The Balancing Act

Words: 2138 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

If anyone has been reading this blog for a while, they would likely know that I’m a big fan of the various FromSoftware games, particularly the Dark Souls series. And as a fan of the series I’ve recently been playing a mod of Dark Souls 3 (the Convergence mod) which massively overhauls the game. This includes adding new equipment, new enemies and bosses, and so on. But in playing through the mod, I’ve found myself frustrated by the way the additions often feel strange, insofar as sometimes the strength of a boss or the speed of an attack is mismatched to the game’s systems.

This frustration in turn has brought me to the subject of “balance.” We often hear the term in the context of multiplayer games, but even developers of single-player games struggle with the concept of balancing the strength of the player character and enemies.

Balancing is important because it helps to provide challenge. A game that is too simple is boring. A game that is too hard is annoying. But while there is no single ideal point for balancing, the number of factors at play makes finding a good spot difficult. Not least of which is that it is necessary to account for the varying skill of the players themselves, a task which is at best extraordinarily difficult and at worst just plain impossible.

The principles of balancing are the same regardless of whether we’re talking about single-player or multiplayer games, but the purposes behind the balancing are different.

In a single-player game, the purpose is to balance the game so that the player can progress without feeling patronized. The success that comes with overcoming a challenge can only feel good if it felt challenging to begin with. But it is also important to make sure that it does not become so challenging that it is – or feels – unreasonable. So how enemies are placed, how they attack, how much damage they do, how much health they have, the skills given to the player, and all sorts of other things go onto a giant set of scales that must be carefully weighted. Giving the player skills that make combat trivial, for instance, robs the game of its fun after a while. Giving enemies too much health might make the game more challenging, but at the cost of making that challenge feel annoying rather than fun. And of course, in many of the cases we’re talking about the player is progressing not just in ability but in literal strength by attaining experience, which means that enemies need to get progressively stronger as the game goes forward.

In a multiplayer game, the purpose is to balance the game so that various players and playstyles do not dominate over others. If one weapon or class is radically more powerful than others, then players will gravitate towards it, leaving anyone who makes a different choice for any reason – ignorance, preference, trying to be different – at a disadvantage. The consequence of poor balancing is twofold. Firstly, the game is boring: there are a wide variety of options available, but those options are ignored in favor of the one option that is strongest. Secondly, the game is unfair: players are more or less likely to win based on their choices, rather than on their relative skill (relative skill is obviously still important, but poor balancing can serve as a detriment to players who make the “wrong” choice). Players then drop out of the game because they find the game unfun, whichever the reason might be.

So balancing is important because it keeps players engaged. And there are so many possible factors at play, and sometimes even factors that are impossible to account for initially, that balancing is a difficult prospect that can often be reactive. Which in turn creates a lot of disdain when those who find powerful strategies find that they can no longer dominate the way they once did (generally without regard to whether that domination was “fair” or not).

So I wanted to examine some basic ideas of balancing to try and help capture some of these problems. The extent to which these problems are properly solvable is unclear. But at least by understanding what the problems are we may be able to see the value of good balancing, see how it can go wrong, and see why rebalancing occurs.

The Path of Least Resistance

Generally speaking, people go with courses of action that are easiest for getting what they want. Which means if there is a dominant strategy for victory, people will seek out, discover, and make use of that strategy consistently over time.

This principle is true in video games as well. Players in an RPG, for example, will try out various attacks until they find something that works well in multiple situations, especially if it practically guarantees success. Players in a shooter will have preferred weapons that are exchanged generally out of necessity – if they had infinite ammunition for all weapons, not all weapons would be used equally. And players in multiplayer games often look for playstyles and weapons or classes that tend to be the most successful. If there are statistics about this success, then this fact is especially true, as newer players will flock towards what has been shown to be powerful as a sort of implicit promise that they too will be able to win.

This doesn’t mean that people shy away from challenge entirely. The very nature of playing a competitive game, for example, requires acknowledging a challenge is going to be posed by other players. Sometimes players may select to play on a harder-than-normal difficulty setting to account for these kinds of strategies. Occasionally even players will come up with special challenges for a game, such as not using certain tools or not leveling up. But this kind of behavior is still constrained by the fact that players will still seek out dominant strategies within the limitations they place upon themselves.

This fact of behavior is not a negative quality. But it does illustrate the inherent problem to balancing a game. If a dominant strategy exists, players will find it and exploit it. And while we might say the strictly speaking that exploitation is a choice, and that players could choose not to exploit that strategy, at the end of the day they will still end up exploiting it, and that exploitation will reflect poorly on the developer.

And at the end of the day, we should see such dominant strategies – if they are not intentional – as a failure of design. Sometimes a developer can put in a piece of equipment or a skill with the understanding that players will gravitate towards it and use it consistently (although this rule would not apply to multiplayer games, since you often want to try and make as many different playstyles as possible viable, and specifically not create a dominant strategy). But that intention is rare, and generally developers are trying to make a game properly balanced in all aspects.

Walking the Tightrope(s)

Of course, when we say that it is the developer’s responsibility to balance the game, and that the failure to properly balance the game falls on their shoulders, we still need to keep in mind that this task is tough. Let’s look at some of the problems that are to be expected in this process.

The first thing for us to keep in mind is the expected skill level of the game itself. Different games are designed with different ceilings in mind, and we can’t compare them all with the same ruler. A game like Dark Souls will have a much harder difficultly curve than a game like Mario, and consequently the meaning of “balance” will be different for each.

Then there’s the respective skill of the various players, which can mean things like how much time a given player spends learning the ins and outs of a game’s mechanics, or even the amount of time spent grinding. Accounting for skill will be tough because the range is so wide. How do you balance the game so that it is possible for a new or less-skilled player to succeed, without making it so simplistic that dedicated or highly-skilled players find it dull? Conversely, how do you make gameplay complex and deep to engage more devoted players without scaring away newer players?

We also need to think about progression. This means both the upgrades a player may get as they play and how the game gets more difficult alongside that progression. Does one class eventually become so strong that its skill tree overpowers everything else? Can the player easily blow by enemies in terms of strength and thus make the game boring? Conversely, do enemies get stronger more rapidly than the player, so that said player might be corded to grind or do something else to catch up?

This issue of progression can be especially sticky if a game allows for open exploration. The more pathways a player is able to explore the more questions that get raised. Will enemies level up with the player in some way? Or will they be of particular strength in different areas? If the latter, then you will want to have some way of communicating to the player what the “correct” pathway is, as otherwise a player may not realize they are too weak. Of course, linear games are much easier in this respect, since the player can never be too weak for an area. But that solution isn’t always going to work, because sometimes you just don’t want to make a linear game.

Also related to a character’s strength in level is equipment. Are any weapons overpowered, either on their own or in combination with some skill a player could get? This “combination” element will be particularly tricky, because the number of potential combinations will be ridiculous, much greater than the mere number of skills or pieces of equipment. Which makes it all that much easier for an unbalanced combination to slip through.

Finally, we want to think about the fact that as players actually go through the game, they will discover ways to break it. And that information will be shared, allowing other players to break the game. If essentially you begin with the expectation that something unbalanced will slip through, what do you do after the fact? For multiplayer games, obviously, the answer is to change the game to rebalance it. But what about for a single-player game? There is not just the question of should, but how? Weakening one class or skill or weapon might make it unbalanced in the other direction – it no longer feels viable – or might have a cascading effect that reveals a new overpowered combination. Strengthening other classes or skills or weapons might not be enough, or just serve to make everything overpowered, robbing the game of any challenge.

So while we talk about balance a lot, there are plenty of ways for balancing to go wrong. Enough that we should see balancing both as an ongoing struggle and as a difficult one. We should expect that some unbalanced things will slip through, and that rebalancing will be necessary from time to time.

Rather than mere unbalancing being the mark of failure, we should take the severity of that unbalancing as the measure. If anything – a weapon or skill or enemy or boss or any combination thereof – is so ridiculously powerful that it feels like it should have posed an obvious problem to the developer, then we are justified in putting blame onto them for this oversight. But if the unbalancing is small in its scope, or appears to be intentional, then we should regard it in a different light. Especially so if the developer takes pains to correct an unintentional unbalancing.

Concluding Remarks

I have here laid out the basic problems that go into balancing a game – and even this list is likely not exhaustive. I lay out these problems in part to illustrate the complexity of deriving any general principles for “balancing.” The sheer number of factors at play means that we can really only derive principles for a given game based on its design. Open world games will have different principles than linear games. Tough games will have different principles than easy games. Games that allow progression will have different principles than games that disallow progression.

But by pulling these factors apart, we can then start to construct principles based on those factors. If we want a tough open world game with no player progression, then we can start to figure out what a balanced versus unbalanced experience would look like. That information can then point out for us what we want to be careful of, to avoid falling into any traps along the way.

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