It’s been a couple weeks in the trenches, and I thought we’d surface for air and give you a glimpse into our balancing process.
Players and developers alike, we all have (often passionate) ideas about what this game needs and doesn't need. Hell, we don’t always agree on the MGS team! What’s good to remember is this: This is the biggest Age game ever, and it’s really complex. Balance is a huge concern for us. We want to make the game fun and challenging but make sure you can’t just buy your way to the top. That’s what our balance team helps with. So today we’re going to introduce you to a few members of the balance team here at MGS: Tom, Rick, and David (the balance team lead).
- What’s a typical day for a balance tester?
- Tom: "The first thing I usually do is check out the forums to see what new things were posted overnight, talk with my co-workers as they arrive and discuss ongoing and new issues, then jump into the internal games with other testers. After lunch it's more playing, then meeting with my team to discuss issues or needs we're seeing that need to be addressed, more playing, then home!"
- Rick: "A hot cup of coffee to kick off the day. Before we start any playtest games, I look at the community forums and update our balance issues. This way, we can focus on the most pressing balance issues. A team meeting is held every day to discuss any balance or user concerns. Our discussions include civ and unit balance, user experience, map balance, game mechanics, etc. We play as many PVP games as we can on the Beta and among the testers."
- David: "There really isn't a typical day for our team, with so many different challenges to tackle every day. Most days consist of figuring out the best way to align game balance with core gameplay design. The output of those discussions results in several hypotheses, which are then tested rigorously. Sometimes games quickly confirm our hunches, while sometimes it may take a bit longer to fully understand all of the implications from cascading balance changes."
- How many games does your team play a day?
- David: "It varies due to how much of our time is spent dissecting and analyzing what happened during the game. On average, we get about 8 to 14 games in per day."
- How do you balance a game this big?
- David: "The amount of area to cover in Age of Empires Online is huge. Our general approach is to compartmentalize balance design elements into logical groups and pursue a divide-and-conquer approach, tackling one group of elements (such as advisors, equipment, etc.) at a time. Another important thing is to constantly stay on top of the game, because many issues that were previously hidden become evident over time."
- Tom: "Balancing a game of this scale at times can prove difficult. You break it down into smaller pieces and address the most pressing issues first. We have a lot of tools at our disposal that help us crunch the numbers, but at the end of the day, the most effective way to see how the game is behaving and make judgments on what needs to change balance-wise is to play a huge number of games."
- Rick: "Like on any other big project, we have to segment and compartmentalize balance issues. Tackling every detail and variable all at once is overwhelming. We want to balance the game on a solid foundation and take it step by step while incorporating new strategies and builds."
- How did you get started on Age of Empires Online?
- David: "I had previous experience working with Ensemble Studios on the Age of Empires III series."
- Rick: "I came to the project with RTS experience from other games and basically had to learn everything from scratch. It's been a rough ride, but coming to work with the mindset of improving has paid off immensely. I love working on games. It's always a pleasure when an opportunity rises where my RTS experience can provide a value in the development process."
- Tom: "I was approached not long after releasing the Asian Dynasties fan patch. MGS had a position opening up to help balance-test one of their upcoming games and asked if I'd like to be a part of it."
- What tools do you use?
- David: "We use a lot of different tools. The coolest one is the Spartan Battle Arena. We're able to simulate thousands of unit battles in a day with this custom-made tool."
- How many times has your team wiped their cities?
- David: "Probably too much! Our team starts new cities from scratch every time we change internal test environments, or if we need to check the game balance at lower levels. I would say each of us has created new cities about 8 to 10 times so far in the project."
- Why do you balance at level 40?
- David: "Players are gradually getting stronger as they continue to quest, trade, and find better gear. Level 40 represents where players will eventually be in the long run. While players start out at level 1, everyone is constantly getting closer to this end game with each complete quest and finding new equipment, advisors, and craft designs. Games are also more accelerated at this level, and we feel this represents what the PVP players want. We also spot-check games at level 10, 20, and 30 to make sure the trickle-down effects don't create too much whiplash at lower levels."
- How do you know the balance is right?
- David: "My philosophy around game balance is about the core user experience. Balance is a subset of design and should be an integral part of the gaming experience for everyone. Game balance is achieved when the game provides the appropriate level of risk/rewards, encourages the evolution of strategy through interesting choices and decision-making, is fair for all players involved, and provides a positive and fun experience."
- Rick: "Our goal is to give the civilizations an equal chance of winning against each other, regardless of external influences such as build orders or map type. The balance is right when conclusions to games are decided by player skill, not by external advantages."
- What’s your favorite part of Age of Empires Online?
- Tom: "The civilization diversity."
- David: "Phat lewt. I’m a sucker for cracking open random chests."
- Rick: "The game mechanics. Both micro and macro mechanics of the game are polished, and users do not have to worry about clunkiness when they play. Oh, and I also love 'woololo.'"
- With all the games you play, and the routines you follow to gather data, how do you not go insane with all of this balance work?
- Rick: "Drink tons of coffee in the morning and get good sleep at night."
- Tom: "For me, it's fun because the game is in a state that is always changing. When you make even small tweaks to numbers regarding balance, it opens up a whole new realm of possible strategies, build orders, etc."
- David: "I watch Dex relive his favorite Star Trek moments."
So, as you can see there's a lot to balance, and we have a very talented team. I honestly think I'd go insane playing as much as our balance team does every day, but that's why they are so important and valuable to Age. These guys are in the trenches and kicking it, and it's hard work! I hope it gives a little perspective to our balance approach.
We're also listening to all the Beta feedback too. Between all the data points, I think we're going to have a really fun game. And, from the perspective of our balance team, I think they've earned it.