Al's Game Blog

Musings on the videogame business and free to play product management

Handling Balance Changes

It is a never-ending challenge to keep our live games balanced. In Marvel Puzzle Quest, there are no mechanisms to self-balance overpowered characters and so if a single character is overly powerful, our spenders will tend to gather around them. All players have access to these characters so it’s not unfair, but it results in gameplay that lacks variety, which is ultimately bad for everyone’s enjoyment and ultimately our long-term retention.

In free-to-play, the balancing of durable goods presents a particular challenge. Players may have spend real-world dollars to upgrade the character and those who haven’t may have invested many hours grinding away. We’ve been through a few of these re-balancing passes and have learned some valuable lessons:

  • This too shall pass – While you need to expect and accept that there will be a backlash and the first couple of days will be painful, give it a few days before you judge the results. In the early days of MPQ, Ragnarok was massively overpowered and the day we changed it players were furious. A week later, it was no longer a topic of widespread conversation.
  • Telegraph the change – As soon as you know a character is overpowered, make sure you let your players know that you know. Months ago, we published a list of the top-5 incorrectly balanced characters. A week ago, we published the specific changes that were coming to Spiderman. This week we expect to roll out the change
  • Listen to Blizzard – “Make Everything Overpowered” is a design motto at Blizzard and we try to adhere to that here at Demiurge. At the end of the day, you need to think not just about the numbers but the emotional impact of a character. When you’re done, aim to have players think you didn’t go far enough!
  • Give players an out – If players truly feel that your balance changes have made the durable no longer useful, then selling it for hard and soft currency should be a no-brainer. During the period after a balance change, we massively increase the sale price of characters.

When we made that sale-price change, there was only a small bump in the rate at which players sold those characters. Here’s a chart showing the number of people who sold those cards in the window surrounding the nerf:

We playtest the changes a ton and run them through some mathematical analysis that we’ve developed since launch. The end result is that if you’ve taken the time to max out your Spiderman ahead of your other rare cards, he’ll remain your best character.

Hearthstone

Hearthstone has replaced League of Legends as my go-to game. Coming from our world in Marvel Puzzle Quest where we’re immersed in the science of mobile/F2P design, it’s striking how far it deviates from the state-of-the-art think while still managing to put  up strong numbers: #10 grossing in the US and #2 in China. That’s on the back of a top-10 download in most territories so it’s probably not an ARPDAU monster.

Maybe the state-of-the-art is wrong? At minimum it proves there’s more than one way to skin the F2P cat. Some places where they deviate:

  • Single currency that’s half soft, half hard: You earn about $1 / hour plus another $1 / day for doing mini-quests.

  • Relatively inexpensive: I’ve put $60 in and feel that there’s little else worth my money. (same as League of Legends).

  • PC or Tablet-only, iOS-only: I’d play on my phone if I could even though the experience would be less awesome.

  • Real currency displayed in the in-game item buying loop: Purchases are framed in real dollars and in-game currency rather than the usual real currency -> in-game currency -> in-game items.

Perhaps those are intuitive decisions given the unique design space that they’re in, maybe they’re simplifications + improvements that we all should make or maybe it’s just wrong. I’ll be curious to see how well the inevitable copy-cats perform.