Challenge Accepted: Competitive vs. mechanical balance

And then, depending on the game you play, the whole thing gets kicked over for hardcore PvP.  Where were we?

We like to think it’s like this, but it’s really more this with a smaller set of scales beneath each hook, and another set there.

When we talk about balance, we’re really talking about two different things, because not all balance is identical.

In one sense, games like Street Fighter II are pretty balanced.  A good balancing patch requires going through the game as a whole, evaluating what characters can do, and making sure that moves operate correctly and don’t create too few or too many answers to another.  In another sense, games like Mass Effect 3 are pretty balanced, wherein every tactical choice you can make with your character is about as strong as every other choice you can make with your character.  But the two don’t line up quite right.

There’s no PvP in Mass Effect 3, but it doesn’t take a lot of work to see how certain classes in multiplayer would be helpless without other classes – yet the whole thing is fairly balanced.  Because it’s not balanced the same way as a game like Street Fighter II.  That’s what I want to examine and talk about today, the way that the two sorts of balance don’t always play well off of one another and how the style of balance makes a big deal for the game.

Not that losing one generation matters all that much.

In an absolute sense, everything is balanced over time. But good luck getting this far with certain characters.

Mechanical balance is a state wherein every mechanical choice that you can make in terms of play is roughly balanced compared to one another.  If you’re playing a game that allows you to choose between ice magic and fire magic, balance is achieved when neither ice nor fire provides more benefits or drawbacks than the other.  Games like Final Fantasy Tactics thrive on mechanical balance, wherein every strength is compensated by a weakness in another area, and the game is all about trying to compensate for those weaknesses.

Competitive balance is about creating a game state wherein interesting and fair gameplay emerges when players are pitted against one another.  To extend the earlier analogy, if your choice is between fire and ice, both types need to have equal odds of winning an encounter when chosen by sufficiently skilled players.  Games like Street Fighter IV thrive on competitive balance; characters are not so much “strong in one place and weak  in other places” as they are a collection of attributes, and play involves playing to your strengths.

On the surface, these two things are the same damn principle.  But they’re really not, and it’s easy to lose sight of how different they are, because you truly can’t balance one in the same way as the other.

If you’ve never played Mass Effect 3‘s multiplayer, you missed out on some good times.  You also probably didn’t get a chance to play the Volus classes, which were almost entirely support-oriented.  You could take shots at people, obviously, but most of your powers were about boosting your teammates.  That was your role.  From a straight competitive standpoint, they weren’t balanced at all; there were plenty of classes that worked fine on their own without any need for support, and in a PvP match they would have crumpled with alarming speed.

However, they were balanced well in play, because they supported classes that otherwise weren’t as capable.  Their role was more support-oriented.  Teams could synergize with them.  There was no competitive balance, but there was play balance.

Which is part of the problem with team-based fighters like King of Fighters, but that's belaboring the point.

These guys are meant to be balanced against one another and their peers, not working in a team.

Competitive balance isn’t about minimizing weaknesses but about existing in equilibrium with the rest of the environment.  This is why crossover fighting games like Marvel vs. Capcom tend to have balance issues – characters are given abilities based on their source environment, and that may or may not play well in the combined environment.  It’s also where a lot of MMOs run into problems balancing for PvP, because what’s perfectly balanced for play outside of arenas might become disproportionately powerful inside of them.  World of Warcraft‘s Druids, for example, long posed a balancing problem simply because their immunity to root effects was a minor advantage in most content but extremely important in mobility-heavy PvP matches.

Balance, by its very nature, thrives upon the play environment.  The Disgaea series generally has humanoid units that are more powerful than monster units, because the monsters start with better stats but can’t use equipment or throw other characters.  The game is very mechanically balanced, however – it’s possible to make use of those starting stats and certain monster types early on for an advantage.  It’s just not competitively balanced, meaning that a team of humanoids vs. monsters generally ends well for the humanoids (which is the case in most of the storyline battles).  Even within the scope of the humanoid units, some are just plain better, gated behind work to access – mechanical balance, again.

When fighting games have mook-fighting modes, they often run afoul of this problem.  After all, the characters can be balanced for battles against one another (competitive balance) without being balanced in terms of their abilities whilst fighting random enemies.  Sure, in a one-on-one match a powerful and complex throw is balanced against a quick but weak strike.  But bearing down on a horde of mooks, would you rather play the guy who can fire off a bunch of attacks or the one that needs to slowly set up for each bone-crushing suplex?

Everyone else being worse at those tricks is kind of the dream.

It’s only unbalanced when not everyone can use the same tricks.

The two aren’t the same.  And games get in trouble when they try to pretend they are the same, that balance is a matter of a character or a class doing equally well in all arenas.  You can see the problem of that in any game which makes a distinction between clearing away packs of enemies and fighting bosses, especially when one is easier than the other.  Dragon Age: Origins ran into big problems with the simple reality that mages and rogues could do everything a warrior could, just faster and with more side utility.  Sure, warriors had the easiest time using the heaviest armor, but when most of it didn’t defend against the most deadly attacks in the game, who cared about that?

It’s something to think about the next time you look into any game’s claim of balance.  Because balance isn’t just a spectrum running from unbalanced to balanced; it’s a nuanced affair in which a game can be perfectly balanced in one way and horribly unbalanced in another.  And chasing uniform balance across all arenas usually leads chiefly to unbalancing the stuff that’s already nice and tuned.

Feedback is welcome however you’d like to leave it, as always.  Next time around, I want to talk about how difficulty levels work into the overall framework of games and challenge levels.  The installment after that, I want to talk about growth.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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