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Balance (game design)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In game design, balance is the concept and the practice of tuning a game's rules, usually with the goal of
preventing any of its component systems from being ineffective or otherwise undesirable when
compared to their peers. An unbalanced system represents wasted development resources at the very
least, and at worst can undermine the game's entire ruleset by making important roles or tasks impossible
to perform.[1]

1 Balancing and fairness
2 Difficulty level
3 Pacing
4 Techniques
4.1 Symmetry
4.2 Statistical analysis
4.3 Randomization
4.4 Feedback loops
4.5 Gamemaster
5 Slang
5.1 Gimp
5.2 Nerf
5.3 MLG
5.4 Buff
5.5 Overpowered
5.6 Revamp
6 References

Balancing and fairness

Balancing does not necessarily mean making a game fair. This is particularly true of action games: Jaime
Griesemer, design lead at Bungie, said in a lecture to other designers that "every fight in Halo is
unfair".[2] This potential for unfairness creates uncertainty, leading to the tension and excitement that
action games seek to deliver.[1][3][4] In these cases balancing is instead the management of unfair
scenarios, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that all of the strategies which the game intends to support
are viable.[2] The extent to which those strategies are equal to one another defines the character of the
game in question.

Simulation games can be balanced unfairly in order to be true to life. A wargame may cast the player into
the role of a general who was defeated by an overwhelming force, and it is common for the abilities of
teams in sports games to mirror those of the real-world teams they represent regardless of the
implications for players who pick them.

Player perception can also affect the appearance of fairness. Sid Meier stated that he omitted multiplayer
alliances in Civilization because he found that the computer was almost as good as humans in exploiting
them, which caused players to think that the computer was cheating.[5]

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Difficulty level
Video games often allow players to influence their balance by offering a choice of "difficulty levels".[6]
These affect how challenging the game is to play.

In addition to altering the game's rules, difficulty levels can be used to alter what content is presented to
the player. This usually takes the form of adding or removing challenging locations or events, but some
games also change their narrative to reward players who play them on higher difficulty levels (Max
Payne 2) or end early as punishment for playing on easy (Castlevania).

Difficulty selection is not always presented bluntly, particularly in competitive games where all players
are affected equally and the standard "easy/hard" terminology no longer applies. Sometimes veiled
language is used (Mario Kart offers "CC select"), while at other times there may be an array of granular
settings instead of an overarching difficulty option.

An alternative approach to difficulty levels is catering to players of all abilities at the same time, a
technique that has been called "subjective difficulty".[7] This requires a game to provide multiple
solutions or routes, each offering challenges appropriate to players of different skill levels (Super Mario
Galaxy, Sonic Generations).

Difficulty can also be managed by a third party or the game itself; see the Gamemaster section below.

Balancing goals shift dramatically when players are contending with the game's environment and/or non-
player characters. Such player versus environment games are usually balanced to tread the fine line of
regularly challenging players' abilities without ever producing insurmountable or unfair obstacles.[4] This
turns balancing into the management of dramatic structure,[3] generally referred to by game designers as

Pacing is also a consideration in competitive games, but the autonomy of players makes it harder to


The simplest game balancing technique is giving each player identical resources. Most competitive
games feature some level of symmetry; some (such as Pong) are completely symmetric, but those in
which players alternate turns (such as chess) can never achieve total symmetry as one player will always
have a first-move advantage.

Symmetry can be undone by human psychology. The advantage of players wearing red over players
wearing blue is a well-documented example of this.[8][9]

Statistical analysis

The brute force approach to balancing is the mathematical analysis of game session results. With enough
data, it is possible to identify unbalanced areas of a game and make corrections.[10]


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Randomization of starting conditions is a technique common in board games, card games, and also
experimental research[11] which fights back against the human tendency to optimise patterns in one's

The downside of randomization is that it takes control away from the player, potentially leading to
frustration. Methods of overcoming this include giving the player a selection of random results within
which they can optimise (Scrabble, Magic: The Gathering) and making each game session short enough
to encourage multiple attempts in one play session (Klondike (solitaire), Strange Adventures in Infinite

Feedback loops

Many games become more challenging if the player is successful. For instance, real-time strategy games
often feature "upkeep", a resource tax that scales with the number of units under a player's control.[12]
Team games which challenge players to invade their opponents' territory (football, capture the flag) have
a feedback loop by default: the further a player pushes, the more opponents they are likely to face.

Feedback loops can lead to frequent ties if enforced too strictly. See also Dynamic game difficulty


A game can be balanced dynamically by a gamemaster who observes players and adjusts the game in
response to their emotional state

Although gamemasters have historically been humans, some videogames now feature AI systems that
perform a similar role by monitoring player ability and inferring emotional state from input.[4] Such
systems are often referred to as having dynamic difficulty. One notable example is Left 4 Dead and its
sequel Left 4 Dead 2, cooperative games that have the players fight through hoards of zombie-like
creatures including unique creatures with special abilities. Both games use an AI Director which not only
generates random events, but tries to create tension and fear by spawning in creatures to specific rule sets
based on how players are progressing, specifically penalizing players through more difficult challenges
for not working together.[13] Research into biofeedback peripherals is set to greatly improve the accuracy
of such systems.[14]


In role-playing game slang, a "gimp" is a character, character class or character ability that is
underpowered in the context of the game (e.g., a close range warrior class equipping a full healing
boosting armour set, despite having no healing abilities). Gimped characters lack effectiveness compared
to other characters at a similar level of experience.[15] A player may gimp a character by assigning skills
and abilities that are inappropriate for the character class, or by developing the character inefficiently.[16]
However, this is not always the case, as some characters are purposely "gimped" by the game's
developers in order to provide an incentive for raising their level, or, conversely, to give the player an
early head-start. An example of this is Final Fantasy's Mystic Knight class, which starts out weak, but is
able to become the most powerful class if brought to a very high level. Gimps may also be accidental on
the part of the developer, and may require a software patch to rebalance.

Sometimes, especially in MMORPGs, gimp is used as a synonym for nerf to describe a rule modification
that weakens the affected target. Unlike the connotatively neutral term nerf, gimp in this usage often

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implies that the rule change unfairly disadvantages the target.[17]


A "nerf" is a change to a game that reduces the desirability or effectiveness of a particular game element.
The term is also used as a verb for the act of making such a change.[18]

The first established use of the term was in Ultima Online, as a reference to the NERF brand of toys
whose bullets are soft and less likely to cause serious injury.[19][20]

Among game developers, MMORPG designers are especially likely to nerf aspects of a game in order to
maintain game balance. Occasionally a new feature (such as an item, class, or skill) may be made too
powerful, too cheap, or too easily obtained to the extent that it unbalances the game system. This is
sometimes due to an unforeseen method of using or acquiring the object that was not considered by the
developers.[19][21] The frequency of nerfing and the scale of nerfing vary widely from game to game but
almost all massively multiplayer games have engaged in nerfing at some point.[21]

Nerfs in various online games, including Anarchy Online, have spurred in-world protests.[20] Since many
items in virtual worlds are sold or traded among players, a nerf may have an outsized impact on the
virtual economy. As players respond, the nerf may cause prices to fluctuate before settling down in a
different equilibrium. This impact on the economy, along with the original impact of the nerf, can cause
large player resentment for even a small change.[20][21] In particular, in the case of items or abilities
which have been nerfed, players can become upset over the perceived wasted efforts in obtaining the
now nerfed features.[20][21]

For games where avatars and items represent significant economic value, this may bring up legal issues
over the lost value.[22]


An MLG, abbreviation for Major League Gamer, is usually something a player would shout to announce
that they had done something impressive and/or amazing. See internet slang.


A buff (also a verb) is the opposite of a nerf: namely, a change to a game's rules which increases the
desirability or effectiveness of a particular element. It likely came from the bodybuilding term of "getting
buff" in which the person is taking action to develop their muscles towards the idea of improvement -
thus 'buffing' themselves.


Overpowered (often abbreviated to OP) is a common term referring to a perceived lack of game balance.
It is often used when describing a specific class in an RPG, a specific faction in strategic games, or a
specific tactic, ability, weapon or unit in various games. For something to be deemed overpowered, it is
either the best choice in a disproportionate number of situations (marginalising other choices) and/or
excessively hard to counter by the opponent compared to the effort required to use it. In the National
Basketball Association, LeBron James has sometimes been referred to as OP, playing with an unfair
advantage against the rest of the league due to his high level of skill and talent.[23]


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A revamp is a term for improving or modifying items, skills, abilities, or stats, as opposed to direct
nerfing or gimping.

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/newheiser-a.shtml). Strange Horizons. Archived from the original
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2. Griesemer, Jaime. "Design in Detail: Changing the Time Between Shots for the Sniper Rifle from
0.5 to 0.7 Seconds for Halo 3" (
Changing-the). GDC 2010. GDC Vault. Retrieved 31 December 2011.
3. Browder, Dustin. "The Game Design of STARCRAFT II: Designing an E-Sport"
( GDC 2011. GDC
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5. "The 7th International Computer Game Developers Conference" (
/galleries/index.php?year=1993&pub=2&id=108). Computer Gaming World. July 1993. p. 34.
Retrieved 12 July 2014.
6. Croshaw, Ben (13 July 2010). "On Difficulty Levels" (
/view/columns/extra-punctuation/7820-On-Difficulty-Levels). The Escapist.
7. Bycer, Josh (January 4, 2012). "Examining Subjective Difficulty: How Plumbers Can Fight
Demons" (
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/pubmed/18537513). doi:10.1089/cpb.2007.0122 (
9. Hopkin, Michael (18 May 2005). "Red is a recipe for sporting success" (
/news/2005/050518/full/news050516-4.html). Nature.
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role-playing games using coevolutionary programming," (
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11. Bruhn, Miriam; McKenzie, David (October 2008). "In Pursuit of Balance: Randomization in
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/PDF/WPS4752.pdf) (PDF). The World Bank.
12. "Warcraft III - Basics -> Upkeep" ( Blizzard
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/publications/2009/ai_systems_of_l4d_mike_booth.pdf) (PDF). Valve Corporation. Retrieved
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15. Ekim (2002-01-29). "Asheron's Call 2 Review" (
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17. Logan (2002-02-15). "Darkfall Online Interview (2009 Jan 12 - appears to be a dead link)"
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18. Bartle, Richard (2003). Designing Virtual Worlds. New Riders. pp. 305, 310.
ISBN 0-13-101816-7.
19. Koster, Raph. "Another SWG board post explaining why nerfs are inevitable." (
hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us). Raph Koster's Website. Retrieved 2008-09-16.
20. Schiesel, Seth (October 10, 2002). "In a Multiplayer Universe, Gods Bow to the Masses"
sec=&spon=&pagewanted=print). New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-16.
21. Burke, Timothy. "Rubicite Breastplate Priced to Move, Cheap" (
/SocSci/tburke1/Rubicite%20Breastplate.pdf) (PDF). 1-3. Retrieved 2008-09-16.
22. "Owned: Finding a Place for Virtual-World Property Rights" (
/back_issues/2006/3/Westbrook.pdf) (PDF). Michigan State Law Review. Michigan State
University College of Law: 789. 2006. ISSN 1087-5468 (
23. Steve, McPherson. "Destiny: Exotic Weapon Keeps Firing" (
/features/steph-currys-destiny-warriors-exotic-weapon-keeps-firing-20151113). Rolling Stone.

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