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Lockpick Entertainment | Official Site
MMORPG | Setting:Fantasy | Status:Final  (rel 03/10/11)  | Pub:Paradox Interactive
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Developer Journals: Reawakening Developer Journal

By Guest Writer on May 12, 2008

Reawakening Developer Journal

Designing and balancing a MMORTS with long term strategy elements must be one of the hardest works of all time. Well, that’s how I’ve felt the last half a year anyway. There are so many factors to consider, so many numbers and complex systems that somehow must work together. I believe structure and dynamic systems are essential because there will always be modifications, small as well as big. Always, over and over again. Current systems must be modified, replaced, deleted... No matter how flawless you once found your design. And this must be done without risking your project to fall apart. When your project is big and complex, modularity might be the answer. But removing small bricks can still raze a great building.


It has been said a lot of times but it doesn’t hurt (well, it does, but…) to say it again: It’s hard killing your own babies. Hard. Hard. Really hard. Sometimes it’s like ripping your own heart out. But regardless - it must be done. Just suck it up, smile and keep looking forward. A great product in the end will make it all worth it. And it’s not like it never has happened before. All game designers have probably killed their own babies at some time. Maybe millions of times. It’s not unusual to look back and realize that your work didn’t turn out how you wanted. It happens to all creative people; artists, writers, singers… There’s actually no room for pride or stubbornness when all that really matters is to make a splendid product for your players. If you truly love games - you want to make a game that will be loved by others – a game that you love yourself. That’s my belief anyway.

While working with the balance of Dreamlords the Reawakening, I’ve been struggling with all those complex systems that constitute a strategy game. Units need stats, behaviors, special abilities and gear – a huge amount of parameters must be analyzed and tweaked ‘til the end of times. The empire management needs all trillion puzzle pieces that can offer the player an ultimate strategic and stimulating platform… You must give the player freedom, but not lose your control. So yeah, creating a virtual world is complicated, no doubt. If there’s an actual God, then I must say that he has done a quite decent job after all. It’s a little bit buggy, but some billion of years and the application haven’t crashed yet!

When I went to school, I never actually thought that I would have any benefit of my math classes, but today – I’m glad that I took them. Ok, those nights when the math just didn’t make any sense and I found myself banging my head against the wall were not that very amusing. But when I finally got the solution, it was such a wonderful feeling.

Then we have this MMO part... A massive number of players will interact in a persistent world at the same time. It’s hard – if not impossible – to imagine how your game will be played by so many people with different personality, goals and experiences. But you do know that it will be enjoyed, loved, hated and abused. All at the same time. And you can never please everyone.

I will never stop being amazed of all ingenious ways that players can exploit a game. And even though you as a designer think that you have thought of all possible ways to cheat - and prevented them in your design – there will still pop up an amount of players, smiling widely and say: “Hey, did you know you could do this?” and you smack your forehead and cries “No no no no”. Well, I fully understand this curiosity and behavior. I have done it myself since early childhood, tried to find all kinds of shortcuts, drilled scenarios to find the most optimal series of actions or any glitches in the system. Often to my own disadvantage…because it’s mostly only fun to search for the cheats. It’s seldom that fun to actually exploit the game.

So this is truly a central point in designing a strategy game and MMO – how to prevent all possible abuses. If you don’t watch it, they can eat both you and your game alive. There’s really no room for being naive.

When we designed the foundation of our current project “Dreamlords – the Reawakening”, we were all very focused on the “Easy to learn, hard to master” principle. Well, easy to learn to some extent anyway. Dreamlords as a concept is deep and complex, and that’s a fact. That’s why we have put an extra effort in facilitating the new players understanding of the Dreamlords gameplay. We have also focused on how to offer different types of gaming and thus attract causal- as well as hardcore players. That’s not an easy task and only time will tell if we have succeeded.

I read somewhere that the first 30 minutes are crucial. How much time do I give a new game before I decide to give it a chance or throw it away? Hm…about approximately half an hour – if I’m in a good mood. So how do we catch the player’s interest for Dreamlords within such a short time and how do we communicate a complex gameplay in a simple way? That’s two main tasks to focus on, among many others. That’s why I mentioned different types of gaming. I want a Dreamlords that is easy to get into, even though you haven’t played that much RTS or MMOG before. Casual players can enjoy a meaningful gameplay that doesn’t require that much effort, if that’s their choice – and that’s ok. But for those who are thirsty for more, there’s also a greater world to explore. Just like real life.

Even though the gameplay in Dreamlords the Reawakening have been simplified a lot – the design has not. I refer to the paragraphs above concerning dynamic systems and structure and I believe that the previous design was too static. To me, it was important to create a stable foundation that easily managed modifications. It was also important to calculate everything as precise as possible, even though it’s nearly impossible. This kind of games requires a lot of assumptions and probability calculations which really give you head ache. I knew that every tiny wrong assumption could grow to a giant balancing problem in the end.

One great lesson I’ve learned since working with the balance the last half a year is the importance of working together in a group with those fundamental and important elements. Probably because we didn’t. Balancing a MMORTS is a way too big assignment for one man (or woman). Suddenly you realize that you’ve become indispensable. Too much work is piled on your shoulders since there’s no one else who knows the system. When others go home for the weekend to rest or party, you still have to struggle will the formulas. The whole game lean on the balance so there’s no time to waste and you’re the one to carry that burden.

Things almost never turn out they way you expect them to do. You make a design and it get implemented – to some extent. There are always some technical issues that hinder the original idea to take shape. And sometimes, you have to grab some second hand solutions. Sometimes it actually gets better and sometimes it not.

Even though dynamic systems and complex formulas are necessary – they can constitute a risk of distance to the actual game experience from a player’s point of view. Especially if you bury yourself in numbers and must put all your effort in understanding your own formulas. Somewhere during our development we realized that this was what exactly had happened. The system was mathematically correct, but it didn’t fit the real world game experience.

This is not a funny discovery.

A great web of complex balancing needed a remake, and it was scary and depressing. Scary, because time was running away. Depressing, because a lot of work would be discarded. For me, this was really a dazing experience, hard to accept. I had to kill my babies, one after one throwing them to the wolves.

Balancing a game like Dreamlords the Reawakening is truly hard work but I really feel that we are back on track and moves towards the right direction.

So, sharing the burden is important. Even though you want total control, you must be brave enough to let other people question your system and fool around with it. Your ideas might be correct at first, but after a second look, you realize that the latest changes in the project have made some balance elements obsolete. If you’re so swallowed up in your work that everything else turns into a blur – you might miss to do that other check.

Well, show must go on, and so it does. Tired but a little bit wiser, we continue our journey through the development of a very special game. Everyday offers new problems to solve and new insights, big and small. I would be lying if I said that game development was easy and that it never drove you insane. But if it’s you call, it’s all worth it. Those difficulties don’t only evolve you as a designer; they evolve you as a person. However nerdy that may sound. ;-)

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