Game Development Reference
What is a degenerate strategy for an expert is still a fascinating mystery
for a novice. The expert knows the degenerate strategy and has the skill
to execute it. When he plays the game, he does the same thing every time
without thought, just as an adult plays tic-tac-toe. But the novice hasn't
discovered the degenerate strategy, or lacks the skill to perform it. For the
novice, the game is still a mystery. Kids love tic-tac-toe because they don't
yet have the ability to use the degenerate strategy. So for them, it might as
well not exist.
We also find the opposite case: players disliking a game because they
lack the skill to use the strategies that make it balanced. For example,
StarCraft II is one of the best balanced games ever, but it often doesn't
seem that way for new players. There is a class of opening strategies in
StarCraft II called rushes . Rushes involve attacking the other player very
early, before he builds any military units at all. They are relatively straight-
forward to execute, which makes them available to novices. But they are
quite difficult to stop. A midlevel player can stop a rush, but a novice can't.
To a novice getting stomped over and over by other novices using rushes,
StarCraft II seems imbalanced.
But rushes are perfectly defensible at higher skill levels. Professional
players rarely rush one another because rushes usually don't work against
people who know how to stop them. At the top of the skill range, it's the de-
fender of the rush who has the advantage. But at the bottom of the game's
skill range, it's the attacker, since rushes are easy to execute and harder to
This creates a strange situation where rushes are a degenerate strategy—
but only at low skill levels. The strategies used to counter rushes aren't
available to novices, so to them, the game seems degenerate.
wHo to BalanCe foR
Tic-tac-toe and StarCraft II are both expressing variations on the same
It's nearly impossible to make a skill-driven game that's balanced for
players of all skill levels. A designer must target which skill level he
wishes to balance for, and allow the other skill levels to have degenerate
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