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What can game designers learn about balance from other games?

Balance is a buzzword among strategy gamers. What does balance mean to the gaming world? To me, for a game to be balanced, it should include multiple viable strategies for victory.

Balance is a buzzword among strategy gamers. What does balance mean to the gaming world? To me, for a game to be balanced, it should include multiple viable strategies for victory. No one wants to play a game where there are 10 strategies, but only one is able to produce a victory; that's boring.

Whether you're playing sports, chess, or a video game, balance is a critical concept. Chess, for example, is a game that has been quite balanced for hundreds of years - white has a slight edge over black in the first move, but each side has the same pieces at their disposal, and black, importantly, can respond with defensive maneuvering to secure a favorable position. American football is another good example of balance in practice - early in the sport's history, a field goal was actually worth more than a touchdown. Over the years, the rules were changed to favor the touchdown as a more difficult goal that is worth more points.

What does an unbalanced game look like? Take Magic the Gathering by Wizards of the Coast as an example; because a set is released into meatspace and can't be altered once it is printed and distributed, cards are exhaustively playtested before being released as part of a block. In spite of this thorough testing, as they see play in the real world, cards are eventually exploited by clever players who find ways to combine different cards to produce unexpected, game-dominating effects. And even then, some cards just turn out to be much better by themselves than anyone anticipated. What is Wizards of the Coast's response when this occurs? Unbalanced cards can be banned from official competitive play altogether - this is really the only response available once a set is released. MtG is quite a well-balanced game, considering this.

Of course, video game developers have a different set of tools at their disposal - patches can be pushed that change the rules of the game on a fundamental level. This often leads to games being released in an unbalanced state, with developers hoping they can patch the game to resolve issues down the line (SimCity anyone?). Additionally, developers can tweak elements of gameplay slightly (or heavily) in order to produce a desired impact on the "metagame," or the dominant strategies of the game. This is often the case with card-based strategy games like Hearthstone, RTS games like Starcraft 2, and MOBA games like League of Legends and DOTA 2.

Which brings us to a weird new situation: it's possible to un-balance a game with a patch. We can see the backlash now against Riot Games for its changes to League of Legends - many have criticized Riot for changing the rules for a strategy called "Jungling" so that only a select few playable characters are actually viable in this space. Changes like this come with every patch, and often with disappointment from the community who was used to a certain metagame and finds the change reduces the viability of favored strategies (of course, your playerbase isn't always right. But they do pay the bills). In fact, our organization spends significant time and effort helping players adjust to the effects of changes to the metagame as a result of patches and updates to gameplay with elo boosting (improving a player's ranking - learn more here) and coaching services.

So what lesson is there for developers out of this? I can think of a few.

  • Balance comes from providing a variety of strategies that can achieve victory, especially in competitive play - make sure that this an endgoal of game design!
  • Make sure to test all changes to the rules of your game thoroughly before pushing a patch - even if you think the impact will be minor.
  • Consider what makes your game fun before rebalancing the metagame strategy. Is there a way to preserve the appeal of an unbalanced strategy while also making other strategies fun?

 

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