Balance of Power

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another”

-Proverbs 27:17  [ESV]

“The whats-it is too powerful.”  It could be a weapon, an RTS unit, a character in a fighting game, a multiplayer class… it doesn’t matter because all chronic balance problems follow the same general pattern.  The game starts to revolve around a single dominant element, which is inherently overpowered and reduces the game’s strategic complexity, ultimately limiting its longevity.  Nobody notices when a single element is too weak, because they just avoid it.  And nobody complains when a dominant element increases strategic complexity, because that makes the game better and more fun.  And a simple problem, like a damage value that is just set too high, usually has a simple solution that is quickly applied.  But for chronic, fundamental balance problems, the designer is repeatedly faced with the same decision.  Should the dominant element be weakened for the sake of balance?  (Hint:  The correct answer is always “NO!”)

Perception is Reality

First, it is important to recognize that the only “balance” that matters is the balance that players perceive.  The goal of balance is longevity, and if players continue to play because they believe the game is fair, it doesn’t matter if it is objectively balanced in some measurable sense.  In fact, if a large enough community perceives the game to be balanced, but your metrics claim it isn’t, then the metrics are wrong.

Nice Gear

Sometimes power is deceptive

So often the problem isn’t that an element is too powerful, but that it feels too powerful.  Maybe its a gun with a really great firing sound.  Or a new unit that players haven’t figured out how to counter yet.  Or perhaps it appeals more to skilled players or everyone is using it because it is new and novel.  These problems usually fix themselves if they are left alone.  I changed the perception of an “overpowered” weapon during Halo’s development just by announcing that I had fixed it (even though I hadn’t actually changed anything.)

The Tooth Fairy is Overpowered

In almost every case, there is no such thing as an “overpowered” element; there are well-tuned elements in a crowd of underpowered, ill-tuned alternatives.  The Sniper class is implemented and all of the sudden you can’t take three steps without being headshot from across the map.  The problem is not that the Sniper is strong, but that the Medic and the Engineer are weak.  It’s easier to make a potent Sniper, so it immediately outclasses the rest.  Instead of spending time figuring out how to cripple the Sniper, focus on making the other classes equally awesome.  Or better yet, ditch the ones that will never feel as powerful as the Sniper and choose different classes that have their own natural strengths.

Get it?  Because neither one exists!

His only weakness is his terrible agent


Too Powerful, or All-Powerful?

In the paper design balance pass, every element should have been given a role to fill.  Sometimes an element breaks the balance by breaking its designated role.  An anti-vehicle missile that can be used against a crowd of infantry.  A “glass cannon” that can hold his own in a melee fight.  A long-distance weapon that is just as effective at point-blank range.  The solution in this case is not to weaken the element, but to restrict it so that its strength cannot be applied in as many situations.

Often it takes ingenuity to limit a weapon without weakening it, but it isn’t as difficult as it might seem initially.  A global weakness will affect the player in every situation, so a heavy-handed global weakness will be a constant irritation.  But a specific limitation will only be felt when an element is being used outside its role, which a player can learn to avoid, eliminating the annoyance entirely.  Nobody complains that their fancy sports car doesn’t work underwater, they just stay on the bridge.

[Continued in Balance of Power II]

8 thoughts on “Balance of Power

  1. Yes, I was, actually. The Pistol obviously resonated with the community and people played Halo 1 for years. But it did fall into the “all-powerful” category, so I was for _limiting_ it to its role, which is what we tried to do in Halo 2. But it really didn’t follow the “chronic balance problem” pattern anyway, because it was never a problem until somebody doubled its damage at the last second. The ultimate solution was that the other weapons needed to be improved to compete, which we started in H2 and I feel like we nailed in H3.

    Don’t try to kid a kidder, Narc!

  2. An avid reader here, Mr. Griesemer. From your background of designing “completed” games, where it’s rather uncommon for patches and tweaks to come out after release, I wonder if this particular principle applies to more “fluid” environments such as MMO development?

    In particular, I’m coming from the perspective of a player of League of Legends. The developers are active on the forums and I always enjoy listening to the design insights of Tom Cadwell and Ryan “Morello” Scott. League of Legends patches on a biweekly basis where balance tweaks are published and a new character to play as is introduced.

    My concern is that the play environment of League of Legends is very fickle, and the metagame is ever-changing. Certain characters rise and fall in popularity, and new characters are introduced at a steady rate. “Balance” has become a moving target. The one issue I hear the developers talk about when it comes to the “buff the weak, not nerf the strong” argument is the introduction of power creep, which is also unhealthy for the longevity of the game. Do you have any thoughts on that?

    Now, perhaps the introduction of an “overpowered” character on release speaks to shortcomings in the early paper-design aspect of champion development, but the pool of available characters in League of Legends is massive and providing adequate testing before release becomes a very daunting task. Similarly, metagame shifts can cause one underplayed, undervalued, and underrated character to have a sudden, meteoric rise in popularity.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

  3. Not so much a kidder, just trying to shake the tree and see what else falls out. Love the blog, this is exactly the kind of stuff I love reading about.

    Part of me wishes we could all go back and experience what H1 would have been like without the damage-doubled pistol. How many, if any, would change their opinion of the game? What other preferences would have emerged?

  4. Honestly, the “original” Halo 1 Pistol was very close to the Halo 3 Battle Rifle, so I don’t think it would have changed how things went that much. I think people still would have loved the Pistol, I think the MP game still would have emphasized Pistol skill and getting headshots. The other weapons would have just been a little more viable, especially med-long range weapons like the AR that ended up being totally unable to compete with the stronger Pistol.

    That and overly-passionate players would have had to find something else to obsess over. 8)

  5. Must be especially difficult when trying to balance the perception of power between both new players and pro players of your game. Capcom’s recent nerfing of Sentinel in the just released MvC3 seems a case study in this. Sentinel was created with obvious flaws in mind (large size allows for easier combos on him, powerful but predictable moves are easy to punish) but those flaws are very hard to exploit for a beginner player. So while expert players were figuring out how to get around him new players were complaining in mass about the scary metal monster that they would run into every other game online. The monster who’s one button full screen lasers, hyper armor normals, and stupidly powerful level 3 x-factor could roll entire teams all by themselves. So Capcom, not really know of much balance patching at all, released a super early patch moving his health way down to lightweight levels, making him much harder to deploy. It upset the high level players, but it probably was the choice that they had to make, even if his overpoweredness was perception and not reality all the new fighting game fans that Capcom had been winning from SFIV were getting annoyed and frustrated and quiting the game so a quick easy nerf was probably for the best.

  6. My definition of “balance” definitely shows a bias toward a certain game design philosophy. When you define balance as “longevity absent developer intervention” as I have, you immediately place games like League of Legends into the category of “unbalanced” because as soon as the they stop patching and updating the game would degenerate into a much simpler experience. LoL avoids balance through attrition by constantly changing the equation so the community never permanently abandons any of the game elements, but is constantly chasing the new optimal strategy.

    It’s an effective way to achieve longevity without ever actually reaching a balanced state, but it seems to limit your audience. Players that aren’t willing to constantly research and relearn will quickly get frustrated by the continual changes. I don’t have the data, but I would imagine games that are constantly tweaking the balance lose players every time they make fundamental changes. I see what LoL is doing as episodic DLC, every couple of weeks they kick the optimization down the road a ways.

    I would argue that a game where Players must make a blind strategic choice (like a hero class or a faction) that cannot be changed within the scope of a single match is impossible to balance. Well, according to game theory it would have a balance, but it would be a mixed strategy and game communities hate randomized mixed strategies. (So do game designers, btw.)

    This blind choice is also the reason games of that type struggle with power creep. The way to balance without creep is to tighten or relax the restrictions on when an element can be used. Lengthening the range of the shotgun isn’t subject to power creep. But since in LoL you have to choose a hero up front, you can’t limit when that hero can be used. The player has to use it for the whole match. So since the design has tossed out the best balancing tools in a designer’s toolkit, they are forced to directly change power, which leads to creep.

    I think if I was going to make a LoL-type game I would have each player select a team of heroes, and allow them to switch between heroes for some opportunity cost. That way you still get the benefit of players specializing in different heroes (and the revenue from selling access to those heroes 8) but not every hero has to be useable in every situation. At that point, the game hinges on forcing your opponent to use up resources switching heroes until they can no longer react to an evolving strategic topology.

    (I’m pretty sure this post is too short to really make sense; I should probably write up a clearer post on the topic.)

  7. Ian – That’s absolutely true. Every element needs a plan for how it is used by new players and how that changes as the players become more experienced and skilled. I’m not familiar with the Sentinel, but it seems like it is much stronger against beginners than more experienced players, which is brutal. And it sounds like they chose to add a weakness to fix the balance, which I would predict isn’t actually going to work. They probably just nerfed him so hard nobody will use him anymore.

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