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  • Design 101: Balancing Games

    [12.17.15]
    - Dan Felder
  • Hi, welcome back to Design 101. Last time we talked about the Role of Randomness in Game design. In the process, I also mentioned that I'm currently working on a digital card game called Faeria. We just entered the major balancing phase of Faeria's development, which makes this a great time to talk about the topic of how to balance games. We've got a lot to get into, so let's get started.

    Game Balance - What is it?

    This may surprise you, but while the whole industry talks about "balancing games" there is surprisingly little consensus on what that actually means. Debates run wild in forums and article comment threads about whether a specific game is balanced or not.

    As always, the best definitions are the most useful ones. I've found that the most useful definitions of balance are based on what we're trying to avoid: Broken Gameplay. You know your game is broken the same way you know your printer is broken: it isn't working the way you want it to. If a printer's casing gets cracked but it still prints, it isn't broken. It's just damaged. It's only broken when it stops printing at acceptable quality.

    When you're designing a game you naturally want to create a positive experience for your players. When your gameplay isn't providing that experience, your game is broken. It's that simple.

    Broken Games

    Let's imagine adding the following card to my current project: Faeria. All you need to know about the game is that it's a strategic card game, much like Magic: the Gathering, and that its core resource is called "Faeria". Even weak effects cost at least 1 faeria to use.

    Here's the card:

    All Too Easy - 0 faeria
    Event
    You win the game.

    This card breaks the gameplay for obvious reasons. Like most strategy games, Faeria's fun comes from its interactive gameplay and meaningful choices. This card kills all of that. When someone draws All Too Easy, they have no interesting choice about which card to play. This card is always the right answer. Draw it and win.

    All Too Easy would also completely ruin the interesting deckbuilding environment we want to create. Faeria allows you to build your own decks. Naturally we want that process to be a fun strategic puzzle. With this card in the game, the deckbuilding process would break down. First, you should always include three copies of it in all of your decks. This reduces the number of meaningful choices in deckbuilding, because you always know what the first three of your cards are going to be.

    Furthermore, the only competitive strategies would likely end up being playing as much card draw as possible. This improves your chances of drawing "All Too Easy" before your opponent does. By making a single strategy the obvious choice, deckbuilding becomes far less interesting overall.

    This is why having a card or strategy that's too powerful can break games. If a single card or even an entire strategy is too powerful, the game breaks down because there's only one correct decision.

    Decision-making is the heart of most gameplay, particularly strategy titles. That's why it's also important to NOT have everything be of equal power level.

    Wait... What?

    The Problem with Equality

    Take a look at this math problem, then choose the correct answer below.

    Problem: 2x^2 + 4x - 4 = 0

    A) x = -1 +/- √3

    B) x = -1 +/- √3

    C) x = -1 +/- √3

    The problem might be interesting but the choices are all the same. It's a multiple choice problem where your choice doesn't matter.

    This is basically what you get when all of a game's cards and strategies are of exactly equal power. Each card you choose to include in your deck is a choice. Each strategy you choose to pursue is a choice. If all the choices are equal, the choice basically doesn't matter.

    Imagine how boring Chess would be if all your possible moves were equally good. There wouldn't be any point in trying to figure out the best move. All the choices are equal.

    Imagine how boring a Hearthstone draft would be if every card was exactly equal in power level. Suddenly your decisions become meaningless, automated only by the cost of other cards already in your deck. Even card synergies can't save you here, because synergies already play a role in power evaluation. If all cards are equally good choices for your deck, why are you making the choice at all?

    Perfect equality can make sense if a section of your game isn't really focused on strategic choice. In Fighting Games, the character selection is usually supposed to be more about choosing the character you enjoy the most, not trying to figure out which is objectively strongest (though that happens of course). The real gameplay comes from reflexes and mind games within the fight itself. However, if all of each character's moves were equally powerful in every situations regardless of spacing or matchup: that core gameplay would suddenly be irrelevant. All your choices are equal.

    The Balancing Point

    All Too Easy was an example of what happens when certain cards or strategies are much stronger than everything else. The meaningless math problem is an example of what happens when all the cards and strategies are too close in power. If only we could find some middle ground that was... Well...

    Balanced.

    A powerful strategy game experience is one where there are multiple viable strategies (preferably supporting a variety of playstyles). Some strategies can be stronger than others overall, but they should still have weaknesses that can be exploited by other strategies. That way you can still play the way you enjoy, while the hardcore optimizers get a continually shifting puzzle to crack.

    Here's how it happens.

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