Friday, 16 August 2019

Beginner balance versus pro balance

Game balance is often approached from the angle of the pro-gamer: how strong are things when used by a skilled player? However, the balance as it's experienced by beginners is equally important, since a large portion of the playerbase will never reach pro skill levels but will still want to have a fun experience. Today I'd like to discuss three different approaches we've used in our games Awesomenauts and Swords & Soldiers II to make the gameplay fun for beginners but also balanced for experienced players.

The big challenge here is that in a complex game with varied characters/weapons/factions/etc. it's nearly impossible to achieve perfect balance under all circumstances. Balance is influenced by almost everything and if you want variation, then that variation is undoubtedly going to upset the balance. For example, if some characters are faster than others, then having maps of different sizes can greatly change the balance on one map compared to another. The alternative is to make all maps the same size, but that's boring. For this reason balance is a moving target that you're constantly trying to get closer to but a certain amount of imbalance is (grudgingly) accepted in almost every game.



To make a competitive game fun for players of all skill levels, the ideal situation is to make it balanced for pro players, intermediate players and beginners alike. An example of striving for this goal are the changes we've made to the Awesomenauts character Gnaw. At some point Gnaw was heavily overpowered for beginning players, but mediocre at best for pro players. That meant that if we had nerfed (weakened) Gnaw for the sake of the beginner experience, Gnaw would have become totally useless for pro players. If simple nerfing is not an option, then what to do instead?

When a character is overpowered specifically in matches with beginners, this is often either because the character is too easy to play well, or because the counters are too difficult to figure out and perform. The nice thing is that if we can change the difficulty, it won't matter much for pro players: if the character becomes harder to play, pros will still master it. And if the character becomes easier to counter, that also doesn't matter for pro players: their opponents already mastered the counters anyway. Realising this doesn't make fixing the balance easy, but at least it gives us a starting point for where to look for a fix.



To modify Gnaw's difficulty for beginners, our designers made a number of changes over the years. Most of these revolved around making it more work to be effective with Gnaw. For example, initially Gnaw's Weedlings (little creatures Gnaw can leave behind to attack enemies) would live forever. One of the changes we made was that Weedlings would die after a while, requiring Gnaw to place them again. Weedlings were also changed to start weaker and become stronger over time. The result of these changes is that the player needs to be a lot more active to keep their Weedlings in the right places. Also, if the enemy has destroyed the Weedlings, Gnaw can't just replace them with equally strong ones right away.



Of course these changes also influenced the balance for pro players, but combined with some further tweaks we managed to keep Gnaw about equally strong for pro players while making him harder to play well for beginning players. Hence the pro balance remained similar while the beginner balance was improved.

Another Awesomenauts character with a similar problem was Ayla. Here too we made changes to make her harder to play well and easier to counter. While our designers did manage to improve Ayla's balance for beginning players, she remained problematic to counter for beginners.

Therefore when going free-to-play we employed a different tactic. In the free-to-play version of Awesomenauts, characters need to be unlocked with Awesomepoints, which the player can collect by playing the game. Characters have different prices. For example, some characters are difficult to play so we made them expensive to keep beginners from unlocking them right away. Since we had a problem with Ayla not being so much fun to play against for beginners, we chose to make Ayla expensive as well. This way few beginners will have Ayla and thus few beginners will encounter other beginners who are playing Ayla. This feels like a crude solution, but sometimes crude is the best one can do.



An even cruder solution that might be considered is that if a character is too damaging for the beginner experience, then maybe it's worthwhile to nerf the character to the point where it's okay for beginners, despite that this makes the character not viable for pro play anymore. An important thing to realise here is that with a cast of dozens of characters, a single character not being viable in pro play doesn't make that big of a difference since there are so many other options. However, a single character being overpowered for beginners will mean that lots of beginners play this character and it will ruin many matches.



The third example of fixing beginner balance that I'd like to discuss today comes from our real-time strategy game Swords & Soldiers 2. This game has 3 wildly different factions (Vikings, Persians and Demons), which gives enough headaches in terms of balance already. However, on top of that there is also a tactic that may be balanced, but that's just not fun for beginning players: rushing.

Experienced Swords & Soldiers 2 players can have a lot of fun harassing each other's economy as early as possible, forcing the opponent to spend their gold on defence instead of upgrades, or maybe occasionally even winning the game in under a minute. However, beginning players rarely start a match effectively. They're likely still reading some upgrade descriptions or thinking about what to do next. The result is that if the opponent employs even a very ineffective rush tactic, a beginning player will still be overwhelmed and lose in less than a minute.

For beginners this is highly frustrating, but since rushing is so much fun for pro players we didn't want to remove rush tactics from the game altogether. Instead we came up with something that's just for beginners: Starting Gates. Starting Gates are gates in front of each player's base that need to be destroyed before the base can be reached. This slows down rush tactics a lot and gives the defending player quite a lot of extra time to respond once the enemy soldiers come into view. Starting Gates are truly only for beginners: in matchmade online matches they're not placed if both players have played a bunch of online matches already.



Making the balance as fun for beginners as it is for experienced players is a hard and sometimes nearly impossible challenge. In this post I've given examples of 3 different tricks we've employed to improve beginner balance: Gnaw was made more difficult to play without making him stronger, Ayla was made more expensive so that beginners would encounter her less, and rushing in Swords & Soldiers 2 was changed for beginners by introducing a new mechanic that only applies to beginner matches.

These are all examples of looking at balance as a creative challenge, not just as a topic that's about spreadsheets and tweaking numbers. Have you used any nice tricks to improve balance? Please share in the comments!

Saturday, 3 August 2019

New Song: A Century Sails By

I've finished a new cello song! :D This one started out as a travelling theme for a game concept with a little boat, but will end up on my album as the intermezzo where the story jumps from the 1850s to the 1950s. The title reminds of both uses. I hope you like it!



Musically the idea behind this song was to play with delay/echo: two of the instruments get a rhythmic echo. This is a fun little musical effect with a big impact, as it results in these instruments constantly playing chords with their own previous notes. It's easy to mess this up by choosing the wrong progression of chords and making it sound dissonant and ugly (or to do this on purpose, if dissonance is the goal). During most of the song I steer away from this and choose notes that sound nice with the notes that came before. However, at the end of the cello melody (at 1:10 in the video) I go from C# to C. This is very dissonant but at the same time brings us back to the chords at the start of the song. I really like the tension this creates. This effect is so strong that I needed to keep the music in the same chord for four bars before starting the chord progression again, just to make it settle back in and feel good.

As with all my songs, sheet music for cello can be found at music.joostvandongen.com, including a recording of the song without the cello, to play along to.

I've also made an arrangement of the song for an acoustic quartet with two violins and two cellos. Since acoustic instruments can't do a real echo without additional equipment, I've added in some extra notes where possible to mimic the echo. This captures the feel of the song surprisingly well, as I experienced when I played this version with a couple of friends a few years ago. Sheet music for this version is also on music.joostvandongen.com.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

The psychology of matchmaking

Matchmaking is a touchy subject and this has previously made me somewhat hesitant to write about it in an open and frank manner. Today's topic especially so, since some players might interpret this post as one big excuse for any faults in the Awesomenauts matchmaking. However, the psychology of matchmaking is a very important topic when designing a matchmaking system, so today I'm going to discuss it anyway. For science! :)

While we were designing the Galactron matchmaking systems I did quite a lot of research into how the biggest multiplayer games approach their matchmaking. The devs themselves often don't say all that much about it, but there's plenty of comments and analysis by the players of those games. The one thing they all have in common, is that whatever game you look for, you'll always find tons of complaints from users claiming the matchmaking for that particular game sucks.



My impression is that no matter how big the budget and how clever the programmers, a significant part of the community will always think they did a bad job regarding matchmaking. Partially this might be because many games indeed have bad or mediocre matchmaking, but there's also a psychological factor: I think even a theoretical 'perfect' implementation will meet a lot of negativity from the community. Today I'd like to explore some of the causes for that.

The first and most obvious reason is that matchmaking is often a scapegoat. Lost of match? Must be because of the crappy matchmaking. My teammates suck? Must be the crappy matchmaking. Got disconnected? Definitely not a problem in my own internet connection, must be the crappy matchmaking. Undoubtedly in many cases the matchmaking is indeed part of the problem, but these issues will exist even with 'perfect' matchmaking. Sometimes you're just not playing well. Sometimes a teammate has a bad day and plays much worse than they normally do. Sometimes your own internet connection dropped out. No matchmaker can solve these issues.

There's a strong psychological factor at play here: for many people their human nature is to look for causes outside themselves. I think this is a coping mechanism: if you're not to blame, then you don't have to feel bad about yourself either.

Of course there is such a thing as better or worse matchmaking. That players use matchmaking as a scapegoat shouldn't be used as an excuse to not try to make better matchmaking. But it sure makes it difficult to asses the quality of your matchmaking systems. Whether your matchmaker is doing well or not, there will practically always be a lot of complaints. The more players you have, the more complaints.

For this reason it's critical to collect a lot of metrics about how your matchmaking is objectively doing. We gather overall metrics, like average ping and match duration and such, but we also store information about individual matches. This way when a player complains we can look up their match and check what happened exactly. This allows us to analyse whether specific complaints are caused by problems in the matchmaker, are something that the matchmaker can't fix (like a beginner and a pro being in a premade together) or whether the user is using matchmaking as a scapegoat for something else.



Another problem for matchmaking is that player's don't have a single, predictable skill level. The matchmaker matches a player based on their average skill, but how well they actually play varies from match to match. One match they might do really well, and then the next they might do badly. For example, maybe the player gets overconfident and makes bad decisions in the next match because of that. Or maybe the player is just out of luck and misses a couple of shots by a hair that they would normally hit. Or maybe the player got home drunk from a party and decided to play a match in the middle of the night, playing far below their normal skill level. These are things that a matchmaker can't predict. This will often make it seem like the matchmaker didn't match players of similar skill. Sometimes this might result in a teammate who would normally be as good as you but happens to play like a bag of potatoes during this one match in which they're in your team.

While this problem is not truly solvable by matchmaking, there are some things developers can do to improve on it. For example, in Heroes Of The Storm you select your hero before you go into matchmaking. This allows the matchmaker to take into account that you might be better at some heroes than at others. If it detects that you're playing a hero that you haven't played in a long while, then maybe it should matchmake you below your skill level. I have no idea whether Heroes Of The Storm actually does this, but it's certainly a possibility. This would allow detecting some of the cases in which a player is normally really good, but is currently trying something new that they haven't practised yet.



However, this particular trick comes at a heavy cost, which is why we decided not to put it into Awesomenauts: if players select their hero before matchmaking happens then matchmaking is severely limited in who can play with whom, which damages other matchmaking criteria. (I've previously discussed this in my blogpost about why you need huge player numbers for good matchmaking.)

A very different kind of psychological aspect is that players are often bad at estimating their own skill level. The following example of this is something that I have no doubt will be recognised by many people who play multiplayer games. A while ago I played a match in which a teammate was constantly complaining about how badly I was playing and how I was causing us to lose the match. However, looking at the scoreboard I could see that he was constantly dying and was by far doing worst of all players in the match. Apparently that player didn't realise that he was much less good at the game than he thought he was.

There's more to this than anecdotal evidence however. The developers of League of Legends have described that on average, players rate their own skill 150 points higher than their real MatchMaking Rating. (That part of the post has been removed in the meanwhile, but you can still find it here on Wayback Machine.) As they also mention there, psychology actually has a term for this: it's called the Dunning-Kruger effect. A League of Legends player analysed a poll about this here and gives an excellent explanation of how it works:
"According to the Dunning-Kruger-Effect people overestimate themselves more the more unskilled they are. This isn’t caused by arrogance or stupidity, but by the fact that the ability to judge a certain skill and actually being good at that skill require the same knowledge. For example if I have never heard of wave management in LoL I am unable to notice that I lack this skill, because how would I notice something if I don’t even know it exists? I would also not notice this skill in other people, which is why I would overestimate my own skill if I compared myself to others. This it what causes the Dunning-Kruger-Effect." - Humpelstilzche

As some readers suggested, all of these psychological factors invite an interesting thought: would it help to give players more control? After all, if you have no control you blame the system, while if you do have more choice, you also have yourself to blame and maybe accept the results more. Giving players choice over matchmaking is in many ways old-fashioned and reminds me of the early days of online multiplayer, where you selected your match yourself from a lobby browser. The common view these days seems to be that players expect a smooth and automated experience. They don't want to be bothered and just want to click PLAY and get a fun match. Or at least, most devs seem to assume that that's what players want.

For Awesomenauts I've actually been curious for a while what would happen if we removed the automated matchmaking and instead relied entirely on opening and selecting lobbies. The modding scene would surely thrive a lot more that way, but how would it affect player experience and player counts? It would be a risky change and also too big a change to just try though so I doubt we'll ever get to know the answer to that question. Also, I'm not sure whether our current lobby browser provides a smooth enough experience for making it that important.

I do think it's interesting to explore this further though. I wonder what would be the result if matchmaking were from the beginning designed around being a combination of automation, communication and player control.

Before ending this blogpost I should mention one more psychological aspect of matchmaking: the developer's side. As a developer it can be really frustrating to get negative comments on something you've spent a lot of time on. Understanding why can help in coping with this frustration. Just like matchmaking can be a scapegoat for players after losing a match, the psychology of matchmaking can be a scapegoat for developers after getting negative feedback from players.

None of the psychological factors discussed in this post are an excuse to just claim that the matchmaking in a game is good despite players complaining. However, for a developer it's really important to realise that these factors do exist. Understanding the psychology of matchmaking allows you to build better matchmaking and helps to interpret player comments. I have no doubt that I've only scratched the surface of this topic, so I'm quite curious: what other psychological aspects influence how matchmaking is experienced by players?

Sunday, 24 February 2019

New song: Hear Her Typewriter Humming

I've finished a new song for my cello album! This one revolves around a gently bobbing... typewriter! Most of the song has my cello as the main melodic instrument, plus some humming vocals here and there. My goal with this composition was to give it a really relaxed feel, which I think worked out quite well. :)



As with all my songs, sheet music for cello can be found at music.joostvandongen.com. I've also included a recording of the song without the cello, to play along to.

Vocals and artwork were done by Marissa Delbressine. Guitar was played by Thomas van Dijk.

One thing I had a lot of fun with for this composition, was cutting up a sample of a typewriter into separate keystrokes, so that I could then play typewriter on my keyboard. This allowed me to create a typewriter that's typing freeform, but at the same time does keep to the rhythm a little bit.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

An overview of many ways of doing a beta

Giving players access to the beta of a new game or new content before it's released is a great way to get feedback and find bugs, allowing you to add that extra bit of polish, balance and quality before the official full release. There are many different ways to give players access to a beta. Which to choose? In this article I'd like to give a comprehensive list of options in today's market and discuss the differences.

Traditionally bugs in games are found by QA testing companies. However, hiring a QA company to exhaustively test a complex game is very expensive. Many smaller companies don't have the budget to hire QA at all, or can only get a limited amount of QA and can't let QA cover every aspect of the game, let alone doing so repeatedly for every update. However, even if you do have the budget for large amounts of QA testing, that won't give good feedback on whether a new feature is actually fun or balanced. That requires real players, experiencing the content in the wild. So whether you can afford paid QA or not, a beta might still be a good idea.

There are many aspects to doing a beta. Should everyone get access, or only a limited number of players? Is the beta for a new game that hasn't released yet, or for new content for an existing game? Is the beta also intended to gather additional development funds, or only for testing purposes?

Another interesting topic is what to actually put in a beta. Should it be all the content, or only a portion so as not to spoil the main release too much? (There's an interesting bit about that in this talk about Diablo 3.) How early should we do a beta? Although these are important questions, to limit the scope of this post I'm going to ignore the content of the beta: today I'm focusing exclusively on how the beta is delivered to customers.

Over the years at Ronimo we've done a bunch of different approaches to betas. With Awesomenauts and the recently released Swords & Soldiers 2 Shawarmageddon we tried betas before release and for new content, through DLC and through beta branches, limited paid betas and open betas, and more. That means a large portion of this post is based on our own experiences, but since I want this list to be as comprehensive as possible I'll also discuss approaches that we haven't tried ourselves.



Since consoles offer very few possibilities for betas and since Steam is the biggest and most complete platform on PC, this post mostly lists options in Steam. Some of these will probably be possible in similar ways on competing platforms like GoG or Itch.io. If I missed anything that's fundamentally different on other platforms or if I missed some approaches altogether, then please let me know below in the comments so that I can add them.

Steam beta branches

For updates to an already released game

This is the most common way to do a beta on Steam. When uploading a build you can select in which branch it should go live. This makes it possible to release a build under a 'beta' branch only. Users can then simply right click the game in Steam and select the branch they want, after which Steam will download it and replace the main game with the version from the branch.



If you want to limit access to the beta you can set a password for the branch. This works fine, but it's a single password for all users, so if you share this password with players there's a good chance that some might share it further with others. For Awesomenauts we got lucky with our community: no players posted the passwords for closed betas publicly online. Undoubtedly some players did share a password with a few friends privately, but that never caused any problems.

Branches are also great for internal testing purposes. When we want to test a build internally or want to provide a build to QA we also use Steam branches and simply share the password only internally or with the QA company.

Beta through (free) DLC

For updates

A downside of Steam beta branches is that when you switch to or from a branch, Steam downloads and updates the game to this version. In other words: switching takes time and bandwidth and it's not possible for users to have both the beta and the main game on their computer simultaneously. If updates are hundreds of megabytes or even bigger then this gets cumbersome for users. In cases where an Awesomenauts beta didn't get a lot of feedback we often saw players mention that they didn't like to wait for the download.

Our solution was to not use beta branches anymore and instead put the entire beta build in a DLC. Users can then enable the DLC to get the beta. This allows them to have both the main game and the beta on their computer simultaneously. On Steam it's possible to set a DLC to being disabled by default, so users can deliberately choose to get betas or not by enabling the DLC in the Steam interface.

That the beta is a DLC doesn't mean it needs to be paid: it's possible to do free DLC on Steam. Nevertheless, the option to make the beta paid is useful in some cases. For example, backers of the Starstorm Kickstarter campaign were initially the only players who got Awesomenauts beta access. We could have handled this by making the DLC unlisted in the Steam store and sending keys for it to Kickstarter backers. I guess it's even possible to make a beta a paid DLC directly on Steam, although I imagine this might rub some players the wrong way.

Giving out keys for the main game before launch

For new games

This is the easiest way to do a beta before the release of a game. Just put the build live before the store opens and give keys to the players you want to have access to the beta.

A big question with this approach is what to do once the game actually releases. Do those users keep the game, or do you revoke those keys? If this was an open beta then you'll probably want to revoke the keys, but in case of a closed beta with a small group you may also choose to consider the game a gift for those who did beta testing.

If you choose to revoke the keys, be sure to do so a few days before launch. I've heard of cases where users couldn't buy the game on launch because the revocation of the keys had been done too shortly before launch: Steam apparently hadn't processed that entirely yet. I have no idea how much time is needed for that to not go wrong, but revoking the keys a few days before launch seems safe enough I guess.

Beta as a separate app

Both for new games and for updates

An issue with giving users keys to the main game and then revoking those before launch is that if they had the game wishlisted, then the wishlisting will be gone after this. A solution for this is to do the beta in a separate app entirely. This way it's an entirely separate game with its own settings, achievements, leaderboards and AppID. This version of the game is not listed in the store, so it only exists for those users who activated the game with a beta key.



An additional option when doing your pre-launch beta through a separate app is that it can continue being used after the game has launched and can then be used to do betas for updates.

Note that some developers have reported that Steam didn't allow them to do this. We've applied this method in Autumn 2018 ourselves and it wasn't a problem then. Apparently Steam's rules for whether this is allowed or not are not entirely clear.

Steam Early Access

For new games

Early Access allows you to sell a game that's not actually finished yet. This way development of the game can be done in a very public and interactive manner, getting constant player feedback while still adding core systems to the game. Another benefit is that Early Access games are generally paid, so this can help generate additional funding before the actual launch of the game.

Common wisdom seems to be that the launch into Early Access should be considered the main launch of the game. In many cases the final launch of a game is completely ignored by press and players alike, unless the game became a success during Early Access already. This means that a game should be really strong before going into Early Access: it might have missing features and bugs but if it's not super fun yet, then you likely won't get a second chance when the game releases out of Early Access.

An interesting aspect of Early Access is that it functions as a strong excuse towards players for bugs, balance issues and a lack of content. Reviews by both players and press for an Early Access game will often mention things like "It's buggy but that's okay since it's still in Early Access." The equivalent of that for a normally released game is "Don't buy this buggy mess."

For some users Early Access has left a sour taste because some games never launched out of it or didn't deliver on the promised features. Nevertheless, Early Access remains a strong category with many successful games.

Xbox Game Preview

For new games

While Xbox Game Preview is roughly the same as Steam Early Access, I'm listing it as a separate option because it's the only form of beta or early access that's currently available on consoles (as far as I know), making it quite a unique thing.

I don't know what Microsoft's policy around Game Preview is exactly, but I expect this option is not open to just everyone, so if you want to go this route you probably need to talk to Microsoft. I'm guessing that for the right projects, Microsoft might even have some budget to help get them into Game Preview. One thing to keep in mind is that competing platforms might be less interested in featuring your game on launch if it has already been on Game Preview for a while, just as they are generally less interested in featuring a game that launched on another console first.

Soft-launch on a smaller platform

For new games

As I mentioned above, the Early Access launch version of a game needs to be pretty strong. That's kind of counter to the goal of Early Access: getting feedback in an early stage. To work around this problem some developers choose to release their games on a smaller platform like Itch.io first, and then come to Steam (with or without Early Access) once the game is strong enough.



One might expect this strategy doesn't work: by the time the game gets into Steam Early Access, it's been available elsewhere for a while so it's old news. However, I've heard from some devs that if a PC game is not on Steam, to a lot of people it doesn't exist. So even if it's been on another store for a while, the moment it gets to Steam is apparently considered the 'real' launch. (This logic of course doesn't apply to juggernauts like Fortnite, Minecraft and League of Legends.)

Regional soft launch

For new games and for updates

This is a common approach in the world of free to play mobile games: launch in a specific country, improve the game until it makes enough money per user, and only then launch worldwide. I haven't heard of any PC games using this approach, but undoubtedly it has been done. I expect the challenge here would be that hardcore gamers are much more informed and internationally connected than casual free-to-play mobile gamers. If your game is to sell through word-of-mouth then it's going to be weird if the word on Reddit and Discord ends at a single nation's border. Still, I imagine this approach might work in some cases, especially for single player games.

So, that's it! These are all the relevant ways I know of doing a beta in today's market. Did I miss any? Let me know below in the comments so that I may add them! Which approach do you prefer?