Game Balance
eBook - ePub

Game Balance

Ian Schreiber, Brenda Romero

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eBook - ePub

Game Balance

Ian Schreiber, Brenda Romero

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About This Book

Within the field of game design, game balance can best be described as a black art. It is the process by which game designers make a game simultaneously fair for players while providing them just the right amount of difficulty to be both exciting and challenging without making the game entirely predictable. This involves a combination of mathematics, psychology, and occasionally other fields such as economics and game theory.

Game Balance offers readers a dynamic look into game design and player theory. Throughout the book, relevant topics on the use of spreadsheet programs will be included in each chapter. This book therefore doubles as a useful reference on Microsoft Excel, Google Spreadsheets, and other spreadsheet programs and their uses for game designers.


  • The first and only book to explore game balance as a topic in depth

  • Topics range from intermediate to advanced, while written in an accessible style that demystifies even the most challenging mathematical concepts to the point where a novice student of game design can understand and apply them

  • Contains powerful spreadsheet techniques which have been tested with all major spreadsheet programs and battle-tested with real-world game design tasks

  • Provides short-form exercises at the end of each chapter to allow for practice of the techniques discussed therein along with three long-term projects divided into parts throughout the book that involve their creation

  • Written by award-winning designers with decades of experience in the field

Ian Schreiber has been in the industry since 2000, first as a programmer and then as a game designer. He has worked on eight published game titles, training/simulation games for three Fortune 500 companies, and has advised countless student projects. He is the co-founder of Global Game Jam, the largest in-person game jam event in the world. Ian has taught game design and development courses at a variety of colleges and universities since 2006.

Brenda Romero is a BAFTA award-winning game director, entrepreneur, artist, and Fulbright award recipient and is presently game director and creator of the Empire of Sin franchise. As a game director, she has worked on 50 games and contributed to many seminal titles, including the Wizardry and Jagged Alliance series and titles in the Ghost Recon, Dungeons & Dragons, and Def Jam franchises.

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CRC Press

Part I

Game Balance
This book is divided into three parts. This first part dives right in to the meat of the matter. We start by defining what “balance” is and what it looks like and defining some common terminology (Chapters 12), and then give general techniques for how to analyze and balance a game by relating the elements of the game to one another (Chapters 35). We then do a series of deep dives into specific kinds of common systems found in games: economic (Chapter 6), trading and auctions (Chapter 7), resources (Chapter 8), characters (Chapter 9), combat (Chapter 10), and progression (Chapters 1112). We finish up this section by looking at practical approaches used in the industry: analytics (Chapter 13), ranking and rating system design (Chapter 14), and practical techniques for playtesting and fitting balance into a project schedule (Chapter 15). In the final chapter of this part of this book (Chapter 16), we look beyond the techniques of balance to see where “game balance” fits into the big picture of game design and game development.
The chapters in Part I assume the reader already has familiarity with mathematics (specifically algebra, probability, statistics, matrices), and the use of spreadsheets. For readers who are comfortable with these things already, Part I may be all you need. However, if chapters are referring to techniques that may be unfamiliar to some readers, they will note which chapters in Parts II and III of this book can be used as reference.


The Foundations of Game Balance
In This Chapter
  • What is Game Balance?
  • Kinds of Game Balance
  • Balance as Fairness
  • How Do We Know if a Game is Balanced?
  • How Do You Balance a Game?
  • A Note about Math

What Is Game Balance?

The success of a game depends, in part, on the game’s balance, and as designers, we spend many hours trying to get that balance right. If a game isn’t balanced properly for its audience and its design goals, the gameplay experience can be ruined—even if the mechanics are brilliant, the story is outstanding, and the execution is great everywhere else. Game balance is an important and critical part of game design, and is therefore worthy of study and investigation by itself.
Game balance is also hard to get right and easy to get wrong. You can’t just “add more balance” to your game any more easily than you can “add more fun” to it. Balance is a property, not an ingredient. Because a game’s systems are interconnected, even if you correctly identify and fix an imbalance, as often as not that change throws half a dozen other things off, and you then need to fix those as well. Balance is like swapping out a gear in the center of a bunch of other gears. You’re not creating a single component in isolation; you’re making a machine where all the gears work together.
If you ask 100 game designers what game balance is, you get 90 different answers. We know, we tried. Game balance is, first and foremost, a feeling, and you know it when you feel it:
  • “That boss battle was way too easy.”
  • “This weapon is way overpowered.”
  • “The original Starcraft is the most well-balanced game I’ve ever played.”
  • Betrayal at House on the Hill is a lot of fun. Totally unbalanced, but fun.”
  • “This character class was nerfed too much.”
  • Magic: the Gathering was doing pretty well for awhile, but Tolarian Academy really destroyed the balance of the environment while it was out there.”
  • Bloodborne is super challenging, and it’s supposed to be.”
  • “I died 100 times an hour in Super Hexagon. I think I have the hang of it now.”
Game balance is many things to many players. What follows are a few ways to think about balance.
Game balance is a gray area. What one designer or player considers balanced, another may not. That much is true of all game design: there are at least five ways to do or define anything correctly, and yet another ten ways to prove each of those five ways wrong. Throughout the course of this book, in fact, our definitions and explanations reflect this tension. Where we feel there is a generally agreed upon definition or process, we present it. If there are multiple schools of thought, they are presented as well. Multiple schools of thought are often necessary when one considers the balance of different types of genres. What’s right for one is wrong for another.
Game balance is contextually sensitive. There is no one perfect answer to rule them all. Gamers and game designers use the term “balanced” in many different ways and contexts. Likewise, we have developed terms that suggest a lack of balance: unbalanced, overpowered, broken, nerfed, and so on. We might refer to individual cards in a card game, character classes in an MMO or Arena Shooter, units in an RTS, levels in an FPS, or the balance of an entire game overall. We might talk of the balance of single-player games, and also multiplayer competitive games and multiplayer cooperative games, even though the relationship between players and game and hence what is considered “balanced” is wildly different for each.
Game balance is a metaphor. When we think of a scale—a balanced scale—it seems obvious. One side is equal in weight to another and, in fact, that’s precisely where the metaphor comes from. However, such a measurement isn’t really applicable to games. You can’t put monsters and their difficulty on one side of a scale and the experience points and loot they drop on the other to figure out if one is heavier than the other, nor can you weigh the current vs. desired challenge of a game that’s too much for the average player. Interestingly enough, and to take this metaphor one step further, single-player and multiplayer cooperative games that are actually considered “balanced” are often slightly tipped in the player’s favor and continue the slight tilt no matter how much weight (game mastery) the player puts on the scale (more detail on this can be found in Chapter 11).
Game balance is also a series of interdependencies. Let’s change the metaphor from a scale to an engine. The gears in the engine are running perfectly. If you enlarge one gear and determine that it is at the right size, now the others are completely out of balance, if they’re working at all. This process is a familiar one to many game designers who find themselves rebalancing previously balanced areas of play to accommodate a current change. For instance, if it is decided that the player characters are starting out too powerful, all other systems may need to be rebalanced to accommodate this lesser starting state. It is in this way that game balance is a dance of sorts with some give and take until at last the game as a whole seems to be balanced overall.

Kinds of Game Balance

The reality is that game balance means different things in different contexts. There is a pattern to its use, however, so we can at least offer a functional understanding of what people mean when they refer to a game’s balance. In this book, we address seven different elements of game balance.

Mathematical Balance

In most contexts, when designers or players refer to a game’s balance, they are referring to something mathematical, whether it be a level curve, the cost of items, hit points, or the rarity of an object (an object’s “rarity” is often determined mathematically, too). It’s for this reason that most designers spend an inordinate amount of time in spreadsheets. To properly understand game balance, one needs to understand numerical relationships, probability in several forms, cost curves, and statistics. Some of our readers may be quite comfortable with these concepts, while others could use a refresher or an introduction. Part II of this book is dedicated to balance math. We reference it as we go through this book.

Balanced Difficulty

The progression of difficulty over time is referred to as a difficulty curve. In general, difficulty scales over the course of the game experience to provide continuous challenge for the player as they grow in skill. In most cases, if a player is challenged at the level of their current ability, we call the game balanced. If the game is too hard or too easy for its intended audience, or if it has sudden difficulty spikes where it gets much harder or much easier in a short period of time, the game may not be balanced.
An understanding of both the designer’s intent and the audience is critical here. In a masocore game, the appeal comes from a player being faced with insanely difficult challenges which they eventually overcome through diligent practice and persistence. The game is balanced toward a desired difficulty. So, we may call the game balanced if a player is destroyed again and again and makes progress only after many deaths. In a game meant for very young children, we may call the game balanced if it always skews in the child’s favor making it nearly or completely impossible to lose.
In analyzing a game’s difficulty curve, knowledge of its release date is also helpful. Early games such as Defender, Robotron 2084, Gravitar,and Crazy Climber were notoriously difficult, yet intended for an average audience. 1981s Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord permanently erased characters from the disk if the player failed to resurrect them after two tries. While recent games have raced the difficulty curve as well, the average difficulty of games has gotten easier over time.
Difficulty curves are covered in Chapter 11.

Balanced Progression

Progression is defined as the rate at which the player passes through the power, difficulty, narrative, or gameplay ramp of the...

Table of contents