Concepts In Gaming – The Myth of Balance


Time to sink our collective teeth into another of the meaty topics related to gaming. Whether you lean more towards the tabletop world or the virtual world there is an often quoted and talked about concept that has the potential to construct a perfect storm of CAPS LOCK fury and ‘Rage of the Nerd’ (TM). Any game that has more than one player in it strives for this singular achievement of gaming, as the title of this post has already not very subtly alluded to, that principle is balance.

This really is the holy grail of gaming, to have a game perfectly poised so that anything can defeat anything else and it just comes down to the player at the end of the day. What I am going to say is that right up front this is a crock! That’s right, I’m flinging poo at the punters again, not only did I decry Comp the other day but here I am now saying that balance in both tabletop games and online virtual environments is nigh unachievable. We here at 6 Inch Move don’t shy away from the big topics for you to enjoy at home or on the road. Obviously this is a viewpoint that I am going to have to back up. Luckily I have a good number of words left to try to achieve that, so, please stick with me and we’ll see where we end up.

Without the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight I doubt that we can ever come up with a game that was perfectly balanced (other than the original Starcraft, but I am not counting that as we are dealing with tabletop games and MMOs primarily). Both of these spheres have things in common, both tend to go with players on two sides, and each side will have access to various classes/races/armies or whatever. With tabletop gaming you have an army list to pick your units from, this leads to a whole host of different combinations that can be taken, especially when you throw in options for different magic items and upgrades that can alter how your army performs. In MMOs there are race/class combinations as well as differences in gear levels. Now, for MMOs balance is an argument that is almost universally attributed to the PvP environment, the reason I bring tabletop gaming up as well is that, in essence, this is also a PvP arena, one person or a team against another person or team. If one person finds it hard to beat another there can often times be a whine associated with it. Now, I’m not going to tar everyone with the same brush, it is normally the vocal minority that you hear about, they are the ones that are complaining after all and in our hyper-connected Internet world we hear about these things through the communities we associate with.

For wargaming there is an expectation that each army be balanced against all others, that there is no significant advantage gained by taking one army over another. However, if you consider the amount of variety available balancing each and every possible combination is next to impossible. Personally I don’t think any combo is unbeatable, you may have to come with up some inventive tactics or strategies and shy away from that one favourite unit you have in order to overcome something you struggle against. Sure I can understand the argument that if you bring an all-comers list you should have a good chance of beating your opponent but there will always be bad match ups. This happens in real life as well, some forces are better equipped than others yet they have stood up and made an accounting greater than they should have. The same can be true of our war games.

In an MMO environment I am even more dead set that balance is something that should not really even be considered. If I run around as a Holy Priest for instance, why should I be entitled to think that I can beat any pure DPS class or tank? I CHOSE to heal my team mates, it is their job to protect me so I can protect them. In one way the balance comes from the team and any team that has damage dealing and healing should steam roll any other team that is missing one or the other. I took a lowbie character into a Warsong Gulch match a few months back and we were faced with a team of 8 or 9 Hunters. In the 11-19 bracket that meant we just go walked all over because we couldn’t match their damage output and we had next to no healers (I myself was a Hunter on the side getting pwned). With WoW as a specific case I don’t think the classes are balanced around PvP anyway, more that they are looked at in PvE and PvP is just an addition. There was a lot of this in SWG too, PvP was a pretty big part of the game with the Galactic Civil War period, yet anyone that played a class that could attack the Mind pool of player was pretty much guaranteed to win.

If the only thing to happen was a one vs one then the game could strive to achieve a certain balance, but each person would have to have the same abilities and the same core design to allow only player skill to show through. In order to make an engaging game you lose this aspect, especially when other players are brought into the mix. Sure it can be frustrating to get absolutely spanked in a situation where you have no chance of doing anything else but everytime some people band together and start using teamwork things get a lot better. There is much more to a game than one thing being able to beat another or even the Starcraft like Rock, Paper, Scissors (Lizard, Spock). Balance is an unachievable Holy Grail in an environment that almost discounts balance at its heart. Sometimes you will win, sometimes you lose, this is a life principle and rather than just whining about we lost and such and such an army or class is broken we should suck it up, look at what we did and what happened and try to learn from that. Afterall, retreating from a fight is not always a sign of cowardice, feigned flight can be a strategy in and of itself and while you are alive you have a chance to fight back.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Concepts In Gaming – The Myth of Balance”

  1. well said

    I would like to add that with respect to warhammer, certain armies maybe more effective than others, but the sheer number of armies also helps with game balance. Furthermore, I enjoy the difference in power levels of the armies. It just makes that victory against the current top tier army sweeter and a kudos to your skill as a general.

  2. Nothing is fair in love and war or so they say.

    I reckon this should be allowed to be applied to the hobby also (not so much the love aspect though). Real life battles are never fair, and maybe people could try to replicate this occasionally, just to see how things go rather than winning at all costs.

  3. “Balance” also assumes you can correctly quantify game design elements, and that every single element (including wacky unique mechanics) can boil neatly down to a number that can then be compared to other numbers.

    That alone is a fool’s errand.

Comments are closed.