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Understanding Balance in Video Games

June 8, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[What's the value of balancing your game, and how do you do it? 100 Rogues developer Keith Burgun tackles the issue of game balance, bringing to light insights that aren't entirely obvious, and showing where game balance really counts.]

"Dude, the AWP is so imba."

The slang term for "imbalanced" is heard frequently in online games, particularly in competitive games. Often, claims about "imbalance" come from a person who just lost such a game and is attempting to save face by placing the failure on the game and away from himself.

Usually, it is actually a combination of these. But sometimes, it really is just the game's fault. Balancing a game is a challenge that man has struggled with for thousands of years, and the battle continues in the realm of digital games.

The previously mentioned "AWP", for those who don't know, is a weapon in the super-popular online first-person shooter Counter-Strike. My personal opinion is that the gun is overly powerful; it's the only gun in the game that seems to be a one-shot kill, no matter where it hit you, whether you're wearing body armor, or behind how thick a wall you were hiding.

While I'm certainly not alone in thinking that (browse some servers on Steam and you'll see about a third of the active servers include a "no AWP" house rule), the debate continues to rage on.

Plenty of counter-arguments have been offered for why the AWP is indeed in balance with the rest of the game, but at the end of the day, it seems like it comes down to my opinion versus yours.

That's a major reason that balance in game design is so difficult to achieve -- it can be so difficult to perceive. There aren't always clean-cut, mathematical ways to balance your game; at the end of the day, it tends to come down to an educated guess on the part of the designers.

A game being "balanced" is also always, at best, a rough approximation. No game is truly perfectly balanced -- even in chess, one player gets to go first. A game being "in balance" is like a person being "in shape"; there's no strict, defined line at which a game goes from being in balance to out of balance, it's a gradual continuum.

Another thing that makes the task difficult is when you have to balance elements that function completely differently from each other. For example, if you're balancing an RTS, and the only thing that changes is attack damage and price, you could easily scale one up and one down when creating new units, and as long as you scaled them at the same rate, you could count on being pretty close to balanced.

Now, let's say we're making a kart racing game. In this game, there are several characters that each have their own ability. One character has an ability that allows him to fire a rocket to knock another kart out for a second. Another character has an ability that gives him a temporary speed boost. These are two abilities that function totally differently; there's no way to look at the numbers on paper and know what would be balanced. In a situation like this -- which is by far a more common situation than the first example -- all a developer can do is guess and check.

Why is balance important, anyway?

Gameplay is all about making choices and in a poorly-balanced game, many of the choices available to the player are essentially rendered useless. And this, in a nutshell, is why game balance is so important -- it preserves your game elements from irrelevance. In an imbalanced game, one or more "dominant strategies" quickly emerge, limiting other strategies useless except for some un-intended purpose (such as getting used as a handicap mechanism, or comedic reasons).

An example of this would be the "tiers" in competitive fighting games. There are usually three or so tiers of characters, with those characters agreed by the community as being "the best" in the top tier. Assuming that a player is attempting to win the game, choosing any of the characters besides those "best" characters is simply not a viable option.

Before I go on, I think it's important to be clear about what I mean by "dominant strategy". A dominant strategy, in the context of game design, is something that emerges due to game imbalance. A clear example of dominant strategy would be "blocking the opponent from getting three in a row", in Tic-Tac-Toe. That's a game that is rendered completely un-playable due to the obviousness of the sole strategy actually available to an aware player. This is the same way that dominant strategy damages or ruins games (although rarely to the same degree).

Levels of Scope

Characters in Street Fighter II, or weapons in Doom, or units in Civilization are examples of balance at the "elements" level. Sometimes, elements can seem imbalanced in a game when you're not looking at the whole picture. Many times, I've seen an extremely powerful element in a game, and initially said to myself, "Wow, that's gotta be over-powered!", only to find out later that there was a weakness to the element that wasn't immediately clear (the opposite happens a lot, too).

It's easy for a new player to think that Huntresses are an overly powerful unit in the early game in Warcraft III, but once a player realizes their subtly high costs, subtly high food counts, (and not-so-subtle way they get utterly ruined by Piercing or Ranged damage), they realize that they are paying a big opportunity cost by investing in a large amount of them. This is the type of balance that gets the most attention with most gamers.

There are so many areas in which imbalance can crop up, though. Let's take Warcraft III -- a game I played very intensely on the ladder for many years -- as our example. Firstly, you want to make sure that the races (factions of unit-types) are balanced, so that regardless of which race the player picks, they are not at a disadvantage. Then you need to balance the units inside the race against each other. When the game first came out (Reign of Chaos), spellcasters were too powerful, and so every battle was just a ton of spell casters versus another ton of spellcasters, regardless of race.

You also need to make sure the maps are balanced. You might at first say, "Well, that's easy! They just make the maps a mirror, and you're done!" But this is not so. You need to make sure that there isn't a dominant strategy for the map; so, expanding, creeping, attacking, and any kinds of sneaky attacks -- all (or at least most) of these need to be equally viable. That's already a lot to balance, and yet it's the standard for the modern RTS!

Then Blizzard added about five other mechanisms on top of that that needed to be balanced! Creeps, Items, Heroes, and even the competitive ladder itself all needed to be balanced. If you watch just a handful of Warcraft III replays today, you'll see that the game is clearly not balanced, as there are very clearly dominant strategies that get used over and over again. Balance is most likely the sole reason why the original StarCraft, which came out years before Warcraft III, is still more widely played and beloved by the community.

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Darren Tomlyn
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(Please read my blog (click my name) - for any required background to my posts).

I hate to say this, (because I agree with most of what you've written!), but your first (last) piece of advice is too simplistic.

Imbalance, in itself, is not inherently bad at all.

Why and how can that possibly be the case?

Balance is very closely tied to one other element in games, and, just like that element, is part of a game's SUBJECTIVE APPLICATION. That element, is, of course, DIFFICULTY.

So how can these two elements be APPLIED in a manner that is not inherently bad?

The answer, of course, lies in another concept, that is also just as important for games:


The problem with imbalance, of course, is that it is rarely consistent enough for a game as a whole, merely affecting parts of it instead.

There are two levels within games that imbalance affects, the basic systems, and their application. One of the biggest problems with games, is that imbalance with the first, generally leads to tinkering with the second (since it's easier), which then of course, causes more problems elsewhere.

I'm going to be (hopefully) coming back to all this when I start examining 'cRPG's' and their mechanics, but I can give you a reply to the last problem about Oblivion:

The word game, as representing an application of behaviour, represents an activity in which people compete in a structured environment by writing their own stories.

The whole point about levels in cRPG's is to give the game a 'marker' by which both the written story, (of the player) and the story being told (by the game) can be regulated. In Oblivion, levels have no real effect on the written story at ALL, and so have nothing to do with it being a GAME, merely affecting what happens TO the player instead - the story the game has to TELL - which is why Oblivion, in that respect, is not really a 'cRPG' at all, instead being merely an action adventure game with 'cRPG' elements.

(Many 'cRPG's' use a similar system to enable a story to be TOLD to a player, rather than ENABLING a story to be WRITTEN instead - more options to be used in the basic game-play - and so, again, are not really 'cRPG's. (Lord of the Rings Online is another example - the player has no choice over what options they gain at certain levels - it is regulating what happens TO the player, not what they do. Yes, they gain more options to use in basic game-play, but such game-play is not what 'cRPG' represents - ('action-adventure', is, instead))).

(Note - I'm using 'cRPG' because what this term has become used to represent is not really consistent with what the term RPG is used to represent outside of computers - (using the player as a medium in a specific manner. Some computer games can use the player in such a manner too, and would therefore also be RPG's. The element that cRPG's have become labelled as, however, actually has nothing to do with characters at all, (systematic, user-defined avatar/(things/characters etc.) development (over time), above and beyond the basic gameplay and setting - (which then must lead to game-play development itself or it has no purpose)). Oblivion does not use such a system in a manner consistent with this, which is why you've got problems with it, (as have I)).

Keith Burgun
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Can you give an example of a time when imbalance in a game wasn't a bad thing?

Darren Tomlyn
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As I said, you need to separate the basic sytems and mechanics from their application.

Imbalance in application is actually very common, especially in games based on player skill, in order to make the game more 'competitive'. This is purely subjective, however, and generally has no bearing on the basic rules (systems) of the game, and therefore the identity of the game, itself.

Handicaps in golf would be an obvious example. It's still a game of golf, even if played without them, especially since golf can, (and generally does) use indirect competition, (versus the par score of the course), in addition to the direct competition found between the players themselves, in application for the basic behaviour of playing the game itself.

Likewise, the difference between games being hard or easy, may simply involve different points of balance between the player and the game itself - which is purely subjective.

As I said, consistency is what really matters and differentiates 'bad' imbalance, from 'good' imbalance. Imbalance in itself, without knowing its application, means very little.

Seth Blakely
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I think you make some good points but ultimately I believe game balance depends on the equality of the player's opponent. Player vs. AI/Environment is not the same as Player vs. Player. If 2 human beings face off against each other they should be equipped with a set of tools tailored specifically to each of them, but the sum of each tool set should be equal. Outside of that rule I think everything else is relative.

Glenn Storm
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Talking about balance is enjoyable to me; it's very important to the player experience. For single player difficulty, I loosely equate balance with Flow (psychology), and it's paramount to a proper long term game experience. For multiple player, obviously balance _also_ includes a balance among sides, between players. Thanks for the article.

@Keith: King of the Hill matches, and the like, require imbalance. It's among the few times where there's an expected imbalance at the core of gameplay.

Jonathan Osborne
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I think the point the article is making isn't for symmetrical balance.

Imbalance in the sense that you describe is actually balance. Balance because this or that unit or ability is DELIBERATELY more powerful.

When he uses the term Imbalance he means that you haven't deliberately crafted the experience you want.

An example would be the battle cruisers in Starcraft. They're big, powerful, do a lot of damage. One on one they are better than other units and in the single player game there are parts where you have to use that to your advantage. However they are deliberately that way. So they're balanced.

(in multi player the balance is more symmetrical)

Darren Tomlyn
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Then the article is not precise enough...

Matt Enright
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The kill streak abilities in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare are deliberately imbalanced, but it is quite fun to call in a helicopter as a reward for playing well. Players complain, of course, but they all also hope to earn their own kill streaks and become overpowered.

Nicolas L
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"The kill streak abilities in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare are deliberately imbalanced."

=> I doubt.

Imbalanced skill between players is tolerated (or all the game would be pure luck, as dice rolling, etc). The better you can do against this is matchmaking.

Maybe CoD4 feel imbalanced from the point of view of a single player, but at a team level it is not. Every team has the same chance to get the special ability, it's just some kind of ressource gathering task. And top players get the right to unleash it.

David Harlow
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I need to point this out: there's a difference between using simple difficulty levels, and turning a given character/weapon/whatever into difficulty level choices. In fact, character/weapon choices are inherently difficulty level choices simply because of different playstyles. This is more reason to make sure they're balanced.

Arturo Nereu
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Interesting article, fits perfectly with the moment of our game. We are entering to the balancing phase and this will be very useful.


Greg McClanahan
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This is a really great article, and I'm glad that you highlighted why imbalance can be such a bad thing. Sometimes I'll point out to new developers that a weapon or element in their game is overpowered, and their response will often be something along the lines of, "Then don't use it if you want the challenge."

Providing difficulty is the game's job, not mine. I shouldn't have to intentionally handicap myself; this makes the difficulty feel artificial and the whole experience less fun.

Keith Burgun
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I *hate* "then don't use it". It's asking the players to be the game designers because you didn't do your job. High five.

David Harlow
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"I *hate* "then don't use it". It's asking the players to be the game designers because you didn't do your job."

This times 81,018,001

The developers need to expect that players will always try to be cheap-os. That needs to be balanced AGAINST.

Shreerang Sarpotdar
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I'm glad you attacked the "Single player doesn't need balance!" argument as well. Yes it does, and it ties in to the "Don't use it if it's overpowered" argument. If the game is providing me five tools of mayhem, I don't want to forgo using the Doomiest Doomgun of Doom because it's essentially an I-Win button for most of the way.

Oblivion is a great example of how not to do this. Dragon Age: Origins, despite the game being quite fun to play otherwise, had this for its Mages. There is no encounter that Mages cannot steamroll - they can heal, they can call down massive area damage, they can one-shot enemy mages later on, and can make themselves near impervious to physical damage. A party of three mages and a tank - or even a four mage party - will run through enemies like butter on Nightmare if you've got the right tactics.

In contrast, the Warrior and the Rogue, while they still deal good damage, get left behind by the Mage's power and versatility. Mages are considerably more fun to play, a direct result of the imbalance. The game obviously tries to compensate by making mages not have much HP, but with the abundance of mana potions in the game, Mages sneeze at this limitation. A simple mod that adds cooldown to the potions makes the fights much more strategic, but there's a good argument to be made that it doesn't solve the problem of Warriors and Rogues being not as fun to play.

Abe Pralle
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Good stuff!

Seth Blakely
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Keith I think your article is great and that you're spot on. I completely agree that developers are trying to add too much. I'm a firm believer that simple is better and the more you try to cram in the more there is to go wrong. I just joined Gamasutra and began my game design program so I don't have much to add, but this is the first time I've responded to an article and I just wanted to say thanks for writing it!

Philip Michael Norris
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I agree that less can definitely be more and Left 4 Dead is a perfect example of this. At it's core the game is relatively simplistic -having evolved from a CS mod in which the enemies were armed only with knives. I have logged at least 200 hrs on this game, and some of those with whom I play are in the 1,000's. The game's balancing (not to mention the AI Director) are no doubt key to its longevity and replayability.

Anonymous Designer
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Good topic, although I think the term "balance" itself should have been given more focus. What does it mean, and what are solid metrics for determining it's implied "equilibrium"? There were many vague indirect perspectives thrown around that lacked intrinsic meaning due to this lack of definition. Ex. "Oblivion's leveling is bad because it makes leveling useless" - this doesn't really have much to do with balance, I think the point was that you can't automate balance but that wasn't proven, there was just 1 example. There were "better" or "worse" examples of balance, but not a solid breakdown of why they did or didn't achieve this, thus the understanding of balance wasn't achieved.

I disagree that "you should keep balance in the front of your mind at all times during development". That runs the risk of limited variety - as you mentioned it's always easier to balance fewer, related variables. The Starcraft 2 team had a similar view, and as a result you see much less variety (on the competitive level) than you did in the evolution of Starcarft 1 and BW (the development time of each being significantly less). Both starcraft 1 and it's predecessor warcraft 2 had amazing levels of competition due to exactly what you vilify - the players becoming the designers. The players were given more freedom and flexibility with content, and they made amazing unique strategies - which could be tuned in patches. I'd argue that's what made war3 so imbalanced - the developers tried too hard to predict all scenarios and determine themselves how the games "should" go. A good designer should realize he doesn't have all the answers. Also, the more similar you make your content in the name of balance, the easier it becomes to spot the differences.

An argument against perfect balance is that the better player would always win. It's more interesting (and perhaps even fun!) to have the ability for lesser skilled players to beat better skilled players by utilizing imbalances at the appropriate time. If you've ever played a game that you won 100% of the time - well you probably stopped playing. It's much more satisfying to win 80% of the time, because you always have a solid challenge and room to improve. Imbalance helps achieve this.

Artur Jakubiec
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I can't imagine imbalances working FOR the less skilled player. It is more realistic that the more skilled player will use the imbalances against lesser skilled opponents. Players are generally more skilled because they play longer and have greater experience.

A much better gameplay mechanic would be to introduce a little bit of luck.

Also for me variety is less important than balance...why? Because when a varied game is not balanced sooner or later everyone uses a dominant strategy. This results in limited choice and leads variety ad absurdum.

As you can see balance is a prerequisite for variety in gameplay!

The number of meaningfull choices could also be a good metric for balance.

I completely agree with the author that we have to internalize that imbalance is actually bad.

Darren Tomlyn
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See my post above about handicaps in golf etc...

Anonymous Designer
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Yep I agree. I suppose instead of advocating imbalance as a whole, I meant situational disadvantage where your previous choices, along with unfortunate circumstances, have put you in an unfavorable present situation. Often though, that is mistaken for imbalance in order to shift blame off the player (as Keith pointed out). Which raises a point that a duty of the designer is to not only balance the game but make sure the player understands (or at least has faith in) all the elements that comprise this balance.


I like the point on luck, and it seems to be more what I was getting at. But is luck any different than producing inconsistent but over time evenly distributed imbalance? And there would seem to be a fine line when X amount of luck ruins the competitive spirit.

Also a good point that balance is a prerequisite for variety. Although we already have pretty balanced games so the point of creating new ones is for variety! :) I just think variety should not be suffocated by balance.

Artur Jakubiec
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Of course luck is not a holy grail. IMHO good applications of luck are i.e. chance to hit critical (double damage), chance to gain extra attack per round (in round based games), chance of affecting bigger area with grenades, etc.

Luck needs to be balanced too. Making hits per se in FPS games based on luck is a bad idea, relying too much on luck as a gameplay feature too.

So yes, you add a chance to win and/or loose but you have to be carefully how you implement it.


I really don't understand what "inconsistent but over time evenly distributed imbalance" means. I don't even know if i can agree or not ;)

But i can't agree that we have enough balanced games and not enough variety, as both are important and influence each other (as i explained in my last post).

David Serrano
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I think it's really interesting that no one mentioned match making and the role it plays in balance.

Competitive multiplayer modes can have perfectly balanced classes, weapons or perks but if the match making is intentionally unbalanced, players will rage quit out of every single match. But it seems like most FPS developers are now using "Pareto efficiency" match making as their default method for keeping 20% of the players happy at the expense of the other 80%. Let's give the most skilled players the largest advantage possible and allow them to turn leveling up into an exercise in masochism for the majority of the other players! Brilliant.

At some point, disrespecting 80% of the audience will come back to bite you. Unfortunately, the average FPS fan doesn't realize what actually is taking place when they are matched so they just keep buying the games. But when you read user forums its pretty clear on a subconscious level many of them know something is not right. God help the developers if or when they finally figure it out.

David Serrano
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@Christian Philippe Guay - The problem is the matching systems in the games make it incredibly difficult for less experienced players to even move around the maps. So they never have a chance to improve their skills because they're constantly playing under such huge disadvantages they get annihilated when they experiment with different tactics, load outs, map positions, etc... So the matches always degrade down to players who just run and gun and players who camp and or snipe in defensive. The folks at Infinity Ward and Treyarch are well aware it's always the higher skilled, higher ranked, most over aggressive players who run and gun and it's always the less experienced players who camp.

How did Treyarch deal the problem in Black Ops? They removed all environmental cover from the maps and blocked all long line of sight positions to prevent camping and sniping. Which gave the run and gun players another huge advantage. So one group runs around with the marathon and lightweight perks racking up kills, calling in wave after wave of choppers and air-strikes while the other group ties to find cover so they can just defend themselves. This is the polar opposite of "balance". Vonderhaar and Treyarch definitely crossed an ethical line and from what I read the player feedback was almost exclusively negative.

So it's not just the matchmaking that needs to change, the designers also need to change. If players aren't given a chance to learn and improve their skills, the games will never evolve beyond what they currently are: virtual playgrounds for sadistic bullies.

Trevor Howden
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Nice article, I would also add that other retro styled arcade games like the Japanese Shmup where balancing is very important. As a fan of the genre, I know just how well crafted and balanced some of the best examples are like those from Cave and Treasure, with everything from the pacing, bullet patterns, enemy positions and above all the complex scoring systems that fans of the genre spend months even years perfecting they playstyle.

Generally I find the better balanced the game is the further and more advanced the best players will be able to push their high scores. Also balancing or the dire lack of it is what is stopping most western shmup devs from creating games that shmup fans can enjoy. In fact they have a label for these games "euroshmups".

Also as a fan of indie contributions to arcade games, imo its the Japanese Doujin system that lends itself to balancing to a much better degree than general indies. By this I mean how the individual development circles can at times spend years creating their games with unfinished trials been sold at comiket or online which the devs use to balance the game for the final release. (A Comiket is every 6 months)

This form of iteration is especially of doujin shmup developers who can release many trials over the years. (the trial will usually contain 2-3 stages but sometimes every stage that the circle has finished so far). Anybody who is interested how they preform their balancing might be able to track their trials down. RefRain with their unfinished shmup Prism Memories is a very good example. With trails been released each comiket since C73 (this is the number of each event, C80 is the next one) As Well as their trials been online you can also watch replay vids on You Tube. (Siter Skain is another circle that puts out many trials of their games)

Mark Venturelli
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I was excited to see an article about balance in gamasutra, but this is a little too simplistic, narrow, confused and unthoughtful for my tastes, I guess.

Nicolas L
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=> an article about balance in gamasutra, but this is a little too cryptic, narrow, confused and unthoughtful, I guess.

At least I didn't said such thing as "A game being "balanced" is also always, at best, a rough approximation. No game is truly perfectly balanced -- even in chess, one player gets to go first.".

Screw that !

Rock paper Scisor is balanced, period. Perfectly symmetrical games ARE balanced, period (like quake...). And chess played by perfect players is either imbalanced or a draw.

David Harlow
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Plenty to agree with here. Especially the part where you tell players to cherish weaknesses. Advance Wars Days of Ruin disregards that part, and guess what happens? Too much minimal attack power. It makes tanking an invalid strategy, and I'd rather have it work for the variety of tactics that good tanking allows for. (Brute-forcing against otherwise sickening defensive positions, counterattacking, surviving against meta-countering, intentionally taking hits for one reason or another, etc.)