Series Info...The Myth of Balance

by Sam Witt
January 3, 2001

For as long as there have been roleplaying games, there have been arguments about Balance. In the ancient days of gaming (when we used cardboard chits – polyhedral dice weren't available yet), these arguments primarily centered on character types and their respective strengths and weaknesses. The players of wizard characters complained that they didn't have enough durability, the players of warrior characters pointed out that wizards could decimate entire armies with an entire spell, and the rogues quietly went on using their game-breaking ability to hide and move silently.

While interesting, and often game altering, these early balance battles didn't exactly change the face of gaming. Because roleplaying games are social, cooperative pastimes enjoyed by friends, having wizards that were more powerful than warriors (or vice versa) just wasn't much of an issue. All the characters were working toward a common goal and the strengths of one character were translated to strengths for the group as a whole. And if the GM didn't like the balance of power in his game, he waved his magic GM stick and changed the rules so that all was well in the land once more.

With the arrival of online roleplaying games, the rules changed. An element of competition was added to the discussions regarding balance, and complex mathematical models proving that Character A was inferior to Character B began to appear. Players quickly figured out which types of characters were most effective in a given gaming environment, and the population of these characters exploded. Naturally, the owners of less-effective character types were displeased at the imbalance, and the flamewars would begin. And ugly flamewars they are, continuing to plague game designers to this day.

The nasty little secret about character balance is that not only does it not exist, it doesn't need to exist. To all the designers out there reading this: STOP WORRYING ABOUT BALANCE. Worry more about creating interesting character types that fill specific niches in your games, and the balance issues will evaporate. The problem so far has been that designers have been building games with only one niche.

See, most games where are focused on killing things and taking their loot. There are usually 20-odd character types, each with a slightly different way of killing things – some use magic, some use axes, some use explosive belches, etc. etc. The problems arise when it becomes apparent that the Magical Belcher is able to kill monsters many times as efficiently as the Axe Master. Once one type of character is proved to be demonstrably more effective in the scheme of the game's singular goal, then playing other characters starts to appear futile. The designers rush into action, either amping up the Axe Master, or toning down the Magical Belcher – which in turn creates further imbalances that lead to more tweaking and more imbalances and on and on...

It's just an ugly, nasty cycle to get caught in, and so unnecessary. The problem is that so few games really understand how their worlds work. As an example, my initial design for Horizon Station called for the something like 10 character types, all of which sounded pretty darned cool to me. But closer examination revealed to me that there were really only three broad categories of activity in Horizon Station – resource harvesting, combat, and science.

That led to some hard thoughts – I liked all 10 of my character types, they were neat. Unfortunately, when I looked at what those character would do in the world of Horizon Station, I realized that most of them were redundant. What, really, is the difference between a fighter who uses a sword and one who uses a pair of pistols? They're both doing the same basic thing in the framework of the game, so I really only need one character type. With many a sniffle and some gnashing of teeth, I jettisoned all character types that didn't have a visible, viable niche within the game world.

To reassure those faithful readers that I haven't lost my one-track mind, here's the paragraph about how this is good for community, and therefore good for the game. Character types should work together well, and complement one another. In Horizon Station, scientists are dependent on raw materials to build things from. Harvesters and fighters are both dependent on the gadgets of scientists, but they are capable of gathering the raw materials scientists' need. Harvesters are more effective than fighters at gathering resources, but they are less able to protect themselves, and so those two groups have a good, solid reason to work together.

The key here is that the groups do not compete with one another, so the basis for comparison between character types just doesn't exist. Of course soldiers are the best at fighting, of course harvesters are the best at gathering resources, it's what they devote themselves to doing. Which brings me to another point about character design in these games...

Characters have to be flexible, and there should never be a reason for a player to switch characters within the same game. The goal should be to provide a method of character creation and development that encourages players to keep the same character, and adjust the character's growth to stay in tune with their preferred play style. It might not be easy, but it should be possible to turn your fighter into a mage, or your scientist into a chaingun-wielding soldier.

So, to sum up my design concept for characters in online games:

  • All character types should have an interesting function in the game world – a function that they are the best at.
  • Characters of different types should not compete with one another, but SHOULD be at least somewhat reliant on the skills of other types.
  • All characters should have the flexibility to evolve into other character types, over time.
There, that's it – no more balance issues! Now, click the link below and tell me how I'm wrong.

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