Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Tactical Imbalance in Single Player Gameplay

If you have not already done so, you may enjoy reading my essay on Balance vs. Imbalance which summarizes my ideas about balancing tactics with strategy in a multiplayer environment.

By request, I have written this essay to clarify how these principals can be applied to a single-player game.

The Single Player Experience
Single player games have a two-fold obligation: gameplay and storytelling. Storytelling is the break in the action that adds immersion and interest to the playing experience. This essay will focus on gameplay because this is where the strategic and tactical elements exist. Storytelling generally connects itself to the gameplay sections with reveals. For example, the player may overhear a conversation that reveals the location or nature of a future objective. Or the connection may be to the past. The player may learn why he has spent the last three hours trudging through sewers fighting mutant rickshaw drivers from outer space.

In addition to revealing objectives, the storytelling could also be used to reveal tactics or even strategy. The player might learn of an enemy vulnerability that could lead to a strategy of attack, or the player might learn of a weapon cache that might lead to a tactical advantage. These types of reveals force the player to pay attention to the story, increasing the immersion and interest.

As a rule, the game should not rely on the player paying attention, but should most definitely reward such attention.

Tactical Imbalance
As described in my previous essay, tactical imbalance is key to creating an exciting gameplay experience. In particular, a variety of tactical imbalances increases the replay value of a game.

Consider whether you've ever had this single-player experience. You're trying to solve or clear a level and you keep failing. Finally, you hit on the correct solution (maybe even a step at a time) and realize the author has carefully crafted the level to be completed by solving or deducing a specific series of steps. You congratulate yourself and move on. Such levels, however clever, do have a limitation. Once solved, there is no mystery and no challenge. Let's call this the straight or guided method.

Now consider a level that makes use of several tactical imbalances. Perhaps there are multiple routes through the level; a stealthy route and a direct route. Perhaps there's a key weapon pickup, but taking it early exposes the player to attack. Maybe there's a small, defendable area where the player can make noise and then hole up and blast away the enemies as they turn the corner. All of these may be available in the guided method, but what if they were available at the same time? The player could choose the strategy that best fits his style, or perhaps one that would conserve a particular type of ammunition for later. Once solved, the possibility still exists of going back and trying to solve the level another way.

Bringing in Strategy
In order for the player to be able to develop a strategy, he needs an opportunity to assess or reconnoiter. Otherwise, the player is merely reacting to immediate threats, and this leads to a purely tactical response. It is important to note that many games overcome lack of balance by respawning the player at the beginning of a difficult section so that after a number of failed attempts, the player can form a strategy that has a decent chance of success. This is the less preferred method of including strategy.

By giving the player a quick peek at a challenge before he tackles it, you give him the ability to combine his tactical ability with strategic thought. As I've said before, this is the key combination that makes a game fun. But don't take this to an extreme. You should still surprise the player with unforeseeable obstacles, or you risk making the game too easy. Players expect to die periodically before they "master" a section. So when giving them a quick peek, don't reveal everything all the time. But be sure to reveal enough that the player's use of strategy is rewarded.

As with all gameplay design decisions, it is up to you the author to balance these elements to achieve the experience you're trying to create.


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