by Scott Holliday
Single player games have taught us all the wrong lessons. I've played my fair share and I've had a grand time finding the best combinations or the most effective strategies. However, in an online game, if there is an obvious best combination or strategy, suddenly the world becomes a lot more shallow. Assuming the game is fun, game balance is probably the single most frustrating issue. Much like the issue of cheating, a lack of game balance can annoy your best players to the point of leaving.
Depending on the style of your game, balance issues can take several different forms. In a character based game, skills and classes are the usual culprits. Another important factor to look at is equipment. Becoming more esoteric, is there a single "best" strategy to deal with obstacles? What about combat? If there are strategy guides, the developers should be reading them. Admittedly, some games have none of this. Without ongoing competition, many of these problems are solved - though keeping your players may prove to be more difficult.
The goal of many players is to be the "best", the "most powerful", the "most efficient", or some related combination. Because of their competitive nature, if there is a clear advantaged build or strategy, the majority of your players will go that way. The philosophy behind making a balanced game is instead to provide many choices to the player, none of which gives an easier path. This is also the basis for building a much deeper world. If you can short-circuit the player's desire for greatness, this opens up the possibility that they will build a character rather than a machine.
Let's assume that we've just been put in charge of balance in an upcoming online game. Where do we start? There are several design strategies:
Obviously, balancing is much easier in design than in an established game. If we "nerf" somebody, they can't complain. In an established game, players have already become accustomed to the most broken combinations and prefer the status quo. Changes must be carefully administered. Even if there is an obvious game-breaker, you can't make sudden changes! Gradual flow will cushion the fall, and it will also give the developer a reference so they don't take it too far. Other strategies, such as reverse flood, proceed constantly they can even be automated.