Case Study: Tribes

Previously, we have explored how the community balances a game, sometimes despite the developer’s best intentions.  Tribes is a great example of how the community not only determines how the game is ultimately played, but often decides the path of future development.

Tribes shipped in 1998 to a fair amount of critical and commercial success.  It featured large multiplayer battles on open terrain that were beyond anything that had been seen before.  Players could choose between three armor classes (Heavy, Medium and Light), pilot vehicles, plant bases, purchase weapons and equipment… it even had jetpacks!  It also had one very significant bug, an unintended side-effect of the physics system known as “skiing”.

That flag is on fire because it's sweet

Go Zebra Tribe!

By tapping the jump button while descending a hill, players could exploit this physics bug to accelerate to an incredible speed.  Combining this technique with the jetpack would allow players to quickly cross even the largest maps, much faster than the designers anticipated.  This worked even with heavy armor, meaning there was little incentive to choose the lighter, more agile classes.  It was faster than vehicles, making them redundant.  Since most of the weapons did not have instant travel projectiles, it became almost impossible to hit anyone outdoors.  Nearly every aspect of the gameplay was affected.

In a short time, the game balance was totally wrecked… and the players loved it!  They invented new strategies, found new ways of attacking bases, used old weapons in new ways.  They became experts in using another physics bug called “body blocking” to physically bar enemies from escaping with their flag.  The chaingun, a weapon that had been scorned, became their weapon of choice because it fired one of the few projectiles fast enough to hit a skiing player.  They re-balanced the game around this new game mechanic.

Speaking of unexpected effects...

The Tribe has spoken.

The developers attempted to fix the game with a patch, but the community rejected it.  By that point, everyone who did not like the effect of skiing had already left the community.  The remaining players where those that thought it was fun.  Unfortunately, this smaller community was the only audience for a sequel, so the development team were forced to cater to them.  Tribes 2 not only included an “official” version of skiing, but even explicitly taught new players how to do it!


  1. Don’t just test for bugs, but to ensure the gameplay experience is the one the designers intended.
  2. The ultimate balance of a game lies in the hands of the community that plays it.
  3. Fun activities are rare, and when we find one (even as the result of a bug) we ought to embrace it.

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.


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.