Most game designers strive for a state of perfect balance, a happy occlusion in which all parts of a game come together in a tight fit.
But for Amplitude Studios, the opposite is true, at least for its turn-based strategy game Endless Legend. The Paris-based outfit wants to make sure that its game is in a constant state of imbalance, so that its players inhabit a universe that is constantly surprising.
"I can guarantee you that the game will never be 100 percent balanced," said lead designer Romain de Waubert, in an interview with Polygon. "That is the nature of true asynchronous gameplay. It is always fascinating to see people playing a new way, a new strategy, to beat the game or another player."
Endless Legend is a hex-based top-down 4X game (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) in which players seek to best rivals by making use of the resources they find, in order to build military units and advantageous buildings.
The basics will be familiar to anyone who has played one of Sid Meier's Civilization games, but the style has an original Gallic fantasy flavor. Various races in the game, lumped together on a far-flung planet, display very different advantages and handicaps. Some are good at building, others favor trade or are adept at diplomacy. They are all able to fight, and this is where the notion of constant imbalance comes in.
At their most basic level, each race in such games can build a series of ever-more powerful units that are ultimately thinly disguised copies of corresponding rivals. A Medieval range unit is just that, give or take a few hit or movement points, whatever army he serves or uniform he wears. But Endless Legend is trying to get away from these standards.
"We are in constant motion, answering the player's strategies," added de Waubert. "The game is alive. It will never be set in stone. We are going for really asynchronous gameplay and we accept that there will never be balance."
In Endless Legend there are five basic types of units; melee, ranged, cavalry, flying, and support. But no two units have identical stats and abilities. Units are differentiated by a number of basic attributes (armor, movement speed, attack range, weapon type) as well as multiple layers of ranks in battle stats. Finally, each unit also has a unique capacity and an ability to be specially equipped. Mixing units also adds variety.
For example, ranged units in the Roving Clans race have twice the speed of the Vaulters ranged units, more hit points, and a higher crit chance. The Vaulter unit, however, has faster initiative, improved defense against other ranged attacks, and a good bonus if it is using weapons made from that faction's Holy Resource.
According to de Waubert, there are ten different variables for every unit, plus five equipment slots, plus differing bonuses. "A player is likely to never be faced with units that have identical stats and capacities to their own, even if they are fighting against an army of their own faction," he said.
All this is simply adding new layers of complexity to the way turn-based games featuring multiple units have evolved. But whereas designers have sought to balance complexity with equality, Amplitude is keen to allow the inequality to play itself out in the game-world, only stepping in when the imbalance proves such an advantageous strategy that it spoils the game.
"It means a lot of adjustments," said writer Jeff Spock. "A bonus here or a nerf there. But we like that. We prefer that to something bland."
There is always the danger that imbalance will break the game. No-one wants to play chess against a person with three queens, after all. But the online nature of games today and the constant torrent of stats they provide, allows for constant monitoring. In a way, the seeking of balance has been replaced by the seeking of workable imbalance.
De Waubert said that this state of being urges players to seek holes in the game that will give them an advantage. "Right now players are looking for the perfect strategy for each faction, looking to exploit something that we didn't see, to become a hero in the community."
The game, from the makers of Endless Space, is currently in Early Access, and recently introduced new races, a full multiplayer mode, ships, harbors, roads and trade routes as well as improved diplomacy in which players must spend a resource in order to interact and treat with other players. This cuts down on time-wasting and illogical relationships between players, according to the company.
Apart from hot-fixes, general updates happen about once a month. "I don't want to be cocky and say that we will never let the players get too far ahead of us but right now we have it where it needs to be," said de Waubert . "It's rare that something comes up that breaks the game, that is the only way to win."