Thursday, September 3, 2015

Audley's Workshop: Balancing an FPS Vehicle Sandbox

I'm bored and feeling creative, so it's time for another visit to Audley's Workshop.

This time, instead of talking about a variety of guns from the Halo series, I'm going to focus on the vehicles we've encountered in the past. Just in case my previous rants about Halo vehicles weren't enough (Part 1, Part 2). And unlike the situation with guns, where I was mostly speaking of how to buff underpowered weapons into being used competitively...this time I'll be talking about how to make certain vehicles more fair to play against.

I'm gonna cover a few Halo vehicles as well as a few vehicles from other shooters that we've seen. Vehicular sandboxes are one of my favorite parts of most FPS games. Fuck running around on foot, there's driving to be done!

To start, let's talk about Halo 3's most overpowered vehicle (that was witnessed in matchmaking, I'm not counting the default Hornet).

No, it's not a tank.

It was this motherfucker right here. The Brute Chopper.

I referred to it once as “If Firefly Reapers got a hold of a Covenant Ghost” and I don't think that's far off. On enormous open maps like Sandtrap, the Chopper actually had meaningful trade-offs. The Chopper was forced to move, exposing its weakness of having three sides completely open to small arms fire.

Unfortunately, because the Halo 3 BR was not really a long ranged weapon (unlike the CE pistol, H2 BR, Reach DMR, etc.)...most of the maps in Halo 3 ended up not being very large. And as a result, we ended up with this map called Sandbox.

On Sandbox, the Chopper became a monster. The best Chopper pilots simply moved out to the dunes and fired from afar, feathering their trigger to rapidfire long range, high damage shots at anyone found out of cover. Only the Missile Pod or Rocket Launchers could threaten to dislodge a Chopper from its post on the edge of the map, as well. With those threats heavily telegraphed, it was rather easy to keep the Chopper in its oppressive suppressive mode.

Granted, there is one easy solution to balancing the vehicle in TODAY'S context...Reach introduced Vehicle Health, which means any vehicle can simply die from small arms fire. Just BR the bastard til it blows up... But how do you balance the emergent gameplay of the Chopper within the context of Halo 3?

There are two “easy routes” to take in regards to the vehicle.

The first is to simply reduce its standard fire range, missile speed, or gun damage in order to further encourage the use of the grinding front tires to splatter Spartans across whatever improvised road you choose. The issue with this easy route is that the Chopper had notoriously bad handling when making any sort of sharp turn (which would be necessary whenever playing on Sandbox map variants, as the maps featured some tight corridors).

The second easy route would be to gut the Chopper's impenetrable front armor identity and separate the wheels ever-so-slightly in order to expose the driver's head. This route leads to a “feels bad man” situation for drivers where there is no correct decision to make in terms of positioning, as you have no safety.

If the latter option WERE explored, increased side or rear armor would also be necessary to compensate for the new heavy exposure to danger from the front. Requiring more precision to take down a pilot from the sides or rear also somewhat encourages more aggressive plays from the Chopper as a missed Splatter does not necessarily equate to death.

An alternate method is one that would fit the animation of the Chopper much better, improving its visceral feel and the level of mastery necessary to operate the Chopper on smaller maps, while also ensuring the “park and be a mortar cannon” style of play was no longer possible, without actually nerfing the Chopper's viability in other roles – Because the wheels are constantly grinding/rolling, even while the Chopper is stalled, the Chopper could have a consistent forward momentum – guaranteeing the vehicle moves forward, even if very slightly. This means parking on the dunes has a limited timer, or a sort of cooldown for how long you are able to maintain the position. While on larger maps, where the Chopper must be constantly on the hunt for new vehicles as its pilot hums the theme from Jaws, this forward momentum would not greatly impact its playstyle or use cases.

Next on the Chopping block (Ha, Chopper, Chopping block... Great Segue m8) hands down the most overpowered vehicle in Halo history when used optimally... a level of play less than a dozen players can honestly say they Reached during the vehicle's game's lifespan. (Ha, you'll see what I did there in a second.)

The Halo Reach Banshee.

This fucker right here. THIS fucker.

Okay, if you ever faced Gamesager in the Banshee (or a handful of ace pilots that existed in the game), you know how fucking absurdly broken this vehicle was. Outside of the hands of ace pilots, the Banshee could be taken down by a coordinated assault of DMRs or a lucky Laser.

The only thing an Ace Banshee pilot feared? No, not a tank. Not a Spartan Laser. Not Rockets (ha, flips break lock-ons, good luck hitting me sucka). They feared Sniper Rifles.

But the Banshee in the hands of an ace pilot was truly a weapon to be feared – the type of fear that could also be mistaken for respect. I've said in my most recent blog that MOBILITY IS SURVIVABILITY. Well, when you have the fastest vehicle in the game able to dodge and roll (which breaks any sort of lock on), you've multiplied that survivability to crazy levels. Coupled with properly timed boosts, the Banshee's flip animation could be faster and cover more ground. If you thought Neo was crazy for dodging bullets in The Matrix, then seeing an ace Banshee pilot zip across the sky might leave you with dampened pants.

But that wasn't all that made the Banshee strong. Like its Halo 3 counterpart, the Reach Banshee had the ability to fire fuel rods at its opponents. Giant green Banshee Bombs that could kill in a single hit. Normally, these were easy to dodge. But the most mobile vehicle in the game and greatest of aerial vehicles in Halo history came with a trick up its wing.

Those flips I mentioned? Yeah, if you had a target in your sights as you did one, and launched a banshee bomb at the same time... that target was 100% dead. Because a flip accelerated the Banshee Bomb and magnified the aim assist.

While this was probably a bug, it was an enormous part of Ace pilots ability to find an isolated target, flip toward them, bombflipdestroy them, and literally flip the fuck out. No one was safe from your reign of terror.

So, balance issues:
  • wtf sniper damage destroys me

How do you solve?

This is one where the obvious answer is probably the right choice – fix the interaction where flipping makes the Banshee bomb a guaranteed kill. Yes, you'll make many a Banshee pilot angry by nerfing their guaranteed damage and greatly exposing them to increased risk for much more difficult to acquire reward.

This is an instance where compensatory buffs are necessary. Because when the Banshee wasn't flipgodding their way to instakills and flipgodding back out... it really wasn't an effective combat vehicle.

The Banshee definitely needed improved front armor, to better encourage the use of its nose cannons (which were a death trap to actually use – using them instead of the Banshee Bomb meant you weren't flipping. Which meant you were dying to DMR fire from every angle on the map. And if the enemy had a Sniper Rifle, you were dead (5 shots from the Sniper meant a dead Banshee. Period.)

I would also personally increase the damage from the nose cannons as well as their targeting reliability – leave the Banshee bombs for cleaning up targets in cover. Tighten up the ability to utilize the nose cannons when entering or exiting a flip so target acquisition can come sooner as you roleplay AcroBatman across the sky over Gotham. Any tweak that can encourage the Banshee user to use the actual guns of the Banshee over the Banshee Bombs is a step closer to a balanced flipgod machine.

Now, you've finally nerfed Gamesager. Sort of. The survivability is still there (flipgod for days) but the damage is not. You've now made the hardest vehicle to master in Halo even harder to master...

OH WELL, on to the next subject!

The Gauss Warthog.

This one, I'm going to keep short and sweet. In fact, we'll balance it without actually touching the vehicle.

Halo 2 is the strongest incarnation of the Gauss Warthog we ever saw. It was an instant kill, somewhat rapid fire vehicle turret that ensured the demise of anyone on a level playing field with it. Halo 3 nerfed the rate of fire, but the vehicle dominated even harder than the previous iteration. Halo Reach...well, we never saw it because it was bugged and literally fired through Forge objects. In Halo 4, we saw the Gauss on Exile completely dominate games even when players could spawn with Plasma pistols and Plasma grenades to take it down. It saw longer sprees than the Mantis could ever dream of. Its rate of fire and aim assist were nerfed, but it continued to dominate.

In Halo 2 Anniversary, 343 took a heavy hand to the Gauss and turned its firing mechanism from an instant kill upon trigger pull into a charged up shot much like the Halo 4 Railgun, which made it a bit unwieldy for the user.

Ironically, the strongest iteration of the Gauss Warthog (Halo 2's) was the least dominant. (Unless you directly compare H2A Stonetown versus H2 Zanzibar, in which case Stonetown Gauss is weaker. Over the whole of H2, however, the Gauss was less dominant than a Gauss on Stonetown in H2A can be.)

With the new incarnations of Halo, the developers failed to properly assess what made the Gauss acceptable in Halo 2.

The vehicle existed on maps such as Zanzibar, Headlong, and Terminal in Halo 2. Each of these maps featured either extreme verticality, heavily segmented map design, or both in conjunction with one another. There were plenty of paths along the map that were free from the gun's reign of terror. Its turret's range of motion wasn't steep enough to pick off targets overhead.

The Gauss Warthog saw repeated nerfs in subsequent games because it wasn't viewed contextually, nor was it allowed to be placed on maps that let it take control of low impact areas of the map (low field on Headlong, the fields on Terminal) – it could easily control those areas, but could not reach the portions of the map which were necessary for scoring an objective. (I mean, the Gauss COULD drive there if you were determined, but... not really the best place to be.)


Okay, enough about Halo vehicles... lets talk about something from another game...

This is the Flail, from PlanetSide. If you've driven the Wraith in Halo, you have a mild idea of what the Flail is like. But now take that Wraith range (base to base on Blood Gulch maps)...and multiply it by about ten. The Flail could fire from base to base on the expansive PlanetSide continents.

But there's a problem... the Flail pilot can't see anything he's doing. In order to utilize the Flail, you need a second person in your Squad with a weapon called a Laze Pointer. The Flail was never self-sufficient. It wasn't uncommon to see a column of Flails all in the same squad with a single person painting targets to unleash a cataclysm of plasma mortars raining from the sky.

Unfortunately, this is at odds with the PlanetSide 2 design goals which insisted every non-transport vehicle was given some degree of self-sufficiency (all tanks gave control of the main cannon to the pilot, rather than locking the guns away to additional passengers.)

So my favorite PlanetSide vehicle was not allowed to play in the sandbox with its other friends when they made the switch to the new playground.

How can we fix it?

The first option is to include a camera in the shots – each time you fire you're given a fly-by-wire camera to spot where your shots are actually going. (This functionality definitely exists in the game, as it is the NC's Empire Specific Rocket Launcher, the Phoenix's method of operation.) The issue for this idea, of course, is that the travel time of the shot is often longer than the time it takes to recharge shots, so you'd be forcing a player to sacrifice potential damage output / suppression time in order to line up their shot. A second issue is that this doesn't help prevent the trial-and-error shots from ending up landing among your own army and betraying everyone.

An alternate route is to have the vehicle automatically place a personal waypoint where its shots will land – this helps you better understand what you're going to hit and where to aim to get your desired result. While this one doesn't carry the drawbacks of the previous option, it's perhaps a bit TOO user friendly and may make the vehicle too easy to use.

The third route combines the first two: have the vehicle include a deploy option before it may begin firing (which I'm fairly sure the original already had) – once deployed, the vehicle first releases a drone, piloted by the player. This drone may be flown wherever, and then the drone must also be deployed. Once the drone is deployed, a waypoint is placed in order to target the drone (which is immune to Flail fire, but susceptible to being killed by other weaponry.) If killed by other weaponry, the Flail must release another drone in order to continue firing. This keeps the vehicle user-friendly and capable as a fantastic mortar vehicle, but also grants counterplay to those who are under siege from the mortar (an option not present in the original PlanetSide, where all it took was a stealthed player with a laser pointer to declare your base Plasma Crater Number 722A.

And now the Flail is free to exist in the context of PlanetSide 2.

I wanted to cover a vehicle from Unreal Tournament as well, but I couldn't honestly think of one other than the Leviathan that felt like it wasn't well-balanced in the context of the game. And the Leviathan was meant to feel the way it did. (5 player vehicle, of COURSE it's going to be OP).

So instead I'm just going to say: Unreal Tournament's Manta and Scorpion are fucking fantastic examples of how to handle self-sufficient vehicles with trade-offs and noticeable weaknesses.

And with that, I'm wrapping up this trip to Audley's Workshop. Hope you enjoyed!

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