Get updates via e-mail:

« John Cleese on Creativity | Main | Oxytocin and You »

A Discussion of Balance

Here's an episode of Extra Credits about "Perfect Imbalance" on Penny Arcade. While I appreciate that the topic of game balance is getting covered, I don't think the arguments hold up.

First it makes these two points, which I agree with:

1) The two sides in Chess are similar enough that we can call the game symmetric. ALSO, Chess requires a huge amount of memorization to play, and he wishes that you could play in a more adaptive way and have memorization be less important.

2) Starcraft requires a huge amount of APM click speed to play at a high level, and only players who are super great at that really get to innovate in the strategy space (also bad players playing against bad players can get away with more strats). He wishes that thinking about new strategies had more relative importance to the common player than high APM does.

I have posted and spoken many times about those exact two issues, so I agree. But there is then some strange leap lof logic happens. The problem of how "solved" parts of those games can feel at times is claimed to be BECAUSE they are well-balanced. The problems involved are actually 0% because the games are well-balanced. Well-balanceness is a wonderful property and should not be blamed for these problems.


Chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer also agreed that Chess had become too rigid and that memorization played too large of a role. He wanted Chess to be a game that reward moment-to-moment decisions more, strokes of genius more, adaptability more, even general grasp of fundamentals more, and memorization less. To achieve this, he created Chess960. The starting position of the pieces are randomized (according to a few rules) and then mirrored on the other side, so the game is still symmetric. He strived to keep the "perfect balance" of Chess while addressing the problem. I think it's a great idea.

The same problem that bothered Fischer and Extra Credits bothered me too. In addition that problem, the problem of too many draws bothered me, as did the slippery slope nature of the game causes it to end with conceding which is kind of anti-climactic. And in addition to that, I think asymmetric games are just more interesting than symmetric ones. So to address all of those issues, I developed Chess 2.

Chess 2 has 6 different armies (for asymmetry, creates lots of matchups) and a "midline rule" that removes all those kind of broring, solved endgame situations that you concede rather than playing out. It addresses the problem of too many draws. But all that is irrelevant to the point at hand. What's relevant is there is a bidding system when you capture an enemy piece that involves a double-blind decision. That decision is a test of how much each player values the particular pieces involved at that exact moment. It also shatters the stranglehold of memorization from regular Chess, as there are too many ways that memorized openings can play out. You have to actually adapt.

We shouldn't get hung up on the specific details of Chess960 or Chess 2 here. The point is that each game addressed the memorization problem in a different way, and there could be other ways still to address it. Intentionally making the game unfair to one side ("Perfect Imbalance" from Extra Credits) would not be a way to address it, and wouldn't make any sense at all. The problem is just totally unrelated to balance.


I wish Starcraft focused more on strategy than it does. If there's a pie of 100% of whatever to focus on, some of that is strategy and a whole lot is related to APM (actions per minute). The more the focus is on one, the less on the other. And Blizzard has been explicit that they want the skill test to include high APM.

Blizzard improved the UI of Starcraft 2 over Starcraft 1 to allow things like selecting more than 12 units at a time, and using tab to cycle through unit types within a selection. This allows the player execute decisions better. That is, first the player decides what he wants to do (strategy) then physically issues the commands to make that happen in the game (execution). The UI decisions I just mention shift the emphasis towards strategy mattering a bit more, so that's good. Fighting against the UI to perform the exact same tasks in Starcraft 1 does add "more skill" for sure, but it's a kind of skill that is not related to strategy, hence its removal. That said, other extra clicks were added on purpose in Starcraft 2, and units designed specifically to reward very high APM usage.

Some other similar game could be very similar to Starcraft, but focus less on execution and more on strategy. In other words, it would give much less reward to a 300 APM player over a 100 APM player than Starcraft 2 does. The result of this would be that if more players were on equal footing APM-wise (because it's less rewarded, or capped or whatever) then strategy matters more. This is what Extra Credits wants, to have more freedom of strategy choices without spending so much time honing skills on perfectly timed, memorized build orders. This has NOTHING to do with game balance though. That Starcraft has really well-balanced races is not the CAUSE of this problem, and making the races intentionally imbalanced so as to create a less fair game would not solve the problems.

Some Imbalance is Good

Extra Credits then makes the point that some imbalance is good. Before we get to their explanation of why this would be, I would like to inject my own reason why it would be. I'll clarify by saying "local imbalance" is good. By local imbalance, I mean the kind of imbalance that takes place during gameplay, as opposed to before gameplay starts and encompassing the whole game.

For example, in a first-person shooter with several weapons laying around for anyone to pick up, the weapons do NOT need to be exactly equal in power. In fact, they shouldn't be. Players will be using different weapons over the course of one game, and they may fight for position on the map in order to get a strong weapon, or deny an opponent from getting a strong weapon. That's fine, and still fair because all players have access to the same weapons if only they can pick them up. If all the weapons were the same, there'd be fewer ways to push the game into your favor, and you'd lose some of the nooks and crannies of strats that you have in a game with a bunch of differently powered weapons.

A second example is getting knocked down in the corner in a fighting game. That is "imbalanced" in that it puts you in a really bad situation while your opponent is in a good situation. But that's the point. Our goal is not to make every single SITUATION that occurs during gameplay exactly even, because then good decisions wouldn't even lead to any kind of advantage, which is sort of weird. Imbalanced moments that occur in the middle of gameplay are fine and desirable, even.

Let's move on the Extra Credits kind of "imbalance is good" though, which is not about local imbalance. It's about global imbalance, meaning as soon as you sit down at the table or console or whatever, before the first moment of play, you are disadvantaged. Yeah, that's not good and it violates a basic concept of fairness. Keep in mind that I personally think asymmetric games are much more interesting than symmetric ones, so starting a game with an advantage or disadvantage is common to me (because the characters aren't exactly equal in power). But that is a *drawback* of asymmetric games that in my opinion is outweighed by rich complexities you get from having so many different possible matchups. It's not something you actually strive to do, like make some character terrible or too strong. If there is some matchup that is unfair, then the developer fixing it is great. Likewise if there's some matchup that is close (like if Protoss vs Zerg were 5-5) it would be terrible if the developer intentionally changed it to make it 7-3 unfair or something.

A Quick Aside

Extra Credits mentioned League of Legends, and as someone interested in the future of games, I have to fault any mention of the game that doesn't include a mention that a competitive game shouldn't have a forced grind (even for those willing to pay) to get gameplay-relevant elements. It would be ridiculous in Street Fighter to force a grind to be able to pick the real Blanka, it would be ridiculous in Starcraft to force a grind to be able to pick the real Protoss, and it *is* ridiculous in League of Legends that a forced grind is part of a competitive game. It goes against the sprit of competition to throw up an artificial, time-wasting barrier where you play some different game until you finally get to play the real one. Don't let that cancer infect other competitive games.

The Metagame

Back on point. While I think the earlier arguments that good balance leads to problems in Chess and Starcraft make no sense at all, the argument about the metagame is much more subtle. I believed this same argument for a long time, but I don't any more. The argument goes like this: it's ok for a character to be too powerful because then players will try to find ways to beat that character with otherwise weaker characters who happen to be good against that particular strong character. Extra Credits further says that you explore more strategy in a game with this property than with a game with actually fair characters because with fair characters you'd be locked into doing the same kind of thing and not looking for counter-characters.

You could make that same argument about decks in Magic: the Gathering. I think this is an illusion, and I was caught in it for years because it's kind of "conventional wisdom" and never even really questioned or talked about. I only really started to realize why this doesn't add up when I was working on my own customizable card game. A "rich metagame" means there are lots of decks that counter other decks, and you get to sit around thinking about which deck will be common at a tournament and which you should choose in response. For example, if you discovered an unusual deck that could win 9-1 against the most of the field and lose 1-9 against part of the field, that could be a very, very strong deck. This is metagaming at its finest, yet it also leads to 100% of your games having terrible gameplay.

And there's the rub. The kind of metagame under discussion is one where global imbalance is assumed to be "good." The assumption is that sitting down to play another player and having a advantage or disadvantage before the game even starts is a great thing. Well, it kind of sucks actually, and violates the concepts of basic fairness. You could define "the game" to be the larger thing that involves "picking a deck/character + playing it" but that's hardly an answer. It's just admitting that the part where you actually play is kind of sucky and unfair.

I'll tell you the key moment of discovery I had about this issue. I had several decks mocked up for my CCG. You would expect a variety of decks to happen to have several really unfair matchups, and for that to cause a metagame to form. The thing is, I didn't design these decks to win a tournament, I designed them to test out how the game plays, so I used a few rules of thumb in deckbuilding that actually prevented any really unfair matches like 8-2 from happening. I figured that later when we thought about how players would really build their decks (not according to my personal rules), we'd have to figure out how to deal with those inevitable 8-2 matchups. The CCG community often assumes they are great ("it's the metagame!") but I think the emphasis should be on the part where you actually playing the game and making decisions. Deckbuilding is great, but not if it wrecks the fairness of individual games you will actually have to play.

Anyway, allowing players complete freedom in deckbuilding in my game absolutely would lead to 8-2 matchups (like in any customizable card game) AND it would actually lead to worse strategy than my playtest decks! When metagaming and trying to win, you really want to take out all the "strategy" you can, and make sure you just stomp as many opposing decks as possible, even if you have pretty bad matches in there somewhere.

You probably already see the revelation. Why not codify the rules of thumb of deckbuilding I was using into real rules of the game? Put limits on deckbuilding in such a way that still allow it, but that prevent the majority of unfair matches from happening. This seemed so obvious in hindsight.

Now, unrelated to that, I also went to great lengths to give the player more strategic choices during a game than is usual in the genre. Tricky to do without being too complicated, but that's another story. The bottom line is so far this game is shaping up to be a game with more strategic choices during gameplay than other similar games I've played AND with fewer unfair matchups. This is possible by REDUCING the importance of the metagame. It's just more fun to have the GAME, the part where you actually sit down and play give you a) a lot of strategic options and b) as fair a match as we can give you.

We shouldn't dwell on this particular in-development card game though. It's a general principle that you get more strategic depth during a game session by, well, focusing on making that as good as possible. As good as possible means putting more strategic decisions in and taking unfairness out. That's the opposite of the intentional imbalance glorified in the Extra Credits video. It's the opposite of making the decisions made before the game even starts become more important (necessarily making in-game decisions that much less important.)

Making a bunch of unfair matches intentionally is just a poor man's solution to the problem of strategic variety. In the end, that poor man's solution constrains your strategic choices anyway, rather than opens them up. You're constrained to playing the overpowered characters or the counters, rather than having free choice of all characters. Having a set of characters who ALL have fair matches and who ALL have a lot of strategy options makes you wonder what the point of intentionally having unfair matchups ever was in the first place.

Reader Comments (25)

This is the same problem that plagues Magic the Gathering from time to time due to format warping strategies dominating the tournament scene (see Affinity, Trix, Power 9). Just thought I'd mention it since there are probably lessons to be learned from Magic's history in this regard.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGaku

I respect your opinion that League of Legends shouldn't have a forced grind (runes & summoner's spells, I assume you mean) even when players are willing to pay.

But I'd love to hear your thoughts some time on the asymmetry and balance in League of Legends, once you're past the grind. I love the game and got all excited to see it mentioned here, but was then bummed when you only gave it a cursory mention.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I felt like the EC guys really needed to define their terms this time. It was fairly obvious as soon as they started that they weren't using the word "balance" the same way you do. (And I'll argue they weren't even using a consistent definition...)

After more thought, I kind of got the impression that they were using balance almost as a blanket term for symmetric gameplay. Like, reading your description "local imbalances", and how they're good for guns in an FPS seems to match the argument the EC guys made. Which is to say, they're claiming the strategy-space is really boring and small when everyone has the same power level, and much larger and more interesting when a players power level varies over time.

They just generalize that argument to cover everything about all games, all the time. So, you're response article specifically mentions different terms like "metagame", "asymmetry", "random elements", etc. And the EC guys lumped all of those terms into their definition of "Imbalance", and then concluded with same wavy-hand logic that it was a net positive at all times.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterClaytus

Mark: Oh as for the game itself, I have no real insight. Doesn't support 1v1, doesn't run on Mac, the idea of banning characters as part of gameplay is terrible to me. It's really not the game for me.

Claytus: yeah you probably summed it up well.

July 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Interesting points, most of which I agree with to some extent. Things to think about though:

1) Balance having *nothing* to do with stagnation of choices. We can only know that a game is balanced when the strategical choices and counter-choices have been thoroughly explored through play-testing. Every so often a true genius of the game will add another layer onto this, but for most competitive players the available strategies and counter-strategies *must* be well known if the game is balanced. This will lead to games often playing out in the same way. The competition is still present of course, it coming down to things like skill (e.g. seeing many moves ahead in chess, APM in SC2, difficult timing moves in a fighting game),Yomi (the many layers of trying to predict what your opponent will do), acquiring/hiding information (scouting in SC2) and teamwork (in team games, obviously).

One way to solve this problem in an online game is to constantly rebalance, buffing/nerfing particular tools that the players have available. This causes a reshuffling of what is balanced, and it takes the community a little time to converge once more on the optimal play style. This keep things fresh, the downside of course being that you may annoy players when you repeatedly nerf their favourite strategies.

2) I know I probably won't sway you re: League of Legends. But consider this: there is a really large knowledge base required to become competitive in that game. You can give players access to it all right from the start, but to be honest, there's no point. You don't know things like "ooh I'm going to be laning against character X, I need to play character Y to counter that" because you haven't gained that kind of information yet. It actually helps new players to learn the game to be exposed to *gradually* increasing layers of complexity - much like Magic with their oft-lamented crappy common cards that are strictly much worse than rarer, more complex cards.

In terms of the rune/mastery points that all require some time to unlock, you are always matched against those at the same unlock level. There's no imbalance there.

The other option would be to charge a flat-out fee for the game and just give people everything (micro-transactions still on offer to unlock purely cosmetic things). However the barrier for entry becomes a lot higher, and that means less people willing to try the game. These days free to play + unlocks is a much better business model in terms of profit.

*When handled correctly* such that both teams have access to equivalent unlocks, as is the case with League of Legends, it is just as fair to both sides as the more traditional business model. No, all players can not pick from all ~90 champions from their very first game, but they don't need to because there are many many champions that are on an equivalent power footing at filling particular roles, and the 10 free champions rotated each week are designed to represent a good cross-section of these.

Calling the League of Legends model out as a "cancer" is uninformed hyperbole that would be better directed at, say, PvP in Call of Duty/Battlefield or in WoW.

3) There is a certain charm in building your deck and thinking about which other decks you will be able to beat. There is no thrill in coming up with some awesome combo of cards if it is, by design, no more awesome than any other combo of cards. I think the solution for this dichotomy for competitive purposes is draft, however, I always hated draft in M:tG because of the crappy cards that inevitably make me feel like I'm playing a lesser game (they are fine for new players, but awful for experienced players to keep coming across, which is why I stopped playing Magic).

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelf_Himself

Melf, you're right that that argument doesn't sway my position even the tiniest amount. Chess is complicated too. So is Starcraft. So is any competitive game. It does not logically follow that because of this, we should withold the real game from players and expose them to some other game that they aren't allowed to skip before reaching the real game. If you would like a tutorial, play one, but don't FORCE that belief on all other players. Just imagine making that argument about Chess, such that anyone who starts shouldn't be allowed to have all the pieces at first.

I see matchmaking as a defense given all the time. That is no defense at all, imo. It's making the game fair between the two gimped players, but that isn't what the objection is in the first place. The objection is that in a non-joke competitive game, players should be able to access the real game, not forced to play some gimped version of it.

I do believe it's a cancer of a thing in competitive games. It's dangerous in that it's infecting more and more games, and it's bad because it's taking away an option that should be kind of sacred in a competitive game. If you want to say Call of Duty and WoW also advance this cancerous mindset, go ahead and say that. That doesn't make LoL any less bad in this case, it just adds more bad things. LoL being practically the most popular competitive game gives it special responsibility to uphold the ideals of competition, imo, so it's especially bad for it to have contributed to the mindset that forced-grinds are ok in a competitive game.

About deckbuilding, what you're saying is equivalent to wishing that gameplay (the part where you sit down at the table to play) is more unfair. Wanting deckbuilding to grant more advantage is the same as wanting more unfair games. I think a better stance is to want more fair games. Also, you are really underselling how interesting deckbuilding is in a world where there aren't any 8-2 matchups at all. To illustrate why this not a good way to think about it, imagine a fighting game with 20 characters. Imagine they are extremely well balanced. Further imagine they all play totally differently, with radically different gameplay and strats. Is that game more interesting than the same game with only 10 characters? Yeah it kind of is. Because the 10 extra characters are adding all sorts of interesting things you can do. The excitement comes from all those options existing, NOT from those 10 new characters having to be more powerful than the others. Likewise, exploring deckbuilding options that give many new strategic options without being more powerful is plenty interesting.

July 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I have mixed feelings about the Starcraft paragraph and the original video, I think you're expressing 2 very different ideas one of friction (the separation between your thoughts on strategy and your execution) and one of speed (how long it takes to execute a certain action). To me that more readily explains the seeming contradiction of them simultaneously removing actions through streamlining and adding them back in again through different mechanics.

Managing player expectations was one of the challenges when dealing with the original starcraft UI. When people box a group of units they expect them all to be selected. And if they can select multiple units, why can't you select multiple buildings? And 90% of the time when I have multiple spell casters selected and want to cast a spell I want 1 spell cast, not all of them to cast on the same place. These are all changes designed to reduce friction.

But Starcraft is also a REAL TIME strategy game, not just a Strategy game, the real time aspect has to be important in some way, and prioritizing your actions are key to that real time component, being able to execute faster then your opponent gives you a definite edge, but the brilliance of it, is that you can always trade that execution for in-game resources in a way that makes it less a barrier and more of a smoother gradient this is in stark contrast to say, a combo, but is more similar to messing up several in a row. You might not be playing optimally, but you are playing and participating in a version of the game that is similar.

Tangentially there's also a hidden reward structure there and one of the reasons why I don't think it's necessary to completely forgo execution and to let everyone participate in high level mind games. Part of the reason LoL features a grind is to pace the experience and to leave you feeling like there's always something more that you're working towards, Starcraft and fighting games as you rightly point out don't want to do that because it does go against the spirit of competition so are more subtle, their pacing mechanics are strategy and execution. But here's the problem with the hypothetical game that you're suggesting, one that is built on a lot of strategy and very little execution: strategy travels fast, and once communicated creates a large gap between those in the know and those that aren't that's even more harsh then an execution divide.

Blizzard learned this all too well with WoW Boss Design, early WoW bosses were very strategy heavy (with a good amount of grind thrown in) and once those strategies became widespread the encounters were quickly trivialized which gave an inordinate advantage to people who looked up strategies on the internet before diving in. Then they switched to hide the mechanics of the fights even deeper by altering certain core mechanics on a per-encounter basis, but the community responded with combat log tools that told them more accurately what was going on in each fight and which mechanics were being altered. Then they tried to hide the mechanics even deeper and then data-mining became more widespread, grabbing each ability straight from the game files so they could be read. This in my opinion has been Capcom's approach to it's fighting games, sometimes even unintentionally, where mechanics would be hidden just because of the nature of a software bug. This isn't really a tact that blizzard takes any longer, each boss in WoW now fills an entry in your monster manual that gives you a look at all their abilities, execution on a team and individual level are more important as well as the infamous grind.

I've gone too long, but ultimately I agree with your premise, that global imbalance is not a desirable traits, but similarly I don't think the characterization of Starcraft in this article or the original video does it any particular justice. Global imbalance DOES exist in Starcraft in the form of maps, and competitions have a similar veto option that heroes do in LoL. Starcraft is rarely about memorizing build orders and executing them as quickly as possible, build orders are merely a tool for communication, not a good way to play (perhaps a bit like flowchart ken) and that execution represents a barrier rather than a continuous axis upon which you can pace a game that compliments strategic development without undermining the spirit of competition.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterR Brack

R Brack, you've committed the fallacy of taking a point and polarizing it so far that it's not actually the point that was made, then responding to that polarized point instead of the actual point. I think that's called a straw man argument.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrized

Strangely, I think the solution to the issue to both Chess and SC2 is including more player. The amount of strategic creativity significantly increase in SC2 going from 1v1 to 2v2 to 3v3 to 4v4. I would assume the same in Chess. The coordination and teamwork allows many different variation of strategy to be viable. I am a terrible SC2 player, I have like, 15 apm. But When I play 4v4 with 3 of buddies (one guy is 40+ apm, 2 guys at 30ish), we are consistently #1 in our platnum league.and we beat diamond lvl 1v1 players all the time because we used the correct strategy and was able to make up for the lower apm. usually it involves baiting two player to chase after one of ours, and then ambush with all 4 together. 4 vs 2 really neglects your APM advantage. My MMM ball at 15 apm is still pretty effect in that specific scenario.

I like to compare sc2 to sports. In most 1v1 sports, if you have superior skills/talent (APM), you are probably going to win no matter what type of strategy the other guy uses. Think a professional boxer vs a regular joe. Doesn't matter what type of boxing strategy the regular joe uses, its not going to help. But in team sport, the more # of players are involved, the more the team with less talent can make up ground with strategy. Imagine a 10v10 fight between 10 professional boxer and 10 regular joes. If the 10 regular joes has practiced a strategy together against the 10 boxer, they have a legit chance at this fight. They can try to separate and gang up on one at a time. suddenly, strategic choices allows them to make up for the lack of skills. It doesn't replace skills, but the gap narrows as more players get involved and additional strategy opens up.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWill

I understand the example given in LoL wasn't the best, but I found your argument on the metagame part to be a bit confusing. I'd like to give an example on what I believe works but I think you don't and I'd like to have your take on it. I am a bit familiar with the Dota philosophy of how to play the game at high level and will use that as an example.

Every character in Dota has a role that fits within an overall team strategy. Every team strategy can be countered in a rock paper scissors mechanic. Pushing strategy rewards team with early level, gold and map control advantage. Helps taking the game early. Ganking beats pushers as they overextend and prevents them from pushing efficiently. Probably more efficient a bit later than going all out pushing. Probably a mid-game strategy. Turtling beats ganking as they cannot snowball off kills because you decide to play defensively and farm in hopes to win at a later stage of the game.

Competitve rules go by the following. Teams are drafting their own team through turns. Before picking any actual characters, they have a round of banning. It goes like this (if I recall right):
Each team bans 3 characters from the pool (in order 1-2-2-1 or 1-1-1-1-1-1)
Each team picks 3 characters (in correct order 1-2-2-1)
Each team bans 2 characters (1-1-1-1)
Each team picks 2 characters (1-1-1-1)

I think this is essentially balanced and plays a big part on the META part of the game. Knowing that every character fits within an overall strategy or has a counter means a lot into what you are picking. Will you play X strategy because Y character is strong? Will you still commit to it even though there's Z that plays well against this strategy? So to say, this is where the bans become interesting. Depending on what is banned, arrays of team compositions and available strategies/picks will alter. It's also highly depending on who bans it.

Though... I believe this might be somehow decent because it compares a bit the chess argument you make. It forces players to think quickly about how the enemy team will attempt to play out their cards and how well the enemy can read your own plan. After that comes the technical application of said plans.

But I feel this is a great thing. None of this would have it's motions if it wasn't for the fact that certain characters are too good or the fact that certain strategies might be stronger than other and both teams know it. Of course, players can still innovate and always keep trump card for tournament finals, but I still feel that there's thing you can do that are compelling for the players with the meta and this example fits why I believe so.

Though I do have two questions, first, what's your take on this whole thing? Second, could it be that the round of drafting at the early stage of the game acts as what limits player to focus more about the GAME aspect and not the META? By this I mean that I might have been defending what I claimed earlier to not have fully understood, aka your argument on Meta.

I'd like to understand it better because a big part of your blog does a good job at bringing counter-points that are as equally interesting as the Extra credits video was in the first place. If any of it may help you explain it better to me, feel free to maybe give me an example with fighting games. Been following competitive events of the FGC since around 09-10. I would maybe understand you better through these.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOliver

Sirlin, I don't think you really addressed one of the more interesting parts of the video.

I'm familiar with the idea of draw-death and overanalysis in chess. I'm less familiar with the idea of executing canned strategies in StarCraft (mostly because my execution is terrible in RTS games).

My question is: what causes these problems? I agree that they are not caused by perfect balance - any serious imbalance in Chess would have been found by now, and there would be only one viable strategy. Do you simply blame the low number of starting options in both games?

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterajfirecracker

Will, and it would be bad to carry over the thing from sports where extraneous stuff like how strong you are matters. It's much more interesting to me if strategy games test strategy. I accept a minimum amount of required execution to make a fighting work at all, or an RTS work at all, but putting even more importance on those things than is necessary is this kind of execution fetishism. We should be better than sports, not merely like sports.

Oliver, I think the ban system is terrible. So bad that I reject it ouf-of-hand. The good part of it is that it has the kind of balance you were talking about. But I think it should be rejected out-of-hand, regardless of what benefits it has, because it's unthinkable to me to be able to prevent someone from playing a character. Like you practice this character for months and are the best in the world and the result is you can never play that character in a tournament? Have you seen Rizan's Blanak? It's sick, man. BEST in the world. Wow let's see it! Oh, you never can. That's so crazy that when I explain this to people outside the genre, they think I'm kidding.

Imagine if you removed that ban system, but made no other changes. Would there be any problems? I imagine you'd say yes, there would be big balance problems. If so, this is a great illustration of why the game should be ACTUALLY balanced, and not rely on this crazy kludge that prevents people from playing the characters they want. You can half-ass balance in any game and put a ban system in it, that's just not an experience I want to play. And it's not any kind of real answer to balance, imo.

ajfirecracker: hmm, your question is hard. I'm not even sure about that point in the first place, actually. I'm going to take a guess at the thing the video is trying to say about Starcraft. Imagine you are just an ok player and you are picking from a few strategies you have in mind. One is to build as many zealots as you can, and furthermore to start by sending a couple for early pressure, but then backing off to get several gateways going at once, then send waves and waves. Doing it in that particular way is a strategy decision (no comment on whether it's smart or bad, I'm just saying it's a decision about strategy). I think the video is saying that there is a really huge gap in the effectiveness of this strategy if you just kind of stumble in and try it, and if you have honed this particular build by practicing execution a ton. Practicing all the stuff that is unrelated to the strategy, and just getting the right clicks at the right times and doing them as fast as possible. He seems to be saying it's frustrating how much goes into just being able to execute that, and that the reward for executing it really well is higher than the reward for thinking of a slightly stronger strategy.

The only "fix" to such a thing is to make it as easy as possible to execute strategies. Like a brain-link to control the game would be best. Maybe a way to queue unit production without it draining funds helps slightly. Maybe even some preset build orders the game helps you make. I don't know. I haven't really thought about actually good answers to this. Oh but another thing that shakes up openings in chess (would also be true in starcraft) is some sort of randomization to the openings. At first it seems better to have none of that, but when memorized stuff becomes SO important, then you can get the constrained feeling the video is getting at, so some randomization in starting positions can help. Sorry I'm not answering this very well.

July 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I'm not sure that randomization is really the answer. Obviously, it prevents orchestrated actions and canned strategies.

The potential issue I have is that randomization achieves that goal in an artificial and not-necessarily-balanced way. I'm not claiming this is actually the case, but in Fischer Random Chess we might imagine that some starting positions exaggerate the first-mover advantage held by White. Similarly, random assignment of starting positions on Starcraft maps sometimes favors one race over another (for example, close-to-fly but far-to-run positions will usually favor Protoss over Zerg in SC2).

As a counterpoint regarding the necessity of randomization, notice that fighting games have non-random positions but games typically do not follow a canned script. In non-degenerate matchups, almost no situation will play out predictably.

One difference (among many), is that RTS games and Chess have slippery slope. Any advantage in either will tend to snowball into a victory. Fighting games, on the other hand, typically do not have strong slippery slope. The lack of positive feedback makes it more profitable to take calculated risks - a failure does not automatically lose the game. I suspect that the high risk associated with taking even slight losses tends to push people into known 'safe' modes of gameplay. The best players in the world also spend time exploring new strategies (and can quickly execute them, without needing endless rehearsal), and this is part of why they are the ones who innovate.

A second difference (which, as I write this, I suspect is more important) is that Chess (even Fischer Random Chess) and almost all RTS games have a pre-determined progression within each game. At the beginning, you can only use a few pieces/moves/units, but as time goes you can gain more capabilities. The most important thing is generally to have a plan for getting smoothly into the 'real game'. In a fighting game, you have access to almost all of your moves from the very beginning. I suspect that a game where most moves required Super meter would see a lot more 'choreographed' situations (whiffing specials and such).

Alternately, one can make an argument that certain option-select-heavy situations are more choreographed than you'd really like to see in a fighting game. This is certainly the case with T. Hawk once he 'gets in' in ST, and it might be the case in some wakeup situations in SFIV.

What do you think?

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterajfirecracker

As far as pick/ban is concerned I think Sirlin is right. DotA's two main problem are these: game isn't globally balanced and games doesn't have any sort of graceful hero set.

Sirlin explained the first one, but the second one is often left unexplained. Simply put, DotA has 100 heroes. Unless you are VERY experienced in DotA there is no way you'll be able to remember what each hero does. That complexity is awful to remember and awful to balance.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter-Y-

About the video. I think they missed the term pretty hard. The thing the video is talking about is not balance... Its the dynamics of meta strategy. Chess and Starcraft had huge resources put to getting as good at those games as possible. The result is that they have been studied so hard that actual good knowledge is available, and players can get better by memorizing this knowledge/practicing certain skills that work. It will be even more of a problem when you have game that focuses on the strategy only, as it can be studied more easily. I really think creating an asymmetrical game with all match-ups balanced would be great, but i do think its utopia as the complexity of such system is really great and you need tons of time and talented players to even scratch the tip of this iceberg.

Their point holds for every closed game that has been studied enough. Starcraft has additional problem of skill cap preventing players from actually executing what they think is optimal. They could try to find their own strategy that suits them, but instead they wine about APM and that they are not pros... Its like playing basketball and whining you don't throw like NBA players do and you miss so much strategy because of that...

The other thing is dynamical balance. Games that do not have established meta strategy and the best way to play them changes in time have completely different meta. Both pros and casual players change their approach often, so game seems to have more strategic depth as different strategies get played on pro scene. When pros experiment players also feel more encouraged to try different things than "the one true path to victory".

Lol ban system also makes this game better. Bans force teams to adapt to different situations and not make one composition. Also this is a team game not individual competition, so every pick influences every other pick anyway, banning is just a more direct way to do it and a nice probe on what champ really needs to be nerfed.

PS This anti-Lol crusade is not aimed right IMO. Lol has grind because of its business model and to keep casuals happy. It doesn't need grind for learning cure or any similar nonsense. But it does need some form of collecting to keep players playing. It would be better if it didnt touch the mechanics at all, but theyre better than other freemium games so i'd rather prise them for moving industry in the right direction. I agree they should go even further and decrease grinds influence on play balance to 0, but its not like theyre the bad guys. Unlike some freemium games Lol doesn't give random advantages or crappy game you have to grind through to get to sth playable. From lv 1 you have normal Lol experience.

Back to grinding. I'm currently collecting champions and its really fun for me to play, get more cash, and get new champ eventually. This is a feature Kongai lacked for me - some system to keep players engaged,some story to complete, some useless in game but fun stuff to collect etc. I really think some elements of this sort that dont influence mechanics are really great, Lols skin system is ideal example.

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZephyr

Zephry, of course you know I strongly disagree. The last thing I'm going to give praise for is a forced-grind system in a competitive game. And you do not get to play the real game at level 1, by all accounts. Having something to unlock, like cosmetic stuff or 1p content, yeah that sounds great. Unfortunately because players like you don't roundly reject the idea of forced grind for gameplay-relevant stuff, it's likely that the same thing will infect the last few genres that have held out against this: RTS and fighting games. Probably we'll be forced-grinding to get a real fighting game character in a few years (not even joking here).

The idea of a ban system is still an auto-fail to me, sorry. In a balanced game, you'll get plenty of character variety without that, and restricting my character choice in a game where I pick a character is basically unthinkable to me, regardless of any benefit it might have. It torpedos the very point of picking characters to me.

ajfirecracker: I meant randomization is one possible answer. It really is an answer in chess960. Yeah it could change the white advantage, but we are talking about things at the 0.01% level or something there imo. The effect that is many orders of magnitude stronger is "memorized openings are basically out" at the cost of some virtually 0 change in balance. Other answers could work too. Probably you are right about having more options from the very start ending up with less scripted openings. Like what you said about a fighting game where most moves take meter, yeah that probably would introduce some pre-set openings when actual fighting games tend to not have those at all.

What you said about T.Hawk and also option selects from wakeup (in SF4) are the things I have agreed with most strongly all day, lol. Good examples of too-choreographed, in that the decision tree is just too collapsed and degenerate. Option selects tend to do that.

July 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Really good point about this "perfect imbalance" putting the metagame before the actual game itself. I haven't thought about it that way.

It would be ridiculous in Street Fighter to force a grind to be able to pick the real Blanka

Actually that'd be great, because fuck Blanka and all his obnoxious bullshit. >:[

The amount of strategic creativity significantly increase in SC2 going from 1v1 to 2v2 to 3v3 to 4v4.

Not sure about that. I've played a fair bit of 2v2, and apparently most of that strategic creativity went into a hundred new types of cheese that you needed to be aware of to not die instantly. The game seemed even more chaotic at higher player numbers (deadly worker rushes and other fun stuff), so I haven't even tried that seriously.

it would be bad to carry over the thing from sports where extraneous stuff like how strong you are matters. It's much more interesting to me if strategy games test strategy.

Let me put forth the (baseless) assumption that pushing people both mentally and physically is a better way of inducing (more frequent, more intense) flow. Supposing that were true, I'd say it would be a reason NOT to avoid being merely like sports.
Big assumption, though. It seems to "make sense", but that's hardly scientific. I'm not sure what actual research says about this, if anything.

Regarding precision in executing build orders, I don't think it's wise to just lump that into the "APM" category. If you add up the number of clicks to get things done, and divide by the time elapsed, it should come out to a really low number. So, if you focus only on this, you can easily do it. Going by my own experience, new players will lack the focus, the mental APM to accomplish even this, though. Once you're past that stage, you'll also have multitasking to care about, and past that, countering the enemy trying to mess with you. And this would still be the case even if you had a brain-link device, since your mental APM itself needs to be high for this. Personally, I can code faster in my head than I can type, meaning that I have encountered times when my mental APM bumped up against the limits of my physical APM. That hasn't happened with Starcraft yet (admittedly I'm not very good at it, but still).

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpkt-zer0

How do you feel about balance in a game like Divekick? After playing it a lot at EVO I can say that there are some pretty clear advantages in certain matchups, but the simplicity of the controls makes it easy to switch characters. DIve has a bad matchup against Mr. N, but as a dedicated Dive player I just switch to the mirror match. I don't know Mr.N's little nuances, but I can play the matchup well enough because there are only 2 buttons to hit. I feel like a bit of imbalance doesn't seem too bad here.

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterProxford

I haven't played Divekick, so I can only speculate. From the looks of it, I would guess that the bit of character variety it has is interesting enough to be worth having. But it is in a dangerous spot balance-wise because it has so few variables as tuning knobs. When you have only a few knobs, it can be hard to fix problems, or hard to make one character not flat out better than another. It seems at first glance that each character has some (subtle) point to them, so maybe is all good, not really sure.

July 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Since you mentioned WoW - I wonder what's your stance on this type of "competitive game". Ignore Arena - that's basically the same as LoL. I'm talking about Raiding, getting "World/Server First kills" on PvE encounters. I'm not sure whether such a "race" falls under your idea of "competitive game". But if it does, wouldn't that be the "perfect balance", since everyone can start on equal footing? And... If it doesn't, what would this be considered as?

Also, I don't quite understand one thing you say about SC2 - You'd like SC2 to emphasize much more on "strategy" instead of "execution". My question here is: Isn't that a completely different idea of a game? I mean, consider 3 games A, B and C.

Game A: Focuses almost purely on strategy, little execution
Game B: Focuses almost purely on execution, little strategy
Game C: Focuses on strategy while rewarding good execution with no cap

SC2 would fall into category C.

In my thinking, all 3 games cover separate categories of "competitive gaming". A player may be good in Game A and Game B, but gets beaten by 100 other top players consistently. In the end, he is "the best in Game C because he is very good in combining the two skills.
One can argue, that there is a natural "cap" for strategy, since there is only so much we can think of, and as a result we should put a cap to execution as well. This would, in my thinking, be once again a different category (D), which focuses on the best synergy of the two skills.

So, is it 'personal preference', if you 'would like' SC2 to emphasize more on strategy, or is there another idea which I don't quite understand yet?

Thank you for your posts, always nice reading these

Sorry for my poor english

ps: "Author Email (optional):" isn't optional :)

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYagamoth
Comments for this entry have been disabled. Additional comments may not be added to this entry at this time.