What is balance when it comes to video games? Balance can mean different things depending on the type of video game we are talking about, but balance’s core is whether the game designer can tune a games challenge correctly. Correct tuning can make a game popular, or make players avoid it like the plague.
Tuning the Challenge
The primary purpose of game design is to create the world the game occurs in and tune that world to the difficulty or challenge the designers are looking for. Tuning can involve just about anything in a game made for player interaction. A well-designed game keeps the player audience in mind, and tunes the diverse elements of the game to the form their audience craves. A badly designed game ignores the audience and makes the game too difficult, too easy, boring, or unbalanced. Games designed for adults with a kid’s level of content and difficulty would be a good example.
Player versus environment games are focused on creating the world, and the characters populating that world. For a PvE designer, character creation is critically important. The designer has to give the player’s character awesome, interesting abilities to make the character interesting. After all in most PvE games, the player’s character is the one they are “stuck” with for the entire run of the games story line. Usually the only way to change up a PvE character is to start the game all over again.
To compliment the player character’s in PvE and their awesome, interesting abilities, designers must also focus on creating enemies with awesome, interesting abilities. The game revolves around the characters using their abilities to counteract and ultimately defeat the enemies abilities. This means a designer must create adversaries that require the use of protagonist abilities in unique ways, but son’t require some ability a character might not have to beat. The delicate balance between character abilities and adversary requirements is what most tuning in PvE games focuses on.
PvP’s Unique Requirements
In contrast PvP design must focus simply around the player’s characters. Seldom are the AI adversaries in a PvP game the real challenge. Other player characters are the threat in most PvP games.
This makes things more interesting for a PvP game designer. The nature of a PvE game provides its own goals to work towards. The player wants to finish the game or at least the content they are working on! PvP games have no natural goal like this. It is incumbent on the designers to create the goals in a PvP game.
Many PvP games create goals in their games by utilizing game play to improve player characters over time. Other PvP games use rewards and prestige systems to encourage goal oriented playing. All PvP games have to figure out some way to continually provide interesting goals and rewards to their players so they continue playing.
Unfortunately, a side effect of these reward systems can be unbalanced game play. In a reward system focused on improving player characters over time some players, by nature of the system, will have more awesome, interesting abilities than others. This gives the players that have ground out the improvements an advantage, most often earned, over those just starting out. While the improved characters usually earned their advantages, an unbalanced PvP atmosphere can make new players avoid the game.
Rewards can work better than character improvement, as long as the rewards are cosmetic in nature and do not affect game play. Same holds true for prestige systems. The challenge with these systems is “can you make cosmetic non-game influencing rewards/prestige interesting and desirable enough for players to want to accomplish the grind to get them.”
Examples of Balanced Games
Starcraft 2, SC2, is an excellent example of a balanced RTS style game. The units used by players are divided into three different races. To play a game of SC2 you choose a race and than play your match with that race’s units. Each of the races plays differently, but Blizzard works incredibly hard to make sure no one race has so many advantages that it dominates. This balance means that SC2 is heavily focused on skill based play and, unless a mistake is made, a low skill player will seldom defeat a high skill player. SC2 uses cosmetic rewards and prestige to promote playing matches.
SMITE: Battleground of the Gods is an example MOBA that I am familiar with. Each of the god characters that are available for players is different, but Riot is constantly working to maintain equality in opportunity of play. Every player of Ra for example starts a game mode exactly the same game play wise. Throughout a match the player’s skill determines how the Ra character advances, and none of the game play decisions carry over from match to match. SMITE, like SC2, uses cosmetic and prestige rewards to encourage play.
Overwatch is Blizzard’s FPS. Like its work with SC2, Blizzard works hard to maintain balance between the characters. Many tweaks and broad changes have occurred in the roster of characters provided for players of Overwatch. Overwatch again employs cosmetic and prestige awards to encourage replay.
Examples of Not So Balanced Games
Command and Conquer: Red Alert is an example of an RTS game that is not very well-balanced. Their are two factions involved in the game, the Allies and the Soviets. When Red Alert first came out, everyone was excited about the game. The single player story mission was very enjoyable and still is. However, when it came to PvP a major imbalance was noted. The Soviet side of the conflict was nearly unbeatable. The Soviet side was shown, even in the hands of a less skilled player, to routinely defeat the Allied side, even with the Allied player being more skilled. This led to all PvP games being Allied vs Allied or Soviet vs Soviet. Within a few years this also lead to Red Alert PvP becoming nearly non-existent.
Lest you feel that Blizzard Entertainment does everything right in my eyes, I am naming World of Warcraft PvP a badly balanced game. In this case WoW:PvP is more indicative of an MMORPG problem than a specific knock against WoW. MMORPGs designers have a real challenge. They have to create both a PvE game and a PvP game and run them in the same game. This means they must constantly wrestle with giving characters cool new PvE abilities with preventing PvP from becoming too unbalanced. Adding to this trouble is that the rewards system is focused on improving characters. So just by nature of the use of this system MMORPG PvP will tend towards unbalanced game play. MMORPG PvP gaming is some of the most complained about type of PvP gaming.
The final example of a not so balanced game would be World of Tanks. This online tank battle Sim has all the problems of a character, or in this case tanks, improvement system. WoT also adds in the ability to skip in game play by allowing a player to buy benefits with real world currency. Not only can a rich player skip all the grinding for better tanks, once that person reaches the top tiers of the game they can still spend money to buy performance enhancing options. Many of the options are only available by spending real world money. This very much makes WoT a play to win game. You can play WoT for fun and get skilled at the game, but to be really competitive expect to spend real money.
Imbalance Can Lead to Avoidance
When a game is PvP based most players want a player’s skills to matter the most. Balanced PvP games focus on a player’s skills and reward the honing of those skills with bragging rights and cosmetics. Unbalanced PvP games cause frustration amongst new players and the new players may decide to avoid the games entirely as they don’t see the grind to get to the top as worth their time. Pay to win games are the worst about this. Unless a player is an avid fan of the game, most will tend to avoid attempting to excel at the game. Thus, we can see that balanced PvP gaming is one of the key ingredients of the best PvP games.
May All Your Matches Be Legendary