Welcome back to my game design misconceptions series. We’re back and gonna be discussing a particularly tricky misconception today: the purpose of game balance. These are all misconceptions I’ve held at one point or another as I grew as a game designer, so hopefully it’ll be informative to all you aspirants out there too!
As to the reasoning behind the header picture? I’ve still got quite a few more misconceptions to post about, so I’m gonna leave that explanation as a teaser for a later post.
“The purpose of balance is parity”
My first contact with the practice of game balance was through the Enfo’s Team Survival custom map for Warcraft 3 (the MT Team edition to be specific). Interested in how the heroes I was playing were being changed, I regularly looked up the patchnotes on the forums. Learning about the systems behind the custom map was fascinating and it was through participating on that forum that I learned to empathize with how game makers can have different problems and perspectives than their players (reading patchnotes continues as one of my rituals to this day, even for games I don’t actively play anymore or have not yet played before).
Returning to the Enfo’s forums, the MT Team was great at interacting with the community and facilitating discussion about the game, with many of the most engaged fans of the map often commenting and making suggestions. While it’s definitely no fault of the MT Team, this is where this game design misconception first sprang into the mind of past-Nathaniel. Once players graduated from the cooperative low level play, high level play was actually fiercely competitive and as such, much of the discourse on the forums were on the topic of fairness.
Often, it was a character or item having above average statistics that was pointed out to as being the reason it was unfair among the different options. A hero with too much attack damage compared to its cohorts would make it so that less skilled players could get an advantage over a more skilled player and degrade the ability of the game to distinguish between them. Other times, players would complain about how it was unfair that their favorite hero didn’t receive the same benefits as others, which would make it less rewarding to play heroes that are considered out of competitive favor. All of this together seemed to lead to the idea that game balance was about making it so that each option in the game was equally valued or equally lead toward a skilled player winning.
My next few game projects used this philosophy to try to make sure things were fun. One great example of this was a game built for my TI-83 calculator, which included a form of BASIC as a scripting language. Using the pre-built menu command, I was able to make a rudimentary turn-based RPG which allowed players to swap between a town area and arena and trying to score as much gold as possible. Players could alternatively spend their gold on gear or recovering in order to gear up for fighting more powerful monsters or lasting through more battles. Also, players could learn magic, which allowed players to exploit monster elemental weaknesses for bonus damage. All pretty basic stuff.
Because of the “score attack” nature of the game, I wanted to support the idea of a player being a specialized mage, so that players could try different strategies at getting as high a score as possible. However, I also recognized that it’d be frustrating for a player if they liked a particular element, but it ended up just being underpowered compared to the other ones. So in order to make sure that no element was favored, I made them all do the same amount of damage.
Unfortunately, when it came to playtesting, it was revealed that this implementation of elemental weaknesses was having the exact opposite effect on the game as I had intended. Every element felt the same except for a name! Lightningbolt was the same as Fireburst against an enemy that had neither resistance nor weakness to either. So instead of feeling more interesting because players could pick the types of spells they wanted to use, it felt more grindy and monotonous as players tried to 100% the game and were forced to buy what was essentially the same spell with different names multiple times.
The efforts I had put into creating more content to be discovered was wasted because the content was in parity, but not well balanced. Parity, while a useful tool, does not itself innately appeal to the player. As such, the balance that is sought in the polishing and tweaks of patchnotes is not a balance of win rates, but a balance that allows the most of the game’s content to be appreciated at the same time.
The purpose of balance is diversity.