This article was principally produced as a result of the recent release of the Phantom merc, and the subsequent response from the general DirtyBomb community to the said release. I would like to begin this article by attempting to frame the questions which would be important to what could be a potentially interesting, and hopefully healthy, discussion about "balance" in video-games, and primarily how we come to make qualifications about a particular mechanic working with, or against, the flow of a game. As such, the questions we have to ask would be of the following nature: What is balance? How do we make qualifications about balance? And finally, where the Phantom merc fits within the frame, and scope of these questions?

Concept art demonstrating the DirtyBomb atmosphere.

The answer to the most basic question of this investigation; What is balance?, does not require any serious reworking, and I believe it is quite clearly laid out in its relevant Wikipedia article;
In game design, balance is the concept and the practice of tuning a game's rules, usually with the goal of preventing any of its component systems from being ineffective or otherwise undesirable when compared to their peers. An unbalanced system represents wasted development resources at the very least, and at worst can undermine the game's entire ruleset by making important roles or tasks impossible to perform. Balancing does not necessarily mean making a game fair. This is particularly true of action games: Jaime Griesemer, design lead at Bungie, said in a lecture to other designers that "every fight in Halo is unfair". This potential for unfairness creates uncertainty, leading to the tension and excitement that action games seek to deliver. In these cases balancing is instead the management of unfair scenarios, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that all of the strategies which the game intends to support are viable. The extent to which those strategies are equal to one another defines the character of the game in question. 1
As clearly noted above, the idea of balance in game design is about creating the best potential rule-set within a game world, in order to allow the effective execution of the implemented mechanics. Failing to do to can undermine the entire game world, and associated systems, and as a result negatively impact the end-user experience. My suspicion is that the more complicated the game becomes, the potential to accrue the correct balance between the different game elements becomes more difficult, and requires more time to test. An important concept to take away here is the difference between balance, and fairness, and quiet often we see that in the DirtyBomb community these two concepts are confused. Quite often people complain that "merc X is imbalanced," the most recent examples being Nader, Rhino, and Vasili, and yet, I have far to frequently seen people challenge these mercs in quite unfair situations, where the opposing, apparently imbalanced mercs, have a large situational advantage e.g. Nader in tight spaces, Rhino in long corridors, Vasili in open space with long line of sights, that is to say, their greatest positions of strength. There are strong, natural ways to counter all three of these heroes, and quite often people fail to grasp what that might be, and determine that it must be the merc that is imbalanced, merely because they put themselves in an unfair firefight.

When I started writing this article I began by attempting to determine the "elements of balance," that is, the most basic things which would provide the necessary framework to qualify if a game is balanced or imbalanced. Think of it as a metric, a key, that could be referred to at any given point of a review, which would be able to provide an objective analysis of the matter at hand. However, I soon came to a realize that this method was wholly incorrect, and any key would only be useful within the scope of a given particular game, that is to say that it’s integrity as an objective measure would be compromised, and the elements we would have selected would in themselves be a contentious issue. As such, I believe the correct way to make a determination about something like balance is to attempt to engage in the "grammar" of a video-game, and learn its "language". How exactly do we do that? There will be several important factors here, things such as the intention of the designers, the intention of the community, the genre of the video-game, and the mechanics the game employs, dissuades, or excludes. When we take these things into consideration we are better able to form a meaningful opinion on the direction of the project, and what avenues are best suited to meeting the goals of both the developer, the community, and most importantly, the game.

Within the scope of DirtyBomb, when asking the question of "What is balance?" I think the best place to start is with the developers, Splash Damage, including their history as developers, and the pedigree of products they have produced. The aim here is not to provide a definitive history, but a brief overview, in order to understand their background, and get a grasp of their expertise in the field. I think this might be helpful because as it may provide an insight with respect to the question of how they approach the topic of design, and balance.


This company started off as Quake 3: Arena ("Q3:A") modification team, most famous for their Quake 3 Fortress ("Q3F") modification, a class-based, Capture The Flag modification, which saw them receive a great amount of praise in the community for its aesthetic, and technical accomplishments, but, Q3F never took off as a competitive game, or at the very least, it was not comparable in terms of popularity to the other competitive Q3:A mods, chiefly Capture The Flag, Team Death Match, or even Urban Terror, another competing total conversion modification. Splash Damage were recognized as a great team for their technical accomplishments, not because of anything outstanding in terms of game-play design, and in fairness I’m not sure if that was a barrier they were attempting to knock-down, as the title of their project clear suggests they were attempting to re-create an existing game. The next project Splash Damage worked on was wildly successful in terms of a competitive scene, as Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory ("W: ET"), a standalone, class-based, objective oriented, a semi-sequel to Return to Castle Wolfenstein ("RtCW"), continued to be featured, at least until 2013, on major leagues such the Team Warfare League, and the Electronic Sports League. What is interesting to note between the two games is that Splash Damage took on existing IP’s, with a pre-existing game-play blueprint already laid out for them, where they would come in, make some interesting tweaks, provide great visuals, provide greate level design, and move on to their next project.

Splash Damage's early success, Enemy Territory

After these two projects, the company finally had their first real crack at imaging their own game in full, granted the aesthetics were borrowed from Quake II, but the execution of game-play ideas, mechanics, and direction were all original. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars ("ET:QW") yet another, their third, class-based game, yet it was a complete turn-around from their initial projected, Q3F, in terms of mechanics, a progression we had also witnessed in W: ET, one which was shaped as such: Q3F was a completely symmetrical game in terms of balance, both teams had access to the same classes, playing on mirrored levels, W:ET was a mix, teams would have access to the same classes byt the levels were asymmetrical, with one team play offence, and the other playing defence. Finally in ET:QW we saw two asymmetrically designed teams, taking turns to play offence, and defence, on asymmetrically designed levels.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, the spiritual successor to Enemy Territory

Now, between these three games, and DirtyBomb, there were also a few other games, the most notable of which was Brink, but key change was the engine platform, as the initial games were based on idTech, and featured thing such strafe jumping, and momentum based movement, DirtyBomb is based on Unreal Engine, and feature things such as wall-jumping, and different approach to movement. I think we can safely say that we have established that Splash Damage are a company that have a lot of experience, and expertise when it comes to building class-based, objective-oriented, video games, but the most pertinent question that comes to mind after this brief history lesson is, What set W: ET apart from the other games?, and Why was W:ET able to build a large flourishing competitive community that managed to survive for such a long period of time? I think the answer is simple, it was a well balanced game with deep mechanics, great aesthetics, top-notch level design, and game systems which worked together seamlessly. The combination of these factors allowed people of varying strengths find a role in which they could excel in, without penalizing those with superior mechanical skills, and as such resulted in an environment where social engagement, and interaction was rewarded. Oh, it also helped that it was free, and highly scalable. To that end, especially the last two points, DirtyBomb is the same, it's free, and highly scalable, now it's just a matter of knocking-down the other great things about W:ET.
Games Produced By Splash Damage 2


Quake 3 Fortress
Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

I began this investigation asking the questions "What is balance?," and "How do we make qualifications about balance?" to that end, I suggested we must firstly learn the grammar of the game, that is, the way in which the game talks to us. To help achieve this, we must ask what the intentions of Splash Damage are with this project, and on their website they make this very clear:
Dirty Bomb takes first person shooters back to their purest roots in a fast-paced team game that will challenge even the most competent players. This game won’t hold your hand, in fact it is more likely to kick your teeth in. With no controller support or aim assist, all that lies between you and certain death is player skill and reaction. You won’t find your typical hero types in this radioactive wasteland. The only people greedy or stupid enough to set foot on the streets of London are a colorful roster of unique Mercenaries each boasting game changing abilities. From orbital lasers and carpet bombing runs to machine gun turrets and a mini gun, each Merc is a unique and special snowflake. Dirty Bomb multiplayer isn’t about lone wolves or kill streaks, this game requires coordination and team work to take down the objectives and take out your opponents. The game’s main mode, Stopwatch pits two teams of five players against each other in an objective based battle. Each team takes a chance attacking and defending, the fastest completion time wins. Whether you prefer laying down damage, capturing objectives or healing your team the key to success in Dirty Bomb is to work together or die alone. 3
What's interesting to note about this blurb is the language used to describe the game, and of course this is designed to clearly portray Splash Damage’s intentions. It is important to note here that they qualify the desired qualities of the game: that it should be a fast-paced; objective-based game that requires skill; and, the qualities which they think would be conducive to a team’s success; that is that both teams must rely on team-work; and co-ordination. What is also particularly remarkable is that they also qualify the qualities which would be unsuccessful in playing the game, chiefly the idea of playing outside of the team-oriented framework. We see clear references to this twice; "Dirty Bomb multiplayer isn’t about lone wolves," and "work together or die alone." Now moving beyond this very short blurb, the Splash Damage development team have been very open in discussing their aims with the media, and there are two very interesting quotes I’d like to bring up.
GamesBeat: Did it have some kind of heritage with Quake Wars or anything else?

Neil Alphonso: Very much so. We wanted to go back to our old-school sort of game, something our fans really wanted. We wanted to do it as a team as well. We try to do all sorts of different projects. This was a chance to make the sort of game our studio was founded on, a hardcore PC shooter. 4
The things I would like to highlight here are Neil Alphonso’s emphasis on an old-school, hardcore PC shooter -- these type of games are usually exemplified by games such as QuakeWorld, QuakeWorld: Team Fortress, Q3: Challenge Promode Arena, etc... These games have some common traits: a clear competitive objective; a clean aesthetic; a high skill ceiling; very little in terms of player crutches; skill-based movement; and great netcode. These are not the sort of pussy-foot around the corner, hide-behind a box, creep around the map sort of games, they are about mechanical purity, and simple but interesting strategies, that provide a deep emergent game-play. The concept of hard-countering does not exist, and countering strategies are developed through experimentation, over time, with a breakthroughs sometimes coming long after a problem has been initially encountered. To this end, I think we can see why Splash Damage has been so hesitant to whimsically tweaking around with mercs in Dirty Bomb this early in development, and I think that their hope is that players learn to naturally counter different team compositions instead of a simple rock-paper-scissor mechanic which would, quite frankly, dumb the game down beyond any of my personal tastes.
Stevivor: We’re seeing a huge rise in competitive gaming culture at the moment, do you see Dirty Bomb ever evolving as an eSport?

Splash Damage: Games that are competitive, balanced and fun to watch are normally considered good eSports candidates, so of course we’d love it players thought that Dirty Bomb fits the bill! But ultimately that’s something that the community decides, and if they do think it suits it then it’s our job as developers to provide features to support them. 5
What’s great is that Splash Damage have been very honest, and consistent with their intentions, their goals are very clear, and once again we see them qualified in a very succinct way. They want to make a game that is competitive, balanced, and also fun to play, this with their prior qualifications of a fast-paced, hardcore, old-school, skill-based, team-oriented, game, gives us a complete picture of their goal with respect to the development of DirtyBomb.

Now before we move on to the subject which spurred this article, we must continue to ask How else can we determine the intentions of Splash Damage? And, how else can we engage with the grammar of the game? Well, we must surely discuss the look of the game, that is, the aesthetic make-up of the game which was not the result of some accident, but rather by the force of a deliberate design. The most surprising thing about this game to me, from the very get-go, was how clear things looked, the distinction between the player models, skins, and the background made it very easy to identify enemies, from the architecture, flora, and fauna. More so, the distinction between models, including their silhouettes, skills, and animations is also very stark. What this tells me is that Splash Damage do not want players squinting their eyes to see their enemies, they want players, and teams to actively engage each one another in most ruthless way possible, developing strategies, and tactics, based on the ability to successfully gather information in very difficult scenarios, so that games are constantly evolving, and that teams are able to meaningfully react to each other in real time.

Another we can determine the grammar of the game is to discuss the existing mechanics of the game, specifically, the skill-based movement mechanics which are in place, and the impact they have in our ability to form an opinion of the game. If the intention had been to create a simple game for the masses, which is not a bad thing in itself, so this is not a criticism of those sorts of game, then there would be no need for skill-based movement, but the creators would like to create a hardcore game, that appeals to a smaller, competitive audience. As such the goal of the movement is to create greater mechanical depth, and allow players to fluidly move around the levels, quickly reaching common objective points on the map for the purpose of active engagement. More so, a skill-based movement system also provides the opportunity for interesting firefights between players, where someone with a greater grasp on the movement mechanics may be able to take down an opponent who has better aiming skills, re-structuring the balance of the classes so that players with greater all-around skills trump over those who are good one thing.

Up until now, we have been talking about balance, let me introduce to the merc, Phantom:

Now that we have understood the intentions of Splash Damage, and understood the grammar, and the language of the game, we can begin to philosophize what sort of mechanics would, and would not be desirable in this game, and whether a merc like Phantom necessarily meets the requirements laid out by the developers so that it has a meaningful synergy in this game world.

My position on the Phantom merc will split into two parts, firstly to determine if it fits within the qualifications that Splash Damage have setup with respect to the aim of the game, and secondly if it is balanced, that is, does it effectively fit with the surrounding grammar of the game as a whole. For the first part, we should note that the following pre-requisites have been determined by Splash Damage for DirtyBomb: Balanced; challenging; requires competency; competitive; requires co-ordination; fast-paced; fun; hardcore; "isn't about lone wolves"; old-school; and, skillful.
  • The first question is, is this merc challenging, and if so, in what ways? The most difficult thing about utilizing this merc is hoping that the enemy team has more to do than just watch out for you for the following reasons: his cloaking ability makes him very difficult to track; his melee damage output at least guarantees a one-for-one trade off; and his sub-machine gun arsenal include the KEK-10, and the Crotzni, the two highest damage per second weapons. The combination of this factors make it quite easy to successfully employ him.
  • Do you have to be competent to play Phantom? As long as players have fluency with the levels, movement mechanics, and objectives, which is the expected base minimum for effectively playing any merc, then they will far more effective than any other merc.
  • Is Phantom competitive? I’m not certain about this, my instincts tell me he is not. I say that for the following reason, a Fragger, with a pocket medic is able to hold on to a greater variety of offensive, and defensive positions, even though he is slightly slower, and has lower effective health points. Having access to the BR-16 is a big deal, yet we have yet to see Phantom deployed in a competitive environment, so this question may have to re-addressed at a later date.
  • Does the Phantom require co-ordination? I’d have say, versus a competent team, yes he will require some degree of co-ordination, yet, even then he is be able to rambo in himself in many situations, playing off his team, as opposed to play with his team.
  • Is the Phantom fast-paced? Well, the merc itself is certainly fast, 6 but I don’t think that’s the entire picture. The knock-on effect is that teams are constantly looking around for his traces, Vasili’s now have to be selected, and teams are forced to take a very methodical, and defensive, approach to any, and all areas. The game itself is certainly slowed down, I constantly find myself second guessing my decisions, with my entire team often focused on trying to find the Phantom’s position instead of dealing with objectives. The game’s pace has definitely been negatively affected.
  • Is Phantom fun? What isn’t fun about running around while be invisible, having very high health points, with a one-shot kill weapon, and decent sub-machine gun? Yet, on the reverse side, playing against him is quite tedious, and frankly, boring. You can have your entire team looking out for him, but often this has a very strange, tunnel-vision type effect, especially in public games. At this point, I think we should point something out, the merc doesn’t appear to be competitively effective, nor is it fun in a public, match-making, or pickup game setting. It’s not very clear where exactly he belongs.
  • Is Phantom hardcore? Not in the slightest, the Phantom is the essence of modern-fps games, low skill ceiling, with an unusually large pay out.
  • Is the Phantom a lone wolf? Yes. Enough said.
  • Is the Phantom skillful? If flanking the enemy from the longest potential route, and back-stabbing with a one-shot kill weapon is skillful, then yes. If having the second highest effect health points, while also being invisible, and access to some of the best sub-machine guns, so you can take the longest potential route to backstab the enemy is skillful, then yes. Otherwise, the skill that is required to be effective with other mercs, is just not comparable to Phantom.
With respect to the second part of this assessment, to determine whether the Phantom is balanced, we would have to ask whether the merc promotes "any of its component systems from being ineffective or otherwise undesirable when compared to their peers." This unfortunately, is not such a simple question, nor can I provide a simple answer, yet I am convinced that this hero does, in the appropriate settings make many of the game’s component systems ineffective, especially when it is compared to his peers. In addition to that, I would suggest is not only is the Phantom imbalanced, but much more importantly,it does not have a meaningful place in the game world when considering the context in which games take place, and those are: public games; pickup games, and competitive games. As outlined in the previous section, the merc is too effective in a public game, and does not have the same utility as other mercs in a competitive game, and assuming that people who play pickup games have some level competency with the other mercs, he fails to successfully have a position there as well. The merc will only serve to frustrate low level players, who will undoubtedly make a large portion of the community, and new players, who are unfamiliar with merc... I’m not sure if either of those portions of the community are worth upsetting if it has little, to no use in a competitive setting.

In conclusion, the grammar of the game world has been deliberately set up by the developers, with the above-noted pre-requisites, if he fails, which he does, to meet the vast majority of these qualifications, then it would be reasonable to suggest that Phantom does not fit the grammar of DirtyBomb. More so, the merc fails to promote balance, and in fact makes some important systems, irrevocably useless in those environments which are best shielded from imbalanced game play, chiefly those that help foster the youngest, and newest players. To put it even more clearly, as it remains currently, it has little-to-no place within this game world, as I’m inclined to believe that it does not fit within the very qualifications set out by Splash Damage. That is not to say he cannot be fixed, or altered, I think a great example of a rogue class like Phantom is provided in RtCW: ET, with the spy class. This class is able to steal the uniform of his dead enemies, and I think that is a great mechanic because the merc remains visible, and stealthy, forcing players to use their smarts, and cunning as the opponent team becomes immediately aware that their ranks have been infiltrated. It creates a tense environment where players, and teams must work around this "I know, that you know, that I know" scenario, and out-wit the opponents. Finally, I think we should have some degree of faith in Splash Damage, we have briefly discussed their history, and can rest assured knowing that this is a company that understands the concept of balance, and will make changes as needed, this is not to say that they are infallible, but that the game is still in development, and that there will be bumps in the road.