The main reason for making these changes (and balance changes in general, you don’t have to click those links to understand this article) in AI War is to increase the opportunity cost for a number of actions, and to provide a more rich set of strategic options in general. Some expert players had concerns with the above linked changes that they would basically reduce the viability of certain advanced strategies, but the second link demonstrates why I feel like the strategies in question are all still very valid (but no longer abusable). However, these come with some cost.
But for purposes of this blog article, this isn’t a discussion of any specific changes, but is rather a discussion of what makes for good changes versus bad changes. Some external commentators have noted that I am “faffing” about with game balance, which I take great offense to — I know exactly what I am doing, in terms of my long-term goals, and my actions have all been purposeful and productive. I’m building a longterm game environment, of the sort you normally only see in MMOs. This requires some ongoing thought and commentary from expert players who find tricky ways to abuse the mechanics. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Why Nerf Strategies?
When an advanced strategy comes up that I feel like is too exploitative of subtle unit interactions or too abusive of the game rules, I often will add a counter (either in AI logic, or in the game rules/mechanics themselves) to counter this. To some, on the surface this seems counter to the goal of having a strategically rich environment. Is it my goal to have all players playing the game exactly the same way, with minor variations? Of course not.
In general, the only reason I ever nerf a given strategy is if it gives too great a benefit at too low of a cost. There have been some really challenging issues of late with players taking too few planets and doing all sorts of clever things, which really causes the AI to be less effective and lowers the difficulty in an artificial way. My response to this has been partly to teach the AI some new behaviorlets, and partly to reduce the benefits and increase the costs for these more esoteric strategies.
Preserve A Rich Decision Space
When I look at AI War, or any game for that matter, the main thing I am looking at is the “decision space.” When a single strategy or group of strategies are too effective, the decision space effectively shrinks because expert players would be fools to use any other strategy. This becomes a failing of the game which I have to address through balance updates and new/updated game mechanics in some cases. Individual ship balance is only the beginning, because how players use all the myriad types of ships in concert, plus how they plan their overall strategy, can have an even more complicated effect on game balance.
My goal is not to make all strategies exactly equal (because then the decision space is shrunk by nature of the fact that any strategy is as good as the next, so it doesn’t really matter what you do). Having no interesting deviations in strategy is just as much of a game-killer as having one best strategy is.
Instead, my goal is to make strategies that are generally all within a standard deviation of one another, so that players with different playstyles can play as they wish, but also which are context-specific to a degree, so that the truly expert players will adjust their strategy very heavily depending on the specific circumstances of a given scenario. This not only adds to the richness of the strategy of the game, it adds to the replay value.
Of course, when players play below their true difficulty level, they have more latitude to just use their favorite strategy and have done with it. But when things are really neck-and-neck, players should have to make appropriate evaluations of the map and act accordingly, rather than being able to artificially lower the difficulty through exploitative tactics.
Balancing For Very Long-Term Play
Will this annoy some players who rely on these tactics to play at a higher difficulty level? Of course it will, and that is an unfortunate side effect. Any balance shift in any RTS game seems to annoy someone, while (hopefully) the majority rejoice. You might assume that because AI War is not a competitive pvp affair that these sorts of balance issues are not important. To a certain extent this is true, it is certainly much less important that the unit balance be perfect because of a number of facets of the AI War design. However, the overall strategic balance is critical for the longevity of the game.
When I play any RTS game, I am going so solo or co-op against the AI in skirmish mode. That’s the only way I play. I basically can get 6-12 months of biweekly play out of most of the better RTS games, and that’s the point at which I get bored with the game because I have figured out some sort of killer best strategy that the AI can’t counter and that I can’t top. At that point there’s no other way that I really want to play the game, and I’ve lost interest playing the game using that best strategy, so there’s pretty much nothing left for me to do with the game and I move on.
That’s all well and good if you are trying to sell a huge series of RTS games, but with AI War I intend to grow and build it as a series of expansions, not sequels. That means that the core game had better be extraordinarily rock solid, with absolutely no best-paths that people discover after however many months of play. There are always tricky things that players figure out, of course, and so that makes an ongoing balance load for me. This is not unexpected — Starcraft is still getting balance patches some 11 years after its release, from what I hear, and it is regarded as supremely well balanced.
As with the Starcraft balance updates, my goal is not to quash player innovation — I applaud it. However, my goal is to keep all strategies within essentially a single standard deviation of the norm, and also to add as much context-sensitivity to the grand strategies as possible. The kiss of death for an RTS game, in my opinion, is when all the games start feeling basically the same to expert players. That’s when it’s time to move on and find a new game to play. My goal is to keep that from ever happening with AI War, because that’s the only way I’ll maintain my own interest in the game, let alone the interest of anyone else.
That sort of outlook will annoy a few players as I go, unfortunately — and I need to be very careful to listen to player feedback and not do something that pisses people off for no reason, or which is hated by a majority of the playerbase. In general I’m pretty averse to doing things that players don’t like, which I think is a crucial attitude for game designers to have (just “doing your own thing” or having a “take it or leave it” attitude is stupid and is suicide). However, it’s impossible to please everyone when making any given change, and so player feedback has to be weighed against the longterm health of the game. Rebalancing a game that has already been released is always a tricky proposition, but you only have to look at examples such as Starcraft or World of Warcraft to see how incredible the results can be in the long term if care is taken.