Monday, January 8, 2024

Addendum on Balance: Players Maketh Balance (or do they?)

Alright now, I said a lot about what I believe balance to be and how it is all connected in Part 1, and yet I did not convince my good friend Eric that m argument is sound. Sort of. We talked about it afterwards a bit and it baffled the both of us that we could not agree, since we both (seem to) have almost the same idea of what makes a good game. We've tried, we had the same fun. How come we did not see this one the same. I think I found an answer to that, although that might just be another can of worms to open. Lets take a look.

You want to catch up? Read Part 1 here and follow the bread crumbs.


Something about balance ... [source]
A flawed understanding?

What "balance" is should be the easiest thing to answer. And yet, especially in gaming, there are very different takes on it. But if you take a closer look at the topic, you'll find that while all are talking balance, they seem to do so from very different points of view.

I know for a fact that a GM will have a different understanding of what "balance" means for him than a game designer will have, with a player being the third element in a game that might also have yet another take on it. What I think I managed to establish was that at least those playing a game should be on the same page in that regard, but gaming culture is not so open in its terminology that you could find a difference, never mind an agreement (if it doesn't happen accidentally).

The irony is I thought I had understood one of the basic aspects about the whole affair, and yet, it did not even translate to someone like-minded. How can we have so different understandings of balance that we cannot even talk about it? Anyway, we kept talking and it went back and forth a while. Then it hit me: what we are talking are two different understandings of balance, all right. Mine was that a game needs to be balanced to work properly, Eric's was that he did not like it when the game was balanced towards the players, giving them an even challenge every time.

I do not like that either. We still disagreed, since he assumed that me talking balanced design meant that part was included ... or even the sole purpose of balanced design.

Really not. Not in my opinion. But how to explain that? What is the fucking difference between a balanced game and a game skewed towards the players? It hit me then that the balance Eric criticized (rightfully so) was a flawed yet popular understanding of "balance". Basically the idea that we need to play our games in tourist mode.

Let me explain that.

Morrowind versus Oblivion

This is what it comes down to: my understanding of what "balance" means in a game is best explained with what Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind does. The sandbox is balanced and filled with encounters that range all across the spectrum, from very easy to very hard. Quests are mixed in, traveling is an adventure (but there are shortcuts). As a player you have to find a way to make that balance work in your favor.

The balance players in Morrowind are striving for is the one they can force on the game.

If you are clever and crafty you can create all kinds of shortcuts and tricks to beat tougher challenges then your level would suggest. I once robbed a powerful elemental blind just by being sneaky and patient. Took a couple of reloads, but I looted that mine he had protected somewhat fierce, gaining material I shouldn't have access to at that point. Ha! It was the kind of fun I'm looking for in a game. Still do.

Best CRPG. Ever. [source]
You'd die more often, especially when encountering something tough you haven't seen before. But that was all part of the fun, all part of the learning process needed to beat the game. All part of the challenge.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, on the other hand, came out a couple of years later and is also regarded a classic of the genre. Supposed to be great combat, even better storytelling, huge sandbox. And yet, I never touched that game, because the first thing that went public about it was that encounters scale towards the player, like, all the time.

That seemed wrong to me.

Because it doesn't matter what you do or where you go, everything that opposes you will be your level. Even the end boss, for that matter! If you puny level one character knows where to go and where to find a sword on the way there, he can go right up to the big end boss and beat up his level one ass ... But you could also play hours and hours of the game, fights being even as they are while you are getting more and more powerful. Better equipment, better weapons and spells. The dressing changes, but you are going through the motions.

No surprises, no real challenges, just be what you can be on a level, and beat what is opposing you. For at least roughly 30 hours if you do it to have it all touched, but for as much as 184 hours (or so the internet says).

Either way, seems to me like a HUGE waste of time.


Oblivion: a waste of time? [source]
It is something I see in computer games more and more often nowadays, the time you can waste in those games just to grind levels, or even to go from a to b and harvest and loot all the way through ... you could spend hours driving through Vice City in GTA V, no problem. The game would even throw you a bone every now and then to show that you are "progressing" somehow.


Anyway, there you have it:

The skewed understanding of balance is to make the players part of that balance instead of challenging them to find and make that balance themselves.

This is neither good nor bad game design, it is dark game design. Ask yourself which games you've played that do this to you. If you ever felt like you've wasted your life playing a game, then it'll most likely be because the game offered no challenge while you went through the motions of playing it. Maybe you experienced a good story, and made you gained some levels, but in the end it is an empty accomplishment.

I get that there are people out there liking games like that. Oblivion certainly has its fans. I don't have to agree with that, and if you have fun playing games like that, more power to you.

But don't tell me that those games are "balanced" in a sense that makes a game a game. It might be balanced in the sense a theme park experience is balanced. Keeps you busy enough with the illusion of doing something. Like a joyride ... being completely safe, but you can easily and safely act as if it was dangerous until it is over.

It might even be fun, but it is very much its own thing, very different to the original understanding of what ttrpg or even computer games are. Which is easily enough seen when looking at modules and the like, because they basically do what Morrowind does: that dragon you encounter will not end up being level 2 just because you are. It will tear you a new one if you go at it weak.

As it should.

With games like D&D you'd have to be strategic and clever. You'd have to work together and there always had been that aspect to overcome the game and, to some extent, the GM, because that was what made the game so much FUN.

Player skill is what that was called. That's why those games needed to be balanced. Because how else could the players learn from playing how to overcome the game? If the output a system has is unreliable, you can not reliably plan what to do ... which is where the game ends. Players will never have agency with an imbalanced game.

Just as they don't have agency when playing Oblivion.

So, Oblivion is imbalanced?

I would say that balance in gaming should be an active endeavor, something to aim for in all aspects of the game. When you are level 1, you try and test and see what you can get away with, and you continue to do so throughout the game. From the player side of the equation balance seems to be, as far as I can say, the flow of progressing with every challenge towards growth through gauging what can be achieved within the game.

You know how it works. [source]
 They are autonomous agents within the system, free to roam within its rules (free to fail, too). Take that away (because you do take it away if every challenge is symmetrically adjusted towards a group's power level), and you are left with what exactly? Telling stories, basically.

So in that sense Oblivion, and the many, many games that follow the same design principles, many of them being ttrpg as well, reduce you to being a consumer with some stage directions how to play along. Your achievement will be that you played an elf in Oblivion for 150 hours to see the stories the game tells you.

Because you have not created a story yourself, obviously, since all you did was invest enough time into the game to see it through. There is a passive balance to it, if you want to use the term, but as I said in Part 1: be careful about the balance you chose.

We might have a problem here ...

I'll keep it short today, but the points made above hint at a bigger problem. Of course people will say it is balance if the player is part of the balance without his own doing. And there are many, many popular games that use that kind of design. It has its audience, too.

But what they are talking about is CONVENIENCE, not BALANCE, and the difference should be obvious even to a casual observer. Behind the two are different design goals, mostly resulting in very different games with very different people attached to them.

That is to say that there is meaning in this difference.

So I get now where Eric is coming from. We basically agree, but talk about it differently. When he says, he likes when modules keep it "imbalanced", what he's talking about is that players should be able to figure it out. They create balance by interacting with the game, and that balance is a smooth progress forward by overcoming the challenges the game throws at them every which way possible.

I'm saying the same, but following the above reasoning, I might add that what he's criticizing as "Encounter Balance" is not "balance" at all, it is false symmetry. A railroad of the mind, if you will. Because any progress is meaningless that comes from following the path someone else made for you.

I'll try something different now and quote someone else how crucial balance is (the whole, very much recommended, essay about balance in video games can be found here):

Know that imbalance is actually bad. The first thing that I think everyone has to do is to internalize the idea that balance is good, and imbalance is bad. I've actually heard people try to argue that a little bit of imbalance is necessary for a fun game. Not only do I disagree, but I think that they don't even really believe that. (Keith Burgun)
Lets leave it at that. I'll take care that all the rules I'm publishing will have a proper definition of how balance works within the context of the game and what to look for. Because it is important that GMs get the difference and see what works how. Not only to run the games I published, but also to be able to see what else is out there and how to categorize that.

And if you after all that still believe that Encounter Balance is a myth, I don't know what to tell you. If you mean Encounter Balance is talking about making encounters as strong as the group, or even weaker to have them win all the fights, let me tell you: you are not talking "balance". From a game design perspective, Encounter Balance simply means that encounters within a system should follow the principles used in that system. Because if they don't, it'll break the game.

Thanks for reading all of that. Buy my shit :D

And now ...


Joking. There is no one here ...

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