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There have been two instances from the past two weeks that I've heard from well known successful game developers that they use spreadsheets when designing games.

The first being David Whatley in this GDCVault video: From Zero to Time Magazine: App Success

The second being the guys that do Walled Garden Weekly.

David said he models everything out and uses excel models to see how everything plays out. What on earth is he talking about? Is it seeing how the game mechanics react to each other?

Is there somewhere where I can learn more about how to do this?

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This smacks of cargo-cult thinking. They use spreadsheets because they work for the game they're making. It's not some magic chicken-bone that you wave over your game to make it better. You use the tools that are appropriate for you and your game, not because <insert famous game designer here> uses them. –  Nicol Bolas Oct 22 '12 at 23:43
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For someone learning about game design, wouldn't a decent approach be to understand how game designers who've had some success do their job? Following the same methodology of knowledge extraction as you would if you were designing an expert system. I fully understand that I may find a better way of doing things. This question was asked more out of curiosity. –  Joey Green Oct 23 '12 at 14:38
    
There's a difference between asking about how successful game developers do their job and asking about a specific tool and its use in game development. It's no different than reading about two successful game developers who use a notepad (the physical object) in game development and then asking about notepads in game development. –  Nicol Bolas Oct 23 '12 at 17:43
    
Knowing how a game designer uses a tool can provide a lot of information as I think it has with the answers provided. For instance, if you asked a carpenter how he uses a hammer you can gather a lot of info about why he's using the hammer. –  Joey Green Oct 23 '12 at 23:36

5 Answers 5

up vote 25 down vote accepted

To give an example where spreadsheets make sense for game balancing: I am currently developing an RPG. I wanted to design a formula for the experience needed to reach each character level. My goal was that each level takes a bit longer to reach than the previous one, even though the character is stronger with each level and thus makes more exp per minute.

So I created a spreadsheet with a row for each level and the columns "EXP to next" and "expected EXP per minute" which were a function of the level. The third row "minutes per level" was calculated from the previous two. That way I could easily see how much time the player will spend on each level with my exp per level formula.

My first formula used to calculate "EXP to next" in fact resulted in a decrease of the time spent on later levels, because I underestimated how much more exp high level characters will make. So I changed the formula from quadratic to exponential. That fixed it, but now the lower levels only took seconds. Adding a multiplication factor got nice numbers for the lower levels, but levels above 60 took several years to reach, which was rather overshooting my goal.

After a lot more fiddling around, I finally got a pretty nice formula which did what I wanted. Simulating all those formulas in a spreadsheet surely saved me weeks of playtesting.

Some random examples from other genres where using spreadsheets could makes sense:

  • Side-scrolling shoot-em-up: Average lifetime of each enemy ship when the player concentrates its firepower on it. Important to see how many new enemies per second are still manageable.
  • Real-time strategy: Simulating combat of each unit against every other one to see which one wins with how much health left. Check these results against the unit costs to get a hint which ones might be over- or underpriced.
  • 4X: Model economical growth over time and research progress over time to find a fair cost for each new unit/facility which becomes available.
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The spreadsheet is employed to simulate the game internal economy and maybe other closely related stuff.

If you need a more visual tool to do that, check Joris Dormans framework called Machinations. You can even do part of the mechanics in there.

http://www.jorisdormans.nl/machinations/

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I've actually bought his book. Haven't received it yet though. –  Joey Green Oct 22 '12 at 22:05

I use excel in many ways to balance the game economy etc...

We also use it in level design, we list out all the mechanics on the columns, and all the levels on the rows and X off where we should plan to use the feature in the levels. This way they are appropriately scaled; this way its easy to tell if you have too many mechanics, or if there is a mechanic that is getting too much/not enough use.

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I once used Excel to help a designer give me a list of simple football plays for a football mini-game.

Basically the requirements were for 8-10 destination sets for 6 linesmen on the field. The game itself (engine and all) was still under heavy development.

I took an image of a football field and aligned it so that the coordinates were the same as in game, then made a point graph overlay to represent the positions of the linesmen. The designer, then simply needed to type in the coordinates that he wanted by trial and error.

Of course instead of using this tool, he played around with photoshop leading to yet more iteration, but that's beside the point. The point is that Excel is extremely general purpose and can be used for almost anything.

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This is an economy balance spreadsheet by Net Jacobsson.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Aj7KDHJLUaEJdDhPTmJQS2tPMjNnSVhpV1VLOENKTHc&hl=en#gid=0

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From the looks of it, the person designing that game never bothered with a spreadsheet. Game balance seems all out of whack. –  Muz Apr 5 at 8:57

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