Game Design Misconception 1: Balance is Paramount

Like any discipline, game design has it’s share of misconceptions held by the public or aspirants to the field. Maybe it’s because game design is a relatively new field, or maybe its because players don’t realize the gap between their feedback and the improvements they’re hoping for. But that’s just the process of learning, so this series is going to share some of the misconceptions that I’ve held along my journey as a game designer.

Balance is Paramount

In general, players will perceive a game as unfair if other players don’t need to employ as much skill or effort as others to achieve the same or superior results. This fairness is usually framed as the game’s “balance” as if each strategy were weighted against the others on a scale. In this context, overpowered strategies are ones that lead to winning more often than are deemed fair, and underpowered ones the opposite.

My first encounters with discourse comparing the merits of various game design decisions were online forums for games that I played. Initially, these forums started as places for players to share strategies and ideas with each other, but often they would devolve into collections of complaints about certain characters being overpowered, or bemoaning other characters not being viable. Different forums had different amounts of complaining, so I made the naive assumption that a game’s balance was paramount in providing appeal to its players. “No one wants to play an unfair game, so obviously a game with fewer overpowered and underpowered strategies must have more appeal than one with more!” so I thought.

Later, as I studied more and more games, especially single player ones, I realized that people play games for different reasons, and “fairness” and deciding who’s the most skilled isn’t always held as most important. Sometimes, players enjoying the theme and world of a game, sometimes they enjoy the challenge of a fight not in their favor, sometimes they’re treating other players to an experience (eg making education more fun, or acting as a dungeon master), and sometimes they’ve just accepted the fact that if they want to play a game that allows them to impose unfairness on others, that unfairness will eventually come back around to them. But what really drove the point home was a challenge to unpack the elegance of childhood games prompting me to analyze rock-paper-scissor.

In rock-paper-scissor, each player simultaneously declares one of the three options (rock, paper or scissor). Once everyone has revealed their choice, winners are determined from the simple rule that rock crushes scissors, scissors cut paper, and paper covers rock. Rock-paper-scissors is a perfectly balanced game–each option counters the same number of other options and is likewise countered by the same number of options. Because of this, winrate is purely determined by a player’s ability to read the other player(s). However, despite unique ability to definitively determine the more skilled player (over the course of a set), rock-paper-scissors doesn’t capture the imagination the same way other games do. Fairness is not all players are looking for out of a game.

Closing Thoughts

I later discovered that apparent satisfaction on online forums was more a factor of culture and moderation, and that given a chance and a large enough player base, there will always complaints about something. As it turns out, there are a lot of misconceptions about game design out there, so this series might be going for a while. As always, let me know if there’s something in particular y’all want to hear my opinions on.


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