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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