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September 26, 2020
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Game Balancing: The Science Behind a Fun and Successful Casual Game

by Sven Lubek on 09/30/19 10:24:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Have you been working on building a new casual or hyper-casual mobile game? In that case, you’ll be looking at ways of improving and developing your game further before it hits the app stores. 

This is where game balancing comes in. There’s a lot at stake, as it can make or break a game. Sadly, badly balanced games tend to earn their infamous reputation faster than well-balanced ones, usually for angering their players – which in most cases, leads to the sad fate of pulling the plug.

For a well-balanced game, there are some steps you can follow as well as successful tried-and-tested approaches. First, a word of caution: don’t chase perfection. As there is no clearly defined cut-off point between a game being in or out of balance, game balancing requires ongoing review and adjustment.

Start off by setting up your game analytics 

Successful gameplay balancing is only possible if you set up your game analytics properly. While there is a highly creative aspect to the game balancing process, data plays a huge part too. For instance, take a level-based game where all of a sudden, you see a high number of players drop at the same level. This usually means that the level is too difficult. By analyzing where the drop-off points are and studying the average drop per level, you are able to adjust the game level’s difficulty accordingly.

High-quality service providers for app analytics include: Game Analytics, Firebase, Facebook Analytics and Flurry Analytics. After publishing any updates to your mobile game, whether weekly or biweekly, you should receive a report. Before you push any games out, you’ll want to analyze it, so you can optimize and fix the game. As the last step, you can then update it with more and better content. 

Focus on “gameplay balancing” to shape the user experience of your game

Usually, gameplay balancing is the first step of the overall game balancing process. In hyper-casual and casual-games, it entails a balancing of the main character(s) and/or characteristics of the game – for example, by looking at how many bullets the weapon in the game is shooting, per second. Here, you are focusing on building the “short-term fun” momentum. This step is absolutely crucial, because it shapes and influences the entire gaming experience. Make sure you’re happy with it as it’s pretty much locked-in, as it’s not advisable to go alter it after the game has been released. 

Image credits: Hill Climb Racing 2

Let’s say you’re making a car-racing game such as Hill Climb Racing 2 (pictured), where there are several cars that each have different features (e.g. temporary speed boost, etc). With abilities that function so differently, there is no way to look at the numbers on paper and know what would be balanced. Typically, this aspect of the game balancing process is assigned to a game designer, so they would have to guess, check and test it themselves. 

Next, after you’ve worked out your gameplay balancing – and depending on whether your casual or hyper-casual game is level-based or economy-based – you would focus more on balancing either of those, respectively.

Prioritize short-term fun for “level balancing” 

If your casual game is level-based, such as a match-3 game (Candy Crush Saga being the ultimate example of a successful app), your top priority is to optimize “short-term fun”. You can do that by level balancing, meaning: ensuring that each level of the game is fun, the pace remains engaging, and that the game difficulty varies. More on that below (see graph and point on “avoiding players’ frustration”). Look to games like Idle Miner Tycoon as a great example of successful level-balancing, as the main character works his way up to becoming a mining bigshot (pictured).

Image credits: Idle Miner Tycoon

Aside from the obvious professional qualifications, personal qualities you should be looking out for in a level-game designer are patience and perseverance, given that they will not only design the game, but also play it until satisfied with the outcome (even up to a hundred times per day)! They’ll be your go-to people for all the technical details, as they’ll get to know the game inside-out.

Rely on data and tried-and-tested formulas for “economy balancing” 

In games that are not level-based, you’ll be focusing on optimizing the “long-term fun”. Economy balancing is a time intensive and laborious task: in simple terms, it requires a balancing out of the players’ achievement and frustration level. For example, by making sure that the game is not too fast or slow; and by giving the player the chance to buy new items in-app. 

Yoour trusted economy-game designer is a spreadsheet whiz who is incredibly focused on analyzing data, in order to optimize factors such as earnings vs costs; the “progression” ratio; and how the prices increase. It’s all related to the costs and earnings. Based on that, they would be the ones in charge of creating a simulation formula and have the actions work out automatically. 

Image credits: AdVenture Communist

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. While there are different formulas for success, it’s easier to apply best practices from an already successful game, such as the fun AdVenture Communist. Another tip? Opt for A/B testing when making changes to your economy: for example, test the changes with 10 percent of your players group and gauge results, before pushing that update out to everyone else. 

Review if there is a big difference between the winning rates of your different characters or the usage of the different items you have in your game. If your users are always choosing the same character or item, it means that the others are not adding as much value as the most chosen ones. Ask yourself: are the rest of the items badly balanced, compared to the chosen ones?

Avoid players being bored or frustrated for too long

While there is no such thing as a perfectly balanced game, keeping the players in that sweet spot between feeling rewarded or challenged is a defining factor for success. After all, when creating games, our goal is to create an enjoyable experience that holds the player’s focus as long and as intensely as possible – a state known as “flow”. Traditionally, a game starts out fun and easy in the trialing phase, and becomes progressively more difficult when advancing. The game loop should be kept the same, but with a good measure of surprises and different elements throughout. Take a look at the chart below for an ideal formula.

Image credits: What’s in a game

By not letting the players feel like they are hitting a dead end or that they are “farming” (repeating the same “action” to gain a reward), you’ll keep the game flow fresh and exciting. For example, at a point of great difficulty (aka “frustration point”) you could introduce a starter pack, which are shortcuts to avoid “farming” that help players advance quicker within the game and allow them to perform new actions. By doing so, you entice them to purchase in-app items such as “starter packs”. Pricing varies according to genre and it is worth making an A/B test to check what pricing works better for your players. Of course, you’ll have to set up and identify the various “frustration points” within the game first. 

Examples of this can be found in most successful casual and hyper-casual games such as Candy Crush Saga, which is known for having very difficult levels that push players to invest money in the game, as well as casual game Coin Master (pictured). 

Think critically and objectively about the game balance

As you play your mobile game or ask others to do so, think about the actions in the game in an objective way. Where are the imbalances? What are the root causes of those imbalances and what would you change to fix them? Note down your thoughts. Keep learning and gather the data, which will help you think about it objectively.

Remember that ultimately, the players are not you: it should not be fun for you. The goal is to have players stay engaged in your game. You might be tempted to make your game difficulty harder because you are getting bored, but if it’s a hyper-casual game, this is likely to make the player unhappy. Why? Because the whole point of hyper-casual games is that they are easy, entertaining and no-fuss. Unlike strategy games, it’s not all about challenging the player. Roller Splat! is such an example: it’s simple, fun, and you cannot lose. Adapt the game to your game-balance. 

Trust your community to balance out the game for you

Last but not least, what better way to be objective than to listen to your players’ feedback?  

You can tap into the resources of online forums and social media channels. Also, a quick scan of your mobile game reviews on the app stores instantly reveals the general consensus and how on-point your level balancing is. Be receptive and adapt accordingly. If you are getting a number of players are saying they are stuck on the same level, it’s a sure sign that it needs reviewing. Read and review these often. As a developer, treat reviews as data and try not to take them personally.


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