I've always had a vague awareness that game designers use vast spreadsheets for calculating balance and the difficulty of enemies.
As it happens, that's not something I've ever done. Given the relatively few heroes in Dota Outland and Rise of Winterchill, my road to balance was through listening, tweaking, and seeing what worked. Similarly, I never did a game design document: just put out new versions and scribbled notes as I went.
Recently, Kybolt has adopted some new collaboration tools, and I've been making good use of them. For example, my list of ability ideas dates back to 2007, all scrawled into a now-2500 line notepad file.
Time for a change, right? I'm putting them into a database, tagged using the same system I use for designing kits so I can easily search for matches, and drive discussion and creativity.
What's even better is that in pursuit of tagging them, sometimes new ideas and perspectives spring forth. One of Rise of Winterchill's heroes had the following ultimate:
Shares your inventory with a target allied hero for up to 20 seconds, or until you become over 900 distance apart. Both heroes will effectively enjoy a 12-slot inventory, with full bonuses from all items.
Yes, this really existed. It may further surprise you that the ability didn't get used very much!
For a long time I attributed this to poor audiovisual feedback. Allies often didn't realise they had the buff, and ran out of range. Coordinating its use was difficult. I figured that with better cues, the ability would be fine.
However, during my process of tagging abilities for the database, I realised another reason for the slow uptake: players can't experiment with Camaraderie on their own. It required an attentive ally, and ongoing coordination of item builds for best results. As an ultimate ability, the player might not even read it and realise they could share items until significantly into their build.
If I were introducing this ability now, I think an option to target non-hero units and share your inventory with them would be the right step. That lets players get accustomed to using the ability and have some autonomy, before eventually settling on the "best" target as allied heroes.
This is just one example of the tagging making itself useful. Having a top-level perspective over all abilities and being able to sift through them... it's great for accelerating design. I'm not sure if or when balance spreadsheets will get involved, but being able to put numbers to travel time, time to kill, etc. is definitely important. And we have much better documentation now, which is nice.
In other news, the home page mentions something called chess laning: a set of mechanics which are in the alpha. As I suspected, the initial implementation has been a bit clunky so we're taking steps to simplify it. Originally I was worried that there wouldn't be enough nuance... but some fresh ideas revealed themselves so we'll have to see where they lead.
Until next time,