TF2 vs. Vanilla FPS

by Steve Bowler on April 8, 2008 · 33 comments

in combat,design,multiplayer

Just about every game hits a point where they need to start talking about fine tuning the balance of how their combat works, and oftentimes, guns are usually brought up as the proper way to get the balance ball rolling. Normally, this is a pretty good argument to base a balancing conversation on, but typically only if you’re actually making a gun game. It comes down to a “narrow vs. broad” scope issue, which I hope I can successfully illustrate below.

Too often, I think we as designers rely on the ideas of how the different ranged weapons work to find where the damage models in our games should belong. Additionally, we as gamers wind up rewarding developers who keep making the same kind of gun games (CoD4, R6, Battlefield, etc.) that don’t differentiate themselves very much due to being mired in a “sim” mentality. The problem with this mentality is that guns (real guns, that is) are just too fine of a scope to use for anything other than gun combat balance. Let’s face it: they all do the same thing. They shoot a bullet in a relatively straight line. This fact rarely changes, regardless if it’s a pistol, assault rifle, or a sniper rifle (and even a shotgun). The only variables you have to play with now are range, damage, rate of fire, ammo capacity, and spread if you’re dealing with any kind of repeating weapon. And even then, when you get down to the brass tacks, you wind up with a graph that looks a lot like this:

Narrow Band Gameplay

I like to call this Narrow Band gameplay. I’m not saying it’s not fun. It’s just narrow. The weapons have their differences; their scale and scope are just closer together than I think people realize. On the surface, especially to a game engine and the engine’s rules, a pistol isn’t really all that different than a sniper rifle.

So when I first played Team Fortress 2, I was a bit frustrated with the way the game played, because I was so accustomed to this Narrow Band form of FPS gameplay. Sure, Halo had the Needler, and Unreal Tournament had a goo gun, but you could always just pick up another weapon in those games if you didn’t like the one you had. You weren’t forced to keep the gun you had when you chose it, and so the gameplay model wasn’t horribly changed from the Narrow Band form of gameplay. It danced in the Broad Band path of balance, but if you could find a gun that shot straight when you needed it, you could always use it.

What I found in TF2 surprised me to a great extent, and I think it’s why it has such staying power. They pretty much built off of the previous “team” gametype models (TF, Unreal Tournament) and ratcheted that knob up to 11. First, they seemed to adopt the Blizzard multiplayer strategy of “make every weapon feel overpowered,” and then they balanced their weapons in such a way that hardly any gun shoots straight, and then made you keep them. This, from a FPS design model, blew my frickin’ mind. That to me is the definition of Broad Band balancing.

Just looking at the damage graph for their game is like looking at a cartoon model for weapon damage (an irony not lost on anyone, to be sure):

Broad Band Gameplay

Take a look at the two different “Combined Experiences.” The typical vanilla FPS seems paltry by comparison. That isn’t to say that it’s a worse game or even a worse experience. I actually enjoy both kinds of FPS combat balanced games. But, I mean, dayum. Look at that TF2 damage model. It’s just so freakin’ different compared to the other FPS shooters out there (and no, Quake’s guns weren’t balanced quite like this). Weapons deal less damage the further the shot goes, some guns have a ridiculous spread/damage ratio on them mitigated by build/cooldown phases, and still others are completely useless save for a singular purpose. And yet, it’s a nearly perfectly balanced system. No one weapon in TF2 has any clear uber advantage over all of the weapons in the game (obviously, some have a designed advantage over another class).

But the amazing thing to me despite these radical differences in the style of combat balance, is that they are really just a matter of scale and perspective. So long as you don’t cross-over worlds, each system is balanced within its own universe. Essentially, when both systems are balanced at their own respective scales, they almost become the same system, even though they appear to be worlds apart.

Despite this, I have the feeling that the “Broad” style games are much more difficult to balance, due to the “overpowered” nature of each gun, than the sim-like “Narrow” ones. Anyone have any experience balancing both?

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