I’m back, Peter the technical game designer, with a post plunging the depths of game design. Today we will discuss game balance, one of the pretty much invisible aspects of a game. Unless it’s poorly done that is.
A big part of game design is balance. How do you make sure the game feels fair to the player and still challenging enough to be interesting in the long run? Some games aim to be challenging to the point of punishing difficulty levels, requiring years of experience and intricate knowledge of the game itself. Others aim to be pleasant and relaxing to the casual gamer which might feel laughably easy and simplistic to the hardcore gamer. So, can you cater to both player types? Sure, but it can be quite a lot of work, in a sense you’re developing two separate games from the same stock. For the casual audience the game has a lower learning curve, checks and balances that tip in the players favour to ensure that things go smooth even if they make a few mistakes. For the hardcore audience you can ramp up difficulty fast, punishing any wrong moves and requiring several attempts to find the correct strategy for every obstacle.
Balancing games comes with the risk of introducing problems, two of which are commonly (as common as game designers are anyway) known as slippery slope and perpetual comeback. A slippery slope is a situation where the game helps the player along when things get tough. The risk here is that it can get nearly impossible to lose, which may make the player feel like being looked after by a babysitter instead of applying their own abilities. Imagine a game of chess where every time you lose a piece your opponents pieces become weaker to the point of them eventually not being able to beat your pieces at all. Not very rewarding, right? The opposite is the slippery slope, once things start to go bad you tend to slip further down the slope until you finally lose. The example here would be a pretty much regular chess game, every piece lost reduces your options and your ability to threaten your opponent. An even more punishing variant would be one where your time limit per move was relative to the amount of pieces you have on the board, the player with most pieces left has ample time to think every move through while the one with only a few left has to stress through every move just to keep up.
So, how do we find the optimal route for balance? One approach is to do multiple difficulty settings, which means a lot of work for little gain. Each player will likely only play through the game on a single setting (granted that they find the one best suited for them early) meaning that all the work put in the other settings doesn’t give face value to the customer. Another solution is giving the players themselves the opportunity to pursue challenges that are more difficult without requiring them to be overcome to advance the progress of the game. This also means there might be a lot of work wasted, but at least it avoids the trouble with a player choosing a difficulty not suited to their skill level and having a bad experience in the game. Also, it guarantees that each and every player will play through the base difficulty and not getting stuck on a poorly designed challenge.
A well known example is Angry Birds, most levels are easy enough to complete (however, some levels are overly difficult to even get passed due to the randomness of the game mechanics), but if you want to get the top result of three stars you may have to replay the same level a lot of times trying to find the optimal shots. This way, the designers only need to ensure that the levels are doable by casual gamers and that the three star reward is quite difficult to achieve instead of having to balance every level for three or more levels of difficulty.
All in all, game balancing can be quite complex, involve a lot of number crunching to get reward ratios just right and require an impressive amount of play testing. Regardless, it’s an integral part of game design and is one of these things that can make or break a game. Poor balance can ruin the experience, making it too hard or too easy leading to frustration or boredom. In the end, it all comes down to fairness. If the player feels like it’s being treated fairly, getting justly rewarded for good play and justly punished for mistakes, the game experience will most likely be a good one.
Back to tweaking my numbers.