Thursday, March 31, 2011

What is Balance and why do we bother?

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.


  1. By your definition Rock Paper Scissors is not a balanced game.

  2. I don't think RPS is a balanced game in the same way that I don't think that the number 4 is coloured purple. RPS simply doesn't have the characteristics necessary to make the judgement of balanced or not possible.

    I suppose I could add to my definition that games need a certain threshold of complexity for balance to be something that is reasonable to evaluate using my parameters.

    The game of 'I kick you in the groin and you win if you don't fall down' is in the same category - there simply aren't enough choices nor anything resembling strategy for balance to be something we can evaluate.

  3. "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."

    I have a big issue with this statement, especially when it comes to replayability in single player games. When I think of all the people I know who have played, for example, Final Fantasy X multiple times it's never been because they were trying to find a way to make the game easiest. Some people wanted to see the story again. Some people wanted to get and do everything in the game. Some people wanted to beat the game with a specific party for theme/coolness reasons and not for power reasons. (Auron+Tidus+Wakka=???) Some people (ok, just me) wanted to let Khimari gain experience. Some people played with just one character to make it harder. Apparently some people even played without using the power up system at all just to show it could be done.

    But I can't recall anyone I know replaying it because they thought it would have been easier if they'd focused on using specific characters instead.

    Even with your example of Diablo2 I disagree. I had a blaze sorc, and an inferno sorc, and a frozen orb/meteor sorc. Sure, that last one was more powerful by any measure you could come up with. But I had fun playing the other two and I don't think it would have been even more fun if they were equivalent in power. It may well have been less because then the idea of 'can I actually do this?' would get thrown right out.

  4. The etymology of the word "balance" as applied to games traces to the word "balance" from the English language. If you redefine it so far that competitive game in which each player has precisely the same set of rules to follow and neither comes in with a handicap is not balanced then I think you've totally co-opted the word away from the common understanding.

    If this is what you mean when you say "balance" then you won't find many people who you are able to meaningfully talk about balance to. If you want to know whether RPS is balanced, go ask a bunch of people. If the majority of them hesitate because the answer is so obvious that they assume you are asking a trick question, I think my point will be proven.

    I might call what you are talking about here "depth" or something else like that, but I don't think you are describing "balance" at all.

    Furthermore, I agree strongly with Ziggyny that trying to make all strategies equally valid in a single player game detracts rather than adds to replayability. I had at least seven different level 80 sorceresses who beat hell difficulty with different skills. I made it through hell with a shoutbarian - whirlwind was not the only option. Poison dagger didn't work out, but I played it for quite a while. You played punchadin. These choices were extremely fun. The fun in them, I think for both of us, was trying to make optimal decisions *after* having chosen to make a very bad decision at the outset - not in having more optimal decisions to choose from.

  5. I think that calling RPS balanced is reasonable. I think calling it unbalanced is crazy and I also think that calling it 'so trivial as to not be balanced or not' is reasonable.

    If either of you think that I am advocating making all choices balanced you are wrong and perhaps should reread what I posted. I advocated a large number of nearly optimal ways to play and a *larger* number of bad ways to play. This second portion is critical! I absolutely agree that a game where all choices are equally powerful isn't much fun at all and attempting to make things that way is never my intention. My intention is to prevent the situation where playing optimally can only be done one (or a very few) way and that way is obvious to anyone with minimal knowledge. For example, I don't have a problem at all with a Diablo type game where each class has 80 skills and 10 of them are competitive for 'best build'. The remaining 70 could run the gamut from 'kinda competitive' to 'laughable' and that would be fine. What I want to create is a situation where people trying to make the best decisions have a hard time doing so because there are a substantial number of decisions that are very strong. I am perfectly happy with there being a much larger pool of mediocre to garbage decisions that people can learn from or play with just for kicks.

    I build punchadin to see if it could be done. It could, until about halfway through nightmare where it just became infeasible. Remember that punchadin had absolutely nothing to do with the balance of various skills in the game at all - I had fun by deliberately handicapping myself in a completely ridiculous way, just like people have fun by killing off 3 of their FF1 characters and winning with 1 guy. I love that those are options! Just because we have lots of other balanced options doesn't mean I want to remove those.

    You both remember using lots of skills that were known to be bad and trying to win with them. Doing that is fun and I certainly wouldn't want to remove that. WOW is pretty damn balanced but you can still play

    Melee Hunter
    Melee Priest!
    Naked Paladin
    Mage without a talent point

    and have fun playing the game with a hideous, crippling penalty. However, in the same game you have pretty remarkable balance between all the various classes at the endgame. What I am trying to define as balance is a game that possesses the attributes of WOW in that players who are trying to be extremely competitive and are knowledgeable have a large variety of choices and in that there are an infinity of idiotic things you can do if you want to.

  6. I find your point about RPS strange. I'm trying to think of a parallel construction that makes sense: it is reasonable to say that A is X, is it totally unreasonable to say that A is not X, but it is also reasonable to say that A is neither X nor not X. I think in order to make that work you have to have secretly substituted Y for X in the last statement. If you would tend to agree that most people would think RPS is balanced, and you don't think that RPS is even the kind of thing that can be balanced, then I think I could defend the assertion that you just aren't talking about the "balance" that most people are talking about, but rather using the word to talk about some other concept.

    When people talk about balance in the end game of WoW they are generally talking about one of three things: different damage dealers having similar damage output; different healers having similar healing output; different tanks having similar survivability. Because choosing two tanks, three healers and five damage dealers can be done in so many ways, this creates the situation where you can do things a lot of different ways. In this case, balance leads to having multiple different ways to make a party, but it is not he same.

    Alternatively, imagine that rogues were absolutely useless. There would still be a tremendous number of different ways to form a party that could win the challenges in the game. There would be fewer, so maybe you would say the game would be "less balanced" but by the definition you gave it would still be balanced. But I don't think you would agree that would be a balanced game, you would say the class balance was totally out of whack - you wouldn't say, "This game is balanced, but it would be more balanced if rogues did comparable damage to the other damage dealers."

    On the other end of the spectrum, if there were only two tanks, two healers and two damage dealer classes then your options would be much more limited, but that wouldn't change how people talked about game balance. Balance would mean similar outcomes of using the different classes for each role, even though the number of different choices available is much smaller. The game could be less interesting and have less decisions to make but still be equally balanced.

    I think your definition of balance just doesn't have anything to do with balance. What you are describing is a very important thing in multi-player games, sometimes important in single player games, but it is not balance.

  7. Perhaps I'm letting the previous posts about balancing FFI colour the way I saw this post, but you weren't advocating lots of equivalently optimal options and even more bad ones there. You were actively trying to remove bad ones, and when some were removed as a side effect you didn't care. You wanted all the spells to be useful. You wanted random dude with no outside knowledge who randomly picks a party to be able to win without much issue.

    Even with your clarification I stand by my previous post. I don't think most people use optimality as a metric for fun the way you define here or the way we do. I gave myself a crippling penalty by playing solo thief but I am absolutely now trying to be optimal. But just look at the number of people playing WoW who both have no idea what the optimal talent spec or reforge is and don't care that they don't know.

  8. I don't think the result of asking a random person "Is RPS balanced?" is a good way to define what people think balance is. We could ask people "Is philosophy about people or ideals?" and get lots of answers but they wouldn't tell us what the definition of philosophy is - largely because the real definition of philosophy isn't either of those things and is complicated.

    I think you are right in that my definition lacks something. My definition would suggest that games are equally balanced if there are 10 classes and each has one viable spec or if they are 10 classes and 5 of them have two viable specs and 5 of them are useless... and that isn't right. I think my definition has some really important components of balance but needs something more.

    The critical thing that gets people saying that a game isn't balanced is when a major set of player choices is not able to compete with others. Character class is the obvious big one but there are others. People don't complain about balance very much as long as they are able to achieve victory within the set of choices they can't change in MMORPGs. Where we see the greatest complaints are not when a style (dual wield arms warriors, for example) is weak, primarily because anyone doing that can change their playstyle very quickly to be competitive. We don't even see much complaining when survival hunters are the best hunters as long as survival hunters are competitive with everyone else. Changing specs is easy, changing class not so much so.

    So it is clear that people think things are not balanced when they have to make substantial shifts in their playstyle in order to be competitive. How do we define which playstyles need to be relatively powerful for a game to be balanced and which do not? Clearly we could just say "whichever playstyles everyone knows must be balanced must be balanced" but that isn't a very description definition. Everyone knows that in an MMORPG the classes need to all be relatively similar in power (when played optimally) in order for the game to be balanced but everyone does not think that about talent points, even if talent points were permanent as in Diablo2.

    So there are some decisions that players make that they want to not affect their maximum potential power - but not all. In MMORPGs the line seems to be drawn at "stuff I decide at the character creation screen". As long as a fresh starting character has not yet limited their potential people are mostly okay with things.

    Balance is completely different for single player games, board games, etc. I think I need to make another huge post...

  9. I don't think your definition needs something more, I think it needs something less.

    My point is that if you came up with a good-seeming definition of philosophy that worked very well for many applications but happened to exclude Aristotle, then you wouldn't have a good definition of philosophy at all. Since RPS isn't to balance as Aristotle is to philosophy, I proposed the (unnecessary) step of asking people to verify that it is a good example of something we can broadly agree on.

    The fact that the definition seems to capture something useful suggests that it might be defining something related to the subject, or correlated with the subject, but if it excludes something that clearly should be included then it fails as a definition.

    I think that "The critical thing that gets people saying that a game isn't balanced is when a major set of player choices is not able to compete with others," is a very good statement of the issue, and why your definition succeeds in one regard and "Balance is completely different for single player games, board games, etc. I think I need to make another huge post" explains why your definition doesn't work. After all, the original post was sparked by a discussion of Final Fantasy 1 (see the first sentence). If the definition you gave doesn't apply to single player games, then that seems like a bit of a problem for it.

    The reason your definition seems to fit is because everyone has some set of choices that they identify with. Class is often one of those choices. Even without a very long leveling time, people choose their class based on what kind of character appeals to them personally.

    When people personally identify with the choices they make in the game and those choices end up being poor or wrong then those people feel the game is slanted against *them* as players.

    I think you try to get at this by suggesting that it has something to do with the amount of time it would take to change, but I don't really think that's it. Imagine that in WoW you didn't have to worry about gear and every time you logged in you could choose to play whatever class and spec you wanted. I don't think this would eliminate complaints about balance because there would still be lots of people out there who really wanted to play a particular class (though this system would probably drastically lower personal attachment to characters, so it might have a big effect on how many people really cared).

    Similarly, I agree that you don't see any complaining that dual-wield arms warriors are weak, but I think you'd see a lot of complaining (and we have seen this in the past) if all dual-wield warriors were weak. I doubt many warriors identify with arms or fury, but I think many have a strong personal preference between dual-wielding and one weapon styles.

    If I had to try to define a balanced *game* in a way that meshes with what people are actually talking about when they talk about balanced games I would say it is a game that does not favour one player over another. The problem with this definition, of course, is that everyone will have a different idea of what it means for the game to favour someone. Naturally, this plays out in the discussions of balance: no one can agree whether things are balanced because they have a different idea of what it is to favour someone because they have different ideas of what parts of the game are "choices" and what is part of the player. It is okay for people to do better or worse because of the choices they make (class, weapon, which skills they use in which order, amount of time they spend practicing, etc) but it is not okay for people to do better because of who they are (which may include their class, their weapon, which skills they use in which order, and the amount of time they spend practicing, etc).