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Game balance is a concept in game design describing fairness or balance of power in a game between multiple players or strategic options. A game would be called unbalanced if one or more players have an unfair advantage over the others.
A more complex definition of game balance that critics have described is that, when players have multiple options or routes to victory, most or all of these options are about equally effective or feasible. To be perfectly balanced, each of these options would have to be strategically identical (in which case they wouldn't be substantial choices at all). In a game where various options (such as armies in a real-time strategy game, fighters in a fighting game, or character classes in a role-playing game) have significant qualitative differences between them, the game is balanced if the options are roughly equally likely to lead to success despite their differences. In a suitably balanced game, players would make such choices based on their personal preference, strengths, and playing style, rather than on an inherent advantage in one option. If one option were weaker than the others, then it would rarely be selected by any player and will not contribute to the complexity of the game.
When trying to create a complex or strategically rich game, game designers typically strive to maintain balance by using a careful selection of game mechanics, while offering the greatest possible number of these options, which in turn increases the difficulty of balancing the game. Balanced games are generally more enjoyable, and are considered better-made, than unbalanced ones.
Principles of game balance
Game balance is based on at least two basic principles. These principles are foundational to any balanced game. The idea of game balance is to make every player's position as viable as another. Each player should need the same amount of skill, time, and strategy to complete the same objective; any variation is an imbalance.
Reaping what you sow
The first principle, "Reaping what you sow," is one of fairness in general. It means that there are fair and proportional consequences for different actions. In analyzing game balance, you could look at social interaction, rulesets, or any number of things. "Reaping what you sow" must be implemented in a number of ways in order to maintain game balance.
An example would be a fair risk/difficulty vs. reward ratio, in which the encounters of greater difficulty result in greater rewards. By maintaining low rewards for low risk/difficulty encounters, and high rewards for high risk/difficulty encounters, the effort and strategy used in each case will 'reap' the player appropriate rewards. Thus, a player would have incentive to attempt to succeed in higher risk/difficult encounters. This principle of fairness is clearly very broad, but it is fundamental to game balance.
The second principle, which is based upon the previous, is more specialized, but lays the framework for balanced class, ability and strategy designs. Trading offense for defense, and vice versa, means that a player, from a neutral starting point, who chooses an offensive position or strategy option will lose some defensive position or strategy option, and vice versa.
A very specific example: if X deals 50 damage per time unit with 20% damage reduction as the sole defense, and Y deals 25 damage per time unit with 40% damage reduction as the sole defense, then there is a balance. Any single variation in the proportions of the damage to %mitigation ratio would create in imbalance in which either X or Y would become more viable or powerful, while the other would proportionally become less viable or powerful.
This second principle is very difficult to maintain. Game balance often requires parsing and theorizing to adjust variables in order to maintain the second principle. Of course, without the second principle, certain classes, abilities, or strategies unfairly become more viable than others.
Due the increasing comlexity of games, new methods are being developed to dynamically adjust game balance. Such dynamic game balancing methods usually implement some machine learning algorithm in order to automatically adapt the game difficulty to each user.
Factors in game balance
Multiple things can affect how to balance out a concept.
Games often use numbers known as statistics that determine how powerful an option is without any traits, powers, or other strategic changes. A position with strong attributes will usually lack any good traits because they are already strong with basic skills. Conversely, good traits will be placed with poor attributes.
Some options are very powerful and consequently end up game-breaking, meaning that they will be broken if not given any weaknesses. Extremeness is hard, if possible, to balance out properly. Complete invincibility, for example, gives off an automatic win in multiplayer unless the method(s) to gain and/or retain it is/are too restrictive to be practical or non-situational.
If a game is full of extreme options, then it is guaranteed to have a high level of harshness for making mistakes. Also, some concepts are sensitive to the power amounts of some others.
In role-playing games (RPGs) in which a gamemaster (GM) creates or operates the adventure, one of the GM's duties is to ensure game balance. For example, creating monsters or other adversaries whose abilities are far beyond those of the players is acceptable only if the players have a way to avoid them or do not themselves need to defeat them.
According to books such as the Dungeon Master's Guide for Dungeons & Dragons, players involved in such an imbalanced game are likely to complain of unfairness, and because most of the players' characters might also fail or die before their time, the players often feel that they have little power to influence the game with their choices. Conversely, a game whose imbalance favors the players will most often lack challenge and suspense, and typically the players will eventually feel that there is no point to playing. Players are more likely to feel satisfied by playing when the principles of game balance are applied skillfully. Creating a balanced adventure is one of the challenges of acting as a GM. Most role-playing books that address the issue of being a GM give substantial attention to this issue.
Another aspect of game balance within RPGs is that of balance between the choices made upon character creation, such as race and class. This extends to other genres incorporating RPG elements, such as computer RPGs. Character creation options that lead to ineffective or less powerful characters will largely go to waste if players feel they are not worth choosing. Players who choose them anyway may be frustrated if they feel they are stuck with a character that is inherently disadvantaged, especially after they have invested time and effort in it. Because this aspect of game balance depends most heavily on the rules of an RPG rather than the work of the GM, it is usually the responsibility of the game designer.
Many role-playing game systems, such as GURPS, allowed players to spend character points to help balance character creation, instead of the older random generation method used by Dungeons & Dragons which can lead to severe imbalance between players due to random variation. Often, games force players to pair advantages with disadvantages in order to maintain game balance.
Game balance is less of an issue in less combat-oriented games, particularly modern narrativist role-playing games. In such games, whether a character is weak or strong in some way is less important than whether a character is interesting. The most recent edition of Ars Magica allows players to balance virtues (in-game advantages) with flaws which, while they may make the character's life more complicated, do not necessarily disadvantage them. The indie role-playing game Dogs in the Vineyard takes this a step further: every aspect of the character, whether positive or negative, may be used to the player's advantage.
Multiplayer video games
Balance in a multiplayer video game can be generally determined by whether the skill of a player is sufficiently important in determining who wins; it is balanced if two players of equal skill have equal chances of winning.
Game balance in "versus" fighting games is usually defined in terms of the balance between the fighter characters that players can select. Ideally, the odds between two opposing players should be the same regardless of which characters they select, all other things being equal (and without taking into account the advantage a player might gain from choosing a character that favors his or her individual strengths or playing style). A game would be badly imbalanced if a novice could beat an expert simply because the novice uses an inherently superior character.
Game balance is a natural consideration in real-time strategy games where players can choose between multiple armies or sets of units with substantial differences between them.
For example, the real-time strategy game StarCraft has been critically identified as exceptionally well-balanced. The three races available to players (Terran, Protoss, and Zerg) are said to be almost perfectly balanced with each other, even though there are tremendous differences in the way they operate and their strategic strengths and weaknesses. There is no clear consensus among expert competitive players of StarCraft that any one race is superior in all cases.
Critical response indicates that the increased strategic depth of a well-balanced real-time strategy game greatly increases the game's enjoyability. StarCraft is a clear example of this, as it is still popular despite being released in 1998.
There are sometimes circumstances in video games in the action genre in which a player's or team's skill has little effect on whether they win or lose. For example, such imbalance can be caused by one weapon or power-up being so powerful that games are determined primarily by who has access to it.
Imbalance can also be caused by characteristics of the environment that give a large advantage to one kind of behavior or technique (such as camping, according to some); in such a case, game-play is most often dominated by that technique instead of a more interesting range of actions. Players sometimes address such problems by attempts at self-enforced and ill-defined rules such as "no camping", which are often ineffective or lead to arguments between players.
One of the most commonly cited examples of imbalance in action games, especially first-person shooters, is the possibility of spawn camping, which can cause players to be killed before they have a chance to defend themselves. This is a highly typical example of preventing a player from being able to influence the outcome of the game.
Tabletop wargames are often played as a competitive and recreational activity rather than as a pure simulation, so in the former case, a balanced selection of forces for the opposing players is essential. A common way of doing this is through the use of army lists.
Game balance is usually maintained through the principle of strength vs. cost.
Individually, units have clearly identifiable advantages or weakness. These in combination determine the unitís relative strength and thus its cost. In theory, a small number of strong units are balanced with a larger number of weaker units if the cost of the two groups is the same.
In the greater context, a player will have a mix of units at his disposal. Dependent on the tactical situation, the mix of units may have an effective value greater than or less than the sum of its parts.
Game designers occasionally decide to deliberately create imbalance for various reasons.
For example, in the multiplayer video game Day of Defeat, the "dod_overlord" map was consciously designed to favor the Axis team, so that more experienced players could play on the Allied team as a means of handicapping. (Another consideration may have been historical faithfulness to the real Operation Overlord.)
In sports games that strive to realistically replicate real-life sports teams, such as the Madden NFL series, each virtual team's capabilities are made to mirror those of the real team, rather than to be necessarily balanced against each other. This is done to make the game a more realistic simulation, and also allows handicapping between players.
In a single-player game, a designer might pit the player against a significantly superior computer-controlled forceóone that would be imbalanced in a multiplayer gameóto create an exceptional challenge.