Balancing for Upgrades

I have frequently cited the difficulties of balancing a game in which the players have upgrades. Either you assume that players will be mostly/fully upgraded, in which case the base content is nigh-impossible without them, or you balance it so that players can beat it without grinding in-game cash for upgrades, in which case it will be face-roll easy for anyone upgraded.

The clearest example I have met yet is Notebook Wars. Flying into the last mission without a fully upgraded weapon, the final boss took 15 minutes. Its attack pattern is about 5 seconds long, so you might imagine those were not the most exciting 15 minutes of gaming I have, but you know the bloody-minded need to finish it when you’ve gotten that far. For bonus fun, the shots you dodge in that fight have a slightly larger hit box than the graphics for them.

There is a downward spiral to this. I upgraded for defense before offense. The cash for upgrades comes from killing things, not surviving or beating missions. On the second row of missions, I saved up for the best ship (defense), so on the third row, enemies were flying off the map before I could kill them. It was ridiculously easy because I did not need my new ship’s increased speed; its increased hit points let me turn on autofire and go AFK during the level 11 boss fight. (That fight, by the way, would be a great place to farm money if you were so inclined, because the boss spawns enemies that are worth a lot.)

Or maybe the designer meant to have a 15-minute long boss fight on the idea that really long fights are epic.

: Zubon

[Update: the latest Zero Punctuation addresses this same topic in a game that has a budget.]

3 thoughts on “Balancing for Upgrades”

  1. This is echoed in MMO expansions. I tend to think that GW got it right; make ’em standalone but interplayable.

  2. There’s a third option — assume that players will pick up a certain amount of upgrades at various points in the progression. Guessing wrong could result at various times in both of the earlier flaws. Especially if you don’t have that much control over what path the players will take. (Not an issue in especially linear single player games, but for MMOs…)

  3. The problem is more general then that. Balancing any game with alot of different options is hard. The most common way these games get “balanced” is by making only a few choices important and most being more or less meaningless. This is very common in most strategy games.

    Still, it’s better than a game which is well balanced but only because it is trivial and boring.

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