After Capcom's Digital Day press event, I got the chance to talk with Max Hoberman for a while about game balance. He's lead designer of the newly announced Capcom game called Plunder, and he was lead multiplayer designer on Halo 2 and 3. I explained to Max that all I seem to do is balance things these days (Puzzle Fighter HD Remix, Street Fighter HD Remix, Kongai at Kongregate.com, and my own card games: Yomi and Spellblind). I asked if he had any advice.
His first advice was that no matter how great you are, you need a post-launch patch. Sounds good to me. I asked if he had anything general to say on the subject and he explained that he likes to focus on the fun first. Even in playing board games, if he can make a move that is suboptimal, but increases everyone's fun, he'll often do it. This prompted me to ask if he cares about balance at the highest tournament level, or only about pleasing the average player. He said that due to Halo's rise in various gaming leagues, he had to care about tournament balance in Halo 2 and 3, so yes he does shoot for that.
I also asked how much or little he relies on math and how much he listens to players. He explained a few math things he does, but mostly it's not about math. Even though I have a math degree from MIT, I use almost no math (on purpose) so it was nice to hear he had the same conclusion. *Why* we think this is deserving of an entire article, so I won't try to cover it here. On the subject of whether to listen to players, he was quick and firm in his answer that you generally cannot listen. He said players almost always lack the big-picture understanding of what they are asking for, are usually biased to buffing their own favorite things, and generally make suggestions that make the game more fun for them personally, rather than the larger view the designer needs to take. Listen to them all, understand what they're getting at, then come up with your own solution, he said. We both agreed that it's a strange situation that no matter what you decide, lots of people will feel you did the wrong thing. (This is because some people suggest doing X while other people suggest DON'T do X, so you always disappoint someone.) Them's the breaks.
With no prompting from me at all, he said that balancing a fighting game is far more difficult than balancing a first-person shooter. I said that while I agree, I think most people don't. He said, "Really? Why wouldn't they agree." I explained that I thought first-person shooter players feel their genre is somehow less exalted if it's easier to balance and they might not realize the extreme difficulty involved in balancing vastly different movesets to all compete fairly against each other in a fighting game. Max said it should be pretty clear to anyone that balancing fighting games is harder, and people should get over it. (And of course, play whichever games you find fun, rather than caring so much about which were harder to balance anyway.)
Finally, we zeroed in on the concept of symmetric vs asymmetric games very quickly. Max naturally understood this distinction without me having to even talk about it. (To the readers: in asymmetric games, players each have a DIFFERENT set of moves, yet they must somehow be fair vs each other. Symmetric games such as Chess maybe have many deep strategies, but both sides have access to (almost) identical moves.) I told him about my other blog post on this topic. Max and I agreed that balancing symmetric games is easier, almost by definition. He said it's fine in a first person shooter, for example, if one weapon is not as good as the others as long as it has some use. But it's not really so fine if a fighting game characters is not as good as the others.
Max asked which games my readers came up with in the asymmetric category. He immediately said StarCraft (everyone's answer!), but couldn't think of any other good examples (other than fighting games). I was kind of stumped. I couldn't remember anything good anyone had nominated, ha. Though I do still claim Magic: The Gathering, when treated as a battle of constructed decks.
The most interesting thing (to me) that Max said is that he thinks players really prefer asymmetric games (because it's a puzzle to figure out) but that game designers generally prefer symmetric games. Max himself says he strayed away from asymmetry all he could in Halo and where it does occur in some gametypes, the teams each switch sides to even things out. Considering the difficulty that all of us have even naming good asymmetric games, I'd say Max is right that game designers tend to not make them, and I also bet he's right that designers consider it too hard. And yet...that's all I do!! All FIVE of the games I listed at the start of this article are asymmetric. And 100% of competitive games I've ever planned to do and still plan to do are also asymmetric. I guess I'm way on the other side of the tracks from other designers on this one. One of the main interesting thing in competitive games is seeing how different characters/races/moves stack up against each other.
I hope you gained some insight from Max Hoberman in all of that. I'm literally going to go fill in spreadsheets of balancing information right now, ha.