How Power Impacts Gameplay

A numerical game design approach for progression and fairness

Yvens Serpa
Dec 22, 2020 · 17 min read

hile playing games, players strive for victory through goals and objectives, which are determined by many factors. Skills, motivation, resources, practice, and, more important, power play a crucial role in this process. The comparison between these elements is an important game design activity to achieve a fair gameplay experience.

For a more general study, I argue that the term fair is more appropriate than the term balance since the latter can be more easily misinterpreted and might also be unwanted. Fair is meant in the sense that the players' experience is acceptable, moderate, or plausible. A fair gameplay experience is meant to be pleasant and engaging, even if it is not necessarily a balanced experience. Perfect balance can make the game feel bland and uninspiring, as all options might feel the same. As stated by Jeff Kaplan, the lead designer of Overwatch:

The perception of balance is more powerful than balance itself.

Many games can achieve a fair experience without resorting to many elements, mechanics, and rules. This does not mean they are simple games, but that they can be understood by studying fewer variables. A game of Checkers, for instance, has about 4 rules, but it is certainly not considered to be frivolous entertainment.

Differently, other games have a broad range of elements, which create a wider range of possibilities and alternatives. These factors alone do not define these games as complex, nor imply that they are inherently harder to learn and master. Moreover, many of these games' elements might not be perceived by the player or even taken into account during a game session. Still, achieving a sense of fairness, in this case, might be a bigger challenge: it is harder to tweak all of the parts for a cohesive, pleasant, and engaging experience.

For both cases (with fewer or more elements), there are different strategies and starting points that can be used to achieve fairness. One of them, and also the main focus of this piece, is Power. For the definition of Power, we resort to Ernest Adams definition of Power Provided in Fundamentals of Game Design (2014):

Power (provided) measures, by means appropriate to the situation, the player’s strength: the health and powers of his avatar, the size and makeup of his army, the performance characteristics of his racing car, or whatever factors apply.

In other words, power is a measurement of the player's capacity.

From this definition, this article discusses how power can be measured and how its measurement affects game design decisions. We analyze how power is based on the game's resources and how it is connected to the game economy. Moreover, this article presents a numerical analysis of power that can be used to understand the difficulty and the game's progression from this study. A step-by-step process to find an appropriate power equation that can be used to achieve a sense of fairness and might also accomplish balance is presented. Finally, a brief discussion of the concept of power is addressed.

Temple of Flora, by Samuel Colman (1780–1845). Source: WIKIDATA.

Power Manifests Through Resources

The concept of power or power provided, as stated by Adams, E. (2014), is very subjective to the game itself, but more importantly, to the game's goal. For this study let us suppose the conceptual game Run & Gun, in which players face-off in an Arena, driving vehicles and carrying guns to destroy each other. The winner is the last one standing, just like the famous Mario Kart battle mode. In this game, the guns and their properties are more closely related to the concept of power than the vehicle velocities.

On the other hand, if the objective was of a regular racing game, it is more likely that velocity would be perceived as more keen to power than guns and other fighting-related elements. However, in both cases, all factors involved in achieving the game's goal are part of the player's power, even if their contribution is marginal or barely noticed.

The concept of power is easier to grasp if we recognize the power measurement factors as game resources. Resources are any concepts that can be numerically measured (Adams, E., & Dormans, J., 2012). Using Run & Gun, we could establish the following resources (or attributes):

  1. VVehicle Health: How many points the vehicle can hold.
  2. F Gun Force: How much damage the gun causes with one bullet.
  3. AGun Ammo: How many bullets a gun can shoot before reloading.
  4. SSpeed: How fast the vehicle moves.
  5. TReload Time: How long does reloading take.

Given the resources, we can define formulae that calculate a vehicle's power. A summation of all these resources, i.e., V+F+A+S+T, is an initial (naive) approach. The problem with it is that it assumes that a higher Reload Time results in a higher power when this is certainly not the case. An easy fix for this is to assume a maximum Reload Time, for example, 60 seconds, and use it in our formula to invert the Reload Time value, such as:

Since 60 seconds is the highest Reload Time, if T is 60, its contribution to the power value is minimal: 1 (60/60 = 1). On the other hand, if T is tiny, such as 1 or 2, its contribution to the power value will be 60 and 30, meaning a higher power. Henceforth, we will use the term contribution to refer to how much a value increases/decreases the calculated power value.

For a complete example, let us assume Fusca's vehicle with the following attributes: V=10, F=2, A=3, S=10, T=30. Fusca's Power is equal to 10+2+3+10+2=27. For comparison, let us assume another vehicle named Hilux with the following attributes: V=15, F=3, A=1, S=7, T=60. Clearly, Hilux's Power is equal to 15+3+1+7+1=27. Although both vehicles have different attributes, their power is the same.

Since V is more closely related to the game’s goal (a lower V impacts the vehicle’s survivability), a more precise formula would weight it by increasing its contribution. Multiplying it by an arbitrary value, for example.

Simultaneously, if the game is meant to be chaotic and push for very aggressive behavior, F and A might also be weighted to contribute more.

Still, if this equation properly reflects the gameplay experience, we are likely to have a fair (and even balanced) gameplay experience with both vehicles. However, guessing the formula is not a great strategy. In a real scenario, these numbers and the equation should be tested to see how well they reflect the game's experience.

Power Affects and Guides the Economy

The game's economy governs game resources: the rules and mechanisms that operate, generate, and destroy resources (Adams, E., & Dormans, J., 2012). Since power manifests through resources, it is also directly related to the game's economic mechanisms.

Game economies are usually related to four pillars: Sources, that create resources out of nothing; Drains, which eliminate resources from the game permanently; Converters, that convert resources into others of different types; and, Traders, which trade resources among different entities in the game, such as Players or NPCs. (For a more detailed study on the 4 pillars, refer to this previous article).

As power is strongly connected to the game's goal, it also tends to guide the economy both in terms of how it is designed and how it operates during a game's session.

The main economic mechanisms will be directly connected to the resources that establish power but are not limited to it. For the sake of brevity, we will call the resources involved in the power calculation as the power resources.

The diagram below shows a draft of the game economy for Run & Gun supposing a game session in which a Fusca faces off against a Hilux:

Run & Gun Economy Diagram. Source: Yvens Serpa.

Gun Ammo can be converted into Bullets (another resource) by shooting. If a Bullet hits a vehicle, it will drain its Health according to the Gun Force of the vehicle that shot the bullet. A player can reload, taking Reload Ammo time to generate ammo (the vehicle acts as a Source of its own ammo).

Speed is a resource that is not immediately connected to the economy but is highly related to the gameplay. Since the vehicles have to move to chase and evade each other, the Speed dictates how they position themselves. Their positioning is notably connected to the running and gunning mechanic.

In a more detailed economy graph, we could include other resources such as the distance between players and the chase and evade mechanisms. Besides, if players can outrun the projectiles, these uncertainties could be added, such as the bullet's velocity and even their dimensions.

Even if the economy is described in full detail (which is not likely to be an optimal strategy), it is clear that the main elements are directly connected to the power resources. On the other hand, it might be easier to find the power resources by drafting the game's economy and figuring out which resources are more closely related to the game's core.

For this initial version of the Run & Gun game, the mechanics do not change, and each player's power remains the same during the game session. Even when one player runs out of ammo, its power calculation remains unchanged since it is just a matter of time until it gets all of the ammo back. We could argue that the player's power was temporarily lowered, but for this analysis, this is negligible because its impact is already covered by the Reload Time.

Differently, other games offer upgrades, i.e., mechanisms that increase the player's power, temporarily or not. When it happens permanently, then power also becomes an integral part of the game's progression.

Power, Difficulty, and Progression

When power varies during a game session (or during the game's duration, such as in a campaign or adventure), the game elements need to adapt to the new value. Otherwise, the game's challenges and difficulties are likely to be perceived as trivial and even boring.

This power adjustment process, i.e., adjusting the power of the game's elements to match the player's, does not need to be fully adaptative or automatic. Many games, especially more classic entries, alter the power of the game's elements from level to level. As the player finishes a task, the next one is tougher, and the elements involved are harder to overcome.

Other, more modern games, such as Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, offer an automatic difficulty selection according to the player's progress. As the player ventures forth through the nordic hellish landscape, the game adapts automatically according to the player's skill and power, to (try to) maintain a level of stress and challenge manageable.

Concept art from Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. Source: Official Website.

The power adjustment process is directly related to the concepts of absolute difficulty and relative difficulty (Adams, E., 2014). Whereas absolute difficulty measures the difficulty of a challenge on itself by including factors such as player skill required and comparing it with other (easier) challenges of the same type, relative difficulty estimates the difficulty relative to the player's current power.

When the power does not change during the game session, the distinction between absolute and relative difficulty can be ignored (Adams, E., 2014), as is the case for the conceptual game Run & Gun.

Power Adjustment Process with Absolute Difficulty

For the sake of the analysis, let us assume that Run & Gun has a campaign single-player mode in which the player faces off against consecutive challenges to become the King of the Arena. If all vehicles have a standard initial power of 27 (as calculated previously), the initial challenges must either present a lower power value or match it equally.

For example, the first challenge could be defeating a Pontiac with stats V=5, F=1, A=1, S=5, T=60, and Power=13. The Pontiac's Power is almost half of a standard car's power. That should help new players get to know the game and learn the controls without any immediate threat or frustration.

However, by approaching the King of the Arena title, the player should face opponents with higher stats, promoting a more challenging experience. An end boss could be a Volkswagen Brasília, with the staggering status of V=30, F=5, A=3, S=10, T=10, and Power=54. That is, the end boss has twice the power of the standard vehicle power. A benefit of using this approach is that, if the challenge proves to be nearly impossible, we can resort to adjust the stats and compare the power values again.

Notice that in both cases, and all cases in between, the player's power does not change between combats. On the other hand, the player's experience and skill do. As more challenges are overcome, the players improve their own abilities, fighting better and mastering the game.

Comparison of Power through different Levels, with a fixed Standard Power. Source: Yvens Serpa.

With this numerical analysis, we can also plan the game's progression by plotting the power values. The chart above shows different approaches to power adjustment through the game's campaign. The dotted black-line, Standard Power, is just a guide marking where Power=27 is for comparison. These approaches are:

  1. Linear: The power increases by the same value at every level.
  2. Non-Linear: The power increases non-linearly (multiplying it by a factor, for example) at every level. For the chart, every level multiplies the previous power value by 1.25 (the equivalent of increasing it by 25%).
  3. Steps: The power increases arbitrarily, including repeating the same power between levels, conforming to a certain design. For the chart, the power only increases after 2 consecutive levels. This approach is meant to help streamline the difficulty.
  4. Sawtooth: The power fluctuates (increase and decrease) while consistently increasing. This approach reduces the difficulty after each higher challenge. Notice that the power between levels is steeper, but the player can take a break after each jump due to the reduced difficulty of the following step. This approach is deemed to achieve a good pace over the course of a game (Adams, E., 2014).

The Steps and Sawtooth approaches are quite similar because they do not follow a standard mathematical equation. The biggest difference between the two is that the Steps approach never reduces the power; it either stays the same or increases, while the Sawtooth can either increase or decrease the power for the sake of achieving a good pace.

Power Adjustment Process with Relative Difficulty

The previous section discussed how the Power Adjustment Process could be numerically analyzed in a game with only absolute difficulty, i.e. when the player's power never changes during the game session. To study this process under relative difficulty, let us assume that now, in Run & Gun, the player gains a number of points to distribute between its stats after each level.

The number of points conceded can be analyzed under the same approaches as the game's progression seen in the previous section. The player can get more points linearly (increments of the same number), non-linearly (increments follow a non-linear formula), by steps (increments in different steps), or with a sawtooth pattern (increments in different steps that varies from higher and smaller values). The chart below shows a comparison between these approaches and the previous ones:

For the chart above, the Linear Power assumes the increment of 1 stats point per level, while the Non-Linear Power increments the stats by multiplying the current stats by 1.15 (the equivalent of increasing it by 15%). Both present quite extreme scenarios given an example above.

While the Linear Power has little impact on the power comparison as the player advances through the campaign, the Non-Linear approach outperforms the power of all levels with a staggering 63 stats by the end game. The true King of the Arena.

There is little discussion about the Steps and Sawtooth approaches, except that both always increment power, different from the approach to power adjustment, in which the Sawtooth approach could result in a decrement.

Although these charts are mere illustrations of a numerical analysis of power and progress, they are a more practical and visual approach to the process. Simultaneously, they can also be helpful when studying the impact of non-permanent upgrades and other power changing dynamics.

At the same time, this analysis assumes that the power formula used for Run & Gun is accurate when it is likely not to hold. For it to be the case, all stats should contribute equally to how the player perceives power. In this sense, the following section suggests practical approaches to this issue.

All Power Comes from the People

As stated in previous texts, no game design decision is valid until it is tested with users. Given the first playable prototype, you should, as a game design, formulate a power equation to be validated via playtesting. Like the one suggested for the Run & Gun game, a summation is a great initial candidate. It is simple, easy, and requires almost zero mathematical background.

Calculate your player's power using your initial equation and do the same for other elements, such as enemies, upgrades, vehicles, etc. For the testing, if your game is multiplayer, then vary the power among the different playable characters. Otherwise, create opponents and diversify their power values. As your players experience the game, some attributes are likely to be noted as impacting the gameplay the most: some characters will be picked more often, while others will not ever see the light of the day (or the Arena's spotlights).

If you prefer to do more thorough planning before testing (or because the game might still need a few development days before being ready for it), you should engage in a Resource Importance Analysis to nail down the resources that are more likely to contribute to the power equation. Especially for games with many resources, this step might prove very useful.

Alternatively, you can build a prototype of the game economy alone and study how power can be more accurately measured. For that, I suggest you either prototype a simple version of it using pen & paper, plus a few dies for the randomness or invest in learning a specific tool for it, such as Machinations. Microsoft Excel (or other spreadsheet software) is a wonderful tool for this.

Additionally, the numerical process presented generalized situations and reduced them to numbers, which might not perfectly reflect the game. Consider situations in which the challenge is composed of multiple enemies: should the power measured account for the summation of all of their powers, or for an average of how many enemies a player encounter at the same time? Situations like that require more real testing to compose the appropriate formulae and strategies.

This approach also does not directly encompass the mechanics and their level of skill required. The power of some elements might be very high, but they require such high-level skill to be used effectively that they appear not to be strong. However, these mechanics are likely to show off their potential through testing and be analyzed under the numerical gaze. Moreover, it might be that these skills do not require balancing since the game's mastery is already part of the experience. It can be rewarding for players to unlock unlimited powers, as Emperor Palpatine would say, through it.

Step By Step (Power) Process

We can summarize the power analysis for game design decisions in the short sequence of steps described below. Notice that it is written as done per game level, but it is not limited to it and could be used for the entire game. However, I argue based on experience that this process works better in small iterations and with a smaller scope.

  1. Establish an initial equation for the power calculation (a summation, e.g.).
  2. Calculate the power for the elements in the level, including the player.
  3. Playtest the level (as many times as possible).
  4. Analyze the difficulty and the player's struggles.
  5. If the players felt that the level was fair (not necessarily balanced), you are good to go, else
  6. Adapt the equation increasing/decreasing the importance (weight) of the stats mentioned the most by the playtesters or that seem to be more closely related to the feeling of unfairness. Return to Step 2.

For the weighting process, the easiest approach is to multiply the stats by a number, thus increasing its contribution. For example, assuming that the Gun Force was mentioned by most of the playtesters, it could be improved to contribute twice as much for the equation, such as:

In this case, the Fusca's Power becomes 10+2*2+3+10+2=29, while the Hilux's Power goes to 15+2*3+1+7+1=30. Due to this change, the Hilux is now slightly overpowered compared to the Fusca. We can equilibrate (to avoid using the term balance) by giving one point to the Fusca, by increasing its Gun Ammo from 3 to 4 or reducing its Reload Time from 30 to 20, e.g.

The hardest part of this process is surely the analysis of the difficulty and the player's struggle. It is easy to react to their feedback, but players lack the game's context: they do not know all variables in the game that influence their experience. Use their opinion as a guideline for what seems to be the issue, but test it with many users to point out the actual cause.

Players might argue about the Gun Force, but it might be that the Vehicle Health is the actual problem, for example.

Power Through Empathy

Ultimately, the real results will come from testing with people. Your players will be the ones to not only point out which seems to be the more important resources for their perceived power, as they will certainly complain about the power imbalance of some challenges. Moreover, this entire process is meant to achieve a sense of fairness, which can only be accomplished if testers say so.

Power is not only a tool of progression and balance. It is also a source of motivation. Rewarding the player with a mighty artifact that quickly pushes the perceived power to new levels is certainly to be engaging. The same goes for offering quests and challenges with the promise of empowering the player.

Still, this process is useless if not applied with a good amount of listening, as stated quite literally in the Art of Game Design, by Jesse Schell (2008):

The most important skill for a Game Designer is Listening.

This boils down to a matter of empathy. Of being and understanding the other for how they feel within their frame of reference, position, and experience. By truly connecting with your players, you can, for a moment, stop being the game's architect and being the game's citizen. That might help you understand the flaws of your design and feel for yourself the hardship of the challenges you have created.

While the entire article discussed power in an aggressive, violent frame, it does not need to be so. It can be perceived as a monetary resource in games such as Rise of the Industry or space exploration in Spore.

A curious example is Sim City: as for many players, it can be overwhelming for the abundance of different resources, or the ultra-complex economy, it might strike as odd that money is not the primary win resource. Indeed, keeping the finances on the green is very important. Still, the game only unlocks its high tier buildings and facilities when the player achieves a large number of healthy, educated, happy, and financially stable citizens. In a sense, it connects with this conclusive thought: true power comes from the people, and true skill comes from connecting with them. Be it to construct the ultimate megalopolis or to create better games.

Thanks for reading :)

References:

Adams, E. (2014). Fundamentals of game design. Pearson Education.

Adams, E., & Dormans, J. (2012). Game mechanics: advanced game design. New Riders.

Schell, J. (2008). The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. CRC press.

SUPERJUMP

Celebrating video games and their creators

Yvens Serpa

Written by

I'm a Brazilian teacher currently working at Saxion University (Enschede, NL) for CMGT. I write every day for education, programming, and as a hobby. [@yvensre]

SUPERJUMP

SUPERJUMP

Celebrating video games and their creators

Yvens Serpa

Written by

I'm a Brazilian teacher currently working at Saxion University (Enschede, NL) for CMGT. I write every day for education, programming, and as a hobby. [@yvensre]

SUPERJUMP

SUPERJUMP

Celebrating video games and their creators

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