Different Player Types: Why Game Design and Balance are so Hard.
Today, I want to take a break from my usual series, Gaming Like a Gentleman. I had a plan for it, but I want to make it better than I could have by today. Instead, what I want to talk about is an issue that affects both game design and balance, and may even be the cause of a lot of the idea of Elo Hell: player motivations. People play games for vastly different reasons. This is sort of an obvious claim, but it is one with rather over-arching results. Magic: The Gathering, one of the most established and long-running nerd-sports, uses the terms ‘Timmy’, ‘Johnny’, and ‘Spike’ in their R&D department in determining what sorts of new cards to make. For an in depth explanation of these types, read this article.
However, for the sake of this article, all you need to know is that there are three types of players that they consider, when creating new content.
First, there is Timmy. Timmy is in many senses, the casual gamer. Timmy wants to win big; big creatures, big spells, big attacks. Timmy may remember his losses and be annoyed at them, but what Timmy really appreciates is the dominant win. Timmy is the type of person (and we all know them) who will buy a new champion on release, and play 10 games, win 4 and only really do GREAT in 2, but post those two games to whatever forums he is a part of and say ‘NEW CHAMP SO OP’.
What champions in LoL are designed with Timmy in mind? To over-generalize, melee carries and assassins are classic Timmy champions. They may not always be the best picks, but when they get ahead, they get WAY ahead. On the other hand, some classic Timmy champions are those who have strong, incredibly notable abilities:
Everybody has that friend who only plays Katarina/Yi/Tryndamere, and who doesn’t seem that into the game when he’s not ahead. But when he goes 20-0? You hear about it for months: remember that time I went 10-2? Yes Timmy, we remember that once, you went 20-0. We also remember all the games you’ve lost for us, and we also remember that your W-L is -50. Congratulations on your one-time 20-0, now
. When Darius came out, the collective orgasm from Timmy players caused a worldwide 5.0 magnitude earthquake.
What items does Timmy buy? 3 Phantom Dancers and 2 Bloodthirsters, of course; how could you possibly get more damage?
Second, there is Spike. In many ways, Spike is the opposite of Timmy. Spike originally was just known as ‘the tournament player’, in Magic R&D. Spike only cares about the viability of a strategy; if it wins him (on average) more games than other strategies, he loves it.
Spike is buying (and playing) whatever champ is OP that week and playing him all week. Morgana’s unbanned? First pick her for Spike.
You’re not good at him? No problem
What items does Spike like? Whatever items will get him the win.
The third player is Johnny. Johnny is all about creativity. Sure, he wants to win, but he wants to win in a unique way. When Johnny says:
he means it as an insult, not a compliment. Why play a champion who is simple and has no nuance? Remember when Orianna came out and a few players insisted she was good? Or the few Cassiopeia players who stuck with Cassiopeia for months while she was considered UP, only to suddenly surge up? Warwick top, Cho jungle, Nunu support; these are all Johnny ideas at heart. Spike or Timmy may come across them and play them, but most of them will come from Johnny.
What items does Johnny like? Preferably ones that nobody uses, or which have creative uses available.
So how do you balance the game for all of these different types of players? Obviously, as an e-sport (and Riot has put a lot of money into making LoL one), LoL needs to be balanced at the highest level of play. In a game like Magic: The Gathering, this is easy. Put in a lot of generically strong cards. These cards will drive the set. However, since mirror matches are impossible, this sort of balance is weaker in competitive LoL. As well, people grow attached to champions, so it’s not a viable option to simply leave most of the champions in the game too weak to be competitive. So it’s important that a lot of champions be balanced at somewhat similar levels, to allow for equal footings.
Worse, however, is trying to balance the game for Timmy and Johnny. Johnny wants interesting effects and abilities that have interesting and unforeseen consequences. The problem with unforeseen consequences is that it’s pretty hard to balance them in advance. So when Johnny discovers them, if they are too strong, Riot needs to nerf them, disappointing Johnny. If they are too weak, and Riot doesn’t buff them, Johnny may feel he can’t express himself well enough. If Riot buffs them, Johnny may feel cheated, having not really FOUND an OP strat, so much as having had it given to him. Finally, in the sweet spot, they are just right. If anything, Riot may go a bit heavy on the nerfing of Johnny’s ideas; there seems to be little waiting around for meta-shifts. This may be frustrating for Johnny, but it stops the other players from feeling unfairly dominated when a new strategy comes out.
Finally, there’s Timmy. If his ‘big effects’ are too big, they will dominate high level play, especially once Johnny innovates and Spike mines for optimal use, making the game about gimmicks. If they are too small, Timmy won’t be satisfied. The easiest response is to make the effects big, but unreachable with consistent counter-play. However, as the level of play rises, and people get better and better at coordinated strategies, this becomes harder and harder. Nunu’s ult may have been hard to pull off, but with work from Johnny (Empire), it became overly powerful, requiring a nerf of sorts.
Riot’s approach has been largely the latter. Think about how many champions or abilities they release which are strong, but are followed with ‘but they have this weakness/counter-play’. This is a good approach, except when players learn to counter the counter-play (or when it turns out not to work).
However, just think of all the conflicts we have here.
Xin Zhao may be great for Timmy, but Johnny will find him boring, and Spike will find him uncompetitive. Either he will be too weak at competitive play, but just right for Timmy, and Johnny will be disappointed at the lack of options, or he will balanced at competitive play, and be awful for Timmy whenever he chooses not to play him. This is how perma-bans arise; people want a champion only to be played on their team. Eve, Twitch, Tryndamere, Singed, and many other champions have been Timmy's perma-bans over time.
Spike may love Yorick, but Johnny finds him simplistic, and Timmy doesn’t feel enough immediate strength to want to keep playing him. To be likable by Timmy, he will have to be too strong, with all of his intangibles. This is how Yorick has been thought of as a nearly unbeatable laner since after his post-release buffs, even being tier 1, and yet is severely underplayed. Rumble is another strong example of a champion who was super strong, but uncreative (unappealing to Johnny) and hard to see the strength of (unappealing to Timmy).
Johnny may love Orianna, but Timmy will find the complexity of her kit needless, and Spike would rather play a champion who’s just as good, but simpler. Timmy isn’t going to like aura items (too hard to notice the effects), whereas Spike will load up on them. Many tanks and supports fall into this category, requiring a bit more finesse and knowledge to play well, but being very rewarding and having unseen power levels. This is why supports have been nerfed so many times.
This creates (essentially) two meta-games; one for Timmy, and one for Spike. As Riot’s experiments with Dominion and Twisted Treeline have shown, it’s very hard to balance for multiple maps. As such, Riot has mostly focused on balancing for Spike, with a few notable Timmy-oriented balances (Xin Zhao, for example). This is, in my opinion, the optimal route. It keeps the game balanced (for Timmy), it keeps the game competitive (for Spike), and it keeps the game fresh (for Johnny). Recently, Riot has even been doing smaller patches, allowing more meta-game development to take place as a result of playstyle, not power level.
So which are you? Me? I'm a Johnny with Spike tendencies. If I were more Spike oriented, I'd be out there playing every day whenever I'm theorycrafting or writing articles, and for me, this is the perfect balance.