Game Development Reference
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fouled player gets a free throw. The opposing teams thought it more likely
that Shaq would miss the free throw than that the ball could be taken
from his team in normal play. So the games degenerated into Shaq being
chased in circles by opposing players trying to slap him while the ball was
nowhere nearby.
Players are always trying to find degenerate strategies. They endlessly
hunt for chinks in the armor of the game design, looking for an imbalance
they can abuse for easy wins. The irony is that if they ever find one, they'll
hate the designer for allowing them to destroy the game. They want to
hunt for degenerate strategies, and they want to not find them.
tHe viaBle stRategy-Counting fallaCy
Clearly, for a decision to mean anything, there needs to be more than one
viable strategy that might reasonably lead to a good outcome. If there is
only one viable strategy, that strategy is degenerate and the decision be-
comes a nondecision.
For a long time, I thought this meant that the goal of balance was to
maximize the number of viable strategies. The idea was that the more
viable strategies there were, the richer the decisions would be, and the
better balanced the game was. I wrote this whole chapter based on this
assumption, and it was beautiful on paper. Then I went searching for
counterexamples. And to my horror, I found two, both of which utterly
destroyed what I had written.
The first was the joke game rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock.
Traditional rock-paper-scissors has three viable strategies. But there is also
a version of the game called rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock (my favorite
outcome is “paper disproves Spock”). That version has five strategies, and
all of them are viable because each has an equal chance of winning. And
we can easily add more and more symbols to this game, up to an arbitrarily
large number of viable strategies. But are we improving the game's bal-
ance? Of course not. The game is no deeper than before. It's just more
complex. Adding more viable strategies didn't make the game better.
The second counterexample was poker. Instead of being a bad game
with an arbitrarily large number of strategies, poker is an excellent game
with very few strategies. Poker is endlessly fascinating, but there are only
a handful of moves in each situation. In many hands, players only have
two viable strategies: fold or call. If the number of viable strategies were
important, how could poker be so good with so few of them?
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