So, first, an announcement. I’m going to start posting playtestable games in various stages to this site. Play them, tell me what you think. If they make it to publishing, you’ll get playtest credit.
Now let’s talk about balance.
Balance is something most games need. It’s also something most people who play a game complain about one way or the other. The problem with balance, is that when you’re designing a game, you need to decide HOW to balance it. Games where balance is essential, especially multiplayer games, that contain any kind of challenge need to ride the line between a perfectly even gameplay and giving the players intensely disparate choices.
For an example of this, let’s design a competitive fps. We start with two players, one gun, and a room for them to shoot each other in. This game is boring. So lets add a second gun. But what does it do, and how do we make it fair? If it’s roughly equivalent in utility to the first gun, we can just give the player one of each, but then the players are still the same all the time, so lets let them choose which one they want at game start or on respawn. But what if one gun is better? Well, let’s make it harder to get then. Let’s put some cover in the map, and then put the nice gun in an area out in the open. It’s nice to have, but it’s dangerous to get too.
You see how this can get out of hand? If you want an interesting competitive game, you need to have multiple viable strategies and you can’t have any of them be drastically better or worse than the others, or it’s just wasted effort. But what if you want your game to be fun and don’t care that much about balance? Well, suddenly, the challenge is more about finding interesting and fun gameplay mechanics. Let’s talk about the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer. For those unfamiliar, it’s a third person shooting game where the players must work together to survive waves of enemies. It is also a game in which there are around a hundred different playable classes of varying utility which can be unlocked. Some of these classes are very good, some of them are not, and some of them are only good if played by a skilled player. But, the point of this game wasn’t to make a venue for people to test their skills, it was to create a fun environment in which to play with your friends, and careful consideration was given to accommodating a huge number of playstyles. Want to hide behind a wall and send flamethrower drones out to do your fighting for you? Done. Want to smash monsters with a hammer because you don’t believe in this “shooting” thing everyone seems to like? Done. Want to take the two largest guns you can find and fire them until they overheat so badly your hands burn off? Done and done.
As a callback to my posts on role’s and class systems, balance can be a tricky thing in terms of cooperative games. But the decision you have to make there is how many different playstyles do you want to cater to, and how much do you want to have them rely on each other. In D&D, a Wizard is powerful, but the “balance” is that if a Dread Knight gets up in your grill, you’re a dead man without a Fighter to stop the charge and a Cleric to keep him on his feet.
So the questions to remember are how fair do I want the game to be and how fun do I want the game to be? Because you can do both if you try really, really hard, but you probably don’t need to be perfect on both.