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Dealing With Fairness and Balance In Video Games 192

MarkN writes "Video games are subject to a number of balance issues from which traditional games have largely stayed free. It can be hard finding players of comparable skill-level to create even match-ups, diverse gameplay options can quickly become irrelevant if someone finds a broken feature that beats everything else, and some online games make your ability to play competitively a question of how much time and money you've invested in a game, rather than the skill you possess. In this article, I talk about some of the issues relating to fairness and balance in games, in terms of the factors and strategies under the player's control, the game's role in potentially handicapping players, and the role a community of gamers plays in setting standards for how games are to be played. What are your thoughts on managing a 'fair and balanced' gaming experience?"
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Dealing With Fairness and Balance In Video Games

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  • Re:Bland Games (Score:5, Insightful)

    by N1AK ( 864906 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @07:30AM (#27164555) Homepage
    You are exactly right that tight 'game balance' tends to lead to blander options.

    I have seen this in miniature wargaming as well as in computer gaming. But what is really interesting is that even when races aren't perfectly balanced they can still balance well in a competitive environment. In StarCraft the Terrans were seen as being the weakest race, Lim Yo-Hwan then built a reputation as arguably the best SC player while playing as Terrans.

    This is what players refer to when they talk of meta-gaming, which is players gaming the game. If I know that Snipers are the best weapon in Halo 3 and that players will go for them and practice with them more than other weapons then it makes sense for me to learn anti-sniper tactics. Very quickly Sniping will become balanced (or even disadvantaged) because you are playing a strat that everyone has trained to beat.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 12, 2009 @07:41AM (#27164627)

    Besides the automatic handicap system as explained in TFA, Mario Kart Wii has IMHO a very nice scoring system for online races. The system tries to pit you against other players with somewhat the same score, all though this does not always seem to work (it sometimes takes some races until you've formed a group of equally skilled racers). The amount of points you are awarded (or subtracted) at the end of the race depends on your race result and score of all players: If you have a lot more points than the other players (+/- 1000), then you have to finish 1st in order to win a few points, anything less, you'll end up with a severe penalty in points. On the other hand when you beat some players with more points than you are awarded a bunch of points while some other player that finished ahead of you, might get a score penalty. In my opinion the scoring system is one of the nicest I have experienced, with respect to keeping a balanced experience for casual and hardcore gamers.

  • I tell my kids (Score:2, Insightful)

    by m0s3m8n ( 1335861 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @07:42AM (#27164633)
    At least once a week I tell my nine year old twins "the world is not fair". Seems appropriate here.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 12, 2009 @07:46AM (#27164657)

    I don't agree with the article about the expectation of fairness in games vs real life. I think in both cases what we really want is to know the rules, so we have a chance of following them and making it through.

    Now you know how people who run small businesses feel when the government changes tax policy every 4-8 years.

  • Re:Bland Games (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Shin-LaC ( 1333529 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @07:48AM (#27164673)

    Ah well, maybe one day someone will have the courage / time to properly balance a game again.

    I hear Blizzard is working on StarCraft 2.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 12, 2009 @08:17AM (#27164889)

    Okay, I'm sorry, but people throw around the word "skill" as though it is some special property that people either have or do not.

    In fact, skill is the totality of what you need to be able to do to compete. In Darwinist terms, it is synonymous with fitness. Fitness, as a term, does not specify exactly what makes one fit; this is specific to each individual case, and is derived directly and in all cases from the conditions.

    There are several methods by which one develops "skill", and they might or might not apply to a give game.

    1. Skill is representative of reflexes. This is rare for most games; it usually is only true when the game is new and no-one really knows anything about it. In these cases, reflexes appear to be the same as skill because they represent an advantage that only one player possesses. Over time, other advantages usually develop to the point where reflexes alone do not represent (much of) an advantage by itself (but is a considerable edge for those who possess other advantages).

    2. Skill is representative of time. This is the most common, because almost all humans are capable of both learning and adapting, and so in most cases practice results in elevated mastery. In almost every game, time spend playing is the single biggest advantage that one can have.

    3. Skill is representative of money. This mostly used to apply in the days of coin-op arcade games, and is more of a derived skill representation as it enhances the advantage of reflexes by limiting the possibility of time. Those with money could get time to develop their reflexes; those without money had no time to practice and could get no advantage over reflexes alone. Money as a representation of skill is however making a comeback, with paid-for exclusive downloadable content starting to represent real advantages such as better weapons or earlier access to new maps.

    4. Skill is representative of knowledge/intelligence. This is in many ways derived from time, but also somewhat independent of it insofar as an individual's natural pattern-matching and information processing and memory potential is concerned. This allows one to discover and or apply complex strategies or unusual rules to a competition, in their own favor. This is in many ways diluted over time, as information becomes disseminated.

    Most games represent several values; Fighters and shooters represent skill mostly as Reflexes in the early days, but mostly Time at later stages of it's lifetime (some fighters can also significantly represent skill as knowledge/intelligence where long combo chains and complex moves are particularly important, or detailed knowledge of spawn times and map layouts). MMOs mostly represent skill as Time, but also Money (to varying degrees depending on many factors, and usually mostly in the early days). RPGs usually represent skill as Time and also in many cases significantly represent skill as knowledge/intelligence; on the other hand, Reflexes typically mean nothing at all. And so on. Other classes of advantages representative of skill exists, but are minor and mostly derived from the above.

    Sorry to all of the elitists who decry modern games as overflowing with noobs who can't press buttons fast enough/aim their mouse precise enough, but "skill" doesn't just mean that. Almost all advantages come back mostly to time, and all are - in principle - subservient to it. If you say that you're skilled at a game, but don't really mean that you've simply played it a lot, then what you're really saying is that your advantage is likely to be temporary, unless you put time in.

  • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @08:36AM (#27165061) Homepage

    Yeah, because you can become the #1 chess player simply by beating n00bs. Not.

    Games where you have no realistic chance of losing should also grant you next to no points. If you can beat a weak player *much* faster than a strong player you might have to tune the scale some more, because the idea is that you should earn more points the stronger opponents you beat. Simply round down once you get below 0.5 points or make the numbers much bigger (your rating increased by +1 to 456430) and there's no "single-point" exploit of significance even if they play 24/7. Once you have tuned it so that you must play against players there's some chance you'll lose against to earn more points, problem solved.

  • by ethorad ( 840881 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @09:14AM (#27165465)

    You are right in that it's about whether the fastest rate of gain can be achieved through fighting low or high level opponents, but just because the numbers you picked don't work doesn't mean the system doesn't work.

    The idea is that the gain/loss from playing each match is related to the probability of winning. In your example, killing noobs gets you 24 points a minute, while the PvP session gets you 2.4 and thus your example is unbalanced. People will grief as the reward per minute is higher.

    In reality the score would be set up so that your expected gains from fighting the low levels is no higher than the expected gains from high levels, and should be less.

    Thus say in 10 minutes you could find and kill 10 noobs each with a 99% success rate. If each kill gets you 1 point and each loss loses 50 then you're looking at an expected increase of 0.49 points per noob (0.99*1+0.01*-100), or 4.9 points per 10 minute session.

    Now in 10 minutes, maybe you could find and attack 2 people of a more comparable level. Your chance of success with these guys is only 70%, but now you're getting 10 points for a kill, and losing 15 for a death (still losing more than gaining since chance of winning is greater than 50%). You now expect 2.5 points per person (0.7*10+0.3*-15), or 5 points per 10 minutes.

    The system is then balanced and you should be neutral between griefing noobs or fighting more challenging opponents. If we then tweak the rewards slightly we can create a level slope whereby the expected gains per minute from noob griefing is less than the gains per minute of doing comparable level fights. You could even tweak the rewards such that the expected return from fighting noobs is negative, even though each win is an increase. If above it was a 100 point loss on losing to a noob, your expeced increase would be -0.01 (0.99*1+0.01*-100).

    Now the system means that while you can get points from griefing, you won't get more points than someone who is fighting higher level opponents. Thus if you want to be #1 you need to be gaining points faster than the current #1 and so you won't grief.

  • Re:I tell my kids (Score:1, Insightful)

    by xenolion ( 1371363 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @09:14AM (#27165469)
    dang you posted it before me. In real life you will always find someone who is better at doing something than you, games are no different. The word "fair" is just a way to complain about something.
  • by The Moof ( 859402 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @10:33AM (#27166607)

    I had the chance to play Bobby Fischer at chess once. He kicked my ass around the block.

    Then he called me a fucking dirty Jew.

    Which was weird, because I'm not Jewish.

    Serious or not, that's the best metaphor for gaming online I've every heard.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 12, 2009 @12:17PM (#27168417)
    Technically, you may not be a troll. But you are an asshole.
  • Re:Bland Games (Score:3, Insightful)

    by shutdown -p now ( 807394 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @02:19PM (#27170421) Journal

    I've noticed that over the last few years the various different playable races in those games have tended to become very similar in ability.

    It used to be the case that in an RTS there were generally one or two races that were slightly better than the others but now they are very well balanced. The problem is that they have balanced the races by making them all the same and thus removing one of the most interesting aspects of the genre.

    "Become"? If you've seen the genre back in the days when it was still called "C&C clones", you'd know that it was the initial state of affairs. Most had factions with units differing almost or only in appearance, with exactly the same movement speed & damage output - just because it always was the easiest way to "balance" things. Better RTS games of old did have some variety, but even so the unit rankings were always parallel (e.g. in Warcraft II, Paladins and Ogres were different, but they were clearly "of the same level", and the number of buildings you'd have to construct to get to them was exactly ther same, too). It took Starcraft to show that radically different factions were viable, and could be properly balanced.

  • by auachapan ( 586341 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @02:38PM (#27170733)

    As someone who does this for a living, I always feel like fairness, balance, and skill are just tools. The thing that really matters is player psychology. The game doesn't actually have to really be fair or balanced. It just has to *feel* fair and balanced to the player.

    Skill and balance are a means to that end, but I don't think they should be the primary focus.

    It's tempting to think just making it perfectly balanced will make it fun, but that's only part of it. If the player experience isn't considered, it's easy to make something perfect mathematically, but boring or frustrating to players.

    As Jeff Kaplan (former WoW lead) put it, Perfect skill matching would mean you lose half your games. Is that fun? Is there any other way to do it and be fair? Probably not. So they found another way to make it feel fun anyways.

    Whenever I've played with friends who were used to RPG-type games where they're always the hero, they get confused when they play against real people and die a lot instead of easily killing everything like they did before. That makes me think designers should think about how they transition these players from killing computer opponents to real ones.

    As far as measuring skill goes, a perfect skill-based system would determine your skill quickly and accurately and it wouldn't change much. That would feel pretty boring and probably wrong to a player.

    So if your goal is to make a game fair and balanced, you're probably barking up the wrong tree. Instead, think of fairness and balance as some of the tools to make it fun, and focus most on the perception of the average player.

God help those who do not help themselves. -- Wilson Mizner