One of the most important reasons to balance in passes is a practical one. The earlier an element is cut from the game, the more resources are available to the remaining elements. A good designer will always have many more ideas than they could implement, and it is tempting to push all of the ideas forward until the schedule demands cuts, but it is almost always better to trim early and avoid wasted effort. That is the primary goal of the Role balance pass.
Post Pre-Production. This is the first balance pass, and it happens immediately after pre-production. During pre-production, design should focus entirely on generating ideas and prototyping systems that are not fully understood. Prematurely worrying about schedule or scope can strain the creative process, preventing the design team from cycling through the bad ideas that eventually lead to good ones. There are many schedule pressures to keep this brainstorming stage short, but the costs of entering production without completing this process are often much greater. Changes made in pre-production are much cheaper than the ones that happen after resources have been committed to a bad idea.
A Paper Design for Every Element. The designer’s primary responsibility in pre-production is to make sure that every single game element has a paper design. It is far too easy for a designer to be vague and only fuzzily understand how a given element will work. Taking the time to think through and write out a paper design takes discipline, but will allow the designer and the rest of the team to proceed with more confidence, and minimize expensive surprises.
Defining a Role. The most important part the paper design is a description of the role that the element will play in the game. Without a clear idea of what an element is for, no amount of detail will be sufficient to describe it. On the other hand, sometimes a role so completely defines an element, that no more information is needed. Roles can be simple: “A long-range instant-kill sniper rifle.” Or more nuanced: “An enemy character that serves as the backbone of an encounter, uses every available weapon and vehicle, and provides a foil for the player to overcome.” But they should always be singular and establish a bar for what is required for the final in-game asset.
Even though they do not exist in the game, and cannot be played yet, once each game element has a paper design and a role they can begin to be balanced.
Remove Overlap. The most useful way to balance game elements at this stage is to make sure they are not filling the same roles. Two elements that have the same role are a waste of resources. Either they will be identical except for cosmetic differences, in which case they will confuse players by offering a choice with no meaningful difference. Or one will strictly dominate the other and be better in every situation, making the weaker one redundant. Or you will be forced to spend valuable time differentiating and balancing them, without actually increasing the player’s options.
Often, when elements have the same role, they can be merged into a single, stronger idea. Other times elements may appear to have the same role, but further exploration will show that they are indeed different, which provides a deeper understanding of how they will function in the game. Regardless, by the end of this balancing pass, every element should have a unique role.
Don’t Overlook Roles. Often the brainstorming process is very chaotic and undirected. We never know when a good idea will occur to us! It is easy to overlook common roles or miss very niche ones. This balance pass is a good opportunity to take stock of all of the game elements and look for any holes. For example, if the player will be fighting against snipers, but has no long-range weapon in his arsenal, he will feel like he is unfairly limited, that part of the game is missing.
The importance of filling every necessary role is precisely why the weapon selection for most shooters ends up virtually identical. Most shooters require an accurate long-range weapon, a powerful short-range weapon, a weapon that is good against multiple opponents, etc. So most shooters end up with a sniper rifle, a shotgun, an smg, etc. Players may complain about the lack of originality, but not as much as they would complain about the lack of a shotgun!
Limit the Number of Roles. The final step to this balance pass is to get a feel for the scope of the game and the overall number of elements that will be required. Determine what the absolute minimum number of elements are absolutely necessary to make a functional game. (Note: Never tell Production this number!) If the total is more than 20-30% over the minimum amount, there are probably too many elements. It is a good idea to have a buffer, in case certain elements don’t work or are harder than anticipated. But the fewer elements that make it through this pass, the more polished the remaining elements will be, the easier it will be for players to understand and use them all, and the tighter the gameplay will be.
Confidence. As a result of this balance pass, the entire team will feel more confident in the scope of the game and the quality of the design. A disciplined design is less likely to have to be changed, wasting the time and effort of the artists and programmers. It will also make the rest of the team less resistant to changes that do need to be made, because they will know the designers took every precaution to avoid them.
Depth. Balancing the roles requires a sophisticated understanding of what each game element is for and how they will interact in the final game. By reaching that understanding early, every subsequent decision will be able to support that role, deepening it and creating complex connections between elements. The art, sound, effects and other aspects can reenforce this role, making it crystal clear to the player.
Manageability and Flexibility. When overlapping or unimportant roles are removed, the following balancing passes become much easier. Not only will there be fewer elements to balance, but they will not come into conflict as often because they will have distinct uses. Also, a disciplined balance pass will leave some room in the schedule for the great ideas that inevitably come up later in the project.