Balancing in Passes

As with any creative endeavor, balancing a game is a difficult process to predict, and even more difficult to schedule.  To alleviate some of the pressure, game designers invented a circular excuse known as The Balancer’s Paradox:

  • Balance cannot happen until the end.  Every game element and knob impacts the balance, so until they are all present and functional the game cannot be balanced (and it won’t be fun.)
  • Balance cannot wait until the end.  Until the game is balanced it is not clear what elements are actually necessary or what knobs will be needed to balance them, so a complete list cannot be finished until the game is balanced.

This is very effective at eluding production demands, but unfortunately to ship the game the designer must actually find a way around this quandry.  The best solution is to balance in passes.  At several points during development, attempt to balance the elements that exist, using the knobs that are available.  The resulting balance will not have much longevity, but it should give you enough information to prioritize the remaining elements and knobs.

There are several crucial points at which a designer should stop and do a balance pass:

Pass Stage of Development Goal
Role The paper designs for all the game elements are finished A manageable number of roles with no overlap
Flow The elements can be tried in the game Elements allow the player to achieve flow
Strengths The game rules work well enough that elements can be tested against each other Elements that are strong enough to be useful
Limits Playtesters begin to abuse elements by using them outside their role Limit every element to its intended purpose
Exceptions The balance is stable enough for small exceptions to appear Eliminate bugs, unexpected uses and local imbalances
Perceptions The balance is polished, but the assets are not yet final Support the balance with matching effects, sounds, animations, etc.
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