I need to identify a maximum number of characters in a game so that I can provide a high number of choices without overwhelming the player. How do I determine the optimum set of characters to use in this case? Every set I come up with is either overwhelming for players or have too few choices.
A simple litmus test: does this new character add anything to the game or is it just fluff?
As a broad guideline on what feels bloated and confusing versus short and under-featured, I use the following:
The magic number 7 plus or minus 2. This is the sweet spot of human short term, working memory capacity. More than this number of fundamental choices at any one time will confuse and frustrate a player. For a character this would be the core archetypes like plate tank, melee dps, ranged healer, etc...
The magic number 3. As a side effect of the 7 rule, combinations of up to 3 elements/features will get you from 1..9 (i.e. within the 7 +- 2 range) end results. Any more than 3 features on any given character will similarly confuse and frustrate a player because choice suddenly blossoms to 16 and up, breaking the rule of 7. For a character this would be the core play style choices like weapons, shield, mobility, or fire, ice, earth.
You have to ask yourself, "Is there an optimum set of characters?"
The answer is maybe. The optimum number will be different for every game, genre and developer. This decision is very specific to the design of the game. There are a few ways to go about finding what you believe to be the optimal number, I've ordered them based on the time/effort required to acquire your optimal number:
- Random guess, based on what you feel is right. Likely the fastest approach. And once a decision is made, the actual development can get started.
- Use the average number of characters found in similar games. A little more research oriented approach. First make a list of similar games, then count the total number of characters in all of those games added together. Finally, divide that sum by the number of games in the list. For non-whole numbers, round up or down, to decide see #1.
- Develop a prototype with a variable number of characters and playtest with a various groups of beta testers. The empirical approach. It's a useful one, and will give you hard data about your game. As can be expected, this is probably the most accurate approach, but will take the most time. It can arguably be the best approach as well. Since it uses your game as the testing platform, it handles the situation where there aren't really any other games out there just like yours.
Unfortunately, there's not hard and fast rule for this. The number of characters you require to be optimal depends a number of things, including:
- The niches they fill (damage, defense, healing, etc)
- The gameplay strategies your players will use (kiting, tanking, dps, etc.)
- The gameplay strategies your game allows for (potentially different than the ones players use)
- If there are restrictions on duplication of characters in a game (a fighting game where characters can't fight themselves)
- The genre of your game (moba, mmorpg, single player rpg, fighting game, etc.)
- The skills and abilities of each character (balancing issues galore)
- What kind of gameplay there is (PVP, PVE)
- If there are factions or realms (now you might need to fill niches on both or multiple sides)
- The expected play time per character (if it takes a day to unlock all the skills a character has, vs weeks/months you might need a different number of characters)
- The price of the game (if the number of characters is a selling point, people want what they pay for)
If you decide the number of characters is 10, here's a question you can use to decide their color.