In a perfect Grim Dark Future Warhammer 40,000 would be perfectly balanced…or would it?
Warhammer 40,000 is not a balanced game. Yeah – shocking I know. But I think deep down players and Jr. Game Designers everywhere knew that already. Why isn’t it balanced? Because perfectly balanced games are boring. But before I get into that I think we need to establish some definitions or we’re all going to say or read words that have different meanings. If we’re not communicating using the same terminology, then we can’t have a discussion on this thing that is “Balance” can we?
Balance (in Game Design) the concept and the practice of tuning a game’s rules, usually with the goal of preventing any of its component systems from being ineffective or otherwise undesirable when compared to their peers.
Perfectly Balanced – All choices are equal in effectiveness and relevance.
Dominate Strategy (Game Theory) – Sometimes called strategic dominance – when one strategy is superior to any other strategy. “Occurs when one strategy is better than another strategy for one player, no matter how that player’s opponents may play.”
Hard Counters – aka “Rock-Paper-Scissors” effect. “Option A” counters “Option B” but is countered by “Option C” etc… A>B>C>A.
Balance is Boring
Imagine a turn-based game where everyone had the exact same pieces. They brought the same pieces to every game and, while they might have different types of pieces, they agreed to always bring the exact same “forces” to every game. I bet a lot of you are thinking “He’s talking about Chess” – and yes, that would fit the description. But even in a game like Chess, the game is imbalanced. “What, that’s a lie!” you say, but I’d point you to the First-move advantage in chess. It’s the fact that the first player (white) has an inherent advantage by making the first move.
Every good game will have an inherent imbalance because people like to win. If every game ends in a stalemate (which a perfectly balanced game should result in all else being equal) then people wouldn’t want to play that game…because it gets boring. That’s why people get bored with Tic-Tac-Toe. Or Global Thermonuclear Warfare.
The Illusion of Balance
Players will say they want a balanced game but really they want the Illusion of Balance. They want the game to be as fair as possible; Game Designers should want to minimize any inherent advantages as much as possible, but they still want it to exist in some form or fashion. When the perceived imbalance is minimized players feel like it’s their skill that won or lost them the game. That should be the goal of good game design.
The second goal should be that there should be no Dominate Strategy in a game. Because once that strategy is discovered players will use it to their advantage to win. And without Hard Counters to that strategy players will just continue to use it – in PC games, developers will often “nerf” these uncovered Dominate Strategies. That can take time and upset the player base. It’s a constant balancing act of tweaking one variable and adjusting another.
I love this Tee Shirt
Let’s talk about a real world example in PC games. The classic Shotgun vs Sniper argument. The Shotgun players will say Snipers need to be toned down because they are getting killed before they can get there to fight back. Sniper players will say that shotguns need to be toned down because once they get there they kill them instantly. So the developers will go in and tweak all these different variables – ranges, firing times, accuracy…in some cases there are literally thousands of variables. Wouldn’t it be simpler just to eliminate both guns and give them both an assault rifle? Absolutely! But that removes variety and choice – it makes the game bland. And bland is boring.
Balance: So Who’s Responsible?
This is a tough question! The short answer is that it’s really up to both the player and the game developers to take the blame. For years Players have already done things like create house rules, create different formats of play, International FAQs – official and unofficial or just created their own game without the original game developer’s support (but sometimes their blessing). And that’s not exclusive to 40k – Magic: The Gathering has had formats like Highlander or Two-Headed Giant become popular and even host their own tournaments.
All of those things came from players finding that something was imbalanced or “broken” and deciding to do something about it. Re-writing rules or applying artificial limitations on themselves to make the game more enjoyable is something players do constantly. Or you can bury your head in the sand and blame the game…
On the flip side, it’s up to the developer to strive toward that Illusion of Balance. Obvious Dominate Strategies should never make it past the play-testing stage of game design. However, that requires a lot of resources and some very creative players. You actually need those players who “break games” to make the game better in the long run – you just have to let them break it early enough so that the developers can fix it before it goes to the masses.
It’s impossible for a team of testers to catch what a possible player pool of a million or more gamers will do. But that’s where feedback and FAQ/fixes come in to play. It’s not a hopeless situation where players and game developers should just throw-up their hands and quit. By working together both parties can make awesome things happen.
What Can I Do?
If you’re a player there are things you can do to help with these issues:
- Contact the Developer… but in a polite way – You know what Developers have to ignore to do their job: Internet Rage Threads. Even if you’re 100% right and you’re idea is genius, relaying that via facebook, twitter, on an official forum or email in an angry way will get your idea sent to the bottom of the pile (aka the trash bin).Game Developers are working on your favorite game and they have a lot of feedback to filter through. They have to separate out the bad ideas from the good ones to find real feedback. And just because you think you’re being ignored when you’re polite, you’re probably getting more eyeballs from the people that matter than the angry fanboys who are agreeing with you.
- Set Expectations With Your Opponents – I’m not going to talk about the Social Contract of Gaming and I’m not going to get into Sportsmanship. I don’t want to get into a WAAC vs Fluff-bunny debate either. But, no matter which side of the fence you’re on, you need to make sure you’re opponent understands what they are getting into when they play you. Both parties will have a much better time if they are both upfront about it.
- Stop Doing That! – You found a Loophole/Exploit/Advantage or perhaps you’ve magically discovered a Dominate Strategy. Congratulations – you broke the game! Now you have a couple of options. You can be “That Guy” and keep using it to win games. Or you can stop yourself and try something else. Now if you’ve set proper expectations and you’re opponent is okay with you bringing the pain then go for it. But if you know it works then try something else – challenge yourself to win without it. Don’t be “That Guy” because it will make your group hate you.
If you’re a Game Developer (or an aspiring one) here’s what you can do:
- Listen to your play testers – QA (or Quality Assurance) is your first line of defense against balance issues. Hopefully you’ve got some smart, creative testers putting your game through it’s paces. Listen to them! They can prevent you from having a terrible launch and help you catch major issues before they hit the masses.
- Ask for feedback – This part is painful. No one likes to be told they are wrong or that something about their game is broken. But asking for genuine feedback or questions from players can allow you to crank out effective FAQs. Communicating with the player base will pay off long term in the form of generating some goodwill. Heck, you could even invite some active players in on your play testing. A fresh set of eyes can do wonders! Or you can have them read the hate mail and filter out the garbage from the good stuff – that’s what interns are for, right!?
- Be transparent on your plans to address issues – Players LOVE this stuff. Even if you’re still in the “we’re working on it” phase, acknowledging that you’ve heard their cries and are actively working on addressin the issue will do WONDERS to ease the collective nerves. Plus, they will hopefully stop sending you the same feed back about whatever you’re fixing – you’re intern is tired of reading about broken flyers. I promise.
At the end of the day Balance is Boring. Players want variety and choices in their tactics and strategies. It’s the strive toward the Illusion of Balance that players want. If you find yourself growing weary of perceived imbalances and Dominate Strategies then talk to your opponents and set some limits on the game you want. You’ll have a much better time and it’s a lot less painful than smashing your head on the wall of frustration you’re facing.
Oh – and before anyone says “What about Points! If it’s pointed correctly it should be balanced!” To that I say, “Yes, I agree. Points should be good gauge for balance. But currently, they are not.” Exhibit A: Formations. Exhibit B: Allies. Exhibit C: USR sharing & synergies.
Yeah – I don’t think points are balanced at all.
For REAL a balanced game you could try mirror matches…A TRUE test of player skill!