Designer Responsibility

How responsible are game designers in the balancing of their (single-player) game?

Syncaine swerves to the right:

One theme I’m seeing is the debate about what is OP [in Skyrim], and how easy it is to min/max the game. I find this… odd. As Nil’s himself pointed out, you can turn godmode on if you want, and be as ‘maxed out’ as you can possibly get. Hearing that people are ‘exploiting’ the game by running into a wall for hours while hidden to max out stealth makes no sense to me. Why waste all that time, just go into the character file and put stealth to 100. […]

“Am I to blame?”


Luckily the solution is easy; remove one or more of the enchanted pieces, or up the difficulty, or RP a reason why you no longer require mana to cast spells.

I’d rather you do that then Bethesda spend time hardcoding a solution over adding yet-another-quest, or whatever other content they could do in that time. Or have the hardcoded solution prevent me from play “how I want”.

If this was an MMO, 100% valid point. If it was a multiplayer game like Dungeon Defenders, still 100% valid. An sRPG that is far more about the journey than the end-goal? Naw, non-issue IMO.

Nils has a more center-oriented approach:

I agree that it is partly in the player’s responsibility to not optimize the fun out of his game. An example would be sneaking against a wall until you have maxed out stealth in Skyrim.

On the other hand, I just uploaded a video to youtube that shows how I enchanted four items and now can cast destruction and restoration spells witout any mana cost. This is a game changer, as the mana constraint was important in the game – until then. Many of my perks in the talent trees are suddenly useless. The game becomes worse. Playing it is less fun if I can just spam a single spell without looking at mana.
I optimized the fun out of Skyrim. Am I to blame?

The problem is that I ended up enchanting my equipment this way not by sneaking against a wall. I simply skilled enchanting and then used reasonable enchantments on my equipment.

My point is this: A game cannot use the cartot, that character power progression (CPP) is, to increase the player’s engagement with the game, and at the same time allow him to optimize the fun out by hunting the carrot in a reasonable way.

My own left-leaning approach is the same as I outlined in the Culpability of Questionable Design, the very first post I made under the In An Age banner. Essentially, it is (almost) always the designer’s fault.

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

As I commented on Syncaine’s post, I find it bizarrely apologetic to state that it is a player’s responsibility to not ruin the game for themselves. The specific situation in Skyrim Nils had brought up was the ability to eliminate all mana/stamina costs of spells and abilities via Enchanting. Nils had gotten his Enchanting skill up “legitimately,” as opposed to, say, getting 100 Sneak by auto-sneaking into a corner for a several hours. For the record, I see zero difference between those two activities – both are simply examples of incredibly poor design ridiculous failures of imagination.

In Oblivion there existed a Magic College where you could invent your own spells and magic items, within certain constraints. Making a Fireball spell that dealt 100 damage was expensive, whereas a 50 damage Fireball cost less. Similarly, a buff/debuff that lasted an hour was more expensive than one that lasted for only 1 second. After about an hour of playing with the various sliders, I left the College with a ranged spell that decreased the HP of the creature it touched by 100 for 1 second. The practical effect was that it instantly killed everything in the game, at least until I gained many more levels – even then, if I fired it quickly, the second hit would kill anything with less than 200 HP since it stacked with itself. I called this spell Finger of Death, and later added it to a sword along with the Soul-draining property so that as the sword instantly killed who it touched, it refueled itself.

I did not set out to break Oblivion, nor did Nils set out to break Skyrim; the both of us were simply using the tools the designers gave us and taking them to their logical conclusions. It is the responsibility of the designers to ensure that incredibly obvious things (at least in retrospect) like “-25% mana usage” does not stack with itself, that temporary decreases in HP scale the same as damage abilities when their effects are indistinguishable, and so on, are balanced. Arguing to the contrary is to admit that WoW leveling is not too quick since the player can manually shut off XP, that facerolling mobs and instances is a player failure as said player could play with just one hand, play with a gamepad, play with Resurrection Sickness, or any number of entirely arbitrary self-imposed restrictions. It is to abdicate, wholly and completely, any responsibility of the designers to present a balanced, well-paced experience.

Syncaine is right about these games being about the journey, not necessarily getting to the end as quickly as possible. And yet I derive deep satisfaction in the execution of strategies, figuring out how rules/objects work, and finding more efficient ways of doing tasks; those things constitute the journey to me. Turning on god-mode in the console may have the same end result, but it skips all the fun, thinking bits inbetween, just like skipping to the last chapter of a book. In other words: optimization is fun.

And so I believe it is – and has to be – the designer’s responsibility to ensure that if a game can be optimized, that it still continues to be fun and challenging when it inevitably is. Anything less is laziness, incompetence, or both.

Posted on November 18, 2011, in Commentary, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Eh, I don’t know. I’m a huge optimizer myself, and one of my first Morrowind games involved me crafting an enchanted ring that constantly gave me flying. That and a bow trivialized most encounters in the game. I had fun with being a flying god for a while, but I didn’t make such a ring again in any of my other play-throughs. I clearly broke the game, but as a sandbox, there was no reason for me to keep on playing it in the broken state.

    The comparison to turning off XP/buffs in WoW is off, because the focus of the game is completely different. WoW is a game of incentivized repetitive gameplay, while the Bethesda games put much less of a focus on incentivizing (or repetition for that matter.)

    Would it be nice if sandboxes were balanced in such a way that I couldn’t break the game? Maybe. I do like the fact that there are overpowered combinations to find much more than the balance-mush we get in MMORPGs. Still, not having to self-impose rules might be a good thing, but it is really hard (read: impossible) to do when you want to leave many options open to the player.

    Even in a game like Magic the Gathering (which has many of the same problems of many possible combinations of effects) game-breaking features crop up from time to time. In Magic, WotC fixes these issues by banning or changing the functionality of cards to keep the tournament scene sane. There are no bannings in casual game settings (the closest we can get to a single player experience) yet those groups regulate just fine and people don’t just play overpowered combinations over and over again. It simply isn’t fun, so they stop (or are stopped by their friends.)

    Over-regulation takes a lot of fun out of games and costs a lot of time and money that could better be spent elsewhere.


    • Over-regulation takes a lot of fun out of games and costs a lot of time and money that could better be spent elsewhere.

      That is an interesting thought. Is time/money spent on areas of the game that have no benefit to you individually count as “better spent?”

      I played M:tG quite a lot in high school and college amongst friends, and I had my own personal deck-building policy: decks that successfully executed their infinite combos in multiplayer games were dismantled. The entire point of making said combos would be to see if they worked, and since they did, mission accomplished. And besides, the deck-building was the most fun part of infinite combos, not the instant win. After a while, I stopped making infinite combos altogether and focused on decks that had a lot of interesting responses and counter-responses – Misdirection was hands down my favorite card of all time, for example.

      All that being said, my point with all this is that I do not believe it is too much to ask of Bethesda (etc) to have made safeguards against infinite flight, -100% mana cost, and so on. Adding Misdirection to all my blue decks (I seriously bought 12 copies of the card) contained the same amount of optimization as infinite combos, and yet it resulted in a better play experience for everyone involved. Imagine that instead of infinite flight, you had 30 seconds of flight. Still absurdly powerful, all things considered, but the slight restriction would have made for a more interesting play experience while still containing the joy of discovering something powerful.

      And that would have been money/time well spent, IMO.


  2. I made that ring, too Scrusi. Then I got my shoes of blinding speed and flew at +300% speed wherever I wanted – while blind.

    I have no problem if such things exist in a single-player game with focus on roleplaying. But they should be harder to achieve and not be entirely obvious to a normally intelligent adult.


  3. I’d say that games like Skyrim are the wrong games to dig into and optimize, if only BECAUSE it’s so easy to ‘break’ the game. And if the game was changed, and it was harder to break, you would most likely limit the game overall in terms of the funny/creative things you can do with characters, not to mention the huge amount of dev time it would take to even come close to accomplishing this. Imagine trying to alter the game so you could not use terrain exploits to fight mobs? In a game like Demon Souls is this important? Yes. In a game like Skyrim? Naw. I’d be the same as me signing up to WoW because I want to challenge myself in the econ scene, and canceling my EVE sub to do it.


    • I’d say that games like Skyrim are the wrong games to dig into and optimize,

      I agree, Syncaine. But the game should still be careful that you don’t optimize the fun away by accident. For example, giving the palyer a sword of slaying after exiting the tutorial dungeon would be bad. Even though the player could put it aside.

      That mana can be made irrelevant with maximized enchanting is not something I discovered by doing a statistical analysis or reading elitist jerks. It is the direct consequence of enchanting my equipment with one of the very few(!) useful enchantments for mages.


      • But the game should still be careful that you don’t optimize the fun away by accident.

        There is nothing ‘accidental’ about levelling one’s Enchanting to 100. It’s a slow and deliberate grind that is literally soul-crushing (or, at the very least, soul-trapping).


  4. I think I agree with Syncaine and Nils have the right idea. Part of what made Oblivion fun was the “sandbox” feel; the fact that I could go most anywhere, make my own spells, try new builds. I do not think developers should completely abdicate responsibility for balance but I think the standard is lower. That and it is a challenge of differing audience tastes; some people like the idea that they COULD imbalance the game at any moment and removing that would turn them away. Plus, Bethesda has usually allowed for heavy modding, so if something is found to be imbalanced a fix is just a mod away.

    And just for kicks, some other Oblivion “tricks:
    – Enchant all your gear with Chameleon; you should be able to get into the 90’s or 100 and can become undetectable.
    – Create Fortify personality, security, speechcraft or mercantile 100 for 1 second. The game pauses when you initiate conversations or pick locks. Only need 25 skill in restoration for those.

    That said, Bethesda really needs to work on some of the obvious exploits: the “stealth into a wall” has been around since Morrowind, they’ve never tried to fix stacking (Shield/Chameleon stacked linearly in Oblivion), the X effect for 1 second was too easy to break as Az demonstrates…they need to have the duration/cost change linearly. Could they do better? Yeah. Does that mean the games are bad? I don’t think so.


    • Bethesda creates the best RPGs the world has ever seen!
      Could they be better? Yes.


    • I never did the Chameleon thing (it wasn’t really necessary when you could instantly slay everyone in-game), but I definitely had a “100 Charm for 1 second” spell handy before each conversation. For some reason though, I still always completed the Persuade skill wheel thing.

      It is a fair point that perhaps people out there enjoy having the ability to break the games. Then again, they could break it with cheat codes/mods so why bother catering to that? When I did the Finger of Death thing, my goal was not to break the game, but to discover the most efficient damage spell. If it was something 10% more efficient than a normal fireball, my joy at the discovery would have been of the same magnitude as it was with Finger of Death without all the unbalancing gameplay.

      That is the difference, and why I believe it’s worth Bethesda’s time fixing these sort of things. Surely diminishing returns wouldn’t constrict people too far, neh?

      And I hope it hasn’t came across that I dislike these games. Well, I believe the Fallouts do a better job in every single way, but that’s because I prefer post-Apoc to straight fantasy.


  5. I found that Skyrim is still fun when optimized – but it’s a very different sort of fun.

    See, CRPGs are a combination of performance challenges (“Can I do it?”) and narrative choices (“Should I do it?”). And in my experience, one of these two invariably gets trivialized. The only question is which one.

    If you play a super-optimized character – be it a mage with 0-magicka fireballs, a stealther with 32K backstabs or a one-shotting super sniper – performance challenges don’t matter to you. Can you take out a fort full of bandits? Can you kill a trio of dragons? Can you single-handedly wipe out a demonic army? Yes, yes and yes.

    On other hand, if you play a non-optimized character, narrative choices become a matter of research and analysis. Should you support the Empire or the Stormcloaks? Look up the rewards for both choices on the Wiki and pick the best one. Should you follow the orders of a treacherous and manipulative daedra? Of course, otherwise you’ll miss out on the reward that will boost your DPS.

    As further proof of this theory, I offer you Planescape: Torment and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura. Both were hailed as some of the finest storytelling-based CRPGs of all time… and both had absolutely broken combat systems that made Skyrim look like an e-sport.


    • Planescape had an absolute joke of a system that was barely functional, and Arcanum… good lord, that takes me back. I did find it amusing how Arcanum went that extra step to make the ridiculously overpowered Disintegration spell “balanced” in the old-school D&D way of destroying all the loot on the mob. I honestly don’t remember if there was even a last boss in that game, because once you realize that loot doesn’t matter (i.e. you’re at the endgame anyway) then Disintegration has no downside.

      It is an interesting point about performance vs narrative games, and I cannot think of a performance-based game where the narrative choices also mattered off the top of my head.


  6. I’ll remember these points next time I run a red light or getting a speeding ticket. It’s toyota’s fault.


    • Toyota isn’t the rule-maker, although I have questioned before why car-markers bother with designing engines that can go faster than 90 MPH.

      It is illegal to rob a bank. It is not illegal for Google to reduce their tax liability down to 2.4% via funneling their profits through two Irish subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands, costing the US government $60 billion. Is it Google’s fault that they are “robbing” the American people of $60 billion? Or is it the fault of the rule-makers in allowing $60 billion leak away via optimized accounting?


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