The Challenges of Balancing an Early Access Game


We're in Early Access, the game is being developed in chunks, with the help of your feedback, and we sometimes need to go back and rebalance stuff, while trying to avoid progress wipes. This will be easier for some updates, harder for others, but our goal here remains to make a kick-ass co-op game with dwarves. Now, onto the meat of this post:


In this post, I want to explain some of the challenges we are facing when balancing a live game. For players, and sometimes ourselves, it can be easy to forget that we are in Early Access. In a way, we are very flattered by this misconception, and we see it as a testimony to the stability and polish we try to apply to everything we do.

But Early Access is still the reality, and the majority of the challenges that we are facing in balancing the game is related to the following topics:

  • Releasing unbalanced updates 

  • The game is constantly evolving

  • Trying to avoid progress wipes

  • Making a 1-4 player co-op game


We are striving to release updates for DRG on a regular basis. We were at update 7 when we released the game to Early Access, and today we are working on update 19. That is 11 major updates in 8 months time. The only way we have been able to have this rapid release cycle has been through releasing updates as soon as they are functional, but not necessarily balanced.

Let me provide an example:

With update 18 we released a huge system change with Assignments and Retirement of dwarves. Assignments were introduced to provide a smoother start for newcomers and are something we’ll use for players to unlock new content in the future - alternate weapons, for example. The process of retiring characters was introduced to create a sustainable end-game loop for experienced players.

Our goal is that the whole game experience is contained within the first retirement cycle (bringing a dwarf to max level 20). However, we’ve realized that getting your character maxed out happens a lot faster than we initially planned. Several things play into this, but probably the biggest factor is the recent introduction of Mission Mutators, some of which can leave you with an enormous XP hazard bonus.

In the future, we are adding more assignments, and we will introduce something we refer to as “Daily Adventures” and we need to contain all this new gameplay within one retirement cycle. (Please note that there is no guarantee they will be daily, even though this is how we refer to them right now). This means that we will extend the character level cap beyond level 20. Retiring a dwarf is something we consider to be for the few very dedicated players and is something that rewards prestige more than anything else. The first implementation worked, but not entirely as we hoped. So, with update 19 there will also be some significant changes to the Retirement System, including a name change!

The short of it is that discovering the issues with the retirement flow was impossible for us to foresee before we released update 18 and we will have to do tweaks and changes to the system. And some players will win, some players will lose when we do tweaks, and that is a consequence of releasing updates often and early.


We are not making everything at once but over time. Sometimes we add features that make the game easier, and sometimes we add features that make the game harder.

When we introduced the Mactera Grabber (a flying enemy that will grab a dwarf and carry him up and away from combat), the game became a lot harder. When we introduced weak points on enemies, the game became easier. And so it goes. Once and a while we need to revisit features we balanced in the past and give them an overhaul, and sometimes our players will feel that they lost something they had just become accustomed to.

When we introduce new weapons with Update 19, we will be in a similar state: The weapons will not be perfectly balanced, and we will have to rebalance them over the following updates. We expect you, our early adopters, to give us feedback and tell us bluntly when something is totally overpowered or laughably weak. But we also expect that you are patient with us and that you trust that we, over time, will deliver a balanced game.

In short, we are not producing features for DRG in a sequence that automatically creates a balanced game, and old game features will continuously be tweaked as time goes by.


We have so far avoided doing any global save wipes or progress resets, and our philosophy is that if possible we would like to avoid it. When we remove or change anything players have spent resources on - like vanity items or weapon upgrades, we strive to refund he resources. However, with the last update, we’ve seen some players having accumulated so much prior XP that retiring their characters boosted them to Player Ranks we never intended for the system.

At some point, we may encourage players to reset their save games to get the full experience of DRG, and we might even have to force reset them. With a game that is constantly changing and not yet complete, it may turn out to be too hard for us to continuously avoid save wipes. We will, however, make sure to give you fair warning if we go down that road.

This is all part of being an Early Access title, and something we consider part of the deal when buying DRG.


In the early days of the game, we made some key decisions that set us apart from most co-op games: We would not introduce bots to replace real players, and we would allow the game to be played by 1-4 players.

The biggest reason for not using bots is that DRG takes place in fully destructible, procedurally generated game world. Producing an AI to reliably traverse that kind of environment in a believable, “human” manner would simply be outside the scope of our small team. Instead, we chose to scale enemy difficulty based on player numbers. This works quite well for 2-4 player games, but making the co-op-style gameplay work for a single player game has been and continue to be very challenging for us.

To assist solo players, we’ve introduced Bosco - a multipurpose flying drone. Bosco can assist you in mining and combat, and revive you when you go down. Bosco is not the equal of a real player companion, but he helps to close the gap up to a co-op game.

We have several mission types that are not particularly solo friendly. If you are playing solo and you are facing a mission that is too hard, I recommend that you lower the difficulty of the game. If you are used to playing 4 players on Dangerous (hazard 3) maybe you need to be playing Challenging (Hazard 2) when playing solo. There is no shame in turning the difficulty up or down depending on which missions you play and how many players you are playing with.

DRG is first and foremost a Co-op game, and in the future, we will be introducing more enemy types and environmental hazards, where being more players will be an advantage. But whenever we do this, we need to consider how it impacts the solo experience.

We want to deliver a great experience for solo players, but not at the expense of providing an excellent co-op experience. Nevertheless, as we add features to the co-op game, we will revisit the single player experience and improve it. Just expect it to be co-op first, solo second.

That said, Bosco himself will be getting an overhaul in the near future. We are hard at work making him a much more useful partner, as well as developing an upgrade system for him, specifically aimed at making Solo play a more viable experience.


To sum it up: DRG is an Early Access game. That means that the game is not done yet! Our approach is to get new features into the game fast, and then get them into the hands of the players sooner rather than later. That means functional but potentially unbalanced updates, with continuous rebalancing based on the invaluable feedback we are receiving from the community. We are not trying to please specifically the hardcore or casual players. We are trying to make an excellent experience for everyone.

Early Access has been an awesome experience for us. It has helped us priority tasks, balancing the game and getting ideas for features. It is the best thing in the world to read all your comments, motivational posts, and crazy memes. It puts a big smile on our faces, and it makes all the hard work we do 110% worth it.

DRG is still an Early Access Game. We will let you know when it isn’t anymore! Until then….Happy mining!

Rock and Stone!

Game Director
Ghost Ship Games