Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Design: Game Balance is Overrated

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 5, 2011

I swear I’m not writing this article to justify any laziness on my part in balancing Frayed Knights. Honest! But I sometimes think that of the failings of modern RPGs to capture some of the magic of older games (and face it: as a jaded gamer who’s been playing CRPGs for decades now, it’s always going to be hard to capture that magic) has been that they are simply too streamlined and balanced.

Now, balance is a good thing in general. It’s important to make sure a games’ challenge doesn’t become so easy it becomes boring, or so difficult it becomes frustrating. It comes in many forms.You’ve got level-scaling, made notorious by The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. You have item restrictions that prevent you from obtaining too-powerful items early in the game which would make combat boringly unchallenging for your current level.  You’ve got class balancing to make sure the game isn’t too easy or difficult for a particular class (in single player) and that all classes can compete on reasonably equal footing for slots in groups and raids in multiplayer games. And then there’s the effort that gets put into making sure that the various abilities and powers don’t interact in such a way that they create a serious loophole or exploit that nullifies the game’s challenge.

But taken too far, it makes the game too even, too balanced, and boring. I want a game to have spiky, imbalanced edges. Not something that wrecks the game, obviously, but I’m a believer that not every power should scale equally, and not every encounter should be defeatable at your current level. And finding magic items should be – well, magical. Nothing helps that sense of discovery and anticipation more than knowing that maybe – just maybe – you will find an item that’s truly a game-changer – at least for a while.

A couple of years ago, I spent a couple of weeks tinkering with a remake of Telengard, one of the first CRPGs I ever played. It’s an ancient game, and it shows. It’s pretty generic and random game – so much so that it makes “exploration” of the dungeon pretty useless (as there’s little advantage to doing anything beyond finding the next stairway down, as waiting in place will cause encounters to come to you). A misstep took me to a teleportation trap that dropped me many levels below. I had a scroll of recall to return to the surface, but rather than using it I figured I’d see what happened. After all, unlike the original, I could restore a saved game if I died, right? (And using the scroll of recall would make me lose all my gold). I had to flee from a couple of encounters, but in my hanging-out I found a really over-powered suit of armor in a pile on the floor, and a high-level elf decided he liked my body and gave me an extremely powerful ring of regeneration. Upon my eventual return to the surface, I was hell on wheels. The two items gave me a huge advantage, but it didn’t take long before I had partly ‘caught up’ to my equipment and their advantage was reduced to merely exceptional. You know what? It was a lot of fun. It felt like an adventure.

Many years ago, when I was first starting to play Dungeons & Dragons, a friend of mine in another group had come across what he called a “freeze wand.” He was only third or fourth level, and the magical wand he’d discovered was really overpowered for his magic user. But for two weeks, if you brought up the topic of D&D, he’d want to tell you about his freeze wand. Until it ran out of (very limited) charges, he got to be a superhero. Yeah, you can complain about Monty Haul Dungeon Masters all you want. But it was fun. It made the game for him. And while it would be arguably “inappropriate” for game balance at his level, it didn’t really wreck the game after all.

A feature of many older CRPGs that is too often missing today is a “soft boundary” of an improbably difficult gatekeeper preventing your progress to another part of the world. Now, it is possible for a good player to defeat the gatekeeper and progress deeper into the game before the game designer thinks they are ready or have hit all their marks. HORROR! Or, not.  Unfortunately, players these days have become trained to expect that any monster they encounter in a game is there because it is supposed to be fought and defeated, now. And they will get extremely frustrated if it is somehow unbeatable at their current level.

The late Gary Gygax, one of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons, wrote about an experience he had running his “killer” module Tomb of Horrors at a convention many years after its initial release.  It has a reputation for being unfair and deadly, but many of the players were not only long-term veterans, but had actually played the module before. Much to everyone’s surprise, they fared very poorly. Much, much worse than players (sometimes the same ones) almost two decades earlier. Why? The players had gotten used to a much more even, fair, “balanced” approach to the game which assumed players would run through room-by-room, trying everything out, defeating every monster, and overcoming each obstacle as it was encountered.  They’d gotten used to a gaming style that didn’t reward a cautious, thoughtful approach. They’d gotten used to a game that was, effectively, too carefully balanced and even-handed. They were no longer used to running away from danger that was beyond their character’s abilities to resist. They had forgotten how death could come instantly and without a saving throw. In my experience, they’d forgotten how those divination spells could be far more powerful than the fireball spells in figuring out how to approach otherwise unfair, nasty surprises.

“Iggy Chaos” recently wrote about this as well, in his blog post “Here. Have a Sword Sandwich.” In his major example, the game was broken by a bug, which eventually led to his losing interest in it. But it sounds like it compares favorably in his eyes to the ho-hum progression of Borderlands (which I’ve not personally played).  But even up until the bug made his character uber-powerful (programmers will get a kick out of this one – I wish I knew which game he was talking about), this kind of exploration and chance of getting in over your head (and stumbling into power Beyond Your Station)  in an RPG is the sort of experience I crave.

Balance is important. But too much balance makes things feel static, and — well, boring. Designers need to loosen up – balance is overrated. Let players run off the rails a little more. So what if they get the Sword of Disaster a few levels early, or manage to nuke the Vampire Lord in two rounds due to a clever combination of spells and a good chunk of luck?  Those are the kinds of things stories are made of, not that carefully measured incremental advancement you’ve so painstakingly worked out on spreadsheets and flow charts.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 21 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    Thank you!

    I’m all for a reasonable balance in games… but I find myself enjoying imbalance so much more. This doesn’t just only apply to RPGs either.

    Do you remember the 90’s FPS? Weapons were badass. Turok Rage Wars tops my memories with the coolest weapon set of all time. I had the shrink ray, the expander, the freeze beam, the flamethrower, the radioactive gunk spayer, the cerebral bore! I was in heaven because I had dozens of weapons that were all unique and fun.

    Yet… in this modern age of “Balance” every shooter I’ve played in the past few years has been “Handgun”, “Shotgun”, “Sniper”, and “Rocket Launcher”. Even Ghostbusters has me wielding the same weapons as Call of Duty!? (Don’t get me wrong, I still loved the game)

    My other issue is that they often bring “Balance” by making classes more alike. In old-school D and D being a fighter meant hitting very hard.. but having very few choice. Now, being a fighter involves the exact same mechanics as a mage…. except maybe your MP is called “Rage”. I don’t want my thief to play like a fighter or a mage. I picked a thief to be a thief goshdarnit!

    Final Fantasy 3/6 is my best example of imbalance creating characters. Each character has a skill set that it unique to them alone. Between Sabin’s fighting game mechanics and Setzer’s slot machine… no two characters felt the same. Poor Locke may have had an underwhelming steal when compared to Edgars Autocrowbow… but thats part of why I’ve grown attached to him.

    Modern gamers may think I’m crazy… but a little imbalance can indeed be a good thing.

  • Chance said,

    Lovely article, Jay. I’ve been wondering why I can’t scratch my RPG itch as of late, and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’ve been playing roguelikes recently, and I’m having more fun with Stone Soup than with Oblivion. I can feel the change inside me, and I know that I’m slowly turning full-indie.

    And I like it.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @McTeddy – Call me crazy right along with you, then, because that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Yeah, there was stuff that kinda “broke” the game, but they were usually not THAT bad.

    @Chance – Yay! I still enjoy a nice, polished, mainstream RPG too, but sometimes it really takes an indie game or an old-school game from GOG.COM to “scratch the itch” for me as well. Sometimes I’m not sure how else to explain it.

  • Maklak said,

    I agree with this. I played Morriwind for maybe half a year, and it was fun and engaging. I never knew, what I would find. Sometimes on lower levels I had to run or savescumm. Sometimes I would find some overpowered piece of equipment or explored an interesting location. OFC in time I leveled up, and learned to cheese. I made amulet with permament flight and speed bonus, used a crossbow to dispose of cliffracers from afar, learned that alchemy is overpowered, etc. The game was different by then, because my character was night-invulnerable, but the exploration part still made it fun.

    I also played Dungeon Siege 2. It was way to strealined. I had to pretty much just go ahead and kill stuff. Equipment and enemies would always be matched to my party level. After I finished the main quest, there was no more reason to play. Also, things like lvl 4 dryad armor offering orders of magnitude less protection than some lvl 30 armour never made sense to me. Occasionaly finding weapons overpowered, but usable at my level was still fun, tough.

    I don’t like it, when a game is so balanced, it doesn’t matter much, which weapon or skill you choose, and you’ll always face monsters defeatable at your level. In fact I was disappointed after reading in DnD GM (or DM, whatever) book about creating challenges and treasure piles based on party level.

    So probably a few near useless feats and a few a bit overpowered ones in FK won’t be a bad thing.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I’d say balance of SOME KIND is important in multiplayer games, but not needed at all in single player games.

    I often wonder what example children are learning by having every game tailored to them perfectly, always knowing that success is possible. It is perhaps a dangerous message to send to any age of person, because in the real world, as Adam Savage says, “Failure is always an option.”

    We learn a lot by failure, and I worry kids today aren’t experiencing enough of it before adulthood. When I was a child, I stepped on a nail and drove it through my foot. My mother panicked and fawned over me, while my father sat stoically watching me. I’ll never forget what he said – “Nails are sharp, aren’t they, son?” I whimpered a feeble ‘yes’ in response and he continued. “You should always watch where you step, son, because there are a lot of sharp things in the world, most of them are sharper than nails.” For a long time I took the advice at face value, but of course, as I got older, I realized the deeper meaning behind my father’s words.

    Life is unfair, and kids need to learn that, and not for cruelty’s sake. The sooner you learn you are gambling at an unfair table, the sooner you can work to tilt the odds in your favor. Games are the same way, and just like gambling and risk give us a rush, overly balanced gameplay can give us too little rush and too little satisfaction.

    A player who succeeds at a fair and balanced game is an inevitability. A player that does so at an unfair game is a winner.

    Finding that impossible monster in a video game can be FUN. It gives us a goal and often times a more satisfying pay-off when we eventually defeat it. The Emerald and Ruby Weapons in FF7, the metal slimes in Dragon Quest, that death knight in an abandoned house in an old SSI game, etc. Suddenly we have to stop and think, to formulate strategy, maybe even search the world for a weapon or spell or ability strong enough to prevail.

    And who cares if I become a god in a game through clever strategy or exploitation? Often that comes about in a second playthrough anyway, when I’ve learned all the rules and thus where they can be broken.

    And yes, I hate how everyone is balancing classes now. Fighters were always an “even” choice, you were strong and hit hard and had a steady, linear progression of improvement in power, but never any jumps. It was a safe and (relatively) easy choice.

    Thieves were weak, but gained skills quickly and were devastatingly powerful with careful, thoughtful, and patient planning. They were a great choice for the “chess master” type players.

    Mages were weak, vulnerable, ineffective in combat, and ran out of juice fast . . . . in the beginning. If you could use your wits to survive, at high levels it all turned around, and mages were more powerful than anyone else – possibly combined. A class for those that were patient and liked a challenge, knowing they would be handsomely rewarded if it ever paid off for them.

    What happened to the days when resurrections cost money, and had a hard limit built in by the reduction of the player’s Constitution?

    It all comes down to this: If something is easy to do and not very challenging, the satisfaction and payoff is small. If something is hard and challenging and carries real risks, the satisfaction and feeling of joy involved with success is huge.

  • sascha said,

    This is so true and a major part why most modern games bore the hell out of me. There’s no unexpected gameplay. Everything happens like the game designers planned it ahead. They tell their story and that’s it then. Actually the designers of Dragon Age and co. should have better wrote a book or made a movie because a game usually implies a certain amount of dynamic and randomness but that not found in their games.

    Those unexpected moments in many older ‘imperfect’ games where things suddenly go a completely different path due to a mistake or a wrong step are what create ‘adventure’ in the most true sense.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    Do you also remember the total party wipes? Those are part of an unbalanced game too. And I bet you had many more such moments than good ones.

    See, real life isn’t fair. Or balanced. Or at all safe, for that matter. But that’s why we play games now and then: for a change of pace.

    You’ll never learn chess unless you play with a stronger player than you and get defeated a few times. But you’ll also never learn anything if you play with someone much stronger than you, and who is cheating to boot. Nor will you have any fun.

  • Menigal said,

    Definitely agree with this. I wish we could get to a happy medium. Keep away from the sudden instant death sort of gameplay, but keep at least as far away from the Oblivionesque insanity.

    That game really is the poster child of how to ruin a game by an obsession with balance. I couldn’t even finish it without finding a mod to break the system. Finding cool things, sometimes powerful, sometimes not stashed away in hidden corners of the world was part of what made Morrowind so much fun. Even disregarding everything else, the change in Oblivion helped destroy the sense of realism and immersiveness that Morrowind have.

    Speaking of realism, the whole level-restricted items thing really annoys me too. There’s no valid in-universe reason for it, and all it does it point out that you’re in a video game, not a real world. Similar is the old “sorry, you’re a wizard, so you can’t even try to use this sword” rule, but at least that one’s got some age behind it as an excuse.

    For the class balance thing, I’m pointing a finger at Diablo and its spawn, including WoW and pretty much all other MMOs. Some balance is necessary in a multiplayer game, but this thinking has gone on to infect single player games, and has even reached back to the latest version of D&D. I’ve not played a game of it, but just a read through the rules makes it clear that it’s just Hasbro’s Computer-Free MMO, with generic-feeling classes that all try to keep to the same fun-destroying “balance” while losing the sense of a real world.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    If you are talking dice & paper gaming, those were pretty rare. But the potential for such disasters made the successes a lot more exciting.

    If you are talking CRPGs, oh, heck yeah. Lots and lots and lots. But in most games, that’s mostly just a setback.

    Actually, my guild in EverQuest was pretty famous for our major wipe-outs. Those failures were epic and often made the best stories later. We’d get amazed at how – after describing our wipe-outs – so many guild members would lament not having been there with us. We would say, “Did you miss the part about everybody dying, spending two hours on corpse retrieval afterwards, and everybody losing hours of progress, and never achieving our goals?”

    No, they hadn’t. Truth was, we were still having fun. And it made later successes a little more gratifying.

  • Vatina said,

    I agree that games don’t have to be perfectly balanced – those things like finding that amazing weapon by chance and such are great. When it comes to that I completely agree with the article. Some of the comments made me think of something else though.

    I don’t believe inbalance should necessarily be used to make the game as insanely hard as they once were, though. There is a reason that so few games have that level of difficulty anymore. Players have access to many more titles now, and if they have to spend hours on just one monster, they’d probably rather move on to that other title they wanted to try.

    There is also the fact that rpgs are often played for the sake of story, and nail-bitingly hard gameplay can frustrate and get in the way of this.

    There should be fun and sometimes unexpected challenges, and making things too easy is boring. But there is a reason that I love those optional super-hard bosses and areas – they are optional 😉

  • sascha said,

    Some people seem to confuse imbalance with straight-line hardcore difficulty. I think what Jay is talking about is more of an effect of older games that are imperfect and have their quirks and therefore sometimes throw a high difficulty right at your feet, just as well as they sometimes do the opposite: giving you something too easily. Such quirks could be called ‘personality’ and if a game has personality that’s good thing in my book. It seems that some people think that imbalance equals ‘very difficult’. But it is exactly the non-predicted nature of not being able to rely on a standard formula to play the games that adds the fun and excitement to them.

  • adorna said,

    I could never have put my finger on this but it feels very very true for me too. I’m into exploring in games and it feels sort of shallow if its all required and evened out – why search the whole forest for interesting places and things if you can’t find anything thats not in the next town store anyway?
    I usually follow the main story and path for most of the game and I like it like that, but I really prefer to be able to go off and really do some adventuring from time to time. After all playing a RPG should not feel like a 9 to 5 job with a fixed income.
    as for being tooo imbalanced – I think that crosses territory with another topic you did a while back – should the game give hints to the players. I think it should.
    Its OK to be outnumbered if you insist on going out at night with a low level party – something the NPCs probably advised you not to do .. but you should have a chance to find out whats meant to be your next step in the game and a normal challenge.
    I remember trying to play Daggerfall ages ago. I loved the character creation so much I was sure the dame would be sort of the holy grail in gaming. I knew it was famous for having a big world and letting you explore. Problem was it gives you next to no hints what to do. So I died about 10 grisly deaths in areas clearly not meant for beginners and gave up, never playing again.
    I think the problem isn’t dying early and often – the problem is getting no clue how to avoid that..

  • Rod said,

    Can’t say I agree. I like balance. Sure, it may feel great when you find a sword +20 in a chest at level 1, but ultimately it’ll just make the game boring.
    In a recent play of Europa Universalis 3 (very awesome strategy game if you haven’t played it), I started playing as Burgundy, and via warfare, intrigue and patience I started munching away at Europe’s mini-kingdoms of 1600. But at one point I got to unify the Holy Roman Empire in one click (there was a vote, I had bribed all the decision makers) my kingdom’s size multiplied by 10. I was ecstatic! I laughed in glee at looking at the size of my new empire… And then the game got boring. Gone was the need for any strategy, from that point on it was just a matter of deciding who to send to oblivion.
    In an RPG you should always be salivating over what next weapon you’ll get, or a new spell or skill. But if you get one weapon/spell/skill that is so powerful that makes the other ones obsolete, you’ve just made the game boring.

  • Fumarole said,

    Just want to say that I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve run the Tomb of Horrors as a DM before and it is every bit as brutal as its reputation. Myself and the people I used to play with loved that kind of challenge though. Sometimes seeing how long you can survive generates the most fun. I’m still waiting for a hardcore RPG with permanent character death a la Rogue (Diablo-alikes don’t count).

    Removing such challenge from games tend to make them into cookie-cutter variants of each other, which doesn’t benefit anyone.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Of course very poor balance which wrecks the game or makes many choices trivial and stupid is a bad thing. I’m just saying that there can be too much of a good thing.

  • John O said,

    Back in the good old days it was great fun to see players in Everquest come up with new and interesting ways to abuse the game. A group of rogues who would surround a monster and take turns drawing agro until it died, after spinning in circles for a while. A group of wizards who would fire off a salvo of simultaneous nukes to clear an area instantly without taking damage. Combinations that didn’t look even remotely like a balanced party. Stuff the designers didn’t anticipate. Still, finding those interesting combinations of players was a fun part of the game for many.

  • JTippetts said,

    The linked blog discusses a bug regarding unsigned subtraction overflow, and I think bugs like that absolutely should be avoided. However, I think the main point here is not one of imbalance or exploit-a-bugs being good, but rather of a different kind of balance being a good thing. Balance is a pretty broad term, that has come generally to mean “making it easy for the player to progress”, but it doesn’t necessarily have to mean that. You can create a challenging, fun game without the presence of potentially game-breaking bugs, and without the bland, smooth power-leveling experience that lacks surprises.

  • EHamilton said,

    I had an enormous amount of fun playing poorly balanced games back in the 80s. But today, when I try to play a similar game, it just ends up annoying me– and I think I know why. It’s the internet’s fault!

    Back then, figuring out how to “crack” the game mechanics was a good chunk of the fun. You’d play with what felt like a good default strategy (two fighters, two casters, a a rogue and a bard, say), and then slowly you’d realize that monks were really awesome and you needed one, or you’d realize that developing a third archmage was totally worth the extra effort. But it was something you figured out for yourself, and so testing the game to discover exactly how it was imbalanced was something that made you feel accomplished and clever.

    Today, the online world is full of wikis, FAQs, and help guides that offer authoritative advice on how to “break” every game, advertising every loophole and how large a truck you can manage to drive through it. Many players read them the moment they encounter any meaningful challenge. That forces designers to flatten the difficulty curve, otherwise players who refuse to be “spoiled” find the game frustratingly hard and everyone else finds it trivial. (This is especially true in MMO’s, where if you don’t spoil yourself by finding the “one correct build for your class” on some forum full of experts, people mock you mercilessly as a noob.)

    As a result, figuring out how to “crack” the game isn’t something that you do for yourself. It’s something that a million other players do for you, depriving you of the satisfaction. So it’s no longer part of the game; instead it becomes a baseline requirement that you need to know coming in.

    Puzzles have the same problem, I think. Game designers won’t make overly clever puzzles, on the assumption that players will just give up and spoil themselves with a walkthrough. In a sense, class balance can be regarded as a “macro-puzzle” that died along with other puzzles.

  • Jay K. said,

    You know what I would like to see? Instead of difficulties, you could choose from two or three styles of play.

    1) Explorer – I like to explore and just see what’s out there. Probably a good idea for this one to use the level scaling of Oblivion, since I will probably be off the track
    2) Story – Lots of rich detail, but put on rails more. In other words, out of band encounters should probably be discouraging. Also, NPCs don’t give out too many details outside the story.
    3) Munchkin – All out level disparity. Loot should match the encounters though. Would probably best if a game played like a roguelike.

    I don’t think it would be impossible for a simple RPG to have these different modes to appeal to different types of players. Maybe it’s more work than I’m thinking it is. 🙂

  • roper said,

    This post really resonated with me. I’ve finally gotten into Morrowind (after only *cough* five *cough* attempts over the years). The contrast between it and Oblivion really illustrates your article perfectly. In Oblivion, I hesitate to level my skills because I know everything gets stronger with me and there’ll be a point where bandits are running around in full daedric. There should never be a point in an rpg where you hesitate to advance your character.

    Morrowind is different – I love that Vivec exists and skilled, powerful and strategic players can kill him, I love that you can attack the guards but you won’t be able to kill them for a while. The increases in power actually mean something when they change how powerful you are relative to the rest of the world. As opposed to running like a hamster in a wheel, no matter how far you level, your enemies will always be the same difficulty. Dragon Age somewhat made up for this in the siege of Denerim where the Darkspawn were all one hit kills, but it didn’t make up for the rest of the game being hamster wheel style.

    Then there’s that amazing feeling we all know so well, failing at something overly difficult at a low level, then coming back and obliterating it ten levels later. That is, imo, one of the key pleasures in any good rpg.

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