The humble spreadsheet has always been the game designer’s best friend. Some aspects of this long-running relationship are widely known, but certain others continue to evade notice. Most gamers for example are probably aware that balancing is done by spreadsheet. How exactly does this work? The level of complexity increases sharply with the number of independent variables, but the basic idea is actually quite simple.
Game objects are placed along the y-axis. The attributes of these objects are placed along the x-axis. The designer’s job is to ensure that every object has attribute values which are about the same in sum. This explanation is rather difficult to understand, so how about we look at a concrete example?
There's a massive spreadsheet behind every massive open world
Game objects could be just about anything, but let’s talk about character classes. Warrior, Hunter, Healer, and Rogue are pretty standard for the role-playing genre, so let’s use those. They’ll be on the y-axis. The attributes of these four classes will go along the x-axis. We’ll just pick three: Damage, Defense, and Speed. Warriors will get high values for Damage and Defense, but low values for Speed. Rogues on the other hand will get high values for Speed, but low values for Damage and Defense. Hunters and Healers will be somewhere in between these two extremes. How do we balance this game? Tweak the attribute values of Warriors, Hunters, Healers, and Rogues until they add up to roughly the same number. The game is well balanced when the sum of Damage, Defense, and Speed is about equal for each character class.
Game balancing is all about making the numbers add up
What other wizardry do game designers conjure up with spreadsheets? Plenty. Systems interaction though is arguably the most exciting, so let’s talk a bit about that.
What exactly is systems interaction? The best example is probably rocket jumping. This age-old approach to artificially increasing the height and distance of a jump is actually the result of two interacting systems: Movement and Combat. Jumping will surely get you off the ground, but using the explosion caused by a rocket launcher to fling you into the air will get you a lot higher.
Interactions between Movement and Combat systems are pretty common
Game systems don’t necessarily have to interact. It’s very possible to make a video game without overlapping systems, but the added complexity which comes with interaction usually makes it worthwhile to ensure they work together. Successful implementation requires a pretty clever designer, though. Systems interaction is rarely accidental. (Rocket jumping was accidental).
How are interactive systems designed? The process looks a bit like balancing, but this time around there’s no math involved. Similar to game balancing, the features of different systems are placed along the two axes of a spreadsheet. The designer just fills in the blank spaces between feature pairs with any possible interactions. There won’t always be something to fill in, but that’s not necessarily a problem since features don’t always have meaningful or even obvious interactions. Let’s look at another concrete example. This time however it won’t be a hypothetical game. We’ll be reverse engineering Breath of the Wild.
Breath of the Wild has multiple systems which at least partially interact, but we can only pick two of them, so let’s run with Combat and the Sheikah Slate. The latter system consists of seven features: Magnesis, Remote Bomb, Stasis, Cryonis, Camera, Master Cycle Zero, and Amiibo. The former system also consists of seven features: Dodge, Guard, Sneak, Melee Attack, Ranged Attack, Charged Attack, and Weapon Durability. The Sheikah Slate features will be on the x-axis. The Combat features will be on the y-axis. What’s next? Fill in the blanks. I’ve already identified some of the most obvious interactions, but our list at this point is hardly comprehensive. Can you think of any others? How about a possible interaction between Stasis and Melee Attack? (I’ve purposefully kept this particular box of our spreadsheet blank). The game actually reveals this interaction to its players during the tutorial: use the stasis power on something, then whack the object with a weapon to send it flying in a given direction. Every interaction isn’t quite so obvious, though. Did you know for example that you can shield block your own bombs?
Systems interaction can be designed with a spreadsheet
Systems interaction is important for several different reasons. We’re used to having a high level of personal agency in the real world, so it can be incredibly gratifying to have our actions acknowledged by a game. (This would pretty much be what the immersive simulation genre is all about). It can help to foster emergent behavior, too. Exploring the possibility space in Breath of the Wild for example is always a delight. Have you ever tried flying a raft with Octo Balloons and a Korok Leaf? Give it a shot. It’s actually pretty fun.
Octo Balloons are endlessly enjoyable
What else do game designers work on with spreadsheets? Pretty much every aspect of a game can be expressed on a grid — even dialogue. Narrative design is beyond the scope of this article, but hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two at this point about the importance of spreadsheets for game development. What now? Get out there and start spreadsheeting!