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Perfect Balance Makes Games Boring

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Balance in gameplay sort of feels like it should be something all developers should strive for, especially in any online game. No one wants to play a match where the other team has the clear and obvious advantage, but then again, is perfect balance the proper answer?

Chess is arguably the most balanced game out there. Each side starts off with the exact same pieces, and it’s pretty much down to strategy to see who will win. The reason I say arguably is because “first-move advantage” is real (White wins anywhere from 52-56% of the time), but let’s put that aside for now. My point isn’t whether perfect balance is good for a game, but rather whether it makes the game fun for people on all levels. Continuing with Chess, I can say that I have fun with it because I am a novice, and it seems like there is a massive , seemingly unending number of strategies I can experiment with. As players gain more skill, however, they can spend years just memorizing set strategies and patterns before they can even think about experimenting or innovating again, and this absolutely leads many to leave the game because that strict memorization can get boring. It also becomes hard to watch unless you already know what’s happening. Properly imbalanced games, however, flip this because even at the lowest level of play you can experiment.

Imbalance makes a game interesting. Imbalance encourages innovation. For a while, I would certainly say the original StarCraft had nearly perfect balance (at least numerically), and that game essentially became a matter of how fast you could build, and memorizing specific build order patterns instead of actually using grand strategy (I’m speaking mostly as a novice and casual observer mind you, so please excuse me if I’m completely wrong). StarCraft II, on the other hand, has flipped this slightly. There are more units, and beyond that, units that serve very specific and utilitarian purposes. It’s now so much more interesting to watch the counters work, as what you build and your ability to adapt means so much. It’s what some call “cyclical imbalance,” or the concept of “Character A is stronger! Let’s play more of his weakness, character B,” which makes character B stronger in the meta, until people move away from A and start playing C, the counter to B and so on.

League of Legends and other MOBA style games have also come to perfect this imbalance. A wide range of characters -new and old- all with varied abilities and effects allows players to form a wide variety of strategies. One character that may have fallen out of style can easily hop right back in to be one of the most used champs the second someone comes up with another new strategy. Hell, Zilean was practically an unused character before people started to take notice, then he was banned in every match in the World’s Finals. A massive list of counters and counter-counters makes the gameplay and utilizing the slight imbalances as much a part of the fun as the rest of the strategy and gameplay. Even if Riot never patched the game from what it is today, you would still see stories of professionals finding under-utilized characters and figuring out new ways to make them amazing. That’s what makes the game so amazing and popular. Everyone gets to try and experience what fits their own style, and I would say that’s what makes watching the game so amazingly popular in comparison to a “balanced” game like Chess. I mean, when was the last time you saw Chess get an audience of 32 million people to watch a live match?

What about other games that don’t have patches and hotfixes seemingly every week? Well let’s take a look at a game that hasn’t received a patch in 12 years: Super Smash Bros. Melee. The game has never been perfectly balanced. In every game there are “god-tier” characters, and others that professionals favor, but what’s really interesting about the game is the fact that perceptions of who these characters are have continued to shift over the years. Back in 2002, for example, Jigglypuff was considered about mid-tier at best, but in 2006 she started to curry more and more favor until she ended up in her current spot of 5th on the list. Captain Falcon and Ice Climbers also saw their own meteoric growth in favor from the professionals, and the character rankings continue to change seemingly from month to month.

Forrest Smith at Forrest The Woods has a fantastic breakdown of the stats and the power rankings I would highly recommend checking out. It’s incredibly detailed, and truthfully it’s what inspired this post. If some of the information previously in this post seems familiar, it’s because I used a lot of the info from Smith’s article. “What makes SSBM an interesting case study is that console games have never been patched,” Smith states, “There have been no balance changes or fixed. However, even though the game hasn’t changed since launching in 2001, the player perception of balance has. Significantly.” Smith goes on to say, “These discoveries didn’t just take a little time. It wasn’t days or weeks or even months. It took years to be discovered. In the internet age gamers flip their shit if a given character is considered overpowered or underpowered after a single week. Meanwhile in Smash Brothers it took half a decade for game changing depth to be found in Ice Climbers.”

Smith makes some incredibly good points in his post, and it’s certainly not the newest article to make these points, but the difference here is his approach. Taking a game that has been actively and competitively played without fixes since 2001 shows exactly how imbalanced gameplay can drastically impact gamers for the better. Now, this isn’t to say that horribly overpowered characters are the way to go, however subtle, deep, and nuanced imbalances allows players to continue to experiment and find what play style works best for them.

If there’s anything Smith’s work has shown us, it’s that gamers’ focus on perfect balance is perhaps misplaced. Yes, it’s stupid to have “broken” characters in a game, but we shouldn’t be complaining when a character is simply “overpowered.” All that means is that we haven’t experimented enough yet to find a way to counter that character yet. It’s certainly an interesting concept for game designers to keep in mind for the future. It’s also something we, as players can and should be thinking about. Does a strong character break the game, or does it just mean we have to rethink our current meta? If it’s the former, yes, that’s something that needs to be fixed, but if it’s the latter, well that’s just good game design. It’s also something we should be considering now that Super Smash Bros. is out on the Wii U today. I know I’ll be experimenting a LOT with the characters.

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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