It does not take very long in the preview of a new game before someone corners a developer and asks about "Balance." To many a dev, this may be the deer-in-the-headlights moment... if you have a pre-prepared answer, then it is your chance to [mix metaphors] and knock it out of the park. If you don't... well, the sharks begin circling the deer.
So what is "Balance"? When it is good, when is it bad, and how have games chosen to address it? Most importantly, as is the focus of this blog, how does a developer's choice of a type of game balance impact YOUR enjoyment of the game?
WHAT IS BALANCE?
Balance refers to the idea that players have similar capabilities as other players. The most obvious form of disruptive balance is cheating; when players do something illegal to gain an advantage over others. Of course, players are ALWAYS trying to gain an advantage over others! You hid your mage behind that rock so my mage could not nuke him with a fireball! That's gaining an advantage. Balance refers to the tools developers have to control not the outcome, but the opportunity for players to compete with other players.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Well, if you have ever played a game with a cheater, or a little brother, you know that vastly imbalanced games are rarely enjoyable. I have no interest in watching the New York Knicks play against the local junior high girl's basketball team, and that statement is only partially due to my lack of interest in the local junior high girl's basketball team.
From a developer standpoint, one attribute we always try and keep track of is PLAYER FRUSTRATION. Player Frustration can be thought of as a scale that slowly rises as a player encounters challenges in the game, and is graphed versus enjoyment of the game. As frustration rises, to a certain level, we call that "Challenge", and it is enjoyable. However, after the frustration reaches certain levels, it begins to inversely correlate to enjoyment, eventually result in the player quitting the game.
Since player perception of lack of balance is often reported by players as a primary cause of frustration, balance becomes an issue for the developer.
BALANCE SOLUTION #1 - A Level Playing Field [aka: Homogenization]
The oldest solution in the book is to try to give all players equal opportunity. This is the common model in classless FPS games; theoretically, all players have access to the same equipment and options, and the only thing that differs is player skill.
- Player Perception: Players tend to think that they love this solution. If players perceive the game to be balanced, then that hopefully limits some frustration they experience. Developers are not always the strongest marketers of their games [and indeed, we have recently seen numerous faux pas when developers are thrust into the marketing role that have cost their games thousands, if not millions, of dollars], and having a solution like this lessens the burden upon the developer to convince players their solution is the right one.
- Developer Ease: "If we put something it, it has to be for everybody" is a fairly easy model of decision-making. "Hey, here's my idea." "Does it work for everybody?" -> If yes, Implement. If No, Do not Implement. Those are the types of flowcharts that corporate higher-ups love to see.
- Simplicity: A sub-corollary to both the previous two, it is also important to realize that this solution is the most time-effective. If developers are spread between multiple projects, or even multiple games, solutions like this are very effective.
- Boredom: This con is so big, I am going to omit the other obvious ones. It is likely that the largest reason for player attrition is boredom, so do everything you can to keep players from being bored. Only the largest companies with millions of players are immune to boredom attrition
BALANCE SOLUTION #2 - Separate but Equal
This is the solution many readers are familiar with, because it is employed by modern WoW. The idea here is that Balance exists by giving everybody a roughly even shot at success, with some slight tweaks to graphics/art or skill description to give the illusion of uniqueness. GameDevs that use this system tend to start describing their skills by categories [Builders and Spenders, or DPS Cooldowns, or Survival Cooldowns, etc.]. Then, they give each class a slightly modified version of a set number of skills in those categories ["each class will get 2 DPS Cooldowns and 1 Survival Cooldown"] and make them different via art or small personal tweaks.
- Ease of Grouping: If MMORPGs are about the "MM", then this system makes it the easiest to participate in grouping behavior, because almost everybody brings the same things to the table. Thus, it is a matter of picking players, instead of sorting them by class, specialization, equipment, etc.
- Ease of PvE Design: PvE design begins to look very homogenized, but it is very easy to do. Things basically sort into "We expect the players to do THIS thing at THIS time, or else the players will lose." There is very little guesswork in PvE design with this system, but also very little variety [no matter how I try and hide the damage-dealing ability from the Dragon, the solution is always "Player X hits Survival cooldown Y at Time Z... or the players lose." If developers are pressed for time or interested in other aspects of their game, the simplicity of this type of encounter can make it easy to churn out vast amounts of content in very short amounts of time [usually limited only by how fast the art department can produce working skins of abilities and mobs to create a sense of uniqueness].
- Beginner-Friendly: There has yet to emerge a game solely created to target gamers with previous experience. That means that everybody is concerned with the first-time player. While there are market consequences and market gaps developing due to this blindspot by the major studios, the truth is that this system is incredibly beginner-friendly, and accountants love that.
- Difficult for Developers to "Get Right": The seeming lure of this system to developers is the idea that it will be "Easy" for them. I have titled this category quite deliberately, and I highly encourage you to read the Brown V. Board Supreme Court decision. Separate is INHERENTLY unequal. Thus, devs walk an eggshell tightrope of trying to make everything equal...-ish. Players will never really be happy on the equality claim, because they are not all strictly the same. Players will never really be happy on the uniqueness claim, because they are all interchangeable parts.
- No Real Distinction Between Players: This issue effects some players more than others. The obvious Pro to this is the increased ease of grouping... but this is the downside. Since players are basically interchangeable parts, they often feel unappreciated or unnecessary. Thus, why makes it easy to group players... but they have no reason to group YOU over any of a dozen or a hundred others, and grouping YOU gives no real benefit to the group as a whole? This type of "shallow-grouping" may be the cost of "easy grouping".
- Elimination of Player Choice... and usually also Player Skill: These systems eliminate player choice in the interest of "Balance", and in doing so, create boredom. Systems also tend to eliminate interest in players in "Rerolling" or trying out other classes, since all classes are basically the same. Leveling-based games [like Ragnarok or Diablo I] die immediately in systems that discourage rerolling.
- The Balance "Razor Edge": Developers in this system are at the mercy of theorycrafters and simulations that say that there is one ideal way to play the game. Since they have removed so many options for the players, if the players die, it is often perceived as the fault of the developers, and not something the players themselves and improve upon. That is frustrating, because it creates an artificial "content wall" which immediately leads to disbanded groups and boredom.
BALANCE SOLUTION #3 - Rock-Paper-Scissors
Perhaps the most viable long-term solution for a game reliant upon grouping, the idea here is that every player has both a complement and a counter. Many older MMORPGs took this approach. You would see a certain class, say a Bow-based ranged class like a Ranger, be very strong against Mages, but at the same time, very weak against Warriors. Warriors would be weak to Mages, and strong against Rangers. Mages would be weak to Ranger, but strong against Warriors.
- Team Gameplay: This is the model that most encourage the "MM" in "MMORPG." Truly strong players will quickly realize that they are not invincible in isolation, and will team up with other players to create a strong team.
- Avoids drawbacks of #1 and #2 above: Avoiding the obvious drawbacks [like the endless tweaking of the "Separate but Equal" system or the Boredom of the homogenized approach] is a strong pro in and of itself, simply due to the current supply/demand cycle of MMOs. A truly rock/paper/scissors balanced MMO
- Natural tie from PvE to PvP: In both cases, it becomes fairly easy to accomplish objectives that encourage grouping, as well as ensure that all members of the group feel valuable.
- Class Diversity: This is the system that best allows for really unique abilities between classes, and great distinction among roles. It is also the system that allows for the most character customization on the player side, and far less on the developer side. Since players are naturally trumped by player or enemy abilities of different classes [in both PvE and PvP], we can give them really powerful and fun abilities without worrying too much about Balance.
- Lack of Metagamey/Testing Arguments: This system never requires a developer to post about a .5% dps differential on target dummies between Spec A and Spec B, because that is not going to be the make-or-break of an encounter. Getting your mages to line up and nuke the enemy archers when they appear is the important part, as is bringing along a mage that can do that. Developers do not need to walk the "Balance Razor Edge" that they do in the Separate-but-Equal system.
- Solo Players: In MMOs that are solo games thinly disguised as MMOs [like the current WoW-endgame or the leveling portions of many quest-driven games], this system can be very frustrating. Having to turn and run every time you see [Class X] just because you are [Class Y] can be an annoying experience.
- Organized Team Triumph: In systems like this, organization tends to trump player skill. A group of mediocre players who are coordinated, on Vent, and brought the right class combinations will easily overpower disorganized group, often regardless of player skill. To some developers, this actually goes in the "Pro" side, because again, it encourages interaction with others. To accountants, this is a strong "Con", because players without a reliable formal group are the vast majority of current MMOers.
BALANCE SOLUTION #4 - Invest-to-Win
Now, I should distinguish that when I say "Invest-to-Win" I do not mean "Pay MONEY to Win". The distinction is that this type of balance strategies knows and understands that the player who puts the most into the game will be the strongest. Most often, this investment is in TIME. Play more, get better stuff, be stronger. The Balance factor becomes this: if you want to be stronger, then play more. Many Korean/Eastern MMOs are accused of having these types of systems, but you will also see them in games like Diablo/TitanQuest, Spiral Knights, and most "Small Group" MMOs where there is seldom more than 4-10 players on a screen.
- Accountability: Some developers love a system where they cannot be faulted for player loss. This is the exact opposite of the problem in the "Separate-but-Equal" system, where the developers can constantly be found to be at fault for incredibly minor issues.
- Logical: If you do something longer, you should be better at it, right? It does make sense.
- Puts Progression in the Player's Hands: Many of the games that use these system have a fairly low "skill" threshold in two senses; first, the player literally only uses a few character skills [2 to 5 is pretty common], and second, the a "good" player does pretty much the same thing as a "bad" player. That means that is a player wants to get better, they can play more, get better items, and become a better player.
- Lowered Value of Skill: The good things we get by putting progression in player's hands are often balanced out by the negatives of that same act. Certain players pride themselves on being highly skilled, and when a highly skilled player cannot succeed at the same level as a player of lower skill, but greater investment, the highly skilled player becomes frustrated.
- Eliminates Low-Investment Players: Players who do not have available access to the currency of the progression system [be it time, money, or friends with Ditto safaris] tend to become frustrated and quit the game.
What other systems have you seen developers use to try and create a sense of Balance in their game?
Have you ever quit a game because of Balance? What was the problem, and how could it have been addressed?
What was the best balanced game you have ever played, and why did it succeed so well?