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Understanding Balance in Video Games


June 8, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3
 

Some Advice for Developers (and Players, too)

Know that imbalance is actually bad. The first thing that I think everyone has to do is to internalize the idea that balance is good, and imbalance is bad. I've actually heard people try to argue that a little bit of imbalance is necessary for a fun game. Not only do I disagree, but I think that they don't even really believe that. Someone who says this is simply failing to see one of two factors:

1. Like I stated earlier, there are sometimes elements that seem imbalanced when looking at one level of scope, but when looking at the whole picture are actually in balance.

2. That a game can be "fun" whether or not it's balanced -- the word "fun" is a notoriously crappy metric. Anything "can be fun" with the right attitude -- flicking a dust-ball around on the floor, brushing your teeth, anything.

If a game is fun despite being imbalanced, that's great, but do not make the mistake of thinking that it's fun because it's imbalanced.

Cherish Weaknesses. Valve's Robin Walker, lead designer of Team Fortress 2, said that the most important aspect of the character classes in the game was actually their weaknesses, not their strengths. It's somewhat counterintuitive to think this way, but making sure that all of your game elements have a distinct weakness can be a great way to help you avoid dominant strategies.

Sometimes these weaknesses manifest in really interesting ways, creating interesting situations. One of my favorites is the super-destructive Demoman class in Team Fortress 2. Loaded with two types of explosives, he can quickly turn masses of foes into small barbequed chunks of flesh, and he's great at taking out sentry guns. He's also got an average amount of health and moves at an average speed -- which are the main knobs tweaked to balance most classes in the game.

So how is the Demoman balanced? Because he has no bullet-type weapons whatsoever. This means that besides using melee, the only way for him to kill anyone is to predict where they'll be, whereas every other class can attack by shooting where you are. It's a great example of a non-straightforward way to balance a game element.

Make Time for Balancing Your Game. Balancing a game is hard work, and this also means you should leave time in your schedule -- preferably, a lot of time -- to balancing. Teams will almost always have a "polish" phase, in which bugs are fixed, graphics are tuned up, and other details are addressed, and in this phase is where most if any of the real balancing will be happening.

Once the game runs well and looks nice, most developers will just ship the game, regardless of the state of balance. Don't do this! Make sure your game is as balanced as possible before it reaches your players. Yes, you can (and should) release frequent balance patches later on, but releasing a game that's clearly imbalanced from the get-go sends a very bad signal, especially to more seasoned players.

Make Balance a Priority. So the first step is to recognize that imbalance really is a bad thing, and the second step is to make balance a true priority in development. The fighting game tier system is the players' attempt to mitigate problems that should have been solved by the development team.

Since balance is something that can make or break your game -- especially in the long run -- then you should keep balance in the front of your mind at all times during development. When adding a new ability for a character, ask yourself "would that be hard to balance?" Remember that each new element you add to a game exponentially increases the difficulty of balancing the game, because you have to balance that element against every other element in the game.

Be Wary of Shortcuts. Maybe my most-hated feature about the aforementioned Oblivion is the automatic character leveling mechanism. When you start the game, and are at a low character level, all of the characters in the game have low level items and stats. When you level up, so too do all of the characters in the game. By the end of the game, the world is full of bandits running around in full glass armor, the most expensive armor in the game (what are they doing living a life of crime? They're sitting on a fortune!), and bears have thousands of hit points.

If it isn't immediately obvious why I hate this, the answer is twofold: because it makes the leveling system near-irrelevant, and because it's such a clear lazy shortcut on the part of the team that I get insulted and tune out. There isn't an easy way to balance a game; it's just a matter of putting in the hard work.


Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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