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Game Play and the Balance Cult
by Shawn Olson on 07/06/14 10:24:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Yes, this is a minority report. But bear with me.

I took a break testing a level I'm working on to run around some of the levels added to Operation Breakout for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. They look great, but it was Blackgold that piqued my interest the most--not because the other maps were lesser, but because it spurred nostalgia for me. I'm pretty sure some of it was directly rooted in as_oilrig for CS 1.6.

Then I read a post on Rock Paper Shotgun about this level where Graham Smith shares the same essential estimation and feeling.

One of the things Smith said reminds me of a constant discussion that I have with my fellow gamers and designers. Smith noted that as_oilrig was part of the Assassination mode in CS 1.6 that was dropped from CSS and CSGO because "that mode was difficult to balance." Is that why the mode was dropped? Why do games and levels always have to be balanced?

In my circle, almost all players seem to get aggravated with any perception of imbalance. I'll agree that there is some level of merit to this. But at the same time, I don't really agree with much emphasis on this aspect to gaming. I understand that this flies in the face of common wisdom and in the opinion of most gamers. But the world is a big place, and there is plenty of room for variation.

Yes, there is something in balance that cannot be ignored. In the real world, pitting the USA Dream Team against 6 year-olds on the basketball court would be pointless and blatantly unbalanced. That extreme is certainly not what I'm talking about.

There is, in my view, a very valuable aspect to imbalance; furthermore, balance is not as easily quantifiable as you might think--as there are often multivariate levels that contribute to balance. Level design, player skill, network speeds, computer specifications and game goals all factor into the balance of any online match. These are all variables that inherently make balance imprecise.

Embracing Challenge

Challenge itself is one of the most undervalued elements of games. Learning to embrace challenge is a missing aspect of our modern gaming culture. In my opinion, the aversion to challenge is more than a game issue--it is a cultural issue that needs some attention in much wider discussions than games themselves. Facing challenges offers opportunities to learn and adapt, and both success and failure afford valuable lessons.

Imbalance offers varying levels of challenges in gaming environments. I cringe every time I play a level where players start chatting about how much they hate that level because team A or team B has an inherent edge. To me, those complaints are largely juvenile.

Take a level like dod_strand for Day of Defeat: Source. This level features Allied forces storming a fortified beach. Initially, the bulk of challenge falls on the shoulders of the Allied forces because they must make it across a mostly open beach that is being defended by Allied forces along a bunkered ridge. When servers switch to this level, the crowd often disappears. Those that stay complain and RTV.

I love this kind of map. Really, the Allied forces should never be able to break the line. But very often, the Allied forces eventually break through the defences. Now the challenge falls onto the Axis team.

In this scenario, there is balance, but it happens over time rather than space. The upper hand changes as the circumstances change. It's dynamic!

Take another game that I love--Hidden: Source. This game is a prime example where imbalance paints the tapestry of unique experiences. In Hidden, a team of special-ops players is pitted against another player who has special abilities (among them, being nearly invisible). In a one-on-one game, the odds favor the Hidden. In a ten-on-one game, the odds favor the IRIS team. The fun experience in playing the IRIS team when the odds are against you is the opportunity to feel nervous, apprehensive and jumpy--things many people pay for at the Box Office. And the enjoyment of winning a round when the odds are against you enhance the value of those moments. When playing the Hidden when the IRIS team is full is far more satisfying than when the IRIS team is nearly empty--because the sense of accomplishing a challenging goal is more poignant.

If you aren't the kind of person who likes challenges... just remember that each round ends. On most servers, the sides get swapped and the tables will turn.

The AWP Dilemma and Team Work

I think that one of the aspects of online gaming that imbalance can enhance is team work. In the FPS, you can overcome imbalances by using your brain and team to overcome a challenge.

Take the example of the AWP in Counter-Strike (and sniper rifles in all FPS games). People will complain endlessly about camping snipers as if such players are sub-human, cheating Morlocs. But in many scenarios, the failure of team A to overcome the sniper(s) on team B are lack of team work--another element of our culture that seams to need attention even beyond online games.

Using the analogy of basketball, the solution to a sharp-shooting three-point shooter is to change your tactics if he keeps making threes--and quit giving him open shots by sticking someone on him. In the FPS, this means coordinating efforts at diversion, cover and suppression. If the sniper is covering the long hallway, use some smoke grenades. If he is covering the path up to your target, send out a decoy another way or use smoke in another path as a diversion. Distract the sniper so your own sniper can take him down. Adapt to the current situation--the current challenge.

Instead, players love to complain about how the AWP should be removed from the game. I'm no good with the AWP and I hate getting killed by it. But that's not a good reason to remove it from the game.


I wish that more people would embrace the variations that imbalance offers. In my view, just because a goal is challenging doesn't mean that it isn't worth attempting. In fact, the more challenging the terrain, the better the opponents, the more fun the scenario. And more rewarding when you win as the team with the gimped stats!

Challenges force you to explore new solutions to solving problems. In fact, facing a challenge with an open mind may help you discover a new way to completely tip the balance in your favor--which helps evolve the whole experience. I'm not saying that games should recreate the Kobayashi Maru (the No-Win Scenario). I'm saying that there should be variation--and that gamers should embrace these variations with open arms.

PS. Please Valve... bring back Assassination mode in CS:GO. Some of us liked the challenge of it!

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Matthew Woodward
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Better balance -> harder to "solve" -> more longevity.

(Balance != symmetry.)

Chris Dias
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I'm glad somebody mentioned that balance isn't symmetry.

Robert Marney
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The occasional asymmetric experience is fun, unless I'm grinding for an achievement or unlock which requires a streak of wins or good performances - things which have become increasingly popular. As long as you have at least some subset of the game which is properly balanced, you can sustain a vital competitive scene - just ask Super Smash Bros. which goes deep into the options screen to get the desired experience.

Alfa Etizado
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"In the FPS, you can overcome imbalances by using your brain and team to overcome a challenge."

The problem is that I can assume everyone will work just as hard as I am, but if they have an inherent edge then I'll lose most times. So, things like team work or anything that comes from the player, all of this can be used by both sides, but just one side has an advantage given by the game. That's unmotivating.

That's why people don't like imbalanced things, because in a multiplayer game your opponent should be as good as you are.

Bob Johnson
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I don't think anyone cares about balance on pubs in a game like BF4. The only balance they care about is whatever helps them get a high kdr.

Few on bf4 servers are checked in enough to care about tactics and objectives.

Tim Kofoed
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When playing FPS games, which I rarely do, I don't tend to want much of a challenge. I mostly play them to not have to think too much. If the majority of FPS players feel that way also, then it would be a good choice to remove such challenges. Also, if that is the case, then I believe it would be very hard to get a team of people, who don't want to think too much, to cooperate meaningfully. Balancing which relies on cooperation would therefore likely fail.

If that is the case, then to try to appease both sides, I'd suggest adding a setting to multiplayer lobbies with "Challenging", "Casual" and "Mixed", or some variation of the words based on usability testing. The lobbies could then filter the maps which are unbalanced... or better yet, it would place those who want a "Casual" experience on the side with the advantage in unbalanced games, and those who want a challenge on the side with the disadvantage.
That way, those who want a challenge, and are more likely to cooperate, would need to cooperate, and those who don't want to think or cooperate, would be required not to; this might just balance the unbalanced map.
In this case, I'd suggest removing "Mixed" from the lobby options, because I suspect most people would just choose that option.

Sam Stephens
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"Imbalance offers varying levels of challenges in gaming environments. I cringe every time I play a level where players start chatting about how much they hate that level because team A or team B has an inherent edge. To me, those complaints are largely juvenile."

The obvious reasons why such an imbalance is frustrating is that it's just not fair. An opponent of equal or greater skill is already one of the greatest challenges in gaming. Giving those players an advantage doesn't make them anymore of a challenging threat, it just gives them a head start.

"I think that one of the aspects of online gaming that imbalance can enhance is team work. In the FPS, you can overcome imbalances by using your brain and team to overcome a challenge."

Not really. An opposing team with an advantage is just as capable of strong teamwork. Teamwork is just a way to compensate for that disadvantage, but if the opposing team is also practicing good teamwork, then we're back to where we started.

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It's interesting that Valve does take more of your approach with Dota 2. Or at least, Valve lets Icefrog design it the way he wants.

Dota 2 has retained the weird mechanics and quirky gameplay elements of being old Warcraft 3 mod. It breaks so many rules of good balanced design, a lot of the things in Dota are considered anti-patterns in other games. But somehow it works out in the end.

Valve even left the infamous 'fountain hooks' in the game for years, on purpose, until just last year. Which I was think was a mistake... they only won two games.

Alex Van de Weyer
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Interesting thoughts, very good read. Thanks.

Is there a distinction to be made between balance and fairness? I think as players we want Counter-Strike to be fair, but if we have perfect balance at all times then there will be less win-streaks, less advantages to be gained, less tricks to exploit. So I don't think players want balance, but they want a fair chance of being able to exploit the imbalance that they can earn through their skills.

I think many of the greatest games are usually a mixture of competing factors that both balance and imbalance. The metagame is the attempt to exploit imbalances either within updates of games or within trends and tactics of opponents. Without imbalances there would be nothing to exploit and less of a vibrant game (or community to discuss it). It's absolutely crucial in games like poker, Hearthstone and the MOBAs. And the luck element I think is also the most crucial way of both imbalancing a game to make it less predictable and balancing it to allow weaker players a chance.

Gian Reis
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I kinda agree with you, we all need to expand our horizons and get out of these same recipes, but it's also worth noting that inbalance, in games like CS, is something to really a lot of care.

The two extremes are visible, in the same CS. As a server map changes from dust2 to dust, the amount of players leaving it the more the game advances, because they notice that the CTs have an enormous advantage, and the game suddenly changes from a "let's plan something" to "let's pray to God so the sniper at the far end of the tunnel don't hit us".

But in dust2, the imbalance offered by the T's spawn vision of the middle section makes the first moments of a round exhilarating. It really becomes a game of reflex to T's, in advantage, since they are standing still, while the CTs try to cross the middle without getting shot. The main reason this works here and not in dust is because, let's say, "the unbalance is balanced", giving the players a sense of the fairness cited below.

Shawn Olson
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Thanks for the comments guys.

I don't believe that there never should be balance, or that it should be ignored. I'm mainly promoting variation in ideas.

I also know that there is no way to change the habits of players, because many habits are directly rooted in personality traits--and we all know that the average player is interested most in K:D.

That doesn't mean we can't think of other elements to games. It may be a fact that the majority of players want those scenarios which can be hyperbolized in fy_iceworld; but that doesn't mean that the minority of players (like myself) are wrong. It is a preference.

Something I neglected to consider in the post is an element of games that can balance things back out, which is new content. When a new level comes out, everyone is new and equally "clueless" about the strategy. That both sides are full of people that are floundering for the goals is fun. But this doesn't seem to be the view on many communities and players--which love playing the same levels over and over forever.

Some veteran players get angry when a "nub" kills them in a new map--and I've seen this as an excuse to avoid unknown levels. That a veteran gets angry with this rationale points to the player not genuinely caring about the balance, but about pride in K:D--though it is common to see the player complain that the reason the new level is no good is the balance.

I love playing new levels where I'm not really sure if the next corner is safe or not. And if a new player kills me, so be it. It gives me a reason to go refill my drink!

My main goal is to promote variation--in both players and designers.

Lucas Rowe
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Good idea! I agree with you on this, especially for those gamers who do enjoy having the challenge. Balance is important, but I think in many cases we over think the idea of balance. Of course giving both teams reasonable chances to be competitive against each other is important, but what is the point of playing a game you can always win every time? Things like glitches and spawn point misplacements can alter a game's fairness drastically, but just giving one team a VIP player (with limited weaponry), does not alter a game's balance as much as we might think.

I think that when it comes to balance, the main thing that comes into play more than even map structure, weapons, and strength, is player skill. If you have one team composed of very good, and highly experienced players vs. the other team that is composed of newer player (noobs), regardless of team balance in terms of gamemode, the highly skilled team is more likely to win.

What I think needs to be taken into consideration, aside from balance, is the competitiveness of the game mode, and the nature of the game that you are playing. For sports games for example, the nature of the game is usually about a symmetrical field or court, and a fair number of players on each side. However, the nature of all CS games is on more of a war or battle type of situation, where there are not so many rules, as in sports. When it comes to CS there should not be too much concern of being perfectly balanced, because that is what makes the game fun! When you must work together as a team to complete the objective, and adapt to changing enemy tactics and goals, it is much more satisfying to come out victorious, over the teetering odds.

In conclusion and my final statement, I know that not all think this way and would rather just run around and shoot and kill, I think that bringing back this game mode for CS: GO would be perfect to express the nature and theme of the game. Not only would there be a component of the game that is greatly missed back in servers, not all servers would have to include the game mode for those who are greatly opposed to it.