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Game Play and the Balance Cult

Challenge is an undervalued element of gaming. 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.

Shawn Olson, Blogger

July 6, 2014

6 Min Read

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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