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Thinking Virtually

#49: Dirty Words: Balance

An Alternative View to The Balance Bother

by Travis S. Casey
March 25, 2002


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The beauty of Travis Casey's articles is that he often starts in on a certain concept and really examines it from every possible view. This week's piece, an alternative view to The Balance Bother, takes that exact tact, discussing a number of types of balance that you've probably never considered. And it talks about nerfing too. It was originally presented as a series within the Skotos column Building Stories, Telling Games which discussed the "Dirty Words" of RPGs; I've already reprinted a few of the others here. --Shannon


There aren't many words in online gaming that stir more dislike than "balance". As in "game balance", and as in "unbalanced", which is what no one wants the game designers to decide their favorite class/race/whatever is. And that's because we all know what happens to stuff that's "unbalanced". It either gets cut from the game, or "nerfed" — reduced in power. No one likes losing something, so it's no wonder that these fixes are roundly hated.

Game balance usually isn't something that players worry about, except when it's affecting them, but game makers have to worry about it all the time. Unfortunately, when you spend a lot of time having to worry about something, it's easy to get yourself stuck in a rut — thinking about it in only one way, without considering other possible viewpoints. Thus, it's good for both sides to sometimes stop and spend some time just thinking about the question, "What the heck is balance, anyways?"

The usual situation where players hear that something is "unbalanced" is when a new item in the game is too powerful or too popular in comparison to other things in the game. Because of this, it's natural to think of game balance as a balance of power. But that still leaves the questions "What is power?" and "What's being balanced against what?"

You've Got Questions, We've Got More Questions

On traditional MORPGs, the question "What is power?" has a simple answer: it's the ability to kill things without getting killed. But for games following non-traditional models, it may be necessary to stop and think about that question. Some answers will be easy — e.g., in an economic trading game, power is the ability to make and keep money. Others will be harder — what is power in a game like Skotos' Castle Marrach, for example? It's necessary to think about it, though, so as not to be associating power with the ability to kill things where that doesn't apply, or isn't a real goal in the game.

"What's being balanced against what?" is often a bit more complicated, because there are multiple answers. It's generally desirable to balance players against other players, for example — but there are also cases where that's not true. In a traditional MUD, for example, balancing players with 1st level characters against those with 15th level characters in terms of power makes no sense — the higher level characters are supposed to be more powerful.

With that in mind, a few answers to "what against what" include:

  • player vs. player
  • player vs. monster
  • group vs. group (e.g., clans, guilds)
  • class vs. class
  • race vs. race

(This is, of course, an incomplete list!)

A "balance of power" isn't the only type of balance, though. Another one is "balance of opportunity". The idea here is that the game should be equal opportunity — no one should be arbitrarily barred from doing something. (They might be barred because of a choice they've made, but that's different.)

Balance of opportunity is most often seen in character creation and advancement. Here different points of view start to come out as well — for example, some feel that random attribute generation is balanced, because everyone has completely equal chances of getting good or bad scores. Others feel that it's unbalanced, because some players will get a set of attributes that are better in total than others. To me, the point at which it becomes a problem is when it starts to restrict choices. If, say, I don't get the choice to make a wizard, but Joe does, because my random set of attributes prevent it, then that's an imbalance.

Here as well, things don't always have to stay equal — if, after choosing to play a wizard, I can't ever get as high a sword skill as someone else who chose to play a fighter can, then that's OK with me, as long as I could know that going in. I could have chosen to play a fighter if that's what I wanted.

Most game designers try fairly hard to give balance in the areas of power and opportunity. But there's a third area of balance that's often ignored — balance of importance. In general, every player wants to be able to be important at least some of the time. In traditional games, class systems are meant as a solution to this problem — the fighters are important when there's combat, wizards are important when dealing with magic, thieves when dealing with traps or needing stealth, and so on. A strong class system provides what some RPG theorists call "niche protection" — each player gets to have something that his/her character is good at, and which the other players' characters can't ever become better at.

That works fine for a limited group, but when you have hundreds or thousands of players, giving every player's character a unique class becomes impossible. So what to do then? One thing that comes to the rescue is size. While it may be that Jan is the greatest fighter in all the land, she can't be everywhere at once — thus, other fighters also get their moments to shine.

RPG theorists sometimes refer to these "moments to shine" as "spotlight time" — the time that a character gets when he/she is the one the attention is on. Different abilities, as with classes, can be one way to help control spotlight time, but it's not the only one, especially in a roleplaying environment. Character interactions can lead to spotlight time — when two character have an argument over what should be done, that can cast the spotlight on them. Even character disadvantages can lead to spotlight time, in the form of subplots centered on that character — a character dealing with alcoholism on the heavy roleplaying end, or a character being hunted down by a particular orc tribe, on the less heavy end.

As MORPGs move away from the traditional "kill things and loot them" model, the idea of balance of spotlight time becomes more important. If a player is playing a smith, it doesn't make a lot of sense for that character to keep saving the village from orcs — but the character could develop a reputation as the best smith in the area, be commissioned by a king to make a new sword, or engage in a rivalry with another smith over who makes the finer products.

Another Balance of Power - Internal vs. External

I've talked a bit about classes and skills so far, but in many games, what your character has is as important as what your character is. Players love powerful items — especially rare or unique ones. The power they give is wonderful, of course, but sometimes just the ability to say, "I have the Sword of Garweezbo" is nice in itself. Creators like items both because players like them, and because they can help make a world — a unique item not only has powers, but it also has a history.

There's a temptation for developers to try to outdo each other in creating the "best" item. That can get out of hand quickly, especially in games where there's no strong central authority to edit what individual creators make. This results in a sort of arms race among both the players and the creators — the creators trying to top each other, the players trying to collect these powerful items and use them.

In older MUDs, this was kept under some control by the fact that characters lost their equipment when they logged out, and by server reboots. These helped keep powerful items in circulation (which we can see as a form of equality of opportunity and/or importance — everyone gets a chance to have them). In newer setups, however, it may be possible for a character to hang onto such an item indefinitely, which means that greater caution is necessary in making powerful items.

Another problem that comes in is economic — if there's a source of powerful items, but no way that they get lost, the game may become flooded with them. This raises the overall power level of players. Since everyone's getting them, that's not bad from a player vs. player perspective, but it can be bad from a player vs. monster perspective. And, if the item is only usable by a particular subset of characters, it can be bad from some of the other perspectives.

Personally, I prefer a model where power is mainly internal to the character, instead of coming from external items. Items can still provide extra ability, but it should be more limited in proportion to the abilities of characters.

Some systems also implement means through which the relative power of items vs. players is controlled. A +5 sword may not be a significant bonus to a 20th level character, for example, but may increase the power of a 2nd level character tremendously — thus, some games either prevent low-power characters from using high-power items, or reduce their effects in the hands of low-power characters.

More Problems

Another problem that commonly pops up is that of unexpected uses for items or abilities. These can arise either from creative players or because of unexpected interactions among different things. For example, on a Star Wars-themed mud I worked on, there were bombs. Players could set them, and they would "tick". When a bomb ticked, monsters and NPCs in the room with the bomb would leave — even if they were normally immobile. This was meant to prevent players from using bombs to easily kill monsters, but players found that "side effect" to be desirable. Some players would go so far as to buy a set of bombs, set them in rooms around a monster with very long timers, then set a bomb in the room with the monster. By filling the area around a monster, except for a particular room, with bombs, they could then force the monster to a particular point. (Of course, it could also be done with just one bomb, if the player was patient.)

In addition to the obvious problem, where was also an unexpected interaction. Many of the area designers had used a simple check to decide whether or not to spawn a new copy of an unmoving monster — if one was already in the room, don't do it. If there wasn't one in the room, do it. Since a bomb could force such monsters to move, extra copies of the monster would get created.

One solution would have been to simply remove bombs entirely, but we didn't want to do that. Another would have been to make it so monsters and NPCs didn't flee from ticking bombs, but we didn't want to do that either. Instead, we implemented a couple of things:

  • A flag was added that creators could set to make particular monsters not flee from bombs at all.
  • The method that was being used to check whether a monster was present was extended. An association was set up tracking which monsters had been created in what room, and whether those monsters still existed. If a monster associated with the room still existed, the "is the monster here" check returned true when called from a room setup function, whether the monster was really there or not. When called from other places, it used the old test. (This was a kludge; however, since the MUD already had a couple thousand places where that test had been used to decide whether to spawn another monster, it was done anyways, as rewriting all of them to use a different test would have required too much work — especially for a free, all-volunteer mud.)

A few others were considered, but not done:

  • Setting monsters who had fled from a bomb to randomly wander. This would have made herding them a bit harder, and made it hard to keep them in a particular place once they'd been moved.
  • Creating a "homing instinct" for placed monsters, to make them try to go back home after being forced away.

Some players complained about the fixes, of course, but most did not — and I think that simply taking away the bombs or making monsters not move away from them would have been worse.

Closing Thoughts

Nobody really likes it when something in a game has to be modified for balance — not the game creators, and especially not the players. The best thing to do is to avoid the situation as much as possible, and to do that requires a few things:

  1. Think it through as much as you can. Try to brainstorm ideas on how an item might get used. Bring in some of the more trusted players, if you can. Every problem that you manage to foresee and fix is one that won't have to be "nerfed" later.
  2. Be cautious. Remember that almost no players ever scream when something has to made more powerful because it's too weak, but lots scream when things are made less powerful.
  3. Playtest, playtest, playtest. Ideally, you should have a separate server set up just for playtesting. There, you can play with the new stuff and see what's going to happen with it in the game. An even better step can be to allow players to help playtest as well — but make sure that they understand that the purpose is to find problems and solve them.
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What do you think?

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