You must bring balance to the force…

Balance is very important. It’s the only thing that keeps the universe in order. Yin vs. Yang. Good vs. Evil. Microsoft vs. Apple. You get the picture. But in video games, it’s you against the baddies, and only one of you is going to get out alive (or in the case of Poke’mon, un-fainted…?). And when push comes to shove, balance in video games is about how much power you have  versus how tough the enemies are. Balance is yet another important aspect of video games that constantly frustrates developers, and can truly make or break a game’s playability. And in the world of making video games, it is special because each game’s balance is unique; whatever you start with is going to take some serious tweaking to be viable, no matter how much experience in the industry you have! And if your game’s balance sucks, the first bits of feedback you’ll get are: “1/5, too hard” or “1/5, too easy.” Critics. I swear.

This has got to be the most underrated game in existence.

There are many things that go into making the balance of a game good. It seems all mystical and stuff, but in reality it’s just a collection of numbers.  I mean, you say “Okay, your magic missile does… *rolls dice* FOUR damage.” Four is a number! (And while we’re stating the obvious, the sky is blue.) These numbers, when working in conjunction with each other, make up your games balance. The main things I’ve found that really affect how your game is balanced are: your survivability, your damage, and the health of enemies. If you die too quickly, then your game will be spent hiding behind a wall to avoid being hit. No fun. If it’s too high, then you’re just going to run through the levels, blasting everything that comes your way. More fun! But still, not engaging enough to make you want to play it all the way through. Same thing with your damage. And, of course, the health of enemies is the biggest thing that makes a difference, because it not only affects how the game feels, but gives you lots of options for different enemies with different health. So you can have big, bad, tough enemies, and little, annoying, squishy ones. Yay!

This is all very abstract and math-y, so let’s look at some examples! World of Warcraft is popular, and we could say its balance is pretty good. But really, is it? 90% of the time, you’re facing one enemy at a time, whittling down their health until they’re a bloody heap of loot at your feet. And no one feels powerful just facing one enemy at a time. But then, you get to what’s lovingly known as “Endgame Content,” where you have somewhere between 10 and 25 guys beating the living crap of one guy. Now, if you think to yourself: hang on, I spent this entire game 1-on-1 with regular enemies, and you’re trying to make me feel MORE powerful by making it 25-on-1? Real smart, Blizzard. But here’s the thing that changes all that and makes you feel pretty cool and powerful and like you’re doing something with your life (okay, maybe not that last one).  When you have that team of 25 people, you’re free to totally let loose with your powers, because (wait for it!), your survivability changes completely! All of a sudden, instead of worrying about dying, you now have healers and things covering your butt and keeping you from death, which you are unfortunately NOT blessed with in regular 1-on-1 combat. Whoa, Blizzard, it’s like you do this whole balance thing pretty well!

Let’s find another example. This other, totally unknown and unpopular Blizzard game, Diablo 2, has in my opinion some of the best balance choices of any game ever, and I’ll tell you why (as if you doubted that I would). In Diablo 2 there are 5 types of enemies: Regular enemies, Boss enemies, Champion enemies, Quest enemies, and Final Boss enemies. (Yes, these categories have been arbitrarily created by me, but I’m writing the blog here, so suck it up!) Now the regular enemies, from the very beginning of the game, can be torn through like bloody evil tinfoil. They come in huge packs which eventually threaten your existence, but only if you’re really not paying attention. This is great because it makes you feel like you’re this awesome superhero, who vanquishes little annoying lizard-things with relative ease. Boss enemies are much tougher versions of normal enemies with special powers. Beating on them takes a while, but boy, does it feel good when they die. In that situation, your survivability’s down, your damage is up (because it’s focused on one enemy), and the enemy’s health is increased. But the balance feels right, even though it’s different than normal. Champion enemies are groups of slightly-less-than-boss-level enemies. Yet a different feeling of balance! Now come the fun ones: Quest enemies and Final Bosses. These are exceedingly tough enemies, and truth be told I think this is where the balance of the game breaks down a little bit. It’s rough to be constantly beating on an enemy with little or no indication that you’re really getting anywhere. Eventually, however, you finish them off, and it’s both well-rewarded with gear/uprgades, and with plot progression. And how those fights are balanced really makes the difference as to whether or not you feel like you really DID something, even if it took you a long time.

Interesting side note about that: Boss names are randomly generated, but their health bars are the length of their name. So if you have a Diablo 2 boss named “Ted,” then each hit feels like you’re taking away about a pixel of his health. But if you have a boss named “Angerfist, the Pustulant Harbinger of Doom and Destroyer of World-Eating Zombie Dragons,” then each hit makes it look like you’re taking away like 3 letters of  his needlessly lengthy name! It’s an interesting Diablo 2 kind of thing. Unfortunately, Diablo himself has a very short name, and boatloads of health, so you’re really working for that next pixel of damage, and generally dying a lot in the process.

It all makes sense, really. And if you think about it, it’s pretty crazy that Blizzard can take two games with essentially the same style of gameplay (one hero versus many baddies), and yet can make satisfying gameplay out of 1-on-1 and “1-on-wow, that’s a lot of enemies.” You get the feeling how unique balance is? And truth be told, there’s one aspect of it that’s really more important than how easy or difficult the game is. That aspect is how the game FEELS. Balance, in its very essence, is about feeling. It’s about how powerful you feel when you’re mowing down armies of enemies, or how helpless you feel against that final boss. It gives games variety within their own combat system, and it keeps you engaged as you figure out how to fight tougher enemies, or gloriously shoot down hordes of weaker ones (I don’t know if you can tell, but I love killing those weaker enemies. It’s a better stress-reliever than yoga!).

On a slightly more interactive note: to illustrate my point about balance, there’s a specific kind of game genre called “Bullet Hell.” These games have a pretty fun balance typically characterized (I bet you’d never guess this from the name) by a LOW survivability.  Check out one of my favorites here. Dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge, folks.

That's a lot of green bullets. Also, for extra bonuses, the closer they get to you without hitting you, the better. Hooray.

So that’s that. Think about it the next time you play a game like Ratchet and Clank, or Ninja Gaiden, or Mass Effect. How does it feel? I don’t mean to sound like your resident video gamer Freudian shrink, but seriously. You’ll realize that not only did the game designers really make an awesome gameplay experience for you, your character is really effective at blowing stuff up, and it feels good. 😀

~Another Gamer

P.S. So… tell me about your mother.

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About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on March 30, 2012, in Classic Games, Flash Games, Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Bullet Hell shooters can make you feel strong when you win against the crazy odds, but really weak when you die vs. Icicle Fall – Easy. I do love Touhou even though I suck at it.

    • Haha I knew someone would mention Touhou. And yes, Bullet Hell games are awesome when you win. But when you die, it always feels like, “Okay… just one more time…”

  2. When you started going into how “math-y” a game can get, my first thought was my first time DMing a Pathfinder campaign. 😛

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