The way we balance expected player level to power level is… We create a math formula. Levels are mostly arbitrary discrete markers of player power. Conceptually, they exist to provide a reference point for players to understand how strong things are relative to each other. Their very presence establishes that all combat encounters in the game will happen in one of five bands:
- Player vs Higher Level Foe
- Player vs Evenly Leveled Foe
- Player vs Lower Level Foe
- Player vs Trivial Foe
- Player vs Much Higher Level Foe
We start by establishing what kind of player experience we want these main types of combat encounters to feel like. How long should each of these encounters be? How many mistakes should we allow a player to make (e.g. getting hit) before getting killed in this kind of encounter? How long should enemies be expected to live? How many enemies at a time should the player be expected to deal with? How many enemies should there be before the player actually feels threatened? For the much higher level foe, we need to decide whether we want players to be able to defeat them at all. We need to figure out where the exact line is between a challenging-but-beatable Higher Level Foe and an impossible-to-beat Much Higher Level Foe.
Once we know what we want those experiences to feel like, we work our way backwards to define the variables we can modify for combat - damage, health, attack speed, defense, movement speed, and so on. We use these variables to construct a general combat formula that will satisfy all of our desired encounter band experiences for any set of input levels for player and foe. We use math to model how we want combat to go. The graph of the player’s overall power against their level is called a “power curve”.
Once we’ve established our formula, we can fill in the ‘expected’ stats for a bad guy of a given level. We will do similar passes for equipment, weapons, items, abilities, and so on and so forth. There should be a mathematical formula for the power of each thing so that we can always have a baseline expected experience. We can then fine-tune the individual attributes of any of these things if we want them to be weaker or stronger.
So yeah - system and combat designers are really a bunch of nerds who have to figure out how to turn cool imaginary combat into a bunch of math equations.
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