Sanity’s Other Side: Balancing Act

Fox only…. balance scales

Balance is an interesting thing in video games. “This game needs more balance,” “that’s over powered,” “this needs a nerf,” and so on are all things we’ve heard since the beginning of time. What goes into balance? And how do we figure it out? Let’s dive in.

First off, what is “balance” exactly? I think we can best define a game as balanced if: There exists a number of  viable and evenly-powered options close to the number of total options. This may seem like a no-brainer but it’s always good to have a definition before simply slinging vitriol  at our favorite developers and designers.

chess set

Let’s take a symmetrical game like chess. Everyone has the same pieces; your queen is just as powerful as mine, so disregarding the first player advantage do we have a “balanced game”? Technically yes, but the developments to the game which opened and closed different tactics, giving the game depth, a diversity of meaningful tactics and player choices, which is another story for another day. Even if there was an oppressive strategy that was the only way to win, it’s just as available to you as it is to me.

SC1 Terran base

Now let’s leave the realm of chess and see how these ideas apply to video games. If a game with identical pieces had balance changes to open up more types of gameplay, we introduce even more variables when now you can choose your own “army” instead. In a perfect world of gaming, when you choose among Terran, Zerg, and Protoss among three players of equal skill, each player would win one third of his or her matches. However, this is easy to do if each race was just a re-skin of the others, but players want more than just a balanced game, they want more meaningful choices in the character select screen as well as when the game starts.

GG XX AC+ Character select screen

So not only must a game have balance but it should also have diverse options that are balanced. People want meaningful choice in who they play as and they want the experience of each player character option to be different, yet at the end of the day the chances of winning are still the same among those options. It takes a good game designer to juggle these factors among perhaps a handful of characters and the strategies that come with them. However, when players and developers find a game to be unbalanced, it’s not just when there is an inner circle of strategies making a perfect rock-paper-scissors balance trifecta; it’s when not every character in a game is viable, when the best characters and strategies are far outnumbered by the remaining characters.

Meta Knight Brawl

Take for example a game widely considered to be unbalanced, Super Smash Bros Brawl. Meta Knight has a whole tier all to himself because his abilities are far superior to the other characters. If this game was called Meta Knight Brawl, we’d have a balanced game, but players want options. So let’s say we take Brawl, remove Meta Knight, and add back the A-tier and B-tier characters, now we have a balanced game again.

But alas, Smash Bros isn’t about Fox vs Falco vs Wolf, we have tons more Nintendo universes to add. And so if we assemble the full cast once again, even without Meta Knight we have characters that just can’t compete with the A-tier, and we still find the game to be unbalanced. We’re not satisfied with a simple diversity of high-performing characters, we aspire to see multiple options and every one of those options to be fulfilling. If Smash Bros has this problem with its 38 character roster, imagine the balance issues in a game like Defense of the Ancients or League of Legends with character rosters in the 100s.

SF2 Turbo Ryu vs Ken

So our designer friends want us to have many characters, many ways to play their game, and as many of them to be equally good, the gauntlet has been thrown, challenge accepted! Now here’s where we players come in. In a way, in any competitive game, where players play to win a la David Sirlin, we seek to break the game.  Patrick Miller’s The Educated Video Game Enthusiast’s Fighting Game Primer makes a great argument about this.

In his book, he says how we actively seek out what balancing oversights the developers forgot and exploit them so our opponent loses. Our objective is to deny the enemy our creeps, limit movement around a stage, psychologically condition them to do just what we want and deliver a huge combo in their face as a reward. If someone could magically tell you the next broken strategy (that wasn’t cheating) at the next EVO or Ti, you would use it in a heartbeat. We actively pursue that “I win button” and press it as many times as we can before the next update. When you think about it, it’s quite sadistic, but it’s what makes games fun.

Dota 2 screencap

The final dimension to this balancing puzzle is the constant tango between designer and community that is the metagame. It would simply be no fun if on the first day of a game everyone found out the “broken strategy” that worked 10 for 10. Instead the designers hide it, try to make sure it doesn’t even exist. Should the players find it, the designers hide the broken button yet again, time and time again, until as many of the cast they can make viable become viable. Therefore not only is it the onus of the designers to get creative in their balancing, making things stronger or weaker, changing properties of attacks, and so forth, it is the task of the players to actively seek out new strategies. The players’ duty is not limited to finding one “broken mess,” but to constantly find a way to “break” what is “broken” so in the short term they win the match or tournament, but in the long term the metagame develops and evolves into a deeper, more balanced experience.

league of legends screencap

We players aren’t satisfied with a “merely” fun and balanced game, as difficult it may be to achieve in the first place. We want options in our games, and we want them to be both numerous and equitable.  In this myriad of complex variables, a healthy living metagame helps achieve that ideal of balance, not rooted in one instance of time but constantly changing so that balance emerges through the shifts. In this essence an artful design is both challenging and rewarding, making games truly come alive with each passing day. Join me next time when I eat a case of Frosted Flakes.

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The Inverseman is an evil overlord from an alternate dimension representing humanity's anti-existence who wound up becoming a modest civil servant.


The Inverseman is an evil overlord from an alternate dimension representing humanity's anti-existence who wound up becoming a modest civil servant.

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