Dev Insight: Balancing a Multiplayer FPS

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    Recently we wrapped up LawBreakers Closed Beta #1.  What that may mean for you is that your keyboard can finally get some rest and your sleeping schedule can get back to normal.  What that means for us is that there is more work to be done and more feedback to implement for Closed Beta 0.2.  Feedback that included things like the magic word of the day balance.

    A lot of the time in video games the word “OP” or “unbalanced” decorates forums and social timelines or is blurted irritatingly after a death during streams. Our first Closed Beta was no exception to that sort of feedback. Some of our passionate fans are still having discussions in our Discord channel about what they would like to see in the future when it comes to what part our roles will play, how they will play. 

  When the word “balance” is said in video games, something probably pops straight into your mind, right?  Maybe it’s something like the numerical value of damage for a certain weapon. I know it was for me when I competed and relayed feedback during my golden years of button mashing.  In that case, it is just as simple as turning up or down a dial right–like a thermostat for violence (total dibs on that for a future band name btw).  However, when it comes to LawBreakers the term “balance”, as it concerns our roles, branches into multiple tiers and involves a number of levers and pulleys to make the game work cohesively.

   In an effort to give the community transparency and more insight, I sat down with Lead Designer, Dan Nanni to talk about exactly what balance means for our game and how we apply your feedback after a playtest has been tucked into bed with its Maverick sleep mask and Cronos body pillow.

 

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⋅ In your experience is balancing in LB different from other shooters?

Dan: Every shooter I’ve worked on has been unique and required its own approach. From the theme – i.e. modern military vs. futuristic sci-fi vs. movie franchise, etc. – to our audience and their expectations. All of that influences how we balance the game.

LB is no exception to that. It’s always different when starting a brand new IP as well. You don’t have an audience, you don’t have established rules and you don’t have your own previous experiences on a previous version of the game to analyze.

With LB in particular, this has been the fastest shooter I’ve ever worked on. Our roles can work like vehicles at any given time as well – they’ll fly, turn into tanks, activate a devastating arsenal, etc. Being able to move at fast speeds, engage aerially and accurately hit targets makes balance a challenge, especially when you want to support new players to the shooter genre and high-skill gamers simultaneously. Due to the speed and verticality of the game we wanted to make, we also realized that the standard style of class-based gameplay players were used to playing just didn’t translate very well with pace of the game. That caused us to experiment with ways to keep things feeling similar, yet different enough to match the vision for LawBreakers we’ve had.


 ⋅ When we hear something is overpowered or underpowered from the community, what steps do we take to look into this feedback?

Dan: We have to first make sure that the issue is widespread. What we don’t want to do is change something for a large amount of players who liked it the way it was, simply because one person wanted it changed. Once we’ve identified a widespread issue, we then have to figure out the cause. Sometimes it’s due to balance, other times it’s a bug or user error in data entry. If it comes down to balance, then we ask ourselves two things: 1) How does the player expect it to work? 2) What is the data telling us?

Each weapon, ability and role has dozens upon dozens of variables that can be manipulated. When we look at things like an “overpowered” or “underpowered” weapon, damage is simply one subject we play with, but even under damage, there’s damage per projectile, range of damage, falloff of damage over range intervals, potential for headshot damage, size of the projectile dealing damage and many more. That’s just for damage, which isn’t always the answer.

But it doesn’t always come down to obvious variables. Sometimes it comes down to clarity of information. During pre-alpha we kept hearing, “The Assassin keeps one-shotting me!”, and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out where the bug in her damage was. The data wasn’t telling us anything was technically wrong. It turned out she wasn’t one-shotting, it was just perceived to be that way, and perception is extremely important when it comes to balance. People couldn’t hear her swords swinging, she was so small that she was hiding under other character cameras (especially Titans) and there was no information telling you that anything else was hitting you even though you were being targeted by an Enforcer while the Assassin was swiping at your ankles. So we introduced loud sword swing sounds for the Assassin, an updated damage-indicator, increased her character size to help her become more visible and we introduced the damage log on the death screen to point out all sources of damage you took, including what it was that dealt the killing blow. This took a lot of time on our end since it touched many departments – sound designers, UI artists, coders, animators. When you make changes that involve a lot of people from many departments, you can easily move into months of work.

Data is definitely helpful, but it’s just as helpful in telling us that systematically everything is fine, but that doesn’t mean something else isn’t working right. In those scenarios it requires us to tap into past experiences, to talk to our community and to often times, make a gut decision and just try something out.

 

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⋅ Do we have to take other parts of a role’s kit into consideration when adjusting something like a weapon?

Dan: Always. Sometimes the solution seems obvious, but then you step on the toes of another role. If roles are too similar to each other, then what’s the point of doing all that work? Even if our roles fulfill the same playstyle potential or fantasy, we want to make sure they can’t do the same exact thing as each other.

We also have to look at power budget. For instance, at one point we were thinking of turning the Enforcer’s Electromags into an instant, turn off enemy active ability event. We wanted it to work more like a counter, but it turns out that would have been very unfair to some of our roles. If an Enforcer’s Electromag could turn off a Titan’s Berserk or a Juggernaut’s Armor Protocol or any other lasting Q or E ability in the game, that would give the Enforcer a massive power budget spike since that one ability could essentially stop most things in the game from happening. His E ability would always be an ace up his sleeve. We really liked the silence-style gameplay though, as it gave him a support tool to play with. So instead we turned it into a preventative measure – if the ability wasn’t already active, it would prevent them from being turned on. Example, if the Titan already went Berserk, then the Electromag would be too late to use. That seemed more fair, especially when you considered the cooldown timers on some Q abilities.

 

⋅ Does adjusting one role have a trickle effect on the balance of other roles?

 Dan: It can, depending on the change. At one point a simple change we made to the Juggernaut’s Armor Protocol and amount of Charge time we gave him allowed him to both run objectives and defend with equal potential. He became unstoppable and was the only role capable of attacking and defending with equal ease. The problem wasn’t necessarily in power, but it was in how he was able to trigger his Armor Protocol and Charge abilities. By simply changing how they could be activated, his power budget decreased, and as we saw in Closed Beta, his effectiveness was lower than average. This was completely different two weeks previous to the Beta, where many were running as a Juggernaut.

When a power shift changes, the meta can also change, which means how you play a game mode can change. That in turn changes how players play other roles. What was once an objective runner turns into a defender, and what was once a defender, like the Juggernaut, turns into a runner. Sometimes it takes a while for the new meta to show itself, but there’s definitely a trickle down effect depending on how problematic the balance shift is.

 

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⋅ Are there any other things we take into account when adjusting things like abilities?

Dan: Maps and modes are both HUGELY impactful in balance. Some of our roles are better in open spaces, while others prosper in corridors and tight spaces. Line of sight for range, cover objects for explosive bounce, ceilings to prevent aerial combat – the maps dictate the balance at any given position. There’s no such thing as perfect balance in a game, and that’s not a bad thing. Balance is situational, but as designers we have to make sure that the balance of power shifts, and level design helps us to achieve that.

Game modes set the pace. Is it frantically running back and forth? Do I have to attack, or do I have to defend? Who is better at making the run, who is better at drawing attention, and who is better at offering support? How the objective plays out can influence which role is best suited for a specific part of the mode’s progression.

When you combine maps and modes together, balance of power can really shift. And for us, that’s important. Just because you learned how to kill with the Assassin doesn’t mean you can lead your team to victory. How she plays the Overcharge game mode is different than how she plays Turf War. But how she plays in Mammoth is completely different than how she plays in Station. While you may have gotten her core loop down pat, you’ll now need to learn how she prospers in a certain mode, and then you’ll need to learn how the map you’re playing in benefits her while playing those modes. That’s where we’ll see the gaps between player skill level emerge. All of that influences how we balance the game.

 

  We want to thank all of you for playing in the first Closed Beta and for submitting feedback.  It not only helps us shape the game, but conveys the community has just as much passion for LawBreakers as we do here at Boss Key.  A big thanks to Dan for taking the time to sit down with me during this time of development craziness.  We have also posted this over on our forums where our developers are taking your questions concerning the topic of balance here. Feel free to join in on the conversation or lurk intently in order to dazzle your friends with some video game knowledge.

   Again thanks for joining us on this crazy ride that is LawBreakers.  We’ll have more Closed Betas in the future, so be sure to sign up over at http://lawbreakers.com to join in on gravity defying combat.

 

    See you next time, LawBreakers. Britt over and out.

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