Thoughts on Design: A Matter of Balance

by Dr Taliesin Coward

Game developers, particularly those who make multiplayer games, seem to spend an awfully long time tuning a game to achieve balance. In fact, some companies have entire departments dedicated to tweaking, tuning, and refining the game’s systems. The reason for such a hefty investment is that straight-forward: unbalanced games simply aren’t fun.

In multiplayer games, if one character, ability or weapon bestows a clear and nearly insurmountable advantage, this will lead to frustration on the part of the other players who find themselves on the wrong side of a losing battle that they can do very little to remedy. This is, of course, inimical to games where their survival depends on enough people enjoying it and thus playing the game to sustain it.

For singleplayer games, the theory is equally as simple: something which provides too much of an advantage will render the game too easy and thus boring, while something which feels underpowered will lead to players actively disliking, ignoring, or not playing it. Not a desirable outcome if the designer intended the players to use the item in question (and, if they didn’t, why go to the bother of designing it in the first place?).

So it’s perhaps no wonder that developers will spend hours and hours pouring over spreadsheets, analysing gameplay statistics, and releasing incremental updates which shave a tenth-of-a-second off this gun’s reload speed, or decreases that character’s movement speed by two-percent.

There is just one problem with achieving perfect balance, where characters, abilities and items are perfectly matched: it’s boring. A good example of this are RTS games where opposing factions are mirror images. While this leads to a perfect balance in a 1v1 match-up (as each player has the exact same advantages and disadvantages at their disposal), this rarely leads to sustained interest. This problem, which Rob Pardo (the Executive Vice-President of Game Design at Blizzard Entertainment) in his excellent GDC 2010 speech, called ‘balance to mediocrity’ is well known, though it is a mistake which still crops up from time to time.

An example of this is the scaling systems in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Both these games implemented a system where the power of the enemies players encountered, and the value/effectiveness of the items players found, was tied to the player’s character’s level. The logic behind this decision is clear. Firstly, it allows the designers to let the player access any part of the game world at any time. Secondly, it achieves a certain numbers based, (or to use Rob Pardo’s term) mathematical balance – ensuring that the player never encounters an item so powerful that it robs the game of any challenge, nor an enemy too strong to defeat.

Laudable ideas, yet problematic in the execution. For starters, it creates jarring dissonances in the game’s internal logic. In The Elder Scrolls games lore, Daedric weapons and armour are the most valuable, powerful and rare items of all. Thanks to the scaled levelling in Oblivion, however, by late game it seems that every down-and-out bandit is using it. The other major problem is that it flat-lines the game experience. The ease or difficulty with which the player can defeat the various foes throughout the world stays the same – something which actually totally negates the advantages of levelling up your character and getting better weapons and armour. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind did not scale enemies to the player, so while players could stumble across a bunch of relatively weak foes, they could also blunder into monsters way out of their league – forcing them to retreat and mark that location for later.
With Oblivion and Skyrim (with the exception of Skyrim’s giants and mammoths) players can blithely charge into any scenario, knowing that they are always automatically equipped to deal with it. Changes in weapons, armour and level are largely cosmetic. In fact, the only thing which prevents the levelling in Skyrim from being totally redundant is the perk system – where players can choose bonuses (such as an increased chance for arrows to stagger opponents) that ultimately unbalance the game. (In fact, the right selection of perks, arms and armour, can result in a super-ninja-like character, who can sneak up on a sleeping dragon and one-hit them with a dagger – sort of the equivalent of a successful whaler who hunts using only a pen-knife.)

A better, and more fun way of balancing a game is what I call ‘balance through extremes’. The comments of lead-designer of Torchlight II and co-founder of (the now sadly defunct) Runic Games, Erich Shaefer, provide an example. In an interview about Torchlight II given in 2012, he stated that he didn’t try to balance the game. Rather, Shaefer tried to manage ‘imbalance spikes’ – that is, not to smooth out all the peaks and troughs in the game, but ensure that they did not last too long. This is because extremes – provided they are not taken to extremes – are fun. An overpowered weapon will give players a thrill provided it doesn’t stay overpowered for too long, while being underpowered for a short time can provide tension by putting players on the back-foot, and result in a palpable sense of relief when they manage to regain equal footing (or even better, become overpowered). This seems somewhat similar in nature to the approach advocated by Rob Pardo, who stated that designers should aim to make everything feel overpowered, and achieve balance by countering one overpowered thing with another.


Some of the most memorable moments in party-games like Super Smash Bros. on the N64 (yes, I still play that) are the direct result of some of the most overpowered power-ups in the game. The star, for example, provides total invulnerability while it lasts – forcing other players to abandon any ideas of attacking, and run away screaming – while getting the hammer allows a player to knock his opponents out of the screen with usually only one hit. Balance here is achieved by the fact that 1) these items are rare 2) their effects only last a short while, and 3) in the case of the hammer, there is still a slight chance for other players to land a sometime final blow on the hammer-wielder (provided they time it right and attack from the correct angle).

This is something that the 1993 version of DOOM, and the 2016 relaunch got right. In both games, more and more dangerous foes appear during the course of the game, while players get access to bigger and better weapons. Two things stop this from feeling bland. Firstly, even towards the very end of the game, players will still encounter the most basic of enemies. Now laughably outclassed, these encounters let players relax and get a feel of just how much more powerful they’ve become. Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the 2016 DOOM’s BFG. Upon getting this ultimate weapon, the first thing the game presents you with is not a super-powered foe (which Oblivion and Skyrim style balance would dictate), but a room packed with the weakest foes around. Firing the BFG rewards players with pure spectacle and a considerable power-trip: the weapon fires a single, slow moving green orb. As it travels through the room, lightning flashes from it, detonating every exploding barrel and shredding every visible enemy (about 30 of them). This weapon is balanced not through super-powered enemies, but by scarcity of ammunition – meaning players tend to hold it in reserve for when they really need it. The second thing is that players can find secret locations which give access to the more powerful weapons early on – creating one of Shaefer’s imbalance spikes. This is ultimately balanced by a relative lack of ammunition for that particular weapon until later on in the game, and the fact that players have to invest effort into hunting for secrets.

All in all, I suspect that the question ‘is the game balanced?’, the wrong one for developers to ask, and one that can ultimately set designers on the wrong path: trying to build a game by spreadsheet and statistical analysis. While a fun game must inherently be balanced in order for it to avoid being frustrating or boring, a balanced game is not inherently fun. Rather, the question that should be at the forefront the entire time – and that reflects the game’s ultimate reason for being – was stated by Damon Slye, the creative director of the famous Red Baron: ‘is the game fun, and if not, why?’. ■

Bibliography

Brown, M. “Game Maker’s Toolkit: How Games Get Balanced”, (12 April 2019)
accessed 1 Sept. 2019

Carter,R., “Interview: Erich Shaefer on ARPGdesign, starting a successful studio, and Torchlight II”, The Critical Bit (13 July 2012). accessed 1 Sept. 2019

Coward, T., ‘Damon Slye Interview”, Big Bytes and Small Nibbles (issue # 4 2019), pp. 14-20.

Millard, A., “Why are Games So Hard to Balance?”, The Architect of Gaming, (22 Jul. 2018), accessed 1 Sept. 2019.

Pardo, R., “Making a Standard (and Trying to Stick to it!): Blizzard Design Philosophies”, (2010), accessed 1 Sept. 2019.

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