Almost every game has resources of some type or another, whether that’s health, mana, meter, etc. A topic that is rarely discussed with these is: Exactly how much health should you have, and how much damage should stuff do? What should your resource limit be, how much should stuff cost? How fast should it be built up? The decisions made in each of these can significantly affect the tone and feeling of something.
The most critical technique for thinking about this problem is thinking in percentages. The actual values can be arbitrary, but percentages help you keep track of the actual impact. A combo across different games could deal 8000 damage, 120 damage, or just 6 damage, and in each case, that could be worth 90% of someone’s healthbar. Thinking in percentages helps you weigh the relative impact of something, without getting bogged down in the exact numbers.
This type of thinking also suggests thinking about the resource in terms of how many times it can be tapped before it’s extinguished. If each touch deals about 10% of your health bar, a game will have 10 touches before it’s over. If a touch can deal up to 80%, then it’s a 2-touch game. Consider the range of variability between how much impact each touch makes as well.
In Card Games, instead of touches, it’s measured as a “clock”. The clock is how many turns a player has left before they lose the game. In real-time games with fine-grain health and guaranteed hits, this type of thing is measured in DPS (Damage Per Second) and/or TTK (Time to Kill). In these cases, it’s worth considering what tradeoffs a player should be making in order to get a faster clock, or a lower time to kill. It’s also worth considering how fast the average clock for a match should be, or what the average time to kill is across the game, and watching out when those things end up lower or higher than you originally planned.
Rate of Change
Cumulative resources without a fixed cap are a little trickier, but they can be thought of in terms of percentages as well as rate of change. It’s worth considering how fast that resource builds up, relative to how fast it gets spent.
The key metric is how fast a cumulative resource is accumulated versus spent, and what the granularity of accretion or decrement is. Are you slowly gaining a ton of tiny resource, then spending it all in one big chunk? Are you slowly draining the resource and then gaining big chunks of it? Are you gaining more than you’re losing over time? Are you losing more than you’re gaining over time?
Each of these relationships models a different type of process, whether it’s decay or growth. Both of these can be exponential even. In Starcraft, the rate at which you acquire resources tends to grow linearly over the course of a match; as you steadily produce more worker units, and expand to more bases. This means your resource total will grow exponentially as you expand. However the rate at which you lose units in battle is also exponential, due to Lanchester’s Laws. And eventually the map will run out of resources, causing the rate at which you acquire resources to drop, meaning that whoever managed to leverage their resources more effectively over the match to stunt their opponent’s military and economic growth will be the ultimate victor.
In Fighting Games, rate of change is important for damage scaling in combos over time. Every game has a slightly different formula for it. Modern Street Fighter tends to have each hit decrease by 10% damage, until it caps out at 10%. This means Street Fighter combos tend to fall off in damage very quickly after the first few hits.
Blazblue and a lot of other Anime fighters tend to make the first hit deal full damage (100%), and later hits cut damage significantly (60% or less), but fall off in damage a lot slower than Street Fighter (Cut down to 92% each hit. So the 4th hit of a combo will deal 60% * 92% * 92% * 92% = 46.7% damage). This dynamic makes it so landing raw attacks can be impactful, which is helpful for zoners or poking characters who win neutral a lot, but also makes it so long combos are more rewarding than they are in Street Fighter.
Fighting games also typically have a minimum damage scaling allowed for super moves (about 50% to 30% depending on the game), so that it makes sense to tack them onto the end of a long combo for the damage bonus, and so using supers in combos isn’t heavily penalized.
In order to get to the exact values, granularity is what’s worth considering. High or “fine” granularity is when a number is really big (like 1 million), or when decimals are allowed (to let you use values between 1 and 2). Low or “coarse” granularity is when numbers are very small, so the difference between each increment is proportionally really big. Smaller numbers are more “chunky” and easy for people to calculate, as well as being more discrete for when you want something to happen exactly X times. Bigger numbers give you more wiggle room to fine-tune exact values, so things can be balanced more precisely to match exact cost.
The drawback of small numbers is that if you’re moving from 1 to 2, that’s twice as much. If you play around a lot at the bottom of the number line, it can be difficult to cost things precisely, because you have no room to separate out something that is better than the other 1-cost options, but worse than all the 2-cost options.
The drawback of big numbers is that past a certain point, they’re effectively incalculable. You cannot use big numbers in tabletop at all. For this reason, finding a medium between small numbers and big numbers in granularity can be a big deal in tabletop.
Recently, the Pokemon TCG decided to bump up all the HP and Damage values of their pokemon, not explicitly as a form of power creep, but instead to set a new relative standard, so they wouldn’t have to deal with the low granularity of lower damage attacks.
Some simple fighting games, like Fantasy Strike and Pocket Rumble, use health systems where each hit deals about 1 health of damage. This can be an effective way of keeping track of how many touches there are to victory, but it runs into the granularity problem that low cost abilities have in tabletop.
Jabs and light attacks in fighting games typically are faster and self-chain in order to give players a consistent way to force their opponent off of them by mashing the button. In order to counterbalance this, fighting games will typically make these moves 1/3rd as strong as the medium attacks.
Pocket Rumble elected to recreate this mechanic, but now each hit effectively deals as much as a slower heavy attack, meaning you’ll deal more damage by mashing light attack than you will by landing a carefully timed heavy. Fantasy Strike dealt with this problem by removing light attacks entirely.
Magic the Gathering has 20 starting life, and a lot of the weaker creatures are 1 power or 2 power, so it runs into the low granularity problem a lot. It also means that something that deals just 2 damage cost you 10% of your health, and if it repeats every turn you have a “clock” of 10 turns before you lose.
Magic’s battle system in combination with its coarse granularity also means that matches can commonly lead to stalemates, where neither side wants to attack, because the other side will annihilate them in mutually assured destruction. Since the granularity is so low, the monsters you summon on turn 1 will likely trade with the 1/1 creatures your opponent summons on turn 1, and same for the 2/2 creatures turn 2, and same for the 3/3s on turn 3.
In order to get around this, Magic has added traits like Flying, Menace, First Strike, and Death Touch in order to force attacks through stacked battle lines; As well as spells that can buff your creatures, weaken your opponent’s, force fights, or remove your opponent’s creatures outright, so as to interact with your opponent’s creatures in other ways.
Due to the tendency to stalemate, and the small attack values of many common creatures in early turns relative to your starting life, matches can last a fair number of turns in the standard format. In formats with larger card pools, there are usually much cheaper and more powerful creatures, along with much cheaper and more powerful mana sources, that can be cheated out on early turns to secure very early wins.
Yugioh, for contrast, has 8000 starting life. Normal summoned monsters on turn 1 can have 0 to 2000 attack, 1/4th of the starting life! More powerful monsters tend to be pegged to Blue Eyes White Dragon’s 3000 attack as the baseline highest attack on a normal monster. Attack points tend to be doled out in increments of 100, so it’s more like 80 life, and 0 to 30 attack across the range of monsters. A reasonable number of monsters have as much as 4000 attack points, and a rare few have above that.
These common starters are all unlikely to trade with one another in battle if they get negated.
In addition to this, monsters are allowed to have an extra 50 tacked onto the end of their stat line, like the 1850 stat line common for spellcasters. In rare circumstances, there are other numbers in the tens digit, like 70 or 30; And in exceptionally rare circumstances, the ones digit is actually used. These aren’t necessarily a positive for the game, because it makes calculations more complicated, but it’s something the game supports, for better or worse.
This system means that Yugioh monsters have a very fine granularity of attack values, maybe too fine even. You can deal all 8000 points of damage to your opponent’s starting life in a single turn with as few as 3 monsters. Yugioh has the opposite of a stalemate problem, where instead monsters are paper-thin, and attacking is one-sided; not giving the defender a chance to react. It’s very rare for boards to stay intact very long.
In Yugioh, you are not allowed to attack on the first turn, because otherwise players would simply summon their endboard and annihilate the other player without giving them a chance to play (and in many cases players have found ways to do this with effect damage anyway).
In my game: Charmed Chains, I’ve chosen to go with 600 starting life. As I design creatures, I’m mentally comparing their strength to Magic the Gathering creatures. 600/20 = 30, meaning that a creature with 30 attack in my game is the equivalent of a 1/1 in magic, but I have 3 times as much granularity to work with. I’ve decided that starting creatures can only have 50 attack maximum, and 70 defense maximum, so starting creatures can avoid usually trading blows unless they’re at the maximum power allowed.
The current strongest monster in my game has 120 attack, making it the equivalent of a 4/4. This means it would take 5 turns to kill someone at full starting life, a little less than blue-eyes white dragon, and a lot less than the strongest Magic the Gathering creatures. Considering I am aiming to have combos in my game to make big boards extremely quickly, along the lines of Yugioh, I think that setting a slower clock like this early on will help prevent the runaway damage creep that Yugioh has had over time, while allowing for the breakneck pace of effects and combos on Yugioh turns.
Just wanted to say I’m enjoying all these recent posts. Keep up the good work.
LikeLiked by 1 person