Game Balance Redux

   First up for today, it’s a guest article from Editorial0 – who plays far more MMORPG’s and computer RPG’s than I do, and has his own prospective on role-playing games and “Game Balance”.

   Now I tend to see a distinction between “Game Balance” (what you get when a group with disparate playing skills levels, interests, and notions about what is important can all play, enjoy themselves, and contribute on equal terms to the groups overall success) and “Rules Balance” (the game mechanics being set up so that there are a wide variety of equally-effective overall strategies, roles, and approaches to whatever challenges the game offers ).

   Rules Balance can be achieved pretty readily. Chess does it. Game Balance is a matter for game master tweaking, because two players can have identical characters, abilities, and choices – and yet one of them can have an absolute inverted genius for making bad choices. Achieving “Game Balance” for Jan, who possessed that sinister genius, turned out to involve giving his characters – in a game who’s damage system consisted of five-box injury track that read “Uninjured – Hurt – Unconscious – Dead – Vaporized” – an injury track consisting of “Uninjured” repeated sixteen times and only then continuing with “Hurt – Unconscious – Eggplant – Dead – Vaporized”. “Rules Balance” went out the window in favor of “Game Balance” and everyone had a lot of fun for the rest of the campaign.

   Why “Eggplant”? Don’t ask. That would be a rather long story, and this is only supposed to be an introduction to Editorial0’s article – which we can now begin:

   Game Balance is Easy!

   It’s just not worth it unless you put in a lot more effort and really think about it.

   There have been several posts here about game balance recently, and I thought I’d take some time to relax things a bit by pointing out that Game Balance ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Gamers tend to take games too seriously: it’s why many of us got into it.

   Game balance is easy. Just make everyone use the same character or resources. Then everyone, at least, gets out of it exactly what they put into it. No one can really complain about that. This is a poker card game, where everyone plays with the same deck and only luck and skill make a difference.

   Oh, but you say we like to have a lot of different roles. Ok, fine, they can have a lot of ways to do the same thing, but it comes out to be almost exactly equal. Nobody (alright, very few people) worries much about really trivial differences. You might call this the base DnD 4 strategy: most characters have pretty similar capabilities and defenses in the long run.

   Oh, but people like having real differences you say. OK, then make it so most choices are equal in value and have no real subpar values. This is the Torg method, and really the Amber method. You can’t really screw up your character.

   Ah, but how can you really excel if you can’t really fail? That’s true: for a lot of people, there’s not much feeling of accomplishment if you cannot really “lose.” Many people like cranking up the difficulty on single-player games after all, and similar thinking is common in every form of entertainment. So we have lots of intricate rules, ways to optimize things, and many game options.

   Well, then things can’t be balanced. Not “difficult to balance”: it becomes absolutely impossible. Period.

   The reason is really simple. Small changes in complex systems tend to produce increasingly wild results. And every time you “fix” the system, it becomes even more complicated! You find yourself in a Red Queen’s race, moving ever faster just to stay still.

   The fact that gamers and game makers have a vested interest (fun and book sales, respectively) in adding rules rather than removing them, does not help matters.

   Take a look at popular Massively multiplayer Online RPG’s. They literally have whole buildings full of people dedicated to making the games fun, exciting, and diverse. Game Balance means life or death, because nobody will play a game which isn’t fun for almost every character. Yet Ultima Online went through round after round of painful adjustments which radically altered combat despite having every skill made available for every player. Everquest was torn apart with constant complaining by players who bought the game and invested a lot of time only to discover that their beloved character was useless after a certain point.

   World of Warcraft is about to revise the entire game world and just redefined the rules and options for every single character – just to get to the point where the developers can actually create more fun stuff.

   Thoth pointed out that people have been creating, changing, and using law for as long as humans have existed. We still haven’t got it right for even a single nation, much less all humans. That’s true. For another example, look at politics. Nobody is ever satisfied by the system they live in. Anyone who cares about politics is constantly squabbling over everything. Despite literally thousands of years of work to eliminate it, political corruption is endemic even in the most democracies of the Americas and Europe.

   The important thing is not to worry about Game Balance.

   Worry about Game Fun.

   Are the rules appropriate for what you want to do? Some groups couldn’t stand DnD 3.5. Many others loved it. For a lot of them, it came down to whether they could tolerate the often-frustrating Prestige Classes.

   But that might seem like a cop-out. Saying “Play what you want!” isn’t a very deep statement. OK, let’s work on it.

   A game ought to offer several aspects. First, while not every choice needs equal applicability, it should probably cut anything really useless. If it’s not something a significant (10% or more) part of the player base might seriously want, it’s not important enough to bother having many rules. Nobody needs complex swimming rules in World of Darkness, because characters don’t spend that much time in the water and have magic powers to help anyway. Nobody in Amber needs complicated rules for money, because money isn’t something they value or need very often.

   Second, it should be easy to see what your character will be able to do later with a given start. Preferably, being good at something to start should give you good choices to build on it later. For some examples, most skill-based games require that you build on early choices to buy up the skill at a higher level later. You can’t “skip” skill levels. A character with the best rating in a skill to start can keep that advantage if the player wants that. A game like Champions (Hero System) offers a lot of improvement powers based on your initial choices. You can learn whole new branches of abilities later, but there are no huge suprises about the nature and cool-factor of later spells and powers.

   On the other hand, Dungeons and Dragons Sorcerers might be very good at blowing things up to start, but useless at it later if it you don’t specifically get the right spells. Most people who want to play them don’t have a big problem with this, because it’s still easy to see that this is case ahead of time. For a tougher look, many MMORPG’s have a very hard time because the games develop a lot as new expansions extend the game. Nobody could predict even two years ago how a Paladin in World of Warcraft would play today. This may be a neccessary evil – but it’s not good. It can be absolute hell on players who invested time and energy in learning how to play.

   Third, people need to be able to switch characters if they aren’t satisfied, and with minimal pain. This is another rule which gets violated a lot in MMO’s. It can take weeks or even months to get a new character up to par compared to an old one, and people may not really want to spend the time. World of Warcraft took a handy step when it introduced the hero class idea with Death Knights. This lets players start a new character which avoids a lot of the low-level grinding and puts them right into the late game. Final Fantasy 14 has a good idea (despite the shoddy gameplay) in letting you switch classes in the field just by equipping the right weapon.

   But fourth, and absolutely most important, every major branch of player character should be made useful to others without feeling like a servant or side character. This is a group hobby, people. In fact, when I see people complaining about Game Balance, they are very rarely talking about the game itself. rather, they are pissed the fuck off because somebody else is constantly stealing their thunder and making them feel irrelevant. If character Aei and Character Bea are doing roughly the same task, and both are supposed to be doing that task, and Bea is just ten times as good as Aei can dream about, then Aei’s player is gonna complain.

   This doesn’t mean that the characters need identical capabilities. But everyone should have something to brag about, and that something needs to be significant. Character Aei may be only half as good at killing enemies as Bea, but Aei is tougher and needs to rest and heal less often. Character Cie might be faster and flashier and able to do more flexible things than either, but should pay a price in terms of raw power or survivability. All of this should be constantly present in the gameplay for each kind of character and offer real, useful tradeoffs.

   That might sound like your big-standard game balance, but it’s a little more complicated and a little less difficult than it’s made out to be. In fact, balanced RPG’s are incredibly easy when the game supports a wide away of challenges. The narrower the challenge, the tougher the task gets.

   Time for more examples!

   World of Darkness is an insanely well-balanced system. It has a lot of critics and almost everything they say is right – but it’s nearly impossible to build a bad character. The standard templates help, but even apart from that the rules support so many challenges than anything your character can do will become useful if you work at it. And magic powers are set up such that whether you crossover games or not, you wind up with characters who can help each other out constantly. What’s impossible for one is easy for another. What’s a major menace to one is a light challenge for another. Everyone supports each other.

   Dungeons and Dragons in all of its incarnations is a moderately balanced system. It’s a little combat-heavy, but still offers some other ways of dealing with things. Oddly, it was far more balanced in the early editions than in newer ones simply because nobody particularly tried to force things. Every character class was useful, but none of them were required. If you didn’t have one to fit a role for your party, you just had to suck it up and work around it. Newer editions (3rd onward) tend to demand more standardized party selections. You are almost required to fill the standard Tank, Healer, and Damage positions. Skills are more standardized and often less useful than simple spells. Despite that, there’s still a lot of choice and few totally bad characters.

   As a special note, Prestige Classes nearly killed the game when introduced. They sold a lot of books, but they became more powerful and less sane as time went on. Prestige Classes were often so legalistic and poorly-designed that they could literally break the game, resulting in characters who suddenly punched way, way above anyone else’s belt level. This wouldn’t even have been so bad, except that the somewhat intricate ruleset resulted in some of these power increases being hidden at first, or popping up from combinations of classes from different sourcebooks. Even the official Wizards of the Coast sourcebooks list hundreds of Prestige Classes.

   The fact that virtually every last one of them was designed to let you kill things in new and improved ways did not help.

   Finally, World of Warcraft is a game with horrible balance. This is not to criticize. It does far better than any other MMO. But even on good days in this most popular of games, people are constantly complaining about balance being off. Sure, it breaks some of the other rules above. But the big problem is that a large game like this offers very limited competition.

   Oh sure, you can get in and smack other players in the arenas all day. But that’s just about it. Your interaction with others is basically limited to getting quests (mostly killing things), going off with a group to kill tough things, and fighting with other players.

   This means that at the end of the day, every character has one basic goal. They want more killing power. Yes, there are some people who just get in to roleplay. Yes, there are some people who like to trade. But nearly everybody out there is playing to fight, kill, and get better stuff to fight and kill with.

   So little differences in combat ability matter. When you only have a hammer, then the only test of your ability lies in your hammering skill and the size of that damn hammer. Every problem really IS a nail. Nobody wants to fall behind, and they can’t allow any small flaw to stop them. If one class becomes even 5% better than its rivals, those rivals could be completely locked out. Tiny differences become all important.

   That whole line of thinking is a trap, and it puts you on a perpetual treadmill of trying to balance things which are complicated, prone to going off-track, with lots of people aiming to take it off track. You get out of the trap by not granting the logic in the first place: you make more aspects of the game useful and interesting, and then suddenly you’ll find balance is easy. It becomes easy because suddenly you have a lot more ways to play and a lot more reasons to take different characters. And even the people who like to complain will have a lot more to distract them.

   In the end, people often take the very phrase ‘”Game Balance” very, very wrong. They mean something like “Class Balance”. or maybe ‘Ability Balance”. But it means nothing more or less than what it is: GAME Balance. Is the game big enough to cater to people’s tastes, flexible enough to accommodate quirks and personal flavor, and deep enough to give you some fun options? If so, then it becomes balanced without any special work on the designer’s part.

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4 Responses

  1. You lost me in your middle section… and then found me by the conclusion again…

    I think you need to ditch the phrase Game Balance. It is still a bad one. I’d much rather see the phrase Table Balance come to play. It’s about your Table, not about the game, that should be addressed, and good games SHOULD address table balance.

    I will say that 80% of the games ignore table balance. I think that it’s just the designers don’t understand it, or are even aware it’s an issue. I don’t think those that are aware of it are addressing it completely right either. It’s really tough to design systems that let different talents shine well.

    Which is why your ABC example is so painful to me, because it derails your argument, and ignores the problems that are about the table.

    Quite frankly, WOD doesn’t address Table Balance at all, and to think a new player can’t make a crippled character in WOD is amusing to me, since I watch it happen. WOD is as bad as D&D in it’s attention to one style of player, and even though it tries to at least give lip service to social systems, the fact that it relies on the same mechanics as it’s combat derails it.

    If you are going to address different people of a game table, you need to create separate systems that play to them. Not unbalanced systems (That’s where your layer Game Balance, that place between Rules Balance and Table Balance steps in), but systems that work together to provide many different ways to succeed or fail depending on the strengths of the player.

    As a possible example, consider adding this rule to any rules-light game. The Musical Interlude Rule. Once per game, any player may break into a Musical Interlude and make an improvised song based on the situtation the characters currently find themselves in, and must sing for a predetermined period of time about the problem and the solution. The other stipulation is that this can not be the climax of a game session. (I recommend starting at 15 seconds and working up from there). A good performance means that the outcome comes out exactly as you sang about. A poor performance (One with a little too many whole notes, for example) means that nothing really happens, the world looks at the character fun, and you move on.

    This particular rule plays to a particular player at a table. They may or may not exist at your table, and while the optimizer might be talented enough to take advantage of this rule, this rule lets those that are really good at improvising shine. While abusable, it’s no more abusable then other mathematical systems at a table, and it plays to a specific style of player, which gives them a chance to shine.

    It’s in this way, providing multiple paths to achieve gaming excellence, that you achieve table balance.

  2. Well friend… there isn’t much I can recommend to balance a specific, individual set of individual gamers gathered into a group. That’s always too personal and variable. If you want it balanced, then do so: that’s what Thoth was talking about in the intro. But groups vary far more than games do. And games can never balance people.

    This is why WoD or Torg are good systems for balance. There’s always another way to accomplish your goals (assuming the GM doesn’t utterly fail). The game systems are built around that. You can’t completely screw up your character because anything you buy with XP is useful. That doesn’t mean you’ll USE your character’s abilities well. But that’s a very different problem.

    And it’s a solvable one. Any game can be designed with game balance, but you cannot build in your “table-balance”. That must always remain something your group wants – or doesn’t. Some groups would think of it as quite pathetic and annoying.

  3. World of Darkness is an insanely well-balanced system.

    Uhm, what?

    The group i used to game with preferred D&D, despite recognizing most of it’s faults, over anything white wolf because:

    “Breaking the game n D&D requires dedicated, conscious, effort (or researching the effort of others). Breaking the game n any White Wolf system is something you do by accident. oops.”

  4. World of Darkness is an awesomely well-balanced system if you use it as I said. As I mentioned, I can’t control how an individual group plays.

    However, WoD made it easy to compete in whatever arena you wanted: if you like magic, you can specialize in it. If you like combat, you can do that. If you want to be a charming thief, you can do that easily – and if you are smart about using it, that will be just as effective as the archmage or the killing machine. And the awesome social climber can match any of them in effectiveness in accomplishing the end goals of the group.

    Secondly, you have directly supported me, though you probably didn’t realize it. You can’t break a WoD game because every character has easily-accessed super-powerful abilities. You don’t “break the game”, because there’s always another power – or a dozen – which can curb-stomp your character. There’s nothing you can do to break the game, because it’s simply balanced at a high level. That doesn’t mean your specific group can’t screw it up, but that’s because you’re not looking at the limits and weaknesses in the ability – and every character has a whole suite of built-in disadvantages and limitations.

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