Game Balance and the Conformist Utopia

Posted by Labyrinthian in , , , ,

Reducing everything down to the point where everything is mechanically identical may be balanced, but it will be just as fun as a conformist utopia. -Korjik

I came across this quote over at EnWorld.  Besides being funny, it is also absolutely true.  In my youth I always thought game balance was a good thing, something that one should strike for.  However, over the years I've come to question whether a balanced game is always a good idea.  Now I'm not saying one should throw game balance to the wind, just that balanced isn't always better.   

Take D&D as an example.  In first and second edition you have no real balance between the classes, at least not in the modern sense.  The fighter is great at the beginning, but gives up the crown fairly early on to the magic using classes.  This is further balanced out by the fact that the magic wielding classes all took far more experience to advance in level.   Yet a 18th level fighter and a 18th level wizard were not balanced against one another.  

Third edition came along and did away with differing experience table and so undertook the difficult task of balancing each class against each other each level.   At this task, they failed terribly.  That isn't to say they didn't go a great job, I'm not bashing 3rd edition here, but the classes were not all made equal.  A 12th level Wizard is orders of magnitude better than a 12th level Ranger.  Other classes were very well balanced, like the Wizard and the Sorcerer, but by and large there was a pecking order as to how powerful the classes were.  The reason they couldn't all be perfectly balanced is that they all did different things, and did them in different ways. The classes all had their own feel and their own niche within the game.  

Soon after 3.0 came 3.5.  It attempted to fix the issues in the original 3rd edition design, including some of the balance issues between the classes.  Rangers, for example got much better, but still the classes were not perfectly balanced against one another and the pecking order still was there, albeit in a slightly different order.  The jam was still in the cog, which is to say that the classes were still so widely different, and had abilities that couldn't be quantified to match each of the other classes perfectly.   
Enter 4th edition.  Game developers had been questing for balance for a long time now and finally come up with a way to balance all the classes almost perfectly, give them all comparable abilities.   Now I'm not saying that all the classes from 4e are the same, but they are much more similar to one another than in any other version of the game.  Each has dailies, per encounter, and once a day abilities that can be easily balanced against one another.  Now I'm not saying that 4e is perfectly balanced, but it is the closest thing to perfectly balanced that exists out there.  

WotC finally hit the mother-load of balance, finally reached the promised land it had long search for.  Hell I had been looking for it myself for a while, but now that I got to look on it, I didn't really like what I saw.  Gone was the unique feel of each class, gone was what made each of them special.  They just all felt the same, uniform, homogeneous. 

That's when I realized that the White Whale I was chasing was something of a poisoned prize.  To get balance you have to give something up, a certain amount of flavor and texture.  You have to be willing to part with the differences that make things unique and interesting.  Balance craves uniformity and consistency, and those things just aren't very interesting. 

So I am done chasing game balance as the ultimate prize.  Instead I'll keep it on the shelf with the other things.  It has it's place, but it isn't higher than a host of other factors that make up a great game.  

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at Tuesday, January 11, 2011 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



Thank you for a great commentary on what I have saying for ages - balanced games are boring. I liked that fact that some characters need to make certain choices in the adventure due to their strengths and weaknessess. It made an interesting story and provided great moments of roleplaying. Heroes are not born out of balanced worlds and situations. It's when the odds are against you that heroism is born

January 12, 2011 at 4:31 PM

Post a Comment