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Thursday
Nov042010

Football Helmet Clown Shoes Guy

I was doing some consulting on a small game that I can't really talk about, but there's a lot of customization in the game. I was discussing with a friend (the mysterious Mr. G. Phantome) how we were going to balance this thing. He imagined a future player who works really hard to make his guy into a samurai. He has the samurai helmet and armor pieces, and a decent plasma sword and everything. And then he meets...

Football Helmet Clown Shoes Robot. The terror of the metagame, this guy destroys the samurai guy. Why? Because even though the samurai looks cool, he basically sucks. The mishmash, discordant eyesore of Football Helmet Clown Shoes guy is just way more powerful. We imagined that the forums are full of outraged players, complaining about this, but they don't really grasp the game system. They keep calling for the football helmet to be nerfed, but they don't understand that the clown shoes are what really powers the build, in fact, it's really just the left shoe.

A new player starts playing and asks what pieces he should be looking for. The experienced players tell him "Dude, you want Football Helmet and Clown Shoes, for sure." The sad new guy asks if he has any other choice. "Caveman is barely viable," says the expert. "Flower hands can win too, but loses to everything else so good luck with that."

The point of all this is just that a customizeable system can have aesthetics at odds with balance or power. You have to look out that for the problem that actual experience the player will have with the game is encountering absurdly bad-looking characters. Imagine a fighting game, for example, where one guy is wearing some ugly safari outfit and the other has a huge hat that covers half his character and some enormous robe that covers the rest, so you can hardly tell who anyone even is. Yeah it's fun to customize, but some careful art direction is in order.

Magic: the Gathering

Later, for reasons unrelated to the above, I was scrolling through some images of Magic: the Gathering cards. By chance, I happend to come across the card Donate. I asked Mr. G. Phantome if he knew about how Donate (a seemingly terrible card that gives the opponent one of your cards) was actually part of one of the most powerful and dominant decks ever. He said he was not aware. So then I showed him Illusions of Grandeur, the other part of the combo. I told him to just LOOK at the cards, not even really read what they do, but just look at them side by side, and think about how they were the terror of MTG for a long time.

"Oh my god!" he said. "It's Football Helmet Clown Shoes Robot!" These cards are absolutely awful looking, and of all things, THESE were the focus of the game at that time. This serves as a warning to anyone who would allow customization: at least try to make it so that whatever ends up getting all the attention looks half-decent. Yeah I know that can be hard though!

Reader Comments (40)

Illusions/Donate (I think the deck was called Trix) was a fine combo, but the cards surrounding it were what made it such a powerhouse. Necropotence was absolutely unfair, and fueled the deck for the most part, combined with cheap disruption and deck manipulation. In the end, Necropotence was the real problem, not so much the combo kill.

Necropotence was also considered the worst card in Ice Age when it first came out. Those must be the clown shoes.

November 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

I've been thinking about how to make a system like this work out much better, and what I've thought of is having a toggle box to turn off the aesthetics of your actual gear if you want, and then just equipping whatever other gear for whatever look you want, or possibly equipping abilities or equipment that wont affect your look, and then equipment that ONLY affects your look, so that you can look like the football helmet clown shoes robot or the caveman or whatever the hell you want and still use an efficient build - then you only have to worry about making sure the abilities allow for a lot of diversity while staying balanced, so you don't get the same 3 cookie cutter builds.

I'm horrible at programming though, so I don't know if it'd be worth the amount of code you'd have to write to get that to work. You'd have a problem with not knowing just what the other person's gear/abilities are, unless you do something where you can check them at any time during the game or just at the start of the game or something, depending on how the game works.


Just make it so that the aesthetics are completely separate from the actual mechanics. It might be stupid to have someone huge like Potemkin running around as fast as someone like Chipp, or a guy wearing a speedo being a tank character, but it'd just add to the charm of the game I guess.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTheRealBobMan

Eh. Yes, Illusions/donate is a combo made of two individually awful cards, but there's something to be said for making players work to produce unique game outcomes. Ten years ago you might have looked at magic and thought it was a game about slamming dragons and angels into each other, and you would have been wrong. You *could* make decks full of knights, beasts etc and win with them, but the game was a great deal broader and deeper than that.

At present, you'd be largely right. We've seen one deck in the last two years that doesn't run creatures, and it is a straight-forward combo deck built around one card and the cantrips that support it. Threats are extraordinarily powerful, generally straightforward, and most can win the game by themselves. Frost Titan looks like he beats Baneslayer Angel... and you know what? He does.

It isn't that it has taken all the skill out of the game, or that careful deck-building doesn't pay off, but archetypes have largely melted into a potpourri of aggro-control, all running roughly the same mythic cards in their chosen colours. In ten more years, looking back at today's meta we won't see Trix, Parfait, The Rock and Sui Black - just a conglomerate of shades of aggro-control.

I don't believe that's good for the long-term health of the game as whole.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCSeraph

I ran into this same problem while prototyping a turn-based combat board game I was making along with a friend. The idea was roughly based around building teams D&D-style characters, with fully customizable race/class/skill/weapon/armor combinations. During our initial playtests I quickly discovered the problem with maintaining aesthetic control of a game, while allowing for this level of customization. My friend was a strict min-maxer, and looked for the most optimal builds, regardless of what the characters would actually end up looking like. Gnome rogue wielding a greatsword, sure! 4 identical human fighters, I guess they're twins... Even though our game pieces were bits of folded paper with names written on them, I got hung up on the fact that most optimal builds would "unrealistic" with the game lore/aesthetics.

I think Magic creates a game world where it's ok to have these inconsistencies. The "lore" is basically 2 wizards dueling, and summoning up whatever creatures/spells they have in their spellbooks, so it's ok if you have a deck full of cards that are thematically disconnected, even the official lore is pretty over the top, hammer wielding elephant people seem pretty ridiculous. If you want to allow a lot of customization, you have to go with a game theme that supports a wide variety of combinations, or else stick to a stricter theme, and allow for customization within certain parameters, so a solider could have heavy/light armor, and a machine gun/sniper rifle, and those combinations would still make sense on the soldier.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Vogel

When this happened to GunBound, the solution was to make servers where items didn't have stats so you could look however you wanted and still be on even terms with the clone army.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBoco

@Andy: Necro was obviously super powered, but all of Trix was crazy powerful. Illusions/Donate was still a viable deck after Necro was banned.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLofo

Warhammer Online now allows you to dress any item up as any other item of its type that you have control over. You can't appear to be wearing endgame armor at rank 1, but some endgame players have gone back to middle-tier PvE content to get cool-looking, low-stat gear.

For good or ill, this illusion has no effect on how the enemy realm players see you; they see you wearing the base item graphics. Sigh.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRineff

The ideas about letting you choose whatever look you want that is separate from function won't really work here. That kind of doesn't work anywhere really, because you WANT the visuals to give you a clue of what the other guy actually is or has or can do.

In our case, to make up a fake example that shows the point, imagine some guy has a laser cannon attachment. It deals certain damage, fires at a certain speed, etc. Some other guy has a missile attachment. Missiles would be slower, maybe they have splash damage or something. They are different functions is the point. So you don't WANT people to be able to use lasers that look like missiles.

At least a good thing about my example is that "laser cannon" and "missile attachment" are the type of interchangeable things that really can work without looking horrible. So maybe one answer here is that those things are fine in the first place and no special trick is needed to avoid Clown Shoes problem. But then further imagine there is a "helmet" that does nothing except contribute an armor value. We could make like 100 different helmets that are all "+2 armor points" and then it's just personal preference which one you use, you're not locked into it by some gameplay build.

Could be good have some things that are blatantly for looks like that, and other things that need to look a certain way to give gameplay clues.

November 5, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

About the Necropotence thing. I would like to say I agree as Necroptence is broken by itself, ut when Necroptence was banned, the most dominant deck was Mono blue trix, that is, the same combo without necro. So clearly the combo was really powerful.

In what regards to article, Im all in for restrictions in customization that forbid things to look stupid. Or at least thing that look stupid become less powerfull. IF a wizard has a sword, he should be weak with swords. Etc.

Overall It also depend how strong the visual impact objects have. If you look at League of Legends or Dota. You have a dragon using 5 swords. And not many really care. (I care, but whatever). The items though are only seen in the inventory, but anyone who tried those games know that the items look ridiculous, just nobody thinks about it.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWaterd

"We could make like 100 different helmets that are all "+2 armor points" and then it's just personal preference which one you use, you're not locked into it by some gameplay build."]

Yeah, I meant it to be more like this but I didn't specify well enough. So long as there's some way to signal during or before a round/match/game what every person has so the players are prepared, it might be good enough to not have visual cues from what the characters are wearing - then, you just need to make sure the attack and "neutral" animations only work with the specific weapons, so that way you'll know when you see it. "Oh, this guy is using a sword because he's holding it that specific way when he runs around and swings it that way, even though it looks like a baguette", or "Oh, that beehive is actually a tommy gun because he holds it a certain way".

If you can tell what moves the character has by the way the character "carries itself", then it shouldn't matter quite so much what the character looks like, so long as you have the other information (stats, abilities, ect) given to you. Maybe it could even say "this weapon is a machine gun type - ignore the fact that it looks like a donkey and shoots watermelons. This player has this specific weapon with these specific abilities."

In the long run, I think it'll get really convoluted for the players, trying to remember everything that could look like anything, just to be able to play on reaction, but games seem to be shifting in this direction. The customization really appeals to a lot of players and gets them more engaged in the game, and if the custom items have an effect on gameplay (and they could do that but still be balanced out as long as developers don't go into that "pay real money for better items" or "here's 50 versions of the same item, but each one is slightly stronger than the rest - go level up for hours so you can get the best one"), it tends to add a bit of that addictive quality that's great for marketing. : (

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTheRealBobMan

Interesting read. More so since I'm facing a similar problem right now with a game I'm working on. It's an RPG, so character customization is big for us. That said, it's obvious that people will find the most powerful combination of things and use that, regardless of how it looks.

I would love to hear some more solutions for this.

But the one we ended up going with is divorcing the character's appearance from the items' functionality. You customize your stats separately from what the items that give that stats look like.

Another possibility is working with items sets. So that being a Football-helmet Clown-shoes guy is literally impossible. If you opt for clown-shoes, then you have to wear a full clown costume. If you opt for a football helmet, then it's a full football uniform. Then the artists can focus on making cool sets instead of separate pieces. And hopefully they won't come up with either clowns or football-players...

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBigJohn

If game lore allows it, I'd like to see someone come up with a system where armors that fit together evolves into fitting looks over time. The optimal set might look like Football Helmet Clown Shoes Robot for about a month, but then a patch would get released and all the pieces of the set would evolve into a titan-robot look while the samurai set degrades into turd helmet and straw shoes... I guess you can also recycle and just switch the looks of the clown/fitting set, but I'm afraid that would just confuse people though.

November 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjamuszero

Could something life Team Fortress' Polycount Item sets be implemented?

November 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhughalicous

Maybe it's about controlling the amount of discord? You're looking at the items are separate, each adding it's own attributes, without looking at the links in between...

If you are looking at a real scenario (humor me... I know "real" is subjective). Clown shoes would be horrible with a football uniform... because the mission or purpose of a football player requires "traction" with the feet... and clown shoes do not grant traction. So you curve the player towards certain items with a football motif and away from others.

Alternatively, a football helmet for a clown suit may go against attributes that would benefit the clown, say his mission is to be lightly armored, almost rubberbandish to attacks, and deceiving... and a football helmet affects his response time (sight limitation) and makes him more solid or vulnerable to head attacks (no longer rolls with the head punches but is forced to absorb them where the clown normally gets a dodge).

So "a lot of " aesthetic disparity clearly weakens the character where "just a little bit" of disparity may bolster a preferred area to improve a weakness in exchange for lossing some effectiveness in an area of strength. The football player can benefit somewhat from shoulder spikes alone, or boxing gloves alone, but using both together means he can't defend himself arguably well anymore (the effects become parabolically bad maybe?).

Also a small costume change could become "signature" and classy... where a guy on stilts holding two bowling balls and wearing only underpants... doesn't really make sense. :)

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNoigel

The ideas about letting you choose whatever look you want that is separate from function won't really work here. That kind of doesn't work anywhere really, because you WANT the visuals to give you a clue of what the other guy actually is or has or can do.

Well, that's taking it to the other extreme though. I agree, that wouldn't really work.

But if you break it down into classes, and give players the ability to choose from within those, you're still fine. Like say a player chooses to dual wield swords. Then within that, he could pick whatever sword stats/abilities he wanted, and also pick whatever looks he wanted. It doesn't really matters if the sword looks like a rapier, cutlass or whatever, it's still a sword and the other person knows he's up against a sword user.

Or another example, say Street Fighter had character customization. So you could choose the "karate" class, which gives you a fireball, dragon punch and hurricane kick. It also forces you to wear a karate suit. But if it's Ken's red suit, Ryu's white, Akuma's black or whatever, that doesn't really matter. All that matters is that the opponent knows he's up against a karate class.

Using karate-class for lack of better word. That's just how me and my brother called those. I'm sure there's a better term.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBigJohn

Guild Wars 2 is trying to solve this problem. Basically, they're making a transmute item, where you feed it two armor pieces, one armor piece is destroyed, and the other one is then given the stats and abilities of the old armor piece. This way, you can have whatever armor set you want, even keeping an armor set you collected near the beginning of the game, and just keep updating the abilities on it by feeding it stronger pieces.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterProven

I'm glad someone else is also comenting on the epidemic of stupid looking things in games. I'm not of the mind that people can't make a zany looking character and have fun or that people shouldn't be able to enjoy such things. It's that, from my observations, people who make the crazy looking ridiculous things usually don't care about aesthetics or the increased immersion that can come with a good visual set up. As such, whenever I see games add in customizable parts that are "zany and crazy!" or, even worse, create feasibly useful items that make characters look like something the state picks up on Tuesday, I get a little bit put off.

To me, the obvious solution is to simply design things that don't look ridiculous in the first place. I don't mind simple things like color clashing or a little guy holding a big sword. But he fantasy game with green mohawk hair option needs to die.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDS

Proven: that is not a solution to the problem I mentioned though. The idea of allowing any look to go with any game function is just a worse game to play than if looking at a guy tells you something about how he works. Other people here had some ok ideas on that, like the one about forcing you to wear a karate uniform if you are a Ken/Ryu/Akuma type customized guy, so at least you can tell the "class."

November 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Sorry, I should elaborated a bit more. Guild Wars 2 already has a couple systems in place that makes armor choice not that big of a deal. Armor pieces have mostly been a flat armor boost, and all things you can do to customize them aren't visual at all either. Additionally, you have a large number of skills you can equip with a minimal of restrictions; you can choose a certain amount of skills based off of you class set, another number from your race set, and a number from your weapon set. This ends with a double blind type of gameplay most similar to Pokemon, where each Pokemon has a large set of available moves, but can only bring a limited set. Well, we'll see if it works for them.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterProven

Additionally, you have a large number of skills you can equip with a minimal of restrictions

See that's a problem though. That basically means that they're sacrificing some uniqueness in favor of customization.

Imagine that in Magic: The Gathering you could play any card with any mana. Basically rendering mana colors meaningless. The game would be ridiculously boring. The uniqueness that each color brings to the table, the things it can do uniquely, and the things it cannot do, is a feature.

The trick, and the point of this article and discussion (I think), is to balance the two. Giving the players enough customization that they feel their character is unique, while at the same time limiting enough customization options so that you eliminate ridiculous results that are beyond the control of the creator.

Not only that, but also use the limited option set as a feature to let players know of the game-style of the opponent. Again, with the Magic example, if there were no colors in the game, you couldn't tell what your opponent is playing, not even in general. As it stands, the uniqueness of the colors makes it so that playing a specific one means things. Or in SF, if you go up against a Ryu, that means certain things. If you were to fight a Ryu, but all of a sudden he does Guile moves, that renders that whole system pointless.

Like I said earlier, the only way I can think of to accomplish this is "classes". Like the colors in Magic, they serve as a generic way to divide things.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBigJohn
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