Defining Awesome — How to balance a multiplayer combat game
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  • How to balance a multiplayer combat game

    Written by . Posted at 1:08 pm on March 12th, 2011

    Right now the lack of variation in content is more issue. Right now having full armour makes most weapons useless so you can choose two gameplay styles. Melee/Shotgun or Railgun. Anything else is useless against armoured players. Also everyone is carrying same items…

    This quote by whitebear on the LD forums got me really thinking. It is true. I want Link-Dead to have tons of stuff to play with. Yet, it doesn’t matter that there is a lot of inventory to use. Everybody is using the same stuff. For example IED’s are a big part of Wasteminer weapons but nobody uses them because it is quicker to just kill with a pickaxe or shotgun. There is no reason for you in a competitive game to use something that is worse, so the best gun will always be used. The same goes for best load-out, best armor/class setup etc. Finally after a couple weeks of playing everybody will be using the same winning set. Even though there will be lots of content, variety will be killed. It’s like survival of the fittest. It doesn’t matter that a remote IED is cool, it is simply weaker (or harder to use) so it becomes extinct as a weapon of choice. For variety to exist, as well as for competitiveness and FUN to exist: the game must be balanced.

    When designing the weapons I tried to give a lot of configurable variety for balancing a gun. So for example if a railgun kills with 1 shot, we can make it heavy (hard to aim) and load for a very long time. We can increase the loading time infinitely to balance the gun against the less powerful guns but by doing so we also decrease the fun we have out of a gun. A railgun can shoot once every 10 seconds but that is boring.

    Balancing is a pain in the ass, as my experience with Soldat showed me. There are 14 weapons in Soldat and balancing them was years of effort (still it isn’t perfect). Right now there are 16 weapons in Link-Dead not counting all the options you can have with adding attachments. Add to that an armor system and device/character mutation system and we have an impossible to balance game. Wolfire Games wrote a blog about imbalanced games. That is cool for a singleplayer game, but a multiplayer game cannot ever be imbalanced.

    So how do I get out of this situation? First idea that comes to my mind is “procedural balancing”. Let the computer do it for you.

    For example: Statistical balancing could be done like this:

    1. Gather online statistics about weapon kills from all servers
    2. By some algorithm automatically nerf guns at the top of the list and pump up guns at the bottom of the list
    This might work: Starcraft uses this system, the game that is most praised for its game balance. Counter-Strike Source also uses this to determine the price of guns in the shop. Gathering statistics however, does not *really* balance the game weapons themselves. It just balances whatever the players use most of the time. So if a weapon is just ugly and nobody uses it, the system will not see that and not balance it.

    Another procedural balancing system that would fight that could be a balancing simulator:
    Create test situations which could be repeated in an algorithm with bots such as:
    a) shooting a guy from distance;
    b) shooting from close;
    c) shooting while moving
    d) shooting an unarmored/armored guy etc.
    And count how much kills a given weapon does.

    These situations would be recreated thousands of times so that reloading time, jamming and everything that has statistical significance in a gun will be taken into account. The better the models for testing would be used the better the system would balance the guns. This solution seems reasonable but only if we don’t take into account individual playing styles. Many players will come up with their own ways of killing with a gun that would not be considered by the testing system (like shooting an M79 around a corner). To fight this we might join the first procedural balancing system with this one, or just tweak it by hand.

    Even if this works, there is a second problem. What do we actually change when a gun is unbalanced? As I mentioned the railgun example we can increase loading times for a one-hit weapon. But can a procedural balancing system take into account how much fun a gun is? I don’t think so. Balancing the M79 in Soldat is the worst thing ever. For me and for many others it is the most fun gun to use in this game, anything done in order to balance it against other guns actually reduces the enjoyment of using it. So when making a game like this you end up with not only balancing the gun for a competitive environment, you are also balancing the game balance with game fun! As Arnold would say: Arghghhhhhhhhhh!

    Now you see how hard my job is.

    So any other solutions?
    Yes, imbalanced weapons balanced through other artificial methods. These don’t change the fun of the gun or realism of a gun but limit how much you can use it. You might have thought of some of these of course: a point system, a real-money system, a research system, and a regulation system.

    A point system is something like in Counter-Strike were you earn points and can buy guns from the shop with them. I don’t like this solution because:
    1. It is boring
    2. It rewards good players and penalizes the weak.
    The better you are, the better guns you get hence the better you are? This is like a capitalist system in a game. The more money you have the more money you can make. This is I think the reason why Counter-Strike is a good game but isn’t very fun in the ROFL/LOL kind of way. People get too competitive and serious in this kind of environment. Not what I’m aiming for.

    A real-money system is where you get only standard guns on start. If you want better guns you have to buy them with real money via micro-transactions. Many online FPS’s use this system. This works and is fairly profitable. If this was my only interest I would think about it. But all these online shooters suffer from the same problem which is: the more real-money somebody payed the better he is. Also none of these games is a fine work of art that will be remember, something which I want to do (if I’m desperate for money I will try it though, so be generous with the donations :D).

    A research system is were you get some standard initial guns on start and besides the actual game itself there is a meta-game that takes care of the inventory you get. For example: your team can research new guns and weapons during the course of the game. I imagine this being fun, just like in an RTS game. For example one team researches a mine so now everyone can use this mine on the team. The other team to counter this will now steer research into a mine-detector. If one team invents a new pulse rifle, the other team can counter this with inventing a shield against this weapon. This sounds cool and if all weapons would be designed according the Rock/Paper/Scissor game theory it would work. Researching could be fun in itself by making the team hunt for resources to build the weapons or find technology and missing parts to construct them. You could also steal technology from your opponents. The thing to consider is: in matches lasting 15-30 minutes would this make any sense?

    Pondering about this you might think why can’t I balance the current game just according to the Rock/Paper/Scissor theory? This works very well in RTS games were there are lots of units but in a game were you have one dude this doesn’t work. Lets imagine a simplified 1v1 game. Your opponent uses a standard rifle against you. You can apply the Rock here and put on armor to defend yourself against his lead bullets. You can kill him easily this way. After he respawns to counter your armor he selects a pulse rifle (that burns through armor). This time he kills you. So you take off the armor (because it is useless and heavy) and grab an energy shield that protects you from the rifle. This time you win. So he selects a standard rifle… and so on. You can see how silly this becomes. This is actually what is happening to a small degree in the current build of Link-Dead and why what whitebear wrote happens. In a game were there is more than 2 players it is impossible to play this inventory race game. Eventually everybody settles on one best load-out.

    What’s left is a regulation system. If the point system was capitalism this is communism. It simply means that you regulate the amount of guns or clips that a team or player can pick. This is what Day of Defeat uses. In any given match there might be one sniper rifle per team, one Bazooka, two SMG’s and the rest are bolt-action rifles. This system works really well and is fairly realistic (in real wars teams are structured like this). It also provides variety for different classes to exist (not everyone picking bazookas and turning WW2 into Quake). The thing I don’t like about this system is that if you want to be a sniper you can’t be a sniper! You either have to wait, try to be lucky or try to be fastest to pick the class after round restart. It is a little weird to compete with your teammates for resources. Not to mention the times when a bozo picks a sniper and doesn’t actually do anything with it and everybody is just screaming at him to give up the sniper role!

    A variety of the regulation system is to just limit ammo clips. So if you have a strong railgun, there are only 10 clips you can use in a given match. This is also very realistic since in real wars you are limited to what the headquarters give you. I can’t think of any downside except the fact that probably the first half of a match everybody will be shooting each other with explosive nukes and the second half they will fight with sticks and stones (like in that Einstein quote about WW3). But this isn’t such a downside because it gives opportunity for clever tactics. Such as waiting for everybody to use all their good guns and then bring out the Ol’Painless and mow all the poor bastards with hand guns.

    Writing this cleared up some of my thoughts. I think I am biased now toward a regulation system with limited clips. Might add a spice of research to it for example. Nothing for sure though, I need a discussion. Anything I missed? What are your thoughts? Very much appreciated. Remember we are making the best game ever here, we want lots of cool stuff to use but we want it be competitive and balanced too.
    Forum link is here.

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    1. You should consider frequenting the irc when you have time, just for the random chatter and brainstorming.

    2. I understand that you wanna make the game realistic and stuff. But I think making some things a bit simpler, having less weapons would be good. Take Quake/WSW etc. for example, you have… Eh, no. It just came to my mind that in Quake you can have all the weapons simultaneously whereas in LD you have only 1 or 2 guns (not counting nades etc.), so what I wanted to say doesn’t really apply.

      Just do it :)

    3. Hacktank

      I like the regulation system. It would work well to stop the spamming of the more overpowered weapons, promoting strategy and restraint. Along with this system it would be nice to see energy only weapons, such as a standard plasma/laser rifle and energy whips. This would help keep the ubers superior, as they are supposed to be. I am unsure tho, this is a sticky issue.

    4. Sorry, this weapon has been used up by New_player_x
      Would you like to try Sif instead?

    5. Holofernes

      I thought about this and came up with a radical idea.
      You’ve written about adding randomness. What if the traits of the weapons were constantly changing?
      Instead of a fixed damage, rate of fire, or accuracy, have a range of values instead. Every gun starts at the midpoint
      (being where you feel it might be the most balanced) and goes up or down from there. For example, if everyone on a team is using the railgun, the railgun gets weaker. If no one has used a shotgun for half the round and you bravely choose it, instead of the shitty gun no one uses you’ll get a shotgun that does more damage and shoots faster, until you cut through the enemy team and it is adjusted back down. It would be like a more dynamic version of the regulation system, and over the course of the match teams could choose to “lock” the stats of a weapon, ensuring that it would always be of a higher quality. Of course, it doesn’t have to be as drastic as this. You might get all the weapons to an “almost balanced” stage, then let their stats move around 5 or 10%, so you never have the same gun always being better. Changing the guns on the fly like this would encourage people to always be using different weapons and tactics.

    6. Great job not reading through the blog post.

    7. Holofernes: that would balance the weapons but a problem with that would be that you can’t feel how powerful a gun is at any given moment. So you choose a railgun wanting to kill with 1 shot but it is weakened. You will get angry knowing that at the same time all your teammates picked it and it got weakened for you.

    8. Blacksheepboy

      Think about gimmicky versus effective.

    9. Blacksheepboy

      There’s a frustrating balance, because while gimmicky can be fun (think of Minecraft), gimmicky isn’t often the best approach when ‘going for the kill’. And when it comes to virtual games, you don’t have to worry about getting killed, so you can be take “insane” risks without any negative consequences and only potentially positive and awesome results.

    10. Blacksheepboy

      Like, it’s hard to take yourself seriously in a game because ‘it’s only a game’, so the realistic dimensions of war disappear (because, in real life, when you’re life is on the life, things become super-serious).

    11. Blacksheepboy

      you can AFFORD to be Rambo

      (yeh, quadruple post)

    12. bencelot

      How about you use the cash system that counter strike uses but instead of giving cash for kills you give cash for deaths? This removes the capitalistic element, provides a natural rubber band effect, and allows for more specific balancing by setting exact prices. It also adds a bit of a meta strategy in terms of saving cash to purchase a more powerful gun in a few rounds time. Of course, this might encourage players to suicide intentionally, which isn’t good. So there’d need to be something to prevent that happening. Good luck 😀

    13. danyukhin

      @bencelot well, as of now you only have 5 units (I think, might be wrong), so wasting them on suicides would be silly

    14. Blacksheepboy

      “well, as of now you only have 5 units (I think, might be wrong), so wasting them on suicides would be silly”

      oh really? I need to play this game before I comment o.o

    15. Blacksheepboy

      “research system” would be like starcraft in a 2D shooter environment… kinda. [shrug]. Maybe a mode like this with bases? i dunno

    16. Helo
      That’s a nice Post. texture packs minecraft

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