I talked a lot about balancing games in my last few posts. In particular I talked about balancing Final Fantasy 1 recently but the idea of creating balanced games has been a pretty constantly popping up on my blog. This should be no great surprise because the idea of balance is ubiquitous in conversation about games though I think most people don't really understand what it means. I am going to try to define what I mean by balance in the general sense and why I think it matters.
A balanced game is one that has a large variety of ways to play well while retaining a much greater number of ways to play badly. In particular when choosing a strategy and game style there are many different choices that are optimal depending on which of the possible game states the strategy is being used for. Game balance is drastically more important when player's performance is being compared to one another and when choices that require large investments to change are substantially different in effectiveness.
One of the most talked about types of games in terms of balance is the MMORPG where players choose characteristics of their avatar and then go about trying to do things within the game world. Game balance is particularly critical here because players are often compared directly to one another and if a particular choice the player has made (most generally class) is undesirable or weak it is often infeasible for the player to change it and thus the player can easily end up simply unable to play or compete at all. If, for example, Rogues are simply terrible then the player who has made their character a Rogue has no alternative but to start again from the beginning and this is extremely demoralizing and unpleasant for the player. It is for this reason that many MMORPGs that first come out have huge problems because they start out with enormous power differences between classes and players correctly reason that their performance and measure among their peers is dependent less on their skill and more on an arbitrary, necessarily uninformed choice when first choosing the game. The power differential between classes does not need to be zero but it needs to be such that an above average player will beat a below average player no matter what their class choices were.
Balance is drastically less critical in single player games for obvious reasons. Even if a player makes a bad choice it is often not impactful enough to stop them from beating the game anyway. They may take longer to achieve the same goals as a player that makes a better choice but they can generally win because few single player games allow characters to make such tremendously stupid choices that the game is unwinnable. Of course the game designers rely on people to not do things that are *obviously* stupid and try to make all the choices where the answer is not obvious ones that can be worked around. When the benchmark that a player must achieve is fixed then playing optimally is unnecessary because usually practice or grinding can get them past the hurdle; this is not true for multiplayer games where other players make the choices and set the benchmarks. In FF1 there are some obvious choices to make a more powerful party but *any* starting party can win and in fact the game is beatable even with playing with only 1 character instead of 4. The main difference is that a bad party takes much more time to win.
The main reason I see game balance as being at all relevant in single player games is replayability. A big part of the fun in a game is figuring out exactly what the best technique is and how to most easily overcome obstacles. When that answer is obvious because there are very few or only one optimal choice sets then the game is quickly mastered. Certainly there is some replayability even in games where optimal choices are easily come by but it is much less than in games where it takes far more time, experience and analysis to determine the perfect strategy. For example, Diablo 2 was a tremendously fun game. However, if you were playing a Barbarian you had only one choice - be a Whirlwind Barbarian. (WWB) If you tried any other strategy it would be unbelievably painful and you would be easily defeated by many obstacles that a WWB would crush with ease. While the game was successful as it was it could have had even more replayability if there were a half dozen different combat skills that were at least competitive with WW. Players would be curious to find out exactly how the different skills worked and in what situations they shone if the answer weren't so bloody obvious - always play WW. The same could be said of Hammer, Multishot, Corpse Explosion and Static Field - once you see the best in action nothing else is even under consideration.
Essentially I see game balance as providing the player with a greater distance between being totally uninformed and being completely sure of the optimal choices. If you consider WOW raiding for a moment it is easy to see how balanced it is by this criteria since although it is easy for nearly any player to determine that a party of
Priest x 3
Warrior x 2
Rogue x 5
is absolutely atrocious for attempting t11 raids it is only a truly exceptional player that could tell you accurately whether a party containing precisely 1 of each class is better than a party containing 2 priests, 0 rogues and 1 of each other class instead. There is a lot to think about there and if you asked top tier raiders to list the best possible raid composition for the entire tier you would end up with thousands (at least) of different combinations that are all very competitive. FF1 or Diablo 2, by contrast, have a very limited number of optimal choices, probably only a handful. This doesn't make them bad by any means, but it does mean that have room to improve. An MMORPG balanced as poorly as FF1 would have a really hard time in the current market since its competition is so much better and balance matters so much more in that genre.