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Ashes Dev Journal: Why Balance Matters

Published on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 By GeneralsGentlemen In Ashes Dev Journals

To this day, Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation is still receiving balance updates. You may be wondering - since Ashes is not a competitive game like StarCraft - why there is all of this effort being put into balance. There can be a misconception that balance is esoteric and only matters to high level players, but I don't think that's accurate. Today I'll be exploring why balance matters for all players and how it's crucial in making an RTS fun.


The first thing to talk about is the intention behind balancing. What does “balancing” even mean? Ostensibly, it means to make the game more fair for each faction, staying as close as possible to a 50/50 win rate. Ensuring the factions are balanced is certainly important, but that’s only a small part of what I'd consider the umbrella term of "balance" to include. I'd define balance as any change to the performance or utility of units and other game components.

Balance isn't just about tweaking numbers, it's about envisioning and guiding player interactions while providing them with more opportunities to pursue their favourite strategies. Adding new features or content is a great way to make an RTS more fun, but they're expensive from a development perspective, and additional content is pointless if it’s not balanced properly. What would be the point of having 30 units if only 10 of them are useful? There's potential downsides to having too much content; it can be overwhelming for new players to learn, it can lack visual clarity and can make decisions feel meaningless. "Does it really matter which ones I build?"

 

 

Let’s back up a bit here. To understand why balancing an RTS game is so important, one must first begin by understanding what it is that makes RTS fun. Fortunately, I’ve done an entire series of video essays investigating this question, but let’s boil it down and say that the fun of RTS games is the act of crafting, refining, and executing strategies. Having to gather information and make quick decisions against your opponent is also part of the fun. RTS games contain a wide range of tools which manifest as units, upgrades, and abilities; it’s up to the player to piece these tools together in ways that form powerful strategies such as unit compositions, timing attacks, and build orders. It’s not the number of tools the player has which makes the game engaging - it’s the amount possible combinations that can be fielded.


Forming a strategy is like forming a deductive argument. There’s a number of premises which respond to the possible threats, and these together establish a powerful strategy. But, if one of these premises proves false, then the strategy is void. Let’s say a player’s strategy is to overwhelm their opponent with Hades bombers; they must overcome the fact that Hades are vulnerable to other air units and cost a lot of Radioactives. To complement the Hades, the player relies entirely on Atlas anti-air frigates because they only cost Metal, so all of the Radioactives can go towards the Hades. So far, there’s three premises to this strategy:

  • Hades Bombers are powerful against ground targets
  • Hades Bombers are expensive (Radioactives)
  • Atlas Frigates don't cost Radioactives and provide anti-air support for the Hades.

 

 

Let’s pretend that the Atlas is underpowered - what would happen? The player would send their Hades in and be met by enemy air fighters, and the Atlas would open up and not do enough damage to destroy them before the Hades are shot out of the sky. The strategy is void because the premise of the Atlas frigates providing adequate anti-air support is false. The player can try to find alternatives such as Apollos and Furies, but those don’t offer as much synergy because they also cost Radioactives. The strategy needs to be discarded, which is frustrating for the player, as they spent all this time crafting it only for it fail for reasons which are not faults of their own. They are cheated out of their strategy due to poor balance, and this disconnect between the expectations of a unit and how it actually performs results in a negative experience. Poor balance takes away the agency of player decisions as it puts up barriers and limits their strategies to a narrow band of what’s viable. 


Strategies can also fail for plenty of legitimate reasons. Let’s say that the Hades bombers go in and get shredded by an upgraded air defense, the Falcon. In this case, the player’s strategy failed because one of their premises was flawed; the Hades is good against ground targets, but not against upgraded anti-air defense. The player needs to adjust their strategy to mitigate this strong counter; they could rush Hades sooner before Falcons arrives, shoot down the scout planes with early Atlas Frigates to deny scouting, or hide the Sky Factories in obscure locations. If a strategic premise fails for legitimate gameplay reasons, there are paths the player can pursue to rework or refine their strategy. Here's the new premise list for this strategy:

  • Hades Bombers are powerful against ground targets
  • Hades Bombers are expensive (Radioactives)
  • Atlas Frigates don't cost Radioactives and provide anti-air support for the Hades.
  • Falcons are static and expensive, so they will not be built early
  • Attacking early means my opponent won't have Falcons
  • In order to attack early, I need multiple Sky Factories to produce Hades quickly
  • If my opponent scouts multiple Sky Factories or a buildup of Hades, they will rush-build Falcons
  • I need to deny scouting

 

 

Pursuing even a simple strategy contains lots of depth, but if the strategy is countered by an imbalance then there’s no way to respond to it. A unit just doesn’t perform its intended role, or an overpowered unit prevents another from doing so. Obviously, imbalances are bad and things that are under-performing or overpowered should be fixed, but that's still a shallow view of why balance is important. Balance isn't binary - units are not just either balanced are imbalanced. A "balanced" unit can be defined by whether it performs its intended role, but if that's the only criteria then you'll end up in a bland game of units that do nothing more than fill predefined roles. 


Units should have multiple facets that determine their utility and why a player would want to build them. The Archer is a unit designed to counter the Athena, but they're embedded within a more detailed context. The Athena is a cruiser which costs both Metal and Radioactives, while the Archer is a frigate which only costs Metal, allowing it to be used more flexibly to complement Radioactives-heavy strategies or to burn excess Metal if your Radioactives income suddenly drops. Frigates are also considerably faster than cruisers, which makes Archers useful as a nimble form of harassment. Archers have high damage but low health, which makes them great against buildings, but vulnerable versus Orbitals and area of effect damage. 


Meticulous balance creates a richer setting for discovering strategies and for reacting when things don't go to plan; if a player's strategy gets countered they might still have a wide arsenal of tools that can perform other functions instead of just being made obsolete. Expanding the utility and unique qualities of each unit may create some balance issues in the short term, but if fixed and iterated upon it will make the game more compelling in the long term by maximizing what players can get out of it. A small amount of content with a breadth of utility is better than a large amount of content with limited utility, and the determining factor is how thoroughly they're balanced. The more you can do with less the better.

 

 

Curbing out underperforming or overpowered units is crucial to maximizing strategic diversity, but good balance doesn't just make an RTS game "more balanced." It emphasizes the unique qualities of each unit and ability, creating more depth and decisions about which tools are used and how they're used. I love the analogy of RTS as a set of tools for players to utilize because it encourages design of units that have unique qualities, allowing players to field them under many circumstances for various reasons. Flexible RTS design allows for flexible decision making from players, and meaningful decisions broken up into small increments is at the core of what makes RTS games fun. 

Balancing an RTS is difficult, and one of my next Journals will be exploring the challenges I have faced during my work on Escalation.

So what did you think, and what else would you like me to talk about?

Cheers
-Callum