Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Defining Balance again

Last week I tried to define game balance.  I came up with something that seems like a useful idea on how to make a game fun and I think would be positively correlated with people calling a game balanced... but it wasn't a good definition of game balance.  The comments were very interesting and I had another talk with people this weekend on the topic to try to nail it down a little better.  We started off talking about what sorts of games we would call imbalanced and going from there.  Note that although balance and fun are linked I am not talking here about what makes a game fun but rather focusing on balance itself.

Ziggyny, who is the best Vegas Showdown player I know, says that he thinks it is an unbalanced game.  He thinks this because the best strategy is to try to build the Theatre but that strategy requires the Theatre to come out.  Most of the time it does but if it does not then the Theatre strategy simply loses and if it does the Theatre strategy simply wins... assuming people don't buy it from you for spite, which they sometimes do.  All this is assuming good play and knowledge from all players.  I would agree that a game where you play for a long time making many complex decisions that seem relevant at the time but which will be randomly determined to be relevant or not near the end of the game is unbalanced.

WOW is a particularly balanced game.  When I say this I wonder what exactly it would take to make me think it was imbalanced and I think the primary thing that would make me think that is if the classes were not all balanced against one another in effectiveness.  If the individual specs were not comparable in effectiveness I would note that as a lack of balance but much less so than classes.  I don't think that particular styles like Melee Hunter or Naked Paladin need to be any good at all for balance to be achieved.

Settlers is a balanced game.  Although there is a fair bit of luck involved (which you can limit substantially by using a deck instead of dice) it is definitely clear that better players win the vast majority of the time, weaker players have a chance to win and the sorts of things that you would think would make you win the game do in fact make you win the game.  Being a canny trader, using intimidation/stalling/lying to get people to do what you want, placing settlements/cities carefully, making good decisions on when to crush resources, when to keep a big hand or dump your cards and who to hit with the robber baron all have a substantial impact on the game along with the aforementioned luck.

We also talked about if War is a balanced game.  The conclusion we came to was that War was not a game at all since there were no player decisions of any kind and the result was decided purely by a complicated coin flip. Rock Paper Scissors seems like it will never be called imbalanced, it will often be called balanced and you might well call it 'too trivial to be balanced or not'.  Either way it definitely does not trigger the 'this is unbalanced' feeling.

Puerto Rico is a mostly balanced game.  When my group of friends plays we tend to bid for various seats since seats with corn have a starting advantage.  The advantage is small in a group where people accurately recognize and attack the leader but nonetheless it is there.  The feature that after a totally randomized start some players possessed a noticeable advantage was something we all felt was unbalanced.  Clearly the game is a lot of fun without bidding for seats but there was a clear consensus that bidding for seats to achieve a more equitable start position made it feel more balanced to expert players.

So what is the common element in these things?  Randomness is not considered unbalanced or balanced consistently, dependency on skill is not the determining factor and number of optimal ways to play does not seem to be the answer either.  The common element I find is that a game is considered unbalanced if the primary driving factors behind performance and success are not what the players intuitively feel they should be.  In Settlers people seem to feel that all the decisions made in the game should be impactful but luck should change the course of the game and occasionally have an overwhelming effect.  People also feel that poker is balanced due to that same combination of skill and luck - the result matches their intuition.  I think this also explains WOW nicely since it is a game where huge amounts of time are invested into a character so people tend to object to any choice they cannot reverse being too significant a factor in determining their power.

This isn't a definition I am in love with.  I don't like the ephemeral 'what players intuitively feel they should be.' part of it and I wish there was something more concrete, more measurable I could use instead.  Clearly we can measure specific things like "Do Ret Paladins do as much damage as Elemental Shaman?" somewhat reasonably but I don't think we can actually determine anything about whether or not a game is balanced until we ask people what they think should determine how successful and/or powerful they become while playing it.  So here you have my brand spanking new definition:

A game is balanced if the primary driving factors behind performance and success are what the players intuitively feel they should be.

Now we can see if this one holds up better than the last!


  1. I do like this one more than the previous one. Well, I don't like that it's subjective but I think it might be a necessary evil here.

  2. I like this one a lot less than the previous one. What does this have to do with balance?

    I think the problem you have to address is that you have the following:

    "A game has 'property X' if the primary driving factors behind performance and success are what the players intuitively feel they should be."

    If someone presented you with that statement and asked you what word they should use for property X, what would you reply? I think if you got people together who talk a lot about gaming (and who haven't read this) and got them to brainstorm answers to that question then "balance" would not be on the list of candidates.

    Not that common understanding of a word is necessarily the best way to get at it's meaning (common understanding of temperature has little relationship to the best definition we have, for example). But if you propose a definition that doesn't intuitively connect to the way people use the word, then you have to make a pretty good argument that the thing you are talking about is in fact the thing that people are talking about when they talk about that thing (we can do this in the temperature example).

    The fact is, there are lots of bloggers who spend lots of time arguing that WoW does not have property X. Performance in WoW (raiding) is dependent primarily on two things: arcade-style button mashing skill and situational awareness. The bloggers in question may overemphasize the former over the latter, but being able to hit the right buttons in the right sequence very quickly is a big performance driver, and many people don't think that should be one in an MMORPG. Does that make WoW unbalanced?

    But even more than this, the point of class balance is that class choice *does not* drive performance. If all classes are balanced then which class you chose doesn't have much to do with your ability to perform. This makes sense from a design perspective, but I certainly wouldn't use the word "intuitive" for it. Intuition tells us that whether we choose to be a rogue or a mage should make a pretty big difference. If the classes are balanced, then it does not. In this case, I think your definition may be the opposite of balance.

    I feel strongly that words mean something, and that we chose to import the word "balance" into gaming jargon to discuss a certain concept because the concept of balance was related to or analogous to what we were talking about.

    What does this proposed definition have to do with balancing things, things being similar, things being equal? The answer appears to be nothing, which makes me think you aren't talking about balance, you are talking about something else.

  3. ARGH. Stupid Blogger ate a my huge response. This time, the short form.

    I think if you presented people with the proper definition of all kinds of somewhat esoteric words people wouldn't be able to connect them. I think a better solution would be to see if people agree that things they personally happen to think are unbalanced also fit the criteria of my definition. I think if you did that test you would find a very strong correlation.

    I think people intuitively expect class choice in an MMORPG with a long ramp up to endgame to hugely affect their style but to not substantially affect their power ceiling. Being a rogue or a mage should significantly affect the way you play but it shouldn't be a major factor in whether or not you can get into a raid group or pvp group. I think that is how the average person views it and I think that fits with my definition nicely.

    My definition incorporates the idea that decisions which shouldn't (in people's intuitive sense) affect performance are equal in terms of power. Classes (in the WOW setting) should be roughly equal in terms of the power they give you to be good in raids or pvp. We want to balance the effects of the choices that we don't think should impact performance so that regardless of which one players choose they can be successful.

  4. Aristotle famously defined a human as a featherless biped. This has a very good correlation with what people are talking about when they talk about humans, but is a terrible definition of a human - especially after the discovery of Australia.

    It's true that if you asked a bunch of people "Property X is the average kinetic energy of the molecules in a substance" and asked them to name it, not that many people would decide to name that property temperature. This definition of temperature, however, has the benefit of provably being the thing we've been trying to get at for hundreds of years of talking about temperature.

    Words have priority over their definitions. At some point some people started talking about game balance and had some idea what they were talking about. They chose the word "balance" because it sort of fit. Other people had some intuition of what they meant when they used that word and the word facilitated discussions. Now you are suggesting that the concept they were chasing has nothing to do with the concept of balance; I think that requires a somewhat extraordinary demonstration that your definition actually fits every use of the term (and that places where it doesn't fit it because the person using the term is mistaken).

    Have you ever heard of the game Mindball? It's a simple game where both players try to get a ball into the other player's net. The game moves the ball towards the net of the player who is in the less relaxed mental state (as measured by an EEG). So you win the game by thinking a certain way, and trying to win the game usually makes you lose. It is specifically designed to be the opposite of intuitive. On the other hand it is a completely fair and non-random game where both players play by the same rules, are given the same starting position, and win by virtue of their ability to outperform the other player at a particular task. Will you argue that this game is imbalanced?

    I also strongly question your idea that people intuitively think that class choice shouldn't affect their power level. You intuitively think that because you have trained your intuition in a certain way. If someone who grew up on fantasy novels but not playing RPGs decided to play an MMO as a way of getting into a more interactive fantasy setting they would have no such expectation. In the novels characters of dramatically different power levels cooperate to accomplish tasks.

    And this reveals another problem. Your definition is not merely subjective, it actually makes the property of game balance external to the game. Imagine I said a game is "chancy" if it's outcome is more determined by luck than skill. We could have endless debates over which games were chancy because we would disagree on the levels of luck and skill involved. That would be subjective. But if I say a game is "chancy" if its players *believe* it is more based on luck than skill then whether the game has that property depends on who is actually playing it, and the same game with the same rules may have or not have the property at different times.

    So when a bunch of experienced computer RPGers sit down to play an MMO it may be balanced because the classes meet our current definition of balance (all classes have similar maximum outputs) and it would also meet your definition. The game gets popular and millions more people join, including many people who have never played RPGs but know enough about fantasy to know that wizards usually end up being more powerful (in a raw sense) than fighters, and that in fantasy there is always room for help from plucky characters who don't have the raw skill of others. The classes have not changed, the game has not changed, and now it is imbalanced by your definition.

    I'm sure there are tons of people who have radically different intuitions about how games should work than you do. Your definition leaves you at their mercy.

  5. I particularly dislike your definition of balance. Why not simply say the game is intuitive if the the game acts as you intuitively expect it to? Right now you are creating a definition for an adjective (balanced) by using a regular term (intuitive). Why is balanced a better term for this?

    More importantly, why is balanced not a good word for the definition "equally successful for all players under perfect play"?

    You can of course hedge that with near perfect and fudge equally, but that definition has a "right" feel to it and even question what perfect play is, but for a lot of games, there is a perfect answer (possibly too hard to calculate).

  6. @lebkc

    Saying a game is "intuitive" and saying that "the factors that determine performance are what players intuitively expect them to be" are totally different things. Granted if someone said that the game as a whole was intuitive I would expect that the balance of the game was probably not hugely out of whack but the two things are not the same.

    I don't see how your definition can work. Do you mean that under perfect play all players will be equally successful in a single game? If so, have you not ruled out all games with any randomness as unbalanced? I don't think you would find much agreement there. If you mean that all players playing perfectly will be equally successful over a very large number of games (eliminating randomness through massive iterations) then isn't every single game balanced?

    If you consider poker, for example, which I certainly consider a balanced game and I expect most people do, then over a single game your definition would certain deem it imbalanced (like every other game involving any significant randomness). However, if we consider people playing a million games of poker then clearly your definition would have it be a balanced game ... just like every other game out there.

  7. @ sthenno

    You suggest that someone reading fantasy novels (or perhaps playing old fantasy tabletop games even) would have the expectation that some classes were more powerful than others. That may well be true but I think that expectation would vanish if you actually describe the context or let the player experience it. Fantasy novels are not about groups who go to defeat a particular monster and can choose from hundreds of candidates to assemble their group of fixed size. They are about groups of friends, heroes, who gather everyone they can together to fight evil. Of course you take the thief along... you can't just swap him for another wizard! If you told them though that the setting involves groups of fixed size who recruit people specifically to fight encounters that are very challenging or impossible to complete with low performing group members then I am confident they would say that having some classes be terrible was very imbalanced.

    The same holds true for tabletop RPGers in a different way. It was often true that wizards are terrible weaklings in the early going (this is less so these days) but who became unstoppable forces of destruction at later levels. If you ask someone who is planning to play from level 1 to 20 if it is okay to be bad for level 1 to 6, mediocre from 7 to 12 and superpowered from 13 to 20 they will often say that is balanced. After all, at level 20 you stop. If you told them instead that they would have the same progression but they they would be playing for 50 more sessions at level 20 and that their ability to play in the group in those sessions was dictated by their character power level you would find them suddenly thinking that this system is totally unbalanced. Would people think that FF1 is balanced despite Fighters being awesome and Thieves being bad? Sure, lots of people would. It doesn't wreck their game when this happens. It does wreck WOW if some classes are useless though (if you are playing that class) so people view it as unbalanced.

    I am aware that my definition relies on the notions of others to work and that this means that whether or not a game is balanced can shift completely based on who is viewing it. I think it should be noted that there are broad trends that tend to recur and that it is entirely possible to predict what large groups of people will say on these sorts of matters with admittedly limited certainty. Note that I think that these things don't make me wrong.

    Balance is like beauty. It has no definition outside the frame of reference of the viewer. Since we know a lot about how humans view things we can make good guesses about how they will see things and even come to agreement on what is beautiful or not between individuals but there simply is no absolute, objective value for game balance. The entirety of game balance is based on the perceptions of the players of the game.

    We can make specific arguments on particular aspects of a game like whether or not 2 classes are balanced against each other and come to pretty defensible conclusions. The reason we can't do this for games as a whole is that we accept that there are good and bad ways to play games and that that is a necessary component - game balance is about which choices matter and which choices don't and saying which should be which is entirely dependent on your point of view.

  8. I think you take a strawman version of bkc's proposal. Equally successful does not mean with the context of a single game where you have to have one winner and one loser. As he said, you can fudge the idea of "equal". For a game like poker, we say it is balanced because over the long run everyone is equally affected by luck.

    You say that balance is like beauty and is subjective. As I said, your definition is not subjective. According to your definition, whether a game is balanced or not has very little to do with your perspective. It is a fact about the people who play the game, one that could be studied objectively. After all, the idea that beauty is the same as people finding something beautiful isn't very credible. Beauty is not a public opinion poll, and if balance is like beauty, then it shouldn't be either.

    But I also strenuously object to the idea that balance is like beauty. With beauty it is possible to simply say, "Well, I think that's beautiful, and you don't, and neither of us is any more right than the other." Is that okay with balance? When I talk about game balance I am talking about something that a game has or it doesn't or that it has to a certain degree. Lots of people will have different opinions over whether a game is balanced, but those opinions are not equally valid.

    You point out that we can make specific arguments about whether two classes are balanced against each other. In what sense does that use of the word "balance" have anything to do with the definition you've given. In gaming jargon I say that a thief and a wizard are balanced if they output the same damage given optimal play. But when I talk about a game as a whole you suggest that by "balanced" I mean something about sum of the feelings of the people who play the game.

    With the RPG, you say that people will understand that given a fixed party size fighting difficult challenges everyone has to perform relatively equally. I agree. I agree that most people, given enough context, would *rationally* agree with that *argument*. That is a completely different thing than intuitively connecting what they are doing with their performance.

    I'd also like you to address the Mindball question. Definitions fail to counterexamples.

    My main objection still exists. I've talked a lot about game balance in my life, and I've even talked a lot about it with you. I am pretty sure that this definition has nothing to do with what I've been talking about.

    You are trying to describe something that is a good feature for a game to have. I see no reason to assign the word "balance" to that thing.

  9. I don't think my interpretation of bkc's definition is strawmanlike in the least. There are two interpretations that I can see, either that his definition applies over a single game or over many games. I think it is obvious that the single game interpretation is ridiculous but I thought it worth illuminating... but it should be noted that the multigame interpretation is also ridiculous because the *only* game I can think of that isn't balanced by that definition is Carcassone because the younger player goes first so they will have a constant advantage no matter how skill levels go. Can you name another game where multiple expert players playing perfectly *don't* end up with an equal chance to win over many iterations? If you cannot then it means that his definition would define all games as balanced which I think we all agree is wrong. Any game that we would all agree is unbalanced should still have an equal win chance over many iterations when played perfectly by all parties, no?

    You say that people have many different opinions about whether a game is balanced and they are not equally valid. That is true but does not contradict my definition. If 10 million people play a game and the vast majority agree that classes having comparable performance in the endgame is the only relevant concern for balance then the game *is* balanced if that holds true. Just because one guy disagrees doesn't make it unbalanced. My definition relies on the intuition of people, wherein you are not going to find agreement, but you will find tendencies. It isn't objective and deterministic outside the context of the people who play it.

    As for Mindball I will say I don't know anything about it so I don't know if I am understanding you right, but here is my interpretation:

    We have a game. The players know that the way to win the game is to move the ball into your opponent's net. The ball is moved in your favour by being more relaxed mentally than your opponent.

    So the obvious strategy is to be more relaxed than your opponent. The person who wins is going to be the one who can more effectively calm themselves and control their mind (and emotions?). My intuitive understanding of the way to win is that the person better able to control themselves and maintain calm will win. It turns out that is true. What do you think most people would think is the key to victory? Wouldn't they all say 'the person who can keep themselves calm and clear their mind will win.'? I would argue that Mindball has a user interface that is challenging to get used to as the normal ways we interact with games are utterly useless. I don't see how that makes the way of winning the game unintuitive. Hard, yes. Unintuitive, no.

  10. Okay, I thought your argument above against bkc was a bit of a strawman, but combined with your explanation here I think it works well.

    Here's why I don't think your definition works for Mindball:

    If two people who don't know how the game works play it (when the game was originally invented players were not told how to win, only that they controlled the ball with their minds) then the game is balanced but your definition doesn't fit. Both players try different things with their minds and one eventually wins (often the one who wasn't trying as hard) but neither had any kind of unfair advantage over the other. The fact that the one who is trying harder is usually the loser demonstrates that their intuition about how to perform well at the game is was wrong.

    Suppose instead we tell the players how to win the game, by relaxing and clearing their minds. Then they both know what they are supposed to do to win. This involved no intuition whatsoever on their part. They were told directly what they had to do to win the game, they know the lone factor that correlates to performance because they've been told it by someone who knows. They have no opportunity whatsoever to engage in intuition regarding the outcome.

    I was thinking about this with regards to a foot race. A foot race seems like it should be called a balanced game, but where does your definition apply? Again, we all know what precisely what it means to perform, so how could anyone be said to have intuition about it at all?

    One way I can think to apply it is to say that most intuitively understand how to *increase* their performance in the game. Again, this fails for Mindball. I don't think that people in general intuitively understand how to be more calm and relaxed; if they did there would be a much smaller self-help book section. Some people have good intuition on that front and others have it all wrong. While we could probably say that people who don't intuitively know how a reasonable method to increase their running speed (practice running!) would be rare enough to discount, I don't think we could say the same about people who don't intuitively know how to relax mentally.

    Or maybe I'm wrong and the majority of people have pretty good intuition about how to relax; we could probably find out through empirical study. But if that's what it comes down to, then I don't like the proposed definition because I don't think the answer to "Is this game balanced" should be, "Let's go empirically study the typical capabilities of humans!"

    I guess that also brings up the question of simple games played at very high levels. Most games are intuitive to a point, then you hit a ceiling where you have to do some weird stuff to succeed. Scrabble seems pretty intuitive until you get to high levels and performance is highly related to ability to memorize all three letter words. Does that means Scrabble is balanced for games night with your family and unbalanced in competitive play? Again, I don't think you can say that the competitive players have an intuition that memorizing three letter words will help them win, they know that by study.

  11. I think it does work for Scrabble. Scrabble is balanced for games night with your family because for people in my family they think the way to get better at Scrabble is to know more words and control access to the super scoring areas of the board. It remains balanced as people get more competitive because as you play the game more and more you get a better idea of which words are more important to know.

    As you play a bunch and learn where you can play new words you realize putting them alongside other words and making a bunch of 2 letter words is very good. Play a while with boards like that and you'll realize a good way to score next is to learn all the 3 letter extensions to 2 letter words. (So not actually all 3 letter words. You don't need to know zoo since neither zo or oo are words.)

    I'd say this progression of learning is quite natural and intuitive. Scrabble is certainly a skill intensive game and there are lots of levels you can play at and people at a high level will blow people at a low level away. Low level people may not understand how high level people win, but I think it is pretty reasonable to find a progression to get there and each step makes sense. Which words are more important to learn change but when it comes right down to it I'd expect most Scrabble players understand that learning more words will make them better at the game.

  12. Well, Scrabble might have been a bad example (I'm not that good at Scrabble) but I think the general point that sometimes weird things happens at the top is there. Even in Scrabble I think there is a difference between "natural progression to get there" and "intuitive." A natural progression to learn something usually begins with something intuitive that is gradually replaced as you learn and understand more. Anyway, if it doesn't work for Scrabble it still works for other things.

    If you want to be a competitive swimmer you have to shave off all your body hair to reduce friction in the water. There is a controversy in international sport about the use of barometric sleeping chambers (or at least there was, I don't know if it was resolved firmly). For some reason my mind is focused on sports right now, but I think a similar thing can happen in lots of complicated games: it will turn out that when you stop worrying about getting 500% better (because you suck) and you start worrying about getting .01% better, you have run out of room for improvement in the central skill and you need to start getting more esoteric.