Nathaniel, from +7 Systems, talks about their tool for developers
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Interviewer: I’m at the Game Developers Conference in Austin and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Nathaniel: I’m Nathaniel Bogan. I’m the Director of Research and Development at +7 Systems.
Interviewer: What’s +7 Systems about?
Well, +7 Systems produces what we call the +7 balance engine. This is a tool that a developer or a development team would use to maintain the game play balance in their game over the long term. What we see is games sort of field off when they go out the door, but then over time people discover the best strategies. People discover stuff that doesn’t work very well and they polarize completely, and very soon you have a real homogenous kind of a game that no one likes.
And it becomes uninteresting for the power gamers because they’re always seeing the same stuff. It becomes kind of unfair for the weaker, not the weaker, but the more casual gamer because the casual gamer is completely outclassed because they don’t know the one thing that actually works well.
So, it’s a problem on both ends. MMO studios and other kinds of games have dealt with this manually for a long time, and our idea is to be able to do this in a more analytical method and thus be able to do it better and more frequently in a way that’s more pleasant for the players.
Interviewer: Sure. How would an indie MMO or indie community game use this system to actually improve its game play or enhance it or consistently evolve it?
Nathaniel: Absolutely. In some ways, the smaller game company benefits even more from something like this because you can’t throw away a huge staff of balance people, something than a larger company can do. You just assign 10 people to monitor the game all the time and become incredibly expert at its mechanics and then make manual adjustments. That can sort of work. Frankly, it won’t work as well on our tool anyhow but, at least, it does work. For an indie developer that’s clearly impossible. The time is so important.
What this tool is going to do is collect this data, and you really don’t need to do anything once you’ve set the data collection going, and at the end of a week, end of two weeks it will automatically give you back the set of recommendations for what you should be doing next.
Theoretically, you could automate the entire loop and make the game adjust itself, but more likely what you’ll do is take a look at the recommendations, kind of give a yes or no on those, and it will improve the game and maintain the balance pretty close to automatically and save you a lot of time.
Interviewer: Are developers then using this in conjunction with just evolving and changing the game play? I know that sometimes in MMOs you are kind of adding new features. You’re changing stuff. Does this just help you tell if the changes are working, or is this to even figure out what changes you need to make to just constantly make the game play system just different?
Do you think that’s a goal for the indie MMO developers to constantly make the game play system different so that the hard core players have something new or a new challenge to master?
Nathaniel: It definitely can be. If you want to intentionally produce a more dynamic environment, then what this tool is going to allow you to do is to make the larger changes yourself in a manual way and then not fear that the end result of this is going to be your balance is completely destroyed.
So, the tool just continues to run in the background, and the changes that it makes will always be pretty modest. If you decide you want to do something much larger, this gives you the luxury of knowing you can just do that, and the tool in the future intervals will make appropriate adjustments to other things to make sure that different ways of playing the game are all still interesting.
Interviewer: How would a developer get started using this system?
Nathaniel: Well, basically what we do first is we want to work with the developer for a bit to understand their game play pretty well because one of the key elements of this is to create what we call a game model. We need to understand what the player’s decisions look like in this particular game, sort of what their tree of things that they can pick from is.
And then in addition to that, what we call the balance groups, which of these subsets of things are supposed to be balanced against each other.
Nathaniel: There are many times opponents in a game that are intentionally at different power levels and that’s fine, but very often there’s large groups of things that are intended to be balanced with each other.
So, the first step is basically learn the game well enough for us to capture that information, and that’s kind of a cooperative effort between +7 and the developer of the game.
Once that’s done, the rest of the work is really fairly simple. It’s a question of collecting the records out, which just consists of what components the player is using and how much success did they have while they were using those components. That gets piped over into our engine either in real time or in a batch at the end of an interval, and then whenever the development team is looking for the next set of recommendations, they send over a request that says, tell me what you recommend doing based on the last week or two of data.
Interviewer: Do you have any case studies that you have on your site that indie developers can reference in terms of how effective it is?
Nathaniel: Yeah, absolutely. Hordes of Orcs is an indie development game. It was the first game that we worked with. There is information on the website, and actually after this conference we are going to add some more information on the website so that you can see that case study in some more detail.
Certainly, if anyone wants to contact us we will be more than happy to talk to them about that, and Jon Frisby, who is the President of MrJoy, has been very happy to talk to people about his experience with the engines. As far as we know, he was very happy with it. At least, that’s what he told us.
Interviewer: OK. What’s the site then? Actually, what’s the pricing model for some indie who wants to use this system?
Nathaniel: The pricing model is probably the hardest question to answer because it’s really very customized to what the particular company wants to do. In general, with the indie developers we’d be looking more toward a royalty because that’s going to allow them to get this thing going without some very large ongoing expense. And that way, one of the reasons we like the royalty we feel that this is going to cause much more revenue over the long term because the game stays interesting.
It’s a win-win because we are benefiting from the increased longevity, and at the same time the indie developer doesn’t have to pay anything other than out of what they actually make.
Interviewer: Sure. Where can indie developers find out more about this system that they can use in their game?
Nathaniel: So, the place to start would be www.plus7systems.com.
Interviewer: That’s p-l-u-s?
Nathaniel: Yeah, yeah, it’s the letters p-l-u-s, then the number 7 and then the word, systems.com. Unfortunately, you can’t have the plus sign in a URL. Our company name makes a great deal of sense from the perspective of a gamer because everyone sort of knows what +7 is a whole lot to add on to something, but it’s not the best URL. So we have the p-l-u-s 7.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.