Games are never finished. This is especially true for multiplayer games, where developers can't fully know whether a weapon is overpowered, an ability is underpowered, or if a map needs tweaking, until thousands of people are hammering away at it. But when changes are made, they're usually detailed in patches with notes like "SMG damage has increased from 20 to 30." That's not the direction Respawn took with Titanfall 2. Instead, those notes said almost nothing.
"Rebalanced Legion Tone" reads one note. "Rebalanced Amped LMGs," reads another.
No specifics, no values. It was up for players to discover what these changes meant in-game.
This idea to pull back on getting so granular with patch notes came from Titanfall 2 producer Drew McCoy, who works alongside community manager Jay Frechette.
"He came in the room," said Frechette, "and said 'Hey, Jay, I have an idea, tell me what you think about this. What I want to do here is I want to try putting these patch notes out but let's not go into the nitty gritty details with numbers and percentages. I want people to go into this with an open mind. I don't want to color their perceptions. I want them to just play the game, see how it feels, and give us feedback on what they think is right.'"
So far, the response from the community has been positive.
"Its an interesting approach to balancing," said one player. "I guess its fair to see how it will work out."
Developers have radically different approaches to transparency when it comes to patch notes, too. Nintendo infamously frustrates its most dedicated fans on a regular basis with one its few competitive games, Super Smash Bros. Take the patch notes for version 1.1.4 of the game:
"Adjustments have also been made to make for a more pleasant gaming experience."
In reality, the game's been subtly modified in dozens of different ways, but it's incumbent on players to dive into the patch and figure out what Nintendo's tweaked this time around. This YouTube video shows how "adjustments […] for a more pleasant gaming experience" translates into tweaks like landing lag on Roy's back air move being adjusted from 19 frames to 16 frames.
Nintendo isn't making changes in a vacuum; they're watching how people are playing. But even Nintendo doesn't have a universal policy; the patch notes for Splatoon, the company's unexpectedly successful shooter, details out how the developers "adjusted the amount of damage that rollers inflict when rolling over Splash Shields." That's specific! Then again, it also says "adjustments have been made to make for a more pleasant gaming experience." So.
"If I tell people up front," said Frechette, "'Hey, we lowered Tone's shield wall by 20%.' You're going to have a lot of people, before they even play the game, say 'But the 40mm cannon is too strong!' or 'Her salvo core is too powerful!' They're already going into the game thinking that Respawn did it wrong, they didn't address the issue that I feel they should have addressed. They're already going into it with some negativity."
It's a complicated gamble. For hardcore players, this information might be useful in adjusting how they play. But it also might encourage people to engage the game in undesirable ways.
Years back, I was interviewing a multiplayer designer on a major shooter—one of the Halo games, I think. I asked about balancing, given how much contradictory information they must receive from players. The designer told me how players often don't know how to communicate what they're experiencing, and it's up to designers to interpret their reactions.
For example, players may be telling you over and over that pistols are overpowered in your game, when, in reality, the shotguns are underpowered. Players may not have access to the data that would let them draw that conclusion, but their reaction gives designers the information to act.
What Respawn's hoping to do is develop a new vocabulary to talk about how the game feels on a guttural level, rather than obsessing over the changes made to values in the code.
I want them to just play the game, see how it feels, and give us feedback on what they think is right.
"We want to challenge them and the way they give us the feedback," he said. "That's the hardest part. You're getting feedback, everybody's got a different idea, even if it's related to the same thing. You're getting it from a lot of different places. I think a challenge for any developer is how you prioritize that stuff, how you prove it out, how you make sure you're really addressing what they're asking for, are they being clear about what they're asking for?"
When someone says a titan is too powerful, Frechette wants to ask—and you can see him doing this in a reddit thread where people are discussing this patch— why they feel the titan's too powerful. Rather than stopping at the initial reaction, the hope is to dig a little deeper.
As with Super Smash Bros., it's entirely possible people will start figuring out the specific values Respawn is changing to try and balance the game. Since Respawn isn't providing details, this could lead to situations where misinformation spreads throughout the community.
"That's a really good question," said Frechette."That's a balance I wouldn't say I have a surefire answer to yet, mostly because I haven't seen a whole lot of it."
That's partly because the most recent patch didn't introduce sweeping changes to the game. Controversial balance changes are sure to happen at some point, however, and Respawn is open to changing its approach, if it does more to hurt than help the community it's fostering.
Editor's Note: I used to work alongside Jay Frechette when we both wrote for 1UP.com.