Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Never Balance Cool Against Useful

Posted by Ben Zeigler on June 29, 2009

One of the more important parts of most RPGs (both online and not) is having cool rewards, often in the form of items. Great loot design can elevate a repetitive activity to be extremely satisfying (Diablo 2 is the best example of this), or can drag down an otherwise well designed game. To have a good loot system, you need a decent pool of desirable items, and systems for allowing players to acquire the item they want. There are a bunch of interesting ways to grant access to loot (quest rewards, random drops, crafting, auction house), but all design effort put into those systems is a waste of time if the end result isn’t actually compelling to the players. So, what makes an item compelling enough to drive player desire? I think the real value of an item is a combination of two components: Utility and Coolness.

I’m using Utility in the mathematical sense. Basically, the question is how will a particular item help the player achieve their goals more efficiently. Many players (especially the higher-level players) are trying to min/max their character and all they care about are the raw numbers. If you don’t give them hard numbers, they’ll come up with their own (possibly flawed) ways of figuring out what the best gear is. Also, once these players have come up with a system for evaluating item utility, any item ability that is complicated or hard to quantify will be considered of dubious value. In short, these players like Stats. The higher stats an item has, the more they want it.

Coolness is a bit harder to quantify, and refers to a cluster of different things. First of all, there is the simple issue of how cool it LOOKS. Also, items that are specifically rare (ie special mounts in WoW) will be highly valued regardless of utility. More relevant to combat design is how fun an item is to USE. Items that have cool effects (procs, conditional bonuses, active abilities with a long recharge, etc) can vary the combat in interesting ways and keep a game fresh, even if they don’t necessarily improve a player’s overall efficiency. They can even encourage a player to try out completely new tactics, essentially creating a mini-game nested within a larger game. More casual players, as well as players who crave variety, are big fans of items with cool abilities. However, it is difficult to strike a balance between making situational effects useless and making them too powerful (where combinations of effects can break the balance entirely). If you do it right, players will appreciate the unique abilities but won’t be able to abuse the system.

Okay, so there are two reasons why items are interesting: the quantitative improvement offered by Utility, and the qualitative improvement offered by Coolness. They both provide value to an item, but the perception of that value depends heavily on the player. Hardcore number crunchers will devalue cool effects for not being obviously useful to efficiency, while casual players will devalue pure stats for being boring (I think World of Warcraft equipment has actually gotten significantly more boring over time as they cater to the hardcore more). Given that we have two dimensions of value that are difficult to compare, how do we build an economy around them? You could try to estimate the average economic value of stats and cool effects and attempt to directly balance them against each other. This seems to make sense, but I believe it is the wrong approach.

If you balance Utility against Coolness, what you end up with is a system where the people who want stats will pick the items with the best stats but no coolness, while the players who want variety will pick the items with bad stats but lots of cool things. This has two horrible problems. The variety seekers ends up with a set of complicated conditional effects but will be significantly worse at everyday efficiency, which means they’ll fall behind their friends at levelling and be irritated at the game difficulty. The stat seekers will end up with no interesting combat effects, which means they’ll get bored of the combat more quickly. Both players get what they think they want, but are more likely to be dissatisfied over the long time.

The solution is to not balance utility against coolness, but to scale them both up as the value of an item increases. As a basic example, a “common” quality item should have mediocre stats and be fairly boring. If your baseline is fairly boring it gives you more space for improving your higher quality items without having to get too crazy. Then, a “uncommon” item should always have better stats and have some sort of interesting conditional ability. All “rare” items should then have better stats and be more interseting than all “uncommons”. Put another way, instead of constructing an item from one pool of “item points”, you instead construct it from the dual currency of “stat points” and “cool ability points”, which vary per item level and quality. This system results in items that are valued approximately equally by both stat-seekers and variety-seekers (and the majority of players who are in between). This means everyone strives for items that are both fun AND useful, and so everyone is happy! Well, everyone who can pay is happy, and everyone else is looking forward to being happy. In the world of MMOs, that’s even better.

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3 Responses to “Never Balance Cool Against Useful”

  1. This reminds me of a couple of similiar stories:

    In “Magic the gathering”, the designers consider 3 player archetypes when designing cards/sets: http://www.hereirule.com/magic/magazine/article.aspx?x=mtgcom/daily/mr11b

    In “Players who suit MUDs”, the author considers 4 archetypes. http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm

    I would be interested in your thoughts on those, particularly if you haven’t run across them yet.

    • JZig said

      Bartle’s mud archetypes are a reasonably accepted model of MMO player behavior, although I would add a few other goals to it (namely players who want to express themselves or put on a performance, which are fairly common depending on the game). You could break down my stats vs. effects argument to Achievement vs Exploration (of combat systems as opposed to the world, but still exploration) and it roughly works.

      Heh, that magic article is interesting because “power gamer” in MMOs means the exact opposite of the example he gives. I personally fall squarely in the “Johnny” group of creative expression through combat, which is why I like procs and conditional effects in the first place. Thanks for the links dusty.

  2. n.n said

    Idle observation: The coolness of an item will always be inversely proportional to its proximity to the local utility maximum, and directly proportional to the number of different alternative items which are roughly in the same proximity to the local maximum.
    In other words, if you have a big flashy ability which is on a 10-minute cooldown, but you MUST use the ability every 10 minutes in order to achieve maximum performance, and there is no alternative ability which might also grant close-to-maximum performance, then it is not cool.

    But this may be because I’m a Johnny (I suspect most game designers are). A Timmy might still find it cool.

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