Balance by Attrition

In classical physics, Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics states that over time, differences in temperature, pressure, and energy even out across an isolated physical system.  If you leave a fresh cup of coffee on your desk in the morning, by the afternoon the coffee will be much colder and the room will be slightly warmer, leaving them both at the same temperature.  (Most game designers aren’t physicists, so we are constantly surprised by mouthfuls of disgusting lukewarm dreck.)

A similar law holds for multiplayer games.  Immediately after release they are in a very energetic state as the community tries every game mode, tests every tactic, exhausts every possibility.  (Like a human Monte Carlo simulation.)  Gradually the community activity slows down.  Certain gametypes become ghost towns.  Entire classes, tech trees and strategic choices are dismissed.  Carefully crafted game mechanics are ignored.  Map rotations shrink to a few prefered maps.

de_dust

Or maybe just one

Ultimately every game is balanced by the community through this pruning process.  Ideally the surviving experience is close to what the developer intended, but they will not stop until they reach one of the following stable states:

1.  There is no game left. 

Unfortunately, once the players remove the broken game mechanics, unfinished features, buggy networking and superfluous options from some games, there is nothing to play anymore.

Potential Community:  The immediate families of the dev team and game reviewers looking for easy targets.

2.  The game outcome is random.

Many games have random factors with enough impact that they determine the course of a match.  (The first player always wins Tic-Tac-Toe.)  Other games do not allow players to adapt or execute more skillfully, so the winner is determined by the game’s initial conditions.  (All the strategies in Rock-Paper-Scissors have the same chance of winning.)  Some games have an inherent imbalance that cannot be overcome, so your chance of winning is determined by who you are playing against.  (Games with a severe host advantage favor players with good connections.)  No matter what the cause, these games are essentially decided by dice rolls.

Potential Community:  New or non-competitive players who want an equal chance of winning.

3.The game is determined only by skill.

If the players discover a single dominant strategy, or if a superior strategic choice can be overcome by faster reflexes or more skillful execution, the game will be simplified to a straightforward contest of skill.  (The only strategy in the 100 yard dash is “run faster.”)  Any subtle game mechanics will be ignored and the experience will become extremely predictable, allowing players to focus entirely on improving their execution.

Potential Community: “Pro” gamers who want to remove every consideration except execution skill, especially random factors.

4. The game has irreducible strategic complexity.

If there are enough choices, mechanics and contexts that nobody can completely predict them all, players must make decisions on incomplete information. This allows for mistakes and adaptations as the game plays out, and the winner is often the player that changes their strategy to fit changing circumstances.

Potential Community:  Gamers that want to invest a lot of time learning a complex game and do not want it to become predictable.

If you can anticipate the eventual balance the community will reach, you can design more intentionally, avoiding features or mechanics that will be removed, and ensure that the experience is tuned properly from the beginning.

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