How to balance a MMORTS?

17th May 2012 8:44pm

This Extra Credits episode starts a conversation…


From it, we learn:

  • MMO needs permanence and growth over time.
  • RTS needs strategic combat.
  • Instanced battles.
  • Bring fixed worth of units to a battle.
  • Small battles effect larger world politics (yawn)

The fantastic thing about being an Indie developer is not having to do things the ‘conventional’ way. I don’t mind if Ironfell is unbalanced, and I don’t mind if it’s unfair.  

Imagine, if you will, two players competing for a common goal. One starts earlier, entering into a world rich in natural resources. Woodcutters and Miners are promptly dispatched to gather wood and iron and when player two joins, there’s precious little left. Precious little, sure, but not nothing. Player two’s journey will certainly be more challenging, he’ll have to be craftier and cleverer, and he’ll undoubtedly have to invest more time and effort. But should he succeed in achieving his goal, he’ll value it far more. As long as that difficulty variance isn’t too extreme, this can improve the experience.

The design decisions that keep MMORTS fair involve too much compromise. Instanced battles that restrict the size of your army are fair, sure, but not exactly ‘MASSIVE’. If I have 18 million tanks, but I’m only allowed to take 200 into a battle, what’s the point in having 18 million tanks?

Unfairness is much more fun. A few days ago, my army of 10 knights and 100 archers made camp just outside of another player’s base. The player mentioned in passing that he was out of wood and had to stop building. Of course no wood for buildings means no wood for archers or swordsmen, so I attacked immediately and wiped his base of the face of Ironfell. Incredibly satisfying and fun! What about the other player? The victim of this unfairness? He vowed revenge and is currently amassing a ridiculous stockpile of resources with with to launch a counter-attack.

When I destroyed his base, there were no refunds and no rollbacks – that base is gone. When they built it in a PVP area, they knew that might happen. He chose to build there.

Players who have been in Ironfell for longer naturally have more resources and units. And yes, this gives them an unfair advantage. They can, if they choose, throw everything they have at a battle. A solution I mentioned yesterday, is to simply let players pay real money for resources.

Although, one player this week figured out a more cost-effective solution, guerrilla warfare! They snuck a single Archer and Miner behind another player’s defences and captured 8 of their iron mines, without being noticing. Is someone going to invent guerrilla warfare in a game with instanced battles?

One thing that does concern me is advanced players griefing newbies. The first and second realm new players encounter are safe. This gives them time to learn how Ironfell works. And safe areas are found throughout the game so players can always just explore. When they feel more confident, PVP areas are just a tunnel away. There is nothing gained by an advanced player by hurting new players. Some people, however, were born to troll and in extreme cases I suspect a GM will step in and stomp on the offender.

What about balancing the end game? Eventually, players reach a point where they’ve amassed so much resource that resources simply stop mattering. They can build anything they like, where ever they like (the Donald Trump Plateau). A this point, game becomes pure battle strategy. How do you trap your enemies? How do you break a blockade? Can you wait them out? Can you trick them?

If players want to spend real money and ‘Donald Trump’ themselves immediately, they can. They won’t have the same experience, they won’t be nearly as smart, and they may, as a result, be wiped out by other players in two seconds flat.  Or can cashed up brute force outweigh experience and strategy?

A permanent world means that players are hugely vulnerable while offline. This makes Safe and Unsafe realms  strategically important. Building a base in an unsafe area? Good luck – expect it to be gone by morning. Unless, of course, it’s well hidden, well defended, or your friends are there to keep watch.  That is so much more interesting than a 75% rebate on units lost while you are offline.

I don’t want to make a game wrapped in cotton wool with all pointy things removed. If you leave troops in a stupid place, you’re gonna have a bad time. And no, you don’t get a refund if they’re killed while you’re not watching. You should have been watching.

The thing about being Indie is that I can turn these ideas into a real game, and see if they work. I don’t know if Ironfell will work, but it’ll be fun finding out.


Posted by on in Ironfell


  • […] There’s a significant advantage given to people who have been playing for a long time.  The longer you’ve been playing, the more resources you’ll have.  And I don’t mind that it is not fair and balanced.  I’ve got a long post about that here: […]