Game Design: Balancing Ark: Awakening
In this update I will cover how we balanced the game elements in Ark. It is a game design post involving some mathematics.
In Ark: Awakening there are room upgrades, biodome upgrades, asymmetric factions, artifact cards and side missions – all of these providing different benefits. And all of these need to feel balanced.
The goal of Ark:Awakening is to complete you secret mission first, so basically the game is a complicated race across the board, achieving objectives and preventing other players to achieve their own.
In a race, time is both the “currency” of the game – spending your turns to advance your faction and also time is the “value / victory points” – as players indent to spent less time in order to complete the race the earliest. You spend time (turns) towards upgrading your faction and those upgrades provide more benefits that help you save turns completing the objectives on your secret mission card. So in Ark, when balancing all rooms, artifact cards and factions we balance the time – the time spent getting an upgrade vs. the time gained from that upgrade.
Let’s take the example shown on the picture – this is the biodome section responsible for producing Metamorphite (Mt) – one of the resources in the Ark.
v – is the value of the benefit
If this section is not upgraded, v0 = 2 Mt will be produced everytime we take the PRODUCE action.
For 2 turns, we will produce 2+2 = 4 Mt in total.
However, if the section is upgraded one level, v1 = 4. So it will take just one turn to produce 4 Mt.
But upgrading is not necessarily advantageous, as we did not consider the number of turns (k) we would spend upgrading from v0 to v1.
If k = 3 – it means we need 3 turns to invest in getting from v0 to v1.
So, is it worth upgrading or is it more efficient to just use the PRODUCE action multiple times? Let’s answer the question with math!
v – value of the benefit
b – next level boost of the benefit, e.g. v1 = v0 + b
k – number turns we need to invest to upgrade v into (v + b)
t – the turn when not-upgrading is as efficient as upgrading
If by the end of the game, we intent to use a benefit less that t times, than it is more efficient to not upgrade the benefit, but just use it t times. Else, it is worth upgrading to the next level.
So, in our example, v0 = 2; v1 = 4; v3 = 6; v4 = 8 and let’s take that it would take k=2 turns to upgrade to the next level.
For v0 -> v1,
t1=k + k * v0 / b = 2 + 2 * 2 / 2 = 4.
With v0, if we perform the PRODUCE action 4 turns, we will produce 8 Mt.
If we upgrade to v1=4, we would invest 2 turns. Then we would use 2 turns to perform the PRODUCE action, producing exactly 4+4 = 8 Mt.
So t=4 is the turn where upgrading is as efficient as not-upgrading.
During the game, the efficient player would need to make an educated guess – only if the benefit is to be used more than t times by the end of the game, it is more efficient to upgrade.
Of course this is only a simplification. k – the number of turns needed to upgrade one benefit is more close to 2 in the beginning of the game, after turn 5 is it close to 1 and in the late game it is around 0.5 – which means players spend 1 turn to upgrade 2 benefits.
And this calculation does not take into account the situation on the board, other players, using one benefit to boost the value of another … and there are the action chains – performing more than one action per turn.
But, the formula is an core part we used in balancing every aspect of Ark. If k < 2 then it is an easy decision to upgrade and if k > 5, then it is an easy decision not to upgrade. To give players a real decision we always aimed for t between 2 and 4.
Since you got this far, you deserve a tip.
For the would be game designer, I recommend you read this great article – The problem of engine building games.
For Ark: Awakening player, a gaming tip: The turns spent upgrading you could have
spent doing some other action. So, should you upgrade the next integration cube
or just take the action multiple times? A good rule of thumb is to upgrade if
you think that by the end of the game you would use the upgraded benefit at least
3 times. If not, then instead of upgrading just perform the non-upgraded action 3