Articles: An Intro to Game and Mod Design: Part 2

Part Two: An Introduction to Balance
What Balance Really Means
There is no concept more important to game design than the sense of balance. All of the above—the design document, teamwork, discussions, organization, tables—will mean nothing if the underlying goal of everything is to achieve balance in a game. But what is balance?

In theory, something that is balanced is equal. Two absolutely identical sides are indeed balanced; the player who plays better will always win. But that’s really not a lot of fun, and often quite boring because it turns into a clickfest in which no player can really get the upper hand and everything turns into a long drawn out draw (imagine playing lots of Tic-Tac-Toe—not very fun after a while).

A term I like but rarely hear used in game design is equilibrium. It, too, conveys a sense of equality, but also, at least scientifically, implies a state of constant change or motion. Essentially, what it means is that in one circumstance, something might be slightly unbalanced or tilted in favor of one extreme, but in another circumstance, it might be slanted in the other direction and then everything will even out in the long-term. A skilled player, therefore, is not just a person who can click very quickly and micromanage (though, good game design definitely brings that out in players), but one who can tilt the existing system to gain an advantage, meaning that they win more games. This is why designers add variety to games; they want to make things interesting. Things are interesting because a good player is always looking for a slight advantage or something suited to them, knowing full well that an equally skilled player of a different mindset will give them a fair match picking another side because the system is designed to be even in the long run.

Variety is also important to create an appeal to all sorts of players. Some people are naturally inclined to play with a certain style, and if your game or mod accomodates that style and lets them play with it and, presuming they play well, succeed, they'll have more fun. What you don't want to do is force players to conform themselves to how you want them to play. If someone likes fast gameplay, and you only have sides that dictate battle at the pace of the Hundred Years War, they're not going to like your game very much. The bottom line is that you want to give the players control. They should be able to scale the tempo of the game up if they rush, but you don't want everyone to be forced to rush. They should be able to win through deliberate, methodical strokes, but you want them to have to earn their victories and not have every game turn into a tedious deathmatch of attrition--unless both players dictate that it should be that way with their styles. In this sense, a sense of balance and variety also must work in tandem with a sense of flexibility. You don't want to force players to have to conform too much to your demands, because, odds are that they won't; they'll simply go play something else that is more attuned to their liking, designed by someone who took the time to think through the factions and bring out variety and equilibrium with flexibility.

This dynamic equilibrium and the necessity of variety at the faction level is the first principle of balance that I like. This principle is evident in C&C games and also ties in nicely with the story; for instance, GDI is known as being overpowering, while Nod is known for attacking stealthily and relying on deception rather than brute force. Certain players will gravitate towards one side or the other. In itself, though, that concept is simplistic; Nod should be able to win through force if the conditions are right, and GDI should be able to use more than just tanks. The designer must find a way to actually bring that dichotomy out and still make the game fun and at equilibrium. This is where faction composition comes into play. Since I think something like this is best discussed with an example, I'll use one. The example I'll use here is C&C All Stars, the most complex mod I've led the design of to date.

Read on to Part Three: Creating Variety: All Stars as a Case Study

An Introduction to Game and Mod Design by Blbpaws
Part One: An Introduction to the Elements of Game Design
Part Two: An Introduction to Balance
Part Three: Creating Variety: All Stars as a Case Study
Part Four: How Goals Affect Balance: C&C 3 as a Case Study
Part Five: The Art of Playtesting