I make fun of systems designers a lot because I am one. I wear a lot of hats, and I actually love to code, but deep down, it’s all about the game systems.
People who think like me are really useful to have on your MMO team. They won’t just dig into the guts of your game, they will revel in the guts of your game, sorting them this way and that, modeling them in myriad ways. This will, generally, result in a better product.
But they won’t ever come to the producer and say, “Okay! The balancing is all finished!” Trust me: that will never happen.
In the latest WoW update, the systems designers are revising everything. Why? Because it wasn’t perfect. And it needs to be perfect. Take the Hunter ability “Volley”. They cut it from the game, because:
Channeling a spell that makes arrows fall out of the sky doesn’t feel like a hunter ability and doesn’t even really match the name of the spell.
But fear not, because hunters can now launch their traps! And a long-distance snake trap should be a hit at parties; the snakes have various debilitating effects. Of course, propelling traps a great distance is a bit odd, as players were quick to point out:
I have to admit, I find it silly that they think Volley is too “magical” but us tying a bag/box of snakes to an arrow and shooting them at people is perfectly reasonable.
But this is how designers think. After manipulating these skills for years and analyzing them from every angle, it starts to make sense in a way that sane people can have a hard time seeing.
Summoning arrows is ridiculous, that’s something a wizard would do — and the WoW hunter is no wizard. No, the Hunter is apparently modeled after the cheesiest version of the Green Arrow, who has a specialty arrow for every situation. That’s pretty cool, actually… but I’m not sure how that makes more sense than abstractly raining arrows on a target. Then again, I haven’t been poring over these skills for thousands of hours, either.
Expect Systems Designers To Think Like… Systems Designers
What I’m trying to say is this: you hired these guys because they love to create fun mechanics and then balance them. The same personality traits that make them good at this job also tend to give them a bit of an obsessive streak, to put it mildly.
To a systems designer, the game is always imperfect. And not just mildly imperfect – radically imperfect. In need of a total do-over. And when you finish the total do-over, it won’t be perfect either, and you’ll need another one. And then you just need to touch up every single thing four or five times over several years, and then, you know what? We really need to just wipe this system and do it over.
It will never end.
At first, the designer is completely right, and the game probably really is horrifically imbalanced. But at some point, perhaps years later, the designer’s opinion of “imbalanced” will be so subtle that players will have trouble even conceiving of the problem being solved. At this point, further changes will have very small return on investment. However, knowing when you reach that line is not easy, since it requires your systems designers to step away from their beloved spreadsheets and be objective about a problem’s actual impact on the game. This is a learned skill that systems designers do not just magically have.
So here’s what I’m telling you:
- If you’re a systems designer, realize your obsession, so that you can occasionally take a step back and see if you’re still sane.
- If you’re a producer, realize your systems designer is obsessed with perfecting the game and they will never ever be done. And every problem will always be presented as a heinous game-ruining problem. It’s up to you to decide what to do about that, if anything.