Why many games have balancing problems | KingSpoom's RPG Design & Theory Junkyard

Why many games have balancing problems

The problem is simple. It is simple to identify and simple to fix, but not always simple to understand. Many of the best balanced games use both a zero-sum method and a rock-paper-scissors method. These things normally go a long way to ensuring a balanced game is created, but not necessarily a good game. Many things can make a game good, and variety is one of them. However, you will find that most games lack a real variety.

The zero-sum method assigns values to things like damage per hit, firing rate, and range. Then, as long as all values add up to zero (hence the term), the game looks very balanced. Really, as long as the values all equal each other, per unit, it works. The rock-paper-scissors method is there to ensure that everything defeats something and is defeated by something. Classic example is from Starcraft. A beginning unit of Zealots defeats a beginning unit of space marines. The marines defeat the beginning unit of zerglings, and the zerglings defeat the zealots. No single choice could ensure you won that conflict, because your enemy could have either or. The great thing about Starcraft was that the rock-paper-scissors relationship changed in the late game, as the Protoss could counter the Zergs, the Zergs could counter the Terrans, and the Terrans could counter the Protoss... but that's another issue entirely.

There's still something that 99% of games do, including Starcraft, that doesn't lend itself to great balance, and that's health... or rather, nothing but health. You see, the only resource that most games use to determine victory (fighting, action, adventure, role-playing, real-time strategy) is health. A single resource that determines the fate of a particular unit, up to the fate of your entire game. Why is this a problem? Well, the problem is lack of variety. Since the only thing you can do to defeat your opponent is to lower their health, the game suddenly becomes about being able to do more damage to your opponent in a faster time. Bigger and bigger damage, faster and faster delivery (although sometimes they try to trick you by doing small quick hits or big slow hits... it's all about damage-over-time anyhow). There is no strategy involved besides picking the "best" move, which is usually the most recent move you have obtained.

Okay... so I haven't done much to solve the problem yet, or perhaps even show you why it's a problem. Let's get to that. Assuming it is a problem, let's try a sample solution. Normally you only have 1 resource to alter in order to win the game... let's add another one and see what it does. Now you have 2 bars, health and stamina. I know what you're thinking already. "But many games already have a stamina bar in the form of mana or energy!". You're right, but in this example, it's a victory condition... meaning if you run out of stamina, it's the same as if you are out of health!

Many games use an energy bar to limit how fast you can use new or powerful moves. However, most of these bars are ridiculously short and pretty much none of them punish you for running out. 4 fireballs and then I have to drink a mana potion or wait 4 minutes to do it again? Not only is it a silly notion to be carrying around 100 gallons of mana recovery, and to be able to drink it all within an hour, but some of the abilities are just plain weak. It's all pretty much, for the lack of a better way, the method some designers use to limit the power of the spellcasters, when the spellcasters are the problem to begin with. I'll save that for next time though... back to the example.

Okay, so now we're running around, trying to maintain 2 bars to survive. This gives us a reason to use weaker powers (we don't want to run out of stamina, so we need an easy way to moderate our use). It also gives rise to enemies that attack not our health, but our stamina. This leads to greater differentiating between enemies (where wanted) and the ability to create a different atmosphere because of these different abilities. Fighter-type people with high health now may have to flee sometimes when they run into stamina attacking enemies, and the spellcasters (with the high stamina) can fight up-front. It offers a change of pace sometimes, and a level of strategy that is both easy to encorporate and interesting to manage.

To be fair, it isn't without it's problems. You still have to make sure to balance each attack with either (or both) the zero-sum method or rock-paper-scissors method. In addition, it's best used in a game that allows good customization over your levels of health and stamina.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Funny... I already have health, fatigue and sanity as 'health bars' and I though about adding some more just before reading this article ;)