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Game Balance Is Overrated

I recently wrote this bit on a private mailing list. Jeff Tidball saw it and asked me to repost it over at Gameplaywright.net in the discussion about Things We Think About Games, the game-ruminations book he and Will Hindmarch put together. Which I did. And so I thought I’d post it here as well. I’m interested to hear what you think.

Game balance is completely overrated.

People conflate balance with fairness all the time. They are not the same thing. If you’re all playing by the same rules and with the same pieces, the game is just as fair to every player.

By that, I don’t mean that you shouldn’t have a game that’s roughly balanced, nor that you shouldn’t try to root out the bits that throw a game completely off the rails. However, if all choices are always optimal (i.e. equally good), than what’s the point of playing?

Games should have their rough spots, their peaks and valleys in the mathematical sheet of balance. They should be crunchy, not smooth, filled with secret caves of hidden knowledge for players to discover, ponder, and exploit.

Comments 27

  1. I’m not sure in what game context you are talking about, but I can see your point for certain games. However, in your typical first person shooter game, if you play a multiplayer game against friends, equal can be quite fun as map environment takes a back seat and a player’s skillset really become the focus. By this I mean that your opponent can’t say that you had an unfair advantage based on something like a better weapon, the map terrain or sniper spot.

    Futhermore, it has always been fun to play a balanced game where players have equal skillsets. In my case, this eventually leads to bragging rights when one of the players wins say 2 games out of 3. I think, this alone motivates and helps great players to become even better.

  2. I’m not sure in what game context you are talking about, but I can see your point for certain games. However, in your typical first person shooter game, if you play a multiplayer game against friends, equal can be quite fun as map environment takes a back seat and a player’s skillset really become the focus. By this I mean that your opponent can’t say that you had an unfair advantage based on something like a better weapon, the map terrain or sniper spot.

    Futhermore, it has always been fun to play a balanced game where players have equal skillsets. In my case, this eventually leads to bragging rights when one of the players wins say 2 games out of 3. I think, this alone motivates and helps great players to become even better.

  3. I would actually arguing that leaving “secret caves of hidden knowledge for players to discover, ponder, and exploit” dictates the style of play as much as having no choices does. Having a best choice, once it is discovered by a gaming group, means that a player has to willfully choose to be less efficient. This certainly can happen, my Star Wars group has a player who decided to play a Mon Calimari who suffers from dwarfism, but it is often rare.

    That doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with you to some extent. 1st edition D&D isn’t balanced, the characters are “dependent” on one another. But in the case of games like Hero/SavageWorlds/Gurps, once an exploit is known it becomes the norm, often when it doesn’t make any sense.

  4. I would actually arguing that leaving “secret caves of hidden knowledge for players to discover, ponder, and exploit” dictates the style of play as much as having no choices does. Having a best choice, once it is discovered by a gaming group, means that a player has to willfully choose to be less efficient. This certainly can happen, my Star Wars group has a player who decided to play a Mon Calimari who suffers from dwarfism, but it is often rare.

    That doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with you to some extent. 1st edition D&D isn’t balanced, the characters are “dependent” on one another. But in the case of games like Hero/SavageWorlds/Gurps, once an exploit is known it becomes the norm, often when it doesn’t make any sense.

  5. I would say that I agree–with a caveat. The “secret caves of hidden knowledge for players to discover, ponder, and exploit” should not be so secret that a reasonably attentive player can’t find them.

    The focus of a game should be playing the game, not trying to find the loopholes and easter eggs. If I have to spend more time researching the game than playing the game in order to take advantage of the “better options”, then I might as well just spend my time wading through Wikipedia or writing a research paper.

  6. I would say that I agree–with a caveat. The “secret caves of hidden knowledge for players to discover, ponder, and exploit” should not be so secret that a reasonably attentive player can’t find them.

    The focus of a game should be playing the game, not trying to find the loopholes and easter eggs. If I have to spend more time researching the game than playing the game in order to take advantage of the “better options”, then I might as well just spend my time wading through Wikipedia or writing a research paper.

  7. I completely disagree.

    If this was the 70’s and the only time people got together to talk about the various ins and outs of the game mechanics, then sure, this would be ideal.

    However, since this is the era of the internet, as soon as a ‘cheat’ is found, everyone has equal access to it. Players buy the books and flock online to see what builds are workable and which ones work the best.

    1. I agree that it’s easy to find guides to all the secret knowledge you like, but that’s fine. These bumps give a game depth, and to truly understand them you have to play the game in question and see everything in action. In great games, just having the knowledge isn’t enough. The secrets provoke debates over what’s really the best strategy that can go on forever.

      I’m not advocating broken games, ones that have a loophole that can be exploited to the detriment of all else in the game. I’m for games that feature complex decisions for the players to enjoy and debate for dozens of plays.

      The most common way designers try to balance games is a points system. Having designed several of these myself, I can tell you that they make for a poor solution for providing balance to a game—but they’re close enough that they actually work better for the game than a good solution would.

  8. I completely disagree.

    If this was the 70’s and the only time people got together to talk about the various ins and outs of the game mechanics, then sure, this would be ideal.

    However, since this is the era of the internet, as soon as a ‘cheat’ is found, everyone has equal access to it. Players buy the books and flock online to see what builds are workable and which ones work the best.

    1. Post
      Author

      I agree that it’s easy to find guides to all the secret knowledge you like, but that’s fine. These bumps give a game depth, and to truly understand them you have to play the game in question and see everything in action. In great games, just having the knowledge isn’t enough. The secrets provoke debates over what’s really the best strategy that can go on forever.

      I’m not advocating broken games, ones that have a loophole that can be exploited to the detriment of all else in the game. I’m for games that feature complex decisions for the players to enjoy and debate for dozens of plays.

      The most common way designers try to balance games is a points system. Having designed several of these myself, I can tell you that they make for a poor solution for providing balance to a game—but they’re close enough that they actually work better for the game than a good solution would.

  9. If the story is good and original, the players will fix the rules. The rule system is always just a guide, the players or GM, depending on what type of game, are the ones that really control this. You can as a player or GM always chose to change a rule if you feel it will make the game better. Game rules are more like guidelines.

  10. If the story is good and original, the players will fix the rules. The rule system is always just a guide, the players or GM, depending on what type of game, are the ones that really control this. You can as a player or GM always chose to change a rule if you feel it will make the game better. Game rules are more like guidelines.

  11. I think most games are not balanced, but they have to “feel” like they are. An unbalanced game can be “fun”, if you feel that you can “win”. Three card monte anyone?

  12. I think most games are not balanced, but they have to “feel” like they are. An unbalanced game can be “fun”, if you feel that you can “win”. Three card monte anyone?

    1. Post
      Author
  13. Upon reflection, I am still opposed to the “crunchy secret bits” concept. Secret bits? Sure, those can be fun. But the more granular a system becomes the less the game becomes about play and the more it becomes about “design.” Certainly, my experience with Hero allegorically plays this out, as does my experience on the Mutants and Masterminds boards.

    As I write this though, I am becoming acutely aware that both of these systems became granular in order to INCREASE “balance,” which in turn made the games less diverse in the characters created. Most Hero players use the “round off” advantages. So obsession with game balance in an rpg can be a disadvantage. I am currently re-reading your Brave New World books and liking its use of “dependence” balance.

    I think this discussion of balance would be helped by a categorization of what types of balance are appropriate for what kinds of games.

    In a competitive game, like Chess or Poker (games of skill), the rules must be completely balanced due to the nature of the simulation taking place. The simulation is about who is a “better” player. If such a game is unbalanced, the players must be allowed to “switch sides” for the outcomes of competitions to be truly representative of higher “skill.” This is why who gets to be white is rotated and why Bobby Fischer obsessed so much about a “randomized” back line. He wanted competition to be about skill and not memorization. So for competitive games, where the purpose is to measure who is “better,” game balance regarding the “power” of pieces must be as close to perfect as possible.

    For recreational video games, the balance must be sufficient to make the games as fun for as many people as possible. In PVP MMORPGs, a part of the fun is discovering and using build exploits. When too many builds are using the exploits, the fun factor is reduced and the exploit is removed or new exploits are added. For some the discovery of exploits to pwn some newb (or other experienced player) is the purpose of these games. For me, I like to play PVE and engage with the environment/designers as my opponents and being griefed diminishes my fun. I truly wish there was a way to disincentivize griefers in PVE servers other than to completely remove PVP play. I don’t PVP, but some very reasonable PVE preferrers like to engage in it from time to time even while simultaneously hating being griefed.

    For cooperative games, like RPGs in general (though not for all groups), the balance can be one where you require certain roles to fulfill goals by which you reinforce cooperation by the players. Games like 1st and 4th Edition D&D strive for this kind of play, as do BNW and Savage Worlds (not to mention a number of indie games). Other games make character design into a competition, who can make the best character. This feeds, in a very natural way, a certain kind of wish fulfillment. All RPGs are about some kind of wish fulfillment, but build games with “exploits” feed a kind of in group griefing which in turn requires the development of certain GMing practices.

    Every design choice in a game incentivizes different play choices. So, the kind of play you want is affected by the level and kind of balance you instill in your game. DC Heroes AP system made it easy to make characters who were different in the “effects” they displayed while being essentially equal. Certainly, like other effects based systems (Hero/M&M) it can be exploited, but somehow DC has managed to fool most people into thinking it isn’t an effects based game. Marvel Superheroes has a wonderful unbalanced system, but it is “too” unbalanced as a fight between Captain America and the Hulk is less interesting in the game than it would be in the medium being simulated.

    In short, I think that what kind of play you desire can be incentivized by the type of game balance you choose to use. A roughly balanced system like BNW feeds a certain kind of play, as does Savage Worlds where some of the edges are definitely better than others but are narratively inappropriate for certain character concepts. An aggressively balanced system like Hero/Champions incentivizes other kinds of play. I have played in a lot of “inefficient” Champions games, those were the most fun for me. I am a player who prefers story to power fulfillment. But the system incentivizes digging into the crunchy bits like almost no other game ever made, often to its detriment. The same holds true for GURPS. I firmly believe that the exploits in these systems can discourage new gamers who enter an experienced playing group only to find themselves to be horribly outclassed, even when things are “equal.”

  14. Upon reflection, I am still opposed to the “crunchy secret bits” concept. Secret bits? Sure, those can be fun. But the more granular a system becomes the less the game becomes about play and the more it becomes about “design.” Certainly, my experience with Hero allegorically plays this out, as does my experience on the Mutants and Masterminds boards.

    As I write this though, I am becoming acutely aware that both of these systems became granular in order to INCREASE “balance,” which in turn made the games less diverse in the characters created. Most Hero players use the “round off” advantages. So obsession with game balance in an rpg can be a disadvantage. I am currently re-reading your Brave New World books and liking its use of “dependence” balance.

    I think this discussion of balance would be helped by a categorization of what types of balance are appropriate for what kinds of games.

    In a competitive game, like Chess or Poker (games of skill), the rules must be completely balanced due to the nature of the simulation taking place. The simulation is about who is a “better” player. If such a game is unbalanced, the players must be allowed to “switch sides” for the outcomes of competitions to be truly representative of higher “skill.” This is why who gets to be white is rotated and why Bobby Fischer obsessed so much about a “randomized” back line. He wanted competition to be about skill and not memorization. So for competitive games, where the purpose is to measure who is “better,” game balance regarding the “power” of pieces must be as close to perfect as possible.

    For recreational video games, the balance must be sufficient to make the games as fun for as many people as possible. In PVP MMORPGs, a part of the fun is discovering and using build exploits. When too many builds are using the exploits, the fun factor is reduced and the exploit is removed or new exploits are added. For some the discovery of exploits to pwn some newb (or other experienced player) is the purpose of these games. For me, I like to play PVE and engage with the environment/designers as my opponents and being griefed diminishes my fun. I truly wish there was a way to disincentivize griefers in PVE servers other than to completely remove PVP play. I don’t PVP, but some very reasonable PVE preferrers like to engage in it from time to time even while simultaneously hating being griefed.

    For cooperative games, like RPGs in general (though not for all groups), the balance can be one where you require certain roles to fulfill goals by which you reinforce cooperation by the players. Games like 1st and 4th Edition D&D strive for this kind of play, as do BNW and Savage Worlds (not to mention a number of indie games). Other games make character design into a competition, who can make the best character. This feeds, in a very natural way, a certain kind of wish fulfillment. All RPGs are about some kind of wish fulfillment, but build games with “exploits” feed a kind of in group griefing which in turn requires the development of certain GMing practices.

    Every design choice in a game incentivizes different play choices. So, the kind of play you want is affected by the level and kind of balance you instill in your game. DC Heroes AP system made it easy to make characters who were different in the “effects” they displayed while being essentially equal. Certainly, like other effects based systems (Hero/M&M) it can be exploited, but somehow DC has managed to fool most people into thinking it isn’t an effects based game. Marvel Superheroes has a wonderful unbalanced system, but it is “too” unbalanced as a fight between Captain America and the Hulk is less interesting in the game than it would be in the medium being simulated.

    In short, I think that what kind of play you desire can be incentivized by the type of game balance you choose to use. A roughly balanced system like BNW feeds a certain kind of play, as does Savage Worlds where some of the edges are definitely better than others but are narratively inappropriate for certain character concepts. An aggressively balanced system like Hero/Champions incentivizes other kinds of play. I have played in a lot of “inefficient” Champions games, those were the most fun for me. I am a player who prefers story to power fulfillment. But the system incentivizes digging into the crunchy bits like almost no other game ever made, often to its detriment. The same holds true for GURPS. I firmly believe that the exploits in these systems can discourage new gamers who enter an experienced playing group only to find themselves to be horribly outclassed, even when things are “equal.”

  15. In both Three Card Monte and Craps the odds are known, and they don’t favor the player. But the odds are 100% in favor of the House in Three Card Monte and cannot be affected by game play. The amount Craps favors the House is very much contingent on the players understanding of the rules and odds of the game.

    This difference is what makes Three Card Monte a scam and Craps a game.

  16. In both Three Card Monte and Craps the odds are known, and they don’t favor the player. But the odds are 100% in favor of the House in Three Card Monte and cannot be affected by game play. The amount Craps favors the House is very much contingent on the players understanding of the rules and odds of the game.

    This difference is what makes Three Card Monte a scam and Craps a game.

  17. I detest most ‘balancing’, for example the kind of crap that is done to firearms in most first person shooters.
    I suppose there is a substantial market for these ‘rock paper scissors’ shoot ’em up, but would it fucking kill Ubisoft to not do this to Rainbow Six?
    I am vastly more interested in simulated tactical combat than I am in jumping up and down while firing a rocket launcher; and I really don’t give a shit if pistols are balanced with shotguns; pistols are shitty weapons in real life, no one uses a pistol unless they have no practical alternative weapon.

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