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Recent Ubisoft games have been observed to share a lot of game mechanics. The formula gradually evolved through the years but took its roots in the first open-world title of the company, Assassin’s Creed.
The core system of this formula is the Reach high point mechanic, that lets players make Altair climb a tall building, synchronize to unlock all quests in the area, and jump down through a signature Leap of faith.
As I had the chance to participate in its design, I would like to share with you how we got there, and what made the system so successful that it’s still used in games, 8 years after its debut. As you’ll see its strength can be analyzed through the lens of biology and psychology.
First, you’ll find an overview in this short video below.
I believe the strength of this mechanic lies on how strongly it motivates players. This is achieved through proposing a clear objective, and a significant reward that immediately follows challenge completion in a very tight loop. This echoes the conditions for flow stated by Csikszentmihalyi that create maximum engagement when performing tasks. Let’s deconstruct the different components that make this system so rewarding and efficient.
The first characteristic is that the reward of unlocking nearby quests comes immediately after synchronizing. This creates a strong and apparent link between cause and effect that brings clarity to the system. The direct reaction to the players actions also represents a dopamine-based reward. It is Nature’s way to motivate us to impact the world around us.
Secondly, the fact that multiple quests are unlocked at once increases the pleasure response as it reinforces the player’s feeling of agency. The bigger the difference between a small action and a big response, the stronger the dopamine release, motivating us to create strong consequences.
The initial design for this system involved talking to characters hidden outside of cities in order to unlock individual quests players had to travel to. These two factors explain why having multiple quests unlocked immediately available creates stronger reward.
The pleasure created by a tight loop with immediate and important reward mimics kids reactions when they press elevator buttons, get the immediate visual and sound feedback and put the whole cab in motion.
Another aspect is the fact that this system grants intrinsic rewards. Instead of extrinsic abstract prize like gold that the player would have to trade in, the player now gets access to more challenge/reward loops. Not only intrinsic rewards are more satisfying, but they also increase a player motivation and engagement with the activity, compared to extrinsic rewards that rather encourage players to exit the current loop, and literally break the flow.
Not all game concepts are made equal. Depending on how they appeal to your audience, their success potential widely varies. Through my time managing creative teams at Ubisoft, I gradually realized how certain game concepts would have more market relevance and gained insights on what blockbusters were made of. I was able to identify how a franchise like Call of Duty tripled its sales with Modern Warfare and became a household of our industry. Later on, I was able to apply this approach as Creative Director on Rainbow 6 Patriots and identified a fantasy that would position this franchise reboot right into our collective concerns.
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Game balancing is key for game design. Finding the exact damage value for a weapon or the correct height for the jump of a character is exciting for game designers because it’s about the only moment where we can immediately see the impact of our decisions.
This feedback loop is so rewarding it can trick us into endless tweaking, tinkering and fiddling of spreadsheets. Focusing so much on details can often make us forget the big picture, and I want to give you my tips on how to approach game balancing.
Before going into more details, here is my short video on the subject.
The most important notion is that elements of a game are meaningless on their own, as the player will never encounter them in a vacuum. An ability will always be confronted by obstacles. For gameplay to feel good, player tools must seem adapted to the challenge they help overcome. This lets players develop a consistent understanding of the game and leads to “aha moments” as they recognize patterns in the obstacles and know what ability to use.
The first level of Super Mario Bros proposes obstacles exactly matched to Mario’s jump, in height and length. This teaches the player the parameters of the key ability, and will allow to clearly evaluate options in navigating each level.
Games are systems of elements in interaction, and a dynamic always emerges from the ensemble. Because you want to give players a seamless experience interacting with your game dynamic, you should decide upon it first, then use this target to evaluate your balancing effort. It is the role of design to determine these interactions, and of game balancing to set parameters so things unfold as desired.
Another way to make a tool particularly adapted to a situation is to make it way more efficient compared to the others. Think of the classic RTS unit type cycle infantry/archer/cavalry, or even rock/paper/scissors. Once again, it is the clarity or the relationship that creates a satisfactory decision for players because it lets them learn more easily.
This illustrates the notion that game balancing is generally not about making the different elements equal, but rather creating strong discrepancies leading to clear dynamics and relationships.
With many moving parts, it is possible that strategies becomes way stronger than expected, to the point of making all other options useless, what game theory calls dominant strategies. If your gameplay relies on selecting the best approach, this will definitely hurt the depth of the decision process as well as gameplay variety.
In this case, you want to reduce the effectiveness of the elements that give so much strength to this strategy (also called nerfing) and make multiple options viable again. This will bring value back in the decision process by proposing a dilemma where all options are clear, the right one being uncertain (cf. Fun and uncertainty).
Very frequently, unforeseen strategies will divert from intended gameplay. On a shipped game, this will be called an exploit, but it can be addressed to some extend during development. If the testing team is given a list of the desired winning strategies for each situation, it will be able to validate that the intention is maintained, and verify that other options don’t unduly dominate.
Skill is very important when trying to basically break intended gameplay, this is why our balance testers at Relic were competitive level players. This type of workflow, makes the team able to evaluate the strength of the gameplay structure, find loopholes, and decide to react accordingly, or to leave these options available.
During the development of Street Fighter II, the team incorporated leniency to make special moves easier to execute, but a side effect made it possible to create unplanned combos. They viewed this as an interesting features and decided to keep it, which opened up some pretty dominating strategies. From there, it got refined and became the key mechanic of the whole fighting genre. This shows that we shouldn’t discard the value of emergence.
The team got pretty lucky to create such a successful gameplay through what was almost an oversight. This is why I think that an intentional approach is superior to better control the resulting game dynamic. Defining a clear target for gameplay then feeds into the game balancing process. It allows to evaluate the different strategies that emerge, and make informed and rational decisions before rushing to our beloved spreadsheets.
Which of narrative or gameplay should take the lead in video games? It’s very common topic that polarizes both game devs and players. I was asked my opinion on the question through youtube, so here is my opinion on the balance between interactivity and gameplay.
Zero-Sum games is a very important concept for game systems as well as rewards, so here is my perspective on it, as well as examples on what it means for game design.
Also, as we reached the 600 subscriber mark for our youtube channel, I want to thank you by letting you choose the topic of my next videos! Please write a question you want me to treat next in the comment section.
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