Idle Musing: The Joy Of Tweaking

By Jim Rossignol on April 20th, 2012 at 3:00 pm.


In the real world I am not much of a tinkerer. I can fix a few bits and pieces on a car, and build a PC, but when it comes to actual tweaking and tinkering, figuring out what I can be boosted, what can be overclocked, and what must be tuned, my talents – and my ambitions – are fairly limited. Not so in the gaming world, of course, where I have spent thousands of hours plugging objects into equipment slots and pulling them out again, just to watch the variables shift up and down. Watching the numbers change, it seems, is sometimes enough.


As usual, I spent some time thinking about the origins of this habit in my own gaming career, and I suspect it was in the MMO era that I really became obsessed with it. Of course the tweaking of equipment to alter stats and abilities had a long history in RPGs and related kinds of games, but this column is specifically about my interest in coming up with “builds”, which I think has become more pronounced over time. In my own gaming career this sort of thing has had deep foundations: in pen & paper games, and in tabletop games such as Warhammer. These days, however, I feel like it is at the heart of the kind of gaming experience I most enjoy.

The youthful Rossignol however was far more interested in working on his own gun twitchy skills, although there was an element of configuration tinkering to get the smoothest frame-rates out of Quake III, the game that really dominated my life after University. (And got me fired from my first proper job.) It wasn’t until a little later that the tweaking habit resurfaced, and began to turn itself into one of my obsessive gaming traits.


So yes. “Builds” are often what this sort of thing boils down to: a set of numbers across your states that are good for something in the game, often dealing lots of damage, or absorbing lots of damage. When people talk about this stuff they tend to talk about “min/max” ideal builds, but in my experience the most open-ended games often allow for some grey areas: peculiar hybrid builds that allow a player to do something fairly well, or to multi-class as the situation demands. The min/max philosophies have become particularly prevalent when playing games where there is a distinct need to specialise – traditional MMOs of all kinds. But it was in slightly less predictable takes on this ideas when I really began to be interested. In fact, I can remember the year in which tweaking colonised my imagination: 2003, when I spent the summer playing Planetside and Eve Online. Both these games fed the tweaking need voraciously, allowing vastly different roles and builds with a single character. Watching people haphazardly invent weird ways to defeat their enemies (bands of haulers fitted with electronic counter-measures in Eve, for example) are one of the unexpected secret pleasures of gaming.

My own increased interest in tinkering continued well into the following years, as I played huge amounts of World Of Warcraft and City Of Heroes. The tanking build I had for my huge bumble-bee coloured tanker in City Of Heroes was a wonder to me. Not unique, certainly, but it also wasn’t immediately obvious. Yet to be the only one standing against dozens of werewolves, and still be there when the group rezzed and reformed for another go was an incredible moment.


The satisfaction of this sort of activity is well known to game designers, of course. MOBA type games sing to this sort of tune, daily, and it stands as a key aspect of their appeal to most gamers, and consequently the success of the games as F2P experiences. The auction house in World Of Warcraft, and Eve’s huge player-driven economy are both driven by a sort of stats-based aspiration. It isn’t so much that the sword glows with mystical power – although that is always satisfying, too – but that it imbues this effect, or that bonus. Does it stack with the other items you are holding? And what does that mean for your performance in the game world? It’s a process that is part scientific-method, part collector hobby, and – usually – part tactical calculation.

This year that sort of satisfaction will be returning to my gaming life in force, I think, with Perpetuum’s robot tweaking (echoes of Eve) – which I have been playing and writing about extensively – and also with the upcoming Planetside 2 and Firefall. Both games are set to rich in possible specialisms, and ripe for the kind of ongoing, evolving, tweaking and tinkering – as well as the work that’s required to reach the necessary skills and resources – that make these kinds of experiences so persistently satisfying.


You take it away with you, too. Once you are familiar with a game’s systems you begin to sit on the buss and think: would this work? What difference would that make? New ideas for builds appear in the shower, or at work. This, I think, is gaming at its most powerful, when you are able to escape into its systems even when you are not playing. Imagining uses for things, or planning for exactly how to obtain the things you need to continue your tweaking project. There’s a profound satisfaction to be found in here, and it’s one that I think non-gamers dismiss because they don’t quite understand it.

Tweaking might just be numbers in an imaginary universe, but they are my numbers. They are a craft that I have pursued and will aspire to perfect. And it’s never better than in that moment in games like Eve, (or currently in Perpetuum) when the tweaking pays off: I survive by a few hit points, I take down that unsuspecting enemy with an esoteric loadout. The joy of tweaking is often in just in watching those numbers shift and grow, but it is also in the winning.

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70 Comments »

  1. Jeremy says:

    I think the key to my enjoyment of tweaking is also in the ability to create unique hybrids, or having to actually make tough decisions, rather than some all encompassing min/max. I played WoW for quite a while, but in the end you’re really only ever juggling a few different stats, which doesn’t really lend itself to creative tweaking. Same with Diablo, or really any ARPG. You pick a class, and then you only ever have to focus on those few stats that impact that character. It would be nice if you could create an “intelligent” warrior who gets bonuses to damage or criticals because he’s a smarty pants, not just an ox.

    • Malibu Stacey says:

      That was one of the things I really liked about Ragnarok Online. Only 6 stats (int, dex, vit, str, agi & luck) but all of them affected stuff relevant to the almost all character classes which leant it self to so many different strategies & tactics.

    • InternetBatman says:

      You should check out DDO. There’s an amazing variety of class and level builds since you can take multiple levels of each class. Some of them work well, like hybrids that take the two levels of rogue or monk for evasion, and they also offer you the opportunity to completely mess up your build if you try hard enough. I think allowing players the opportunity to fail if they make deliberately bad decisions is the hallmark of a good system.

    • Coriolis says:

      You are right about WoW, but not about Diablo 2, especially not in hardcore mode. There were very many unorthodox builds that people created and thought up. Ones that depended upon a specific piece of gear (schaeffer’s hammer, or iceblink back before LoD), or focused on certain type of activity (meph running) and so on. Not to mention all the pvp builds, again especially in hardcore with low lvl pvp. Indeed I can’t think of games where I knew of quite as many different builds as D2 HC.

      In comparison, the items/traits in WoW were too weak and without any real powerful unique effects to make it interesting. The advantage was that WoW was more or less balanced, where D2 never came anywhere even close to balance hehe.

      • Jeremy says:

        That’s fair.. and I have to admit that I never played Diablo 2 beyond a basic co-op experience. I didn’t even get all the way through Nightmare, so my experience is admittedly limited.

        I think you bring up a good point though Coriolis. Balance seriously limits the sense of discovery and “trick builds” you can find, because there is someone out there (especially in WoW) who is just hammering their way through all these different set ups and finding out where the tower begins to topple, and then “fixing” it. I like the idea that you can “mess up” your character, even though it can be incredibly frustrating, but the sense of freedom and discovery remains.

  2. Furtled says:

    I remember fiddling until I had the perfect blapper in CoH, tough enough to wade into large enemy groups then pull a few tricks and wipe the lot out, always fun to see the squishy saving the scrapper’s backside.

    There’s stories in the numbers too, for the more RP leaning types altering one thing or another can help fill out back story and give the character a bit more depth.

    • MaXimillion says:

      Blappers were probably the builds I most enjoyed in CoH, apart for Pre-Specialization SoA, and pre-aggro cap tankers.

  3. trjp says:

    As a programmer by trade I eventually started spending more time in WoW creating UIs – and eventually my own addons – than I did playing…

    In fact, when a couple of my addons got a brief period of popularity, the time I had to spend dealing with queries/ideas/problems ate into my time (all of it) to such as extent that it’s one of the main reasons I stopped playing WoW!!

    Same deal with Android now – I started by playing other people’s games and ended-up writing my own (usually mad ideas or simply other people’s games which I’ve rewritten so they work better(*))

    (*) in my eyes, at least.

    • Stephen Roberts says:

      I love you. I wish I was as able to program. Part of why I haven’t got Skyrim yet is because I know I would not rest until I have made a UI that is acceptable.

      What addons did you make for WoW?

  4. Bluerps says:

    I love it, when a game allows for tweaking. I tend to get giddy with anticipation when I discover something that I assume to be especially effective. “First I will get this, then I will get this, and then this power will work with both… and then everything will be awesome!”

  5. skyturnedred says:

    I think I spent more time tweaking my UI in WoW than I ever did my builds. Then again, I tended to use all sorts of weird builds with my druid that rarely worked in the long haul, but were fun experiments (back in the 14/32/5 feral era).

  6. Groove says:

    I remember when I ‘solved’ Farmville. I calculated the most efficient crop planting rotation which took into account wait times for machinery refueling to minimise player clicks. It actually used slightly under-performing, long-term crops planted in rotation, as they maximised the value per click by a considerable degree.

    Then I quit because I’d beaten the game and the other people playing looked at me like ‘I’ was the crazy one.

    • Malibu Stacey says:

      Don’t do Facebook or it’s game but I’m definitely intrigued. Any posts anywhere one could read about your ‘solution’? It’d be a great place to start if writing a ‘Farmville AI’ which is the only thing that could hold my interest in these things.

      • Groove says:

        “Don’t do Facebook or it’s game but I’m definitely intrigued. Any posts anywhere one could read about your ‘solution’? It’d be a great place to start if writing a ‘Farmville AI’ which is the only thing that could hold my interest in these things.”

        Sorry, I never posted it anywhere (that I can remember at least) and I’m not even using the same pc when I worked it out. It was around 2 years ago.

        Saying that though, I do remember the main equations. The basic equations were working out crop profitability by time (plant price, sell price, growth time) which was easy, and that gave you a much smaller pool of crops that were comparitively efficient. Generally, fast-growing crops gave you more money over time but required more work (you had to replant them every 2 hours instead of every 8 hours).

        The other key thing was that after a relatively short time you could buy 3 pieices of farm equipment that let you plough/plant/harvest four squares with one click (instead of one square for one click). These massively aleviated the grind of the game. The problem was that they had limited fuel, which took 8 hours to recharge (this is a major way the owners made money, since you could buy fuel to aleviate the wait). So I calculated the maximum number of squares you could farm with each fuel cycle, then planted multiple batches of that many squares. On a fairly small farm you could manage 3 of these fuel-cycle-areas.

        In the first area I planted the most efficient 24-hour crop. After 8 hours I planted the same 24-hour crop in the second area. After 8 more hours I planted the same 24-hour crop again in the third area. Then every 8 hours I would go in and harvest one area with the refueled machinery, with the crops being ready to harvest at the same time the fuel recharged.

        Proofing the solution wasn’t hard. Going back to harvesting the whole farm at once had one third of the farm harvested at 4x speed and two thirds at 1x speed. Harvesting a section at 4x speed took around 1 minute, so harvesting the whole farm at 4x took 3 minutes (in 24 hours). Harvesting the old way took 9 minutes (1 minute for the 4x third, then 4 minutes each for the 1x thirds). So the old way took three times as long, and that was just for the same 24-hour crop (which yielded no gain in cash).

        You could drop down to an 8 hour crop before you sacrificed your 4x harvesting bonus for the first third, but this had less than a 2x gain in cash flow and multiplied harvest time up to 9 times longer. The most money efficient crop I believe took 4 hours, but on this one you only had your 4x bonus every other cycle. This means your harvest in 24 hours would alternately take 9 minutes and 12 minutes, meaning 63 minutes every 24-hours, 21 times longer than my method with only a 3x cash rate. This doesn’t begin to take into account the fact that you have to sleep and have a life occassionally, something the 4 hour crop doesn’t allow for without dropping efficiency further.

        That took me about half an hour to write and figure out…..wow. Statistics are bad-ass.

        (also, I remembered more of this than I thought, but my time/cost estimates here are rough memories, although they are fairly correct in comparison to each other)

        • Malibu Stacey says:

          OK now I’m really tempted to write an AI system which can “play” Farmville at maximum efficency without ever spending a penny just to show how bad a ‘game’ it really is.

          • Groove says:

            That would be awesome. I’d be glad to have someone make use of my wasted time.

        • Groove says:

          I just remembered that I’d forgotten about xp. Xp is kinder to long-term crops, so the 8-hour crop would gain 1.5x xp and the 4-hour crop would only gain 2x. So for xp it was even more efficient, 30.5x more time efficient against the 4-hour crop.

    • InternetBatman says:

      Adult swim has a knock-off of Farmville called Hemp Tycoon. I remember when my gf discovered that it used the system clock instead of an online one. She had to reset her time back from 2068, but she did beat the game.

  7. PoulWrist says:

    Two words : anarchy online.

    • trjp says:

      Oh good god that game was an exploiters dream after launch/when they made it just about playable.

      I must have spent days figuring out how to cram myself into even better gear (which I could never remove because I had to be buffed to re-equip it!!) – I was using kit intended for people 10-15 levels ahead of my and it was a gear-dependant game (and a half).

      Terrible, terrible design idea but loads of fun whilst it lasted :)

      Another terrible design idea was the way you could ‘run’ missions. Once I had my uber gear on I’d just enter a mission and leggit – you sort of got a feeling where the objective was and you’d just run there – loot it and then either

      a – die
      b – leggit back out again!!

      Days of that just to get a spaceship flying doodah – by which time you realise you’re no longer playing the game anyway!!

      • Hoaxfish says:

        “So let me see, I have to implant this intelligence boost, so I can implant that, then implant this, then take that out, so I can get this into that slot, then… “

      • PoulWrist says:

        Can you rationale why it is terrible design to reward player ingenuity? If you are talking about pure exploiting, then whatever, your comment is ten years out of date, and still irrelevant. I really don’t see anything wrong with any of the things you point out. Blitzing a mission means no xp reward, for instance.

    • thegooseking says:

      AO has such a massive possibility space for setups. It’s really easy to create a broken character if you don’t know what you’re doing, but the range of viable setups is still pretty staggering. I say “viable”… There are very few objectively “best” setups, so if you want the best, you don’t have much of a choice, which is a shame, but there are a lot of very interesting ways to be competent.

      • PoulWrist says:

        Quite, it’s rather refreshing. Hopefully their systems change patches will reintroduce and reinforce the versatility that was kind of lost with the focusing of stat boosts in class specific gear and perks.

    • MezzFA0 says:

      AO was the first MMO I really played. I think a combination of being a student with lots of free time and the numbers game really clicked with me to where I think I played for nearly 5 years on RK2.

      I clearly remember spending days finding the right buffs and just the right QL of implant to step up to a higher QL in another slot. It was almost a shame to level after that as it felt like you were ruining the perfection in some weird way.

      I progressed from that to creating UIs when they switched to that odd xml system before finally getting really bored of trying to find players for buffs that I ended up making a simple bot that would hand out buffs by Newland grid whenever I wasn’t logged in. I realised then that it was more entertaining figuring out how to make the bot better and dealing with people who tried to break it than actually play the game itself. I think that was about the time AI came out, my account got banned shortly afterwards but I’d already stopped playing by that point.

  8. Malibu Stacey says:

    I must say I do like that ship fitting UI in EVE-Online Jim.
    It’s changed a fair bit since I last played it (for the better).

  9. YourMessageHere says:

    This is part of why I don’t get the general hatred of CoD round here. Yes the SP is shit, but the MP is all about tweaking. Tweak your perks + pointstreaks + weapons + attachments + proficiencies + equipment, to find optimums for the map and game mode, or build classes that do specific jobs better. Like MMO builds, except the way you actually use them is a very different kind of skill.

    • Mordsung says:

      The hate for CoD mostly comes from it being designed as “Baby’s new FPS.”

      PC gamers generally prefer games where aiming is hard, not a game that is effectively a point and click adventure with your own option being “use gun on man”.

      I believe that’s why Tribes is getting so much good press and becoming so popular on PC. We’ve finally got a PC shooter again, one where hitting people even once is hard.

      • Phantoon says:

        Play Tribes: Ascend until you can do reasonably well.

        Then you’ll be one of us. No one weapon is overpowered- because there’s another weapon that does the same level of annoyance at first until you try it, too.

        You’re also not locked out of base classes at the beginning, and it’s easy to get another class you like (especially since you can try all classes/weapons in training mode) quickly.

        Getting certain weapons take a lot of time, but with the exception of the Technician’s Thumper, none of them are needed or even better than the base weapon (Thumper being so good because it’s so versatile and you generally pack a repair gun rather than a secondary firearm).

        And if you want to play “not going fast: the point and click man shoot” there’s always Sentinels, the sniper class. Just that your targets are generally really far away, moving really fast, and you can’t shoot rapidly with the gun.

      • YourMessageHere says:

        To me, that does a great job of making me not want to play Tribes, and also reminds me of trying to play Tribes 2 and saying “Why are these weapons so intentionally rubbish?”. Aiming isn’t a hard skill. Reacting is the hard bit. Predicting other players behaviour and countering it is hard. Making aiming artificially hard…don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge your enjoyment, I just personally detest things that create an artificial barrier to make something easy harder.

        Oh and no weapon is overpowered in CoD, all the base weapons are equivalent in efficacy to top level unlocks, you just use them a bit differently. There’s simply guns that are easier to get the knack for; anything is eminently trumpable.

    • Ragnar says:

      The hate is because
      1) there’s a new one out every year; 2) it’s immensely popular, and sells really well; 3) each new game is not significantly different than the previous game

      For comparison, UT2k3 was a very different game from UT (1999), and while UT2k4 was very similar to UT2k3, it also had twice as much content in addition to adding vehicles and greatly changing the feel of the game (and offering a $10 rebate if you already owned 2k3). UT3 (which I haven’t played) came out in 2007, and was again rather different. When UT released a map pack, it was a free add-on.

      CoD, on the other hand, has a game come out every year, each is very similar to the previous games, ships with few maps, and additional map packs are priced higher than most indie games. Combine it with one of the first price jumps in years, and is it that surprising that players start feeling like CoD has turned into EA’s Sports releases, with gamers expected to buy a new version every year for a few tweaks and a fresh coat of paint? And then being charged $15 for a 4-map pack? And the worst part is that gamers buy the shit out of CoD. They pull out their wallets and say “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

      CoD has turned into a cash cow, thus the potential takeaway for studios / publishers is “You don’t have to create a whole new game, or evolve on your previous game. Just take the game you made last year, polish the graphics a bit, create a few new levels, slap together a quick singleplayer campaign, and throw it out the door. Rinse and repeat.” I’m not saying that it doesn’t take a lot of work and effort to put together a 5 hour campaign, as it does. It just that it seems they’ve given up on trying to evolve the FPS genre, and are instead trying to milk as much money out of CoD as they can.

      • MadTinkerer says:

        Indeed. I bought Madden 2004… two years ago. Therefore I also already have Madden 2012.

        I bought MW2 when it went on sale. Therefore I already have MW3.

        It doesn’t frustrate me too much anymore because we are eventually going to get back to the point where people (besides Valve) are trying to do interesting things with FPS. Some of it is already happening, with let’s-make-the-whole-arena-change-with-power-ups Nexuiz and hey-let’s-make-a-postapoc-shooter-with-HUGE-levels Ravaged.

        So I think we can rely on the Indies to come up with something really interesting eventually.

      • YourMessageHere says:

        Without wanting to be particularly defensive of CoD (I freely acknowledge that there’s plenty wrong with it), I can’t quite see the validity of the first and third points. To deal with the last first, it’s a series. Not many direct sequels do vastly change what they are. How different is Doom 2 from Doom? Most are praised for this fidelity – look how happy people were that DXHR felt like Deus Ex. Those that do change significantly tend to piss off the fanbase – look at DXIW and Doom 3. I certainly felt UT2004 was a step too far – it diluted the basic game rather too much, and suddenly everything was about vehicles. Fun, yes, but not UT. It wasn’t a game that lasted long for me. It seems like people want CoD to simply be a different game entirely.

        As such, the fact there’s a new one out every year is a good thing as well as a bad thing, for sports games as well as CoD. If you’re a football fan, you want the current teams and stats and whatever else it is they change in FIFA, and you want the new features each iteration brings, be they technical or gameplay-related. If you quite like a game or two of FIFA but you’re not that bothered, of course it’s a bit annoying when there’s constantly a new one out. The problems come when EA or whoever decide to turn off the servers, or destroy the player ID infrastructure or whatever, forcing the more casual fans to buy the latest iteration. And the price tag, of course.

        Naturally that all results in rage, but to me, Activision are the ones at fault, CoD is a decent game being massively exploited. I too resent the huge prices being charged, I too remember when UT2003 and 2004 brought out official map packs gleaned from the very best community-made maps and in-house mappers alike, for free. I wish very much Activision wouldn’t charge arms and legs, but they do. That’s business, not the game, that’s at fault, but then so much of the business of games makes no sense whatsoever, being based on attitudes, practices and technology of the past, not the present. It’s obviously unsustainable, a bubble that’s waiting to burst, and any corporate exec who can’t see that is a grade-A moron. CoD ought to be cheaper than average, not more expensive.

        CoD changes – look at it now compared to the first iterations. To someone who’s kind of into FPS, kind of happy to play lots of other stuff, OK, it looks the same. To someone who really digs modern-day FPS that tries to balance realism and fun (disclaimer: that’s me), there’s significant differences. Black Ops changed a lot (Unlock system based on currency, more personalisation, dedicated servers, improved balance), and MW3 changed a lot too (Unlock system based on XP only, move from straight killstreaks to pointstreaks, weapon-specific XP and proficiencies, return to P2P ranked servers), but if you don’t play much or care much, you’d not really see that. The fact it’s kicked back and forth between two entirely seperate publishers, each releasing every other year, and very little carries over from one to the other apart from the engine and the name doesn’t help. In my view Black Ops is a very different game from the MW series.

        The fact the series is popular can be taken to mean that people are all idiots, if you’re determined not to like the game. Alternatively, it can be taken to mean that a lot of people really like precisely what CoD provides, and don’t want the series to change significantly.

        I for one would like to see CoD stop pretending to be new games when it releases each year and instead go to a subs model, then releasing free packs of new settings, levels, weapons, SP campaigns and so on, much as Eve does with its big updates.

    • ffordesoon says:

      I know why people hate it. It has less to do with the quality of the game and more to do with what the game represents.

      CoD is, if you like, the McDonald’s of gaming – or maybe it’s Pizza Hut, since I hate McDonald’s. Let’s just say “fast food”, actually.

      So: every time you walk into a fast food restaurant, you know more or less exactly what you’re going to get. You know it’s not going to fundamentally alter your conception of taste. You know it’s probably not doing anything positive to your cholesterol level. You know it probably isn’t going to taste shockingly dissimilar from other meals you’ve had at other franchise locations. You know the food is precisely calibrated to taste pleasing to the maximum amount of customers. You know all this, and because of that, there’s a slight twinge of guilt knowing that you’re settling for a fast food meal because you don’t have time to go to a full-fledged restaurant, or because you don’t have the cash, or whatever. You shove it in your mouth, it’s delicious in the most achingly dull way possible, and you leave the place satisfied, but not blown away. You’re not going to recommend a fast food place to everyone you know, and it’s in no way exciting, but it tides you over until you can treat yourself to a more exciting meal. It’s not spectacular, but it is comfortable like a well-worn pair of shoes. Some people like that feeling of familiarity more than others. Some people even get addicted to that familiarity.

      Hardcore gamers who don’t like CoD are the people who don’t understand how someone can eat fast food every night and continue to like it, basically.

      Make sense?

  10. Hoaxfish says:

    Not exactly the topic… but games where they deny you the ability to easily re-arrange your stats annoy me. I don’t mean “anywhere, anytime” (even in the middle of a fight) but at some convenience. The same ease in which you might occasionally have to go home if you forgot something on the way to work, rather than as soon as you step out the front door you find it locked and your whole house bulldozed.

    MMOs especially, where a quick nerf etc can throw you for a loop.

    I’ve seen people argue that permanent choice is “desirable”, that you should just reroll a new character, etc… but that just seems like a kick in the teeth for choice (you get one choice… and can never have that choice ever again)

  11. mbp says:

    The joy of self taugh tinkering can be very short lived unfortunately. It only takes one visit to Elitist Jerkoffs for you to realise that your unique and inspired inspired wand wielding warrior build is

    a) completely unoriginal and has been tried many times before
    b) well known to work much better if you replace your ordinary wand with the glowing bulls pizzle rare drop from the dungeons of utter despair.
    c) a pointless build in any case because a battle axe wielding priest who has cross specced into the rogue line can do everything a wand warrior can do better and can heal and do crowd control as well.

  12. MuscleHorse says:

    I think the issue with this is where a multiplayer community decides that there are a set number of acceptable builds for individuals or teams. Diablo 2 was where I first encountered this and more recently in ME3′s multiplayer. This goes against what I find to be fun in these games – a disparate number of players with various skills gelling together against expectation – not a predictable machine that is expected to behave in an expected way.

    • trjp says:

      This was true in WoW (late BC esp) and I’m pleased to say they addressed it rather than ignoring it.

      By putting in a wider range of difficulties/gear – they stopped this being such a big issue, without actually making the whole thing to ‘ezmode’.

      Blizzard have always had their finger on this stuff – I think D2 is an exception simply because it’s been around SO LONG (there’s no other game with it’s longevity is there??)

  13. trjp says:

    Interesting you include WoT in this – I tried so, so hard to like that game but it really is just a grind for gear so you can grind for gear so you can grind for gear.

    As hard as I looked I could find no ‘game’ in there (Eve has the same mechanics but at least the players know there’s a void where the game should be and so they invent one!!)

    • tungstenHead says:

      There came a point at which I found the tank battles themselves to be a lot of fun. Particularly once I began to really learn the maps and began to find out how to navigate from cover to cover and how to read my opponent. It became far less grindy after that.

      That said, I find it’s not really a tweaking experience. With a handful of exceptions where you get to choose between a honkin’ huge howitzer or a high velocity cannon, I find it’s a steady progression towards better and better.

  14. Hoaxfish says:

    Something that really annoys me, is when a game doesn’t give you the ability to relatively easily re-arrange your stats.

    Guild Wars just lets you do it at the nearest town/city/whatever… but you get locked once you’re out fighting. Which is really nice. A sort of “what shall I wear today” sensation.

    Other MMOs seem almost allergic to the very idea of this form of customisation. If they don’t simply not have it in any form, they make it incredibly difficult. For subscription-based games this can be a trick for forcing you to spend more time in the game. I’ve seen people argue that it’s roleplay, or “choices matter” by denying an easy reset… for me, it’s just frustrating to make the choice so difficult compared to the rest of character customisation.

    It’s less of an issue for singleplayer games, since they generally aren’t prone to “balancing”, and often have nice levels of replayability (rather than 50+ levels of grind)

    • dE says:

      Sadly Guildwars was also the game in which the community completely hate-trained any form of build outside of the Flavour of the month builds. The majority of people in Guildwars never quite got that builds were situational to the area you were in and insisted on using a wooden stick until either the stick broke or the enemy gave up laughing.

      • Hoaxfish says:

        I agree with that, though I don’t think I really noticed it being that bad.

        If I remember correctly, they partially countered that whole “flavour of the month” thing, by actively nerfing them so the PvP builds had to keep restructuring and stay “fresh”.

        And GW2′s whole weapon-swapping thing/no multi-classing is a thing to make balancing easier/flexible in the same vein.

    • manveruppd says:

      Yep, coming up with weird builds for that game was an utter joy for me as well! And I disagree about the flavour-of-the-month thing as well. Sure, using the current metagame build was an easy way of finding a pick-up team, but if you had a nice guild of friendly folks it was easy to do well while still doing non-metagame builds. I came up with plenty of weird 8-man team builds for both GvG and Tombs that we did with my guild. In fact, I remember one particularly bizarre one that our guild leader shot down for being too crazy (it involved Mark of Rodgort, Greater Conflagration, and minions…), and then 2 weeks later, right about when Observer Mode was first introduced, we saw a Last Empire smurf guild using the almost exact same build! :p

  15. President Weasel says:

    Good old rifter, scrap metal and duct tape for the win.
    I think I spent more time tweaking fits in out-of-eve programs, logging into Eve, buying ship bits, carting them around, and putting them together than I did flying the things.
    I always rather liked Elitist Jerks, but there’s nothing stopping you from playing your own build any way you wanted – you were just less likely to get into raid guilds, but if you’d rather play your own game than min-max you probably didn’t want to raid anyway.
    I did rather enjoy tweaking specs (and rotations, and rotation macros, and different pets with different pet abilities) back when I was playing WOW. I kind of miss having an MMO that was accidentally opaque from the users, to the point of needing a macro that interrupted your auto-shots in order for you to do more damage.

  16. KDR_11k says:

    I love tweaking but I want it to mean more than just numbers. One of the greatest tweaking games I played was Stratosphere: Conquest of the Skies that had you build your own flying fortress and then pilot it around like a battleship. Banjo-Kazooie on the XBox is similarily awesome in the tweaking department but feels kinda limited in the tasks you are asked to perform with your constructions.

    Games that disappointed me include
    Blacklight: Tango Down: Too high lethality, most tweaks only affected your bullet spread pattern and because it only took a short burst to kill anyone (minus the crappy netcode) there was just no point to all that changing. Even worse, health boosts were so tiny that a maxed out health build can take maybe half a bullet more than a normal build
    Minecraft: You can build anything but the game doesn’t even try to challenge your construction, a few dirt walls already make your home an impenetrable fortress.
    Blockade Runner: Too much focus on making pretty ships, I’m looking for a ship building game that’s all about combat and dealing with constraints.

    BTW, a game about piloting around a slow, ponderous battleship seems like it would work well even with touch controls, is there anything like that for Android so I can play that kind of game on the go?

  17. InternetBatman says:

    I think the hallmark of a really good system is allowing the player to fail if they made really bad choices as well as letting them succeed by making brilliant but unorthodox decisions. I remember one time I was hellbent on making a bear mage in NWN 2. I just wanted a bear that could cast fireballs, that was all. My character was horribly under optimized and had to rely heavily on party members in the endgame, but it was fun creaking a uniquely broken character.

    The most important thing with complex systems is that they must explain what stat do, show all the stats, and offer an easy path to a workable build. Without that, the best designed systems in the world can still make a bad game.

  18. Maldomel says:

    Tweaking sure is joyful when you figure out your own stuff, or settings. Especially those “exotic” stuff, when you finally think out of the box and do the customization you want, not the one everyone else do.

    Though I have to disagree with the part about how it’s great when you start thinking about it under the shower or at work (or wherever you want): to me it just means that I’m addicted, and in need of a break.
    I find it so annoying to have numbers and stats in my head like that, it doesn’t help me focus on more important tasks, and is pretty boring when I try to sleep but my brain wanders into game tweakings.

  19. Nallen says:

    This is basically the entire tower defense genre isn’t it? tweak those towers, make small adjustments, wait, see, tweak etc

  20. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I think tweaking or customisation is akin to making a character in a rpg. Not only can you (if you wish) adapt things to suit a certain playstyle, it can also be a personalisation aspect.

    Personally, I always prioritise the latter over the former. In WoW, for instance, I always broadly chose classes and talent builds based on what I wanted to play and on theme. In detail I tweaked those builds to be as effective as possible without diluting the theme.

    The joy of making something yours, doing things your own way, even if you don’t really have that much choice, even if it’s not optimal, or even if loads of other people choose the very same thing is a great source of pride and joy for many gamers, I believe.

    Even if it’s playing and unlocking things for your chosen role in Modern Shooter number 326.

  21. afarrell says:

    Materia. Lots and lots of materia.

  22. DeathRow says:

    Path of Exile.

  23. dajjal says:

    Ah… sweet EVE memories

  24. Molybdenum says:

    I’d sort of hesitate to include things like WoW or Final Fantasy Tactics as primarily tweaking-focused; progression is almost always pretty linear. You’re both focused on levelling up your characters and maxing their gear, not necessarily “hey, i wonder if i can stun enemies for three turns with enough in this stat?” A game where tweaking is a large component should have you asking if that flaming sword with +4 damage is the right choice for the next map, whereas in most RPGs the answer is “yes, because the only real alternative is a +3 damage.”

    I’d say Dead island and maybe Borderlands fall somewhere between those two alternatives; you might want to keep a burning weapon on hand for fire-vulnerable enemies and an explosive for similarly specific uses. Inventory sizes limit how much you can carry, and so you’re likely going to have to choose what gear is best for a given goal. (Of course, if you don’t know what enemies you’re fighting that takes a large part of the tweaking away, and even if you do carry multiple weapon types you are still essentially just looking for upgrades to each specific category rather than synergetic developments.)

    Possibly the best single-player tweaking engine ever? Mechwarrior IV, particularly mercenaries. See also: Mech Commander series. Taking on missions of varying size with varying tonnage of mechs and varying availability of weapons = ‘build’ maker’s heaven. (until I realized that just slapping the biggest gun possible on your mech was pretty much always the path to victory.)

    Galactic Civilizations’ ship-builder carried a fairly white-bread rock/paper/scissors build system but managed to make that acceptable by letting you make the ships look like whatever you wanted.

    Notable multiplayer tweakers:

    Infantry Online / Tanarus : The godfathers of class-based, build-based MMO. They remain the most obscenely versatile platforms for online play in just about ever.

    Just about every class had 2-3 major builds and several minor ones, and you almost always would see a 60/40 or 70/30 split in primary weapon choice for most classes in a given zone. How’s that for balance?

    • marcusfell says:

      Hell yes on MWIV: Mercs.

      I never really bothered with the whole “bigger is better” since I hated how slow the heavy and assualt mechs were. I spent the better part of a month trying to beat the campaign in a medium, but that one mission with recurring waves was too much. My favorite was a Shadowcat with no heatsinks, but a ClanGaussRilfe and PPC. Adding jump-jets to get on top of skyscrapers and sniping was really fun.

      I did optimize a few of the heavies. I set up a Thor that only used close-range weapons, with a pair of ClanLBX20 Autocannons. It could seriously knock another mech to the ground, taking an arm clean off.

      The best parts of that game were the arena matches. They were the perfect way to test a new build quickly and, were really fun to play. I might be romanticizing a bit, but man, that was a good game.

  25. P7uen says:

    I appreciate this, but have never been a tweaker myself.

    I would play Simcity and not give a monkeys how many squares away from a house a road would have to be for maximum efficiency or whatnot. I would play it to make pretty cities and possibly that would make sense in real life (but not work well in the game).

    This extends to everything, I usually aim for what would be nice/fun in my mind (sniper in Mass Effect, whatever fantasy squad in X-com) and once I feel badass or excited enough I couldn’t care less about how efficient it is.

    Always feel I do miss something in this way, but at the same time I never peek behind the curtain so it never stops being escapism. What I would gain in tinkering I personally would feel I lose in fun, although I can see the other side of the coin.

    Also means I’m quite crap at a lot of games.

  26. FarmerZaku says:

    I know it’s not really a computer game, but Magic the Gathering was where I first really got into tweaking things. The combos that the game allows are so varied and so satisfying to pull off that I haven’t found much of an equal since. The MMOs I’ve tried always dissatisfy in that regard. Adding a few extra strength here or a few dex there doesn’t do much for me. Rift’s soul trees are a start though, it’s nice to be able to reset and try new builds so easily, and switch between your builds at will.

  27. Devenger says:

    One of the reasons I’m enjoying League of Legends is an opportunity for a sort of tweaking – despite the well-defined nature of each character available to play as, the items that you can buy during the course of a match can substantially change where your character really shines. Because matches are no longer than an hour (unless you’re having a pretty wacky game), you can experiment quite rapidly. Runes and masteries let you flesh out your madder plans outside of the match, and come into a game with a champion who is already a little ‘out there’ in terms of build.

    The most fun ‘tweak space’ in LoL is definitely the various hybrid characters, particularly ones that use their auxiliary attribute to power one or two of their most devastating tricks, and nothing else. Is it worth changing all of your item picks purely to maximise the damage, and reduce the recharge time, of a tricky and exotic high-range grab attack? Possibly. As is often the case with multiplayer games, a ‘sub-optimal’ strategy can still be devastating if it makes your opponent unable to accurately judge what they need to be scared of, or forces them to play in a way that they are unfamiliar with.

    (Example: I play Blitzcrank for his nuking capabilities. Ability Power Blitzcrank is as deadly as he is surprising and comical. His AP scaling is actually really good, honest.)

  28. immerc says:

    “The Best Fit” is a result of a system that’s too rigid.

    Think about what’s the best knife. If you’re cutting cheese the best knife is probably a different knife than the best knife for chopping bone, which is probably different from the best knife for fine work like peeling something.

    By contrast, the “best dagger” in a lot of games is easy to calculate. It just comes down to one number like “DPS”, and the formulas for determining that may start out hidden, eventually people figure them out and then you just plug a dagger into a formula and immediately know if it’s better or not.

    To prevent there from being a “best dagger”, there should be at least 3 things:

    * add a small element of randomness to calculations so that it’s never clear exactly what the underlying formula is
    * modify all formulas slowly over time, so if any one thing is best, it falls out of favor, then becomes good again, meaning people who chase the flavor of the month are at a disadvantage because they have to relearn things
    * add a lot of complexity, not only so things are hard to figure out (instead of best dagger, have a best dagger vs. plate, best dagger vs. mail, best dagger vs. leather, best dagger vs. cloth, best left-handed dagger for race X with strength at least 15 vs. mail when stabbing upwards) but also add complexity so there is fun and unexpected synergy — i.e. enemies take more damage if they’re hit with a club after there’s a sword wound opened up

    There’s too much emphasis on making things perfectly fair and perfectly even, and perfectly predictable. That leads to less room for experimentation, simply following someone else’s calculations and doing what they say to do. If you take that away, you can end up with a more fun game.

  29. Farsearcher says:

    For me tweaking builds is less about functionality and more about getting closer to the image in my head of how I want my character to work to be.

    Usually I build “accessors”. I like to be able to get everywhere I want to go so I emphasise things like stealth, lockpicking, hacking – whatever the game has that’ll let me get to new places so I have freedom.

    I don’t play MMORPGs (though the Secret World looks tempting) so provided a build is functional I usually make ruthless efficiency a secondary priority.

  30. Stephen Roberts says:

    I wonder if it would be okay to use this post to quietly lament the streamlining and simplification that is going on in World of Warcraft now. I came back after a two year ‘quitting’ and what I was most amazing was just how much assimilated knowledge I had lost. Knowledge that I had picked up not by googling cookie cutter builds or checking on Elitist Jerks but by testing and trying and tweaking, endlessly in pursuit of excellence.

    The saddest thing about MMO’s is that you can’t go back.

  31. Telekinesis says:

    They basically removed 80% of this whole aspect from the new X-Com, yay right guys? Well that’s what the devs seem to think with their “streamlining” freight train.

  32. Greggh says:

    I remember playing Monster Hunter in the PS2… It was not my first experience with builds and tweaking as you put it (Diablo II was), but it certainly was the most rewarding: the indescribable joy of slaying a Plesioth without getting a single hit with a Bowgun, after innumerous grueling brawls with my perfectly honed Great Swordsmanship, which always ended with me using all my stock of potions.

    I can relate to your article. Yeap!

  33. Tuller says:

    That last item in Esthere’s bank? A Thoroughly Read Copy of “Nat Pagle’s Extreme’ Anglin.”

  34. tkioz says:

    The last few crops of MMOs really killed tweaking for me… back in the day I had massive spreadsheets detailing the exact process needed to “step” a low level character into high level gear for games like Anarchy Online and exactly what buffs I needed to keep that gear at it’s optimum level… and I’m a guy who can’t be bothered fixing his own stuff in real life.

  35. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    Jim I was hoping to hear some new names that would scratch that customisation itch, but all the games you list are either MMOs or are not much different from them.

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