Game Development Reference
Balance Challenges and Solutions
Let 's go back to the original example of the hero facing the ogre. The hero's
two tools are the sword, which causes a lot of immediate damage, and the
flame spell, which causes slow damage over time. If this were the only
place these mechanics were used, the game would be easy to balance. But
in a real game—especially an elegant one—those mechanics are used in
thousands of other places as well. The hero could also use the sword or
flame against goblins, orcs, or stingy shopkeepers. Adjusting those two
tools to make the choice work well against just the ogre is easy. But any
change made to fix this particular situation also affects all the other places
where those tools are used.
This is the fundamental challenge of balance. We often want to solve
one problem. But any change we make will have many different effects in
many different places in the game.
Tuning a mechanic changes all the strategies it is involved in, not just the
ones we intend.
A good game is a complex system in the intimidating academic sense.
It exhibits nonlinear, unpredictable emergent behaviors that are far more
complex than design itself. In complex systems, changes to one variable
don't affect just that variable, nor do they push other variables around in
simple, predictable ways. Rather, they can set off intricate chains of cause
and effect which can be nearly impossible to predict. This is one of the
greatest powers of games since it allows marvelous variety of experience
from simple designs. But it is also one of the greatest challenges of game
Psychologist Dietrich Dörner expresses the challenge of handling
We could liken a decision maker in a complex situation to a chess player
whose set has many more than the normal number of pieces, several
dozen, say. Furthermore, these chessmen are all linked to each other by
rubber bands, so that the player cannot move just one figure alone. Also,
his men and his opponent's men can move on their own and in accor-
dance with rules the player does not fully understand or about which he
has mistaken assumptions. And, to top things off, some of his own and
his opponent's men are surrounded by a fog that obscures their identity.
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