of life changes, offset by the new matchmaking system which has shafted Tier 5 ships - to prepare to ran up to tier 7 (and to a lesser degree, tier 6) to get the new "sweet spot." 

Friday 9 September 2016

More Speedpainted Monsters

Another quick-paint session. As usual, the aim is minimal paint time (~3 min per model) with few coats, and only a few colours used.  There's no "ten coats to get the perfect tone" nonsense - it covers the black undercoat and I wash them only if needed.

I had about an hour to myself this morning (grandparents = awesome for distracting youngsters) though my three-year-old did briefly "help."

 My 3-year old did the sandbags. I rather cunningly gave her a big stiff old brush, and spread the paint thinly on the palette, which got a drybrush effect which I wanted.  

I'm not sure where the ghouls and Cthulthu-thingies come from - RAFM or Black Hat I suspect...

The hound-things I think are Dark Eldar from an early iteration of 40K.  As you can see, I've been digging through my boxes of random models...

No idea where the robed dudes come from either. I have a vague feeling they were meant to be pulp cultists, not monks.  

The limited paint selection, and use of few coats (only 4 models were even washed) kept the time from undercoat to basing/tableworthiness to an hour for 16 miniatures.   Using the same paint scheme for the (red undercoat, flesh drybrush topcoat, yellow eyes, cream claws/teeth) means they can be used as a unified enemy for pulp or fantasy.

Again, this is not an "aspirational" pro painting post, but one to encourage you to quickly slap some paint onto models and get them out on the table. It doesn't need much skill, time or effort to field functional models.  And as you can see, even a 3 year old can paint terrain.  There's no reason (besides laziness) to field unpainted or undercoated minis or terrain. 

I'm having fun finding random models and making them "table worthy."  Kinda by accident, there is  a warband of monsters taking shape from a range of manufacturers, including quite a few Mage Knight/Horrorclix. 

I've painted my dozen models for the weekend - how about you?