Friday, April 5, 2013

Balance in Games

This post was inspired by a conversation I had with the fantastic SinSynn over at House of Paincakes. Go read his stuff, its funny, well-thought-out, and he's a great guy to talk to.

That being said, the topic of game balance holds a special place in my heart that often makes me spitting, foaming at the mouth, pissed off. I've played a lot of video games over the course of my life, and when it comes to first person shooters I can honestly say that there is a serious issue with balancing. Just as some background, I've played every Halo game, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops, Black Ops 2, Battlefield Bad Company 2, Battlefield 3, and Team Fortress (and many other games that aren't FPS's, but they seem to lack the same kind of balancing issues).

The questions I want to explore with this post are these: Does balance, or the lack thereof, actively affect how many people play a game? and if so, is it solely in the way most people would think: negatively?

Obviously most people will quit a game if they aren't having fun, but I think that some people strive to find that imbalance in a game and actively exploit it solely for the feeling of superiority that it gives them. For example, the only Halo game that I personally believe is an imbalanced game is Halo 4 (I'm looking at you DMR). The DMR in that game destroys any other gun you put it up against. Anyone should be able to look at the numbers connected to its damage, range, and recoil and tell you that.

The Halo 4 community (not to be confused with the Halo community of Bungie's golden days) has been split down the middle: half of the people think that the DMR is overpowered and needs to be nerfed, the other half (the ones using it) think that its just fine and that everyone else should just use it instead of any other gun in the game.

Of course I don't mean to pick on Halo 4. There are great examples in every Call of Duty game and I haven't played Battlefield 3 long enough to pick out an overpowered gun (in that game's case it is more likely to consider aircraft overpowered as the only way to take one down is for two people to work together and get lucky). This topic obviously extends into miniatures games as well, but with them being less popular than gaming giants like Call of Duty, the trends are a bit easier to see in the video games, I think.

So balance obviously causes some people (those who do not wish to solely use the overpowered weapon/tactic/what-have-you) to leave the game community, but does that same imbalance draw people who enjoy taking advantage of it to play the game?

In the only miniatures game I've played (40k), the answer to that last question is a resounding yes. It amazes me how many people flock to internet forums to create the most broken and overpowered builds possible in an effort to demolish every opponent they meet, leading to a stale meta full of a handful of effective builds that everyone who wants to even stand a chance at winning uses.

In most of the competitive video games I've ever played, you can easily pick a couple weapons/vehicles/tactics/armies out of the pile that EVERYONE uses. It is less likely for you to play a game without seeing one of these things than it is to win the lottery twice in one day. To me, that would seem to suggest a balance issue as these players are all using the same thing presumably because it is the most effective weapon/army/tactic/vehicle they have used, leading them to get better scores and feel better playing the game. The consequence of this is a stagnant playing environment where everyone uses the same tactics, guns, vehicles, or armies to do the same thing over and over and over again. How can that be fun? What can be done to fix this issue?

For video games, it seems that if a game's balance is broken when it launches, then it will be broken for the rest of time. Generally speaking, one of three actions are taken by the game's creators to deal with the imbalance:

  1. They do absolutely nothing and enjoy all the cash they have already received from the suckers who bought the game.
  2. They make an effort to balance the game, but either balance the wrong things or do too little to the right things to make a difference. I call this the "At least we tried" response.
  3. They try to balance things but go overboard and the resulting game balance brings about new overpowered things.
With video games, this patch then has to go through verification (through Microsoft, Playstation, Valve, whoever provides you with your gaming wants) which can take anywhere from a week to a month if it actually passes. This rather large amount of time required to attempt fixing the game's balance causes players to drop like flies, leaving to seek out actual fun, competitive games.

With miniatures games, this patch, called an 'errata,' is posted online and can lead to a fractured gaming community in which some people use the errata and others don't even realize that it exists. This leads to frustrations as one player is told of the errata mid-game, often ruining whatever they had been planning in an unimaginably cruel sweep of fate.

The other issue I've noticed with video game companies and balance is the lack of clarity as to what their recently released patch has fixed. It seems like more often than not the company releases a patch with a "Hey! We fixed stuff!" sticker on it that leads to a quest of trying everything in the game out to figure out what they actually changed.. Or someone breaking the game's code to compare the two versions..

I know I'm not the only one who complains about balance in games. What most people don't realize is that balancing a game isn't easy. Can you imagine trying to design an entire game system from the ground up in a way that is balanced and fair for everyone? Even in the ideal scenario where everything is perfectly fair and stable, SOMEONE is going to blame the game's balance for their inability to do well at it. Game designers make mistakes, everyone does, so you shouldn't be too harsh on them for it. What you should be harsh on them for is their lack of an attempt to repair their broken system or even perform the most basic of maintenance to it (*cough* Gamesworkshop *cough*).. Both video game companies and miniatures companies routinely show that embracing their community is the key to making a good game. Look at Bungie around the time of Halo 3, or Mojang with Minecraft for that matter..

Anyways, I think that's enough for this rant.. As a final thought, I think that the best feeling when playing a game is provoked when you win a match or game with an obviously underpowered weapon, tactic, or army. There's just nothing like being the underdog and coming out on top.

Thanks for reading! Comments and constructive, calm disagreements are more than welcome!