Game Development Reference
wHetHeR to BalanCe
For any given game, a designer must decide whether the benefit of pursu-
ing balance at high skill levels is worth the cost. The answer depends on
how much the game is about skill-driven challenge, and how much it is
about other kinds of experience like art and story.
Balancing for the top of the skill range is expensive. It means that any
idea that can possibly lead to a degenerate strategy at any skill level must
be eliminated. This restriction disallows many ideas that are worthwhile
in other ways. Furthermore, testing at high skill levels is costly because it
means letting someone study the game for weeks or months, hunting for
optimal strategies. Finally, players usually find degenerate strategies after
the game is released, which means it must be patched—sometimes for
Balancing for lower skill levels is much cheaper. As long as degen-
erate strategies aren't completely obvious, the goal has been achieved.
Mechanics that create strong narrative or social experiences can be in-
cluded in a game even if they cause degenerate strategies. Testing balance
is easy since it doesn't require long study or especially dedicated players.
And if someone finds a new degenerate strategy after release, so what? The
game still plays well since it's not about skill.
In a game of skill that attempts to support endlessly deep play, high-
skill balance is nonnegotiable. If such a game can't stand up to skilled
play, it is worthless. This means spending design resources on exhaustive
balance testing and analysis, vetoing many fictional ideas that can't be
balanced, and even allowing imbalances at lower skill levels. These are
the inherent costs of designing a game of mastery. But for skill games like
StarCraft II , Counter-Strike , or Street Fighter II , these costs must be paid.
Designers of games that aren't based on intense skill competition
should balance for a low to medium skill level. These games' meaning
comes from socializing, narrative, or other non-skill-dependent emotional
triggers, so the expense of high-skill balance isn't worth it. Story games
like BioShock and Morrowind don't benefit enough from deep balancing
for it to be worth the cost. These games are better left somewhat imbal-
anced, so all those design resources can be redirected into enriching the
game's world and story.
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