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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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  • by jandersen ( 462034 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @06:08AM (#27164065)

    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.

    In games I simply want things to be moderately predictable - so that with experience I can become better. And then I want variation; it gets pretty tedious if it is always just the same few things you do, like just killing monsters.

  • Bland Games (Score:4, Interesting)

    by squoozer ( 730327 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @06:11AM (#27164087)

    Please excuse me widening the discussion but... I play quite a few RTS games and 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.

    In AOE II for example you could pit a strong ranged race against a strong close combat race and have a damn good game with each side trying to lure the other into traps that play to their strength. By AOE III every race was damn near the same.

    Ah well, maybe one day someone will have the courage / time to properly balance a game again. Oh and, get off my lawn you kids.

  • Quake Live (Score:5, Interesting)

    by n3tcat ( 664243 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @06:14AM (#27164109)

    Quake Live does a great thing by having you go up against a bot, and then determines your level of skill from that and then emphasizes those servers which are taylored to your skill level when you look through the server browser.

    Of course you see people who play outside their skill level, but for the most part you are surrounded by people who play on your level.

  • by MartinSchou ( 1360093 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @06:18AM (#27164135)

    Making it 'fair and balanced' can be fun (handicapping in golf or go), but in most cases it just makes a video game crappy.

    Back in the days of Rainbow Six (yes, and now you can get off my lawn) I created an online ranking system based off of chess' scoring system. This worked great for the players and teams, as you didn't really have to find people on your own skill level to have something to gain.

    If I (a mediocre chess player) were to play the reigning world champion of chess, he'd stand to gain maybe 1 point in his ranking by winning (I'd lose 1 I think), but if I were to win, I'd gain upwards of 24 or 32 points (and he'd lose a lot of points). This scoring system makes it worthwile for the best player to avoid drawing or losing to a less skilled player.

    We did get a few complaints about the scoring, because the "best" players were used to them being unable to lose their top spot without losing to #2, where as with this system, someone could overtake them simply by winning lots and lots of games against less skilled players/teams. This has the upside of enticing people to play more, and not just by cherry picking from the top 10. Any adversary is okay, as it gives you a chance to win more points.

    See more on the Wiki page []

  • by protodevilin ( 1304731 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @07:04AM (#27164391)

    A similar ranking system is now utilized in Street Fighter IV's online matches. Battle Points are earned for each victory you attain, but the amount of points awarded is relative to the points you already have vs. the points your defeated opponent has. So if you have 2000 Battle Points, and you crush a n00b with only 172 points, you are rewarded with maybe 2 or 3 BP (which the loser forfeits in turn). On the other hand, if you were to lose against that same n00b, you'd probably get 120 points slashed from your stock (which the winner gains in turn).

    The result is a ranking system that fairly accurately ranks you among other players who share your level of skill. A fine example of PvP balancing. ...It also results in widespread disdain for the ranking system, due to the high risk of losing a lot of hard-earned points that accompanies each match. Guess you can't please everyone.

  • by wayward_bruce ( 988607 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @07:23AM (#27164497)

    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, [...]

    Author obviously never played basketball with his friends.

    [...] diverse gameplay options can quickly become irrelevant if someone finds a broken feature that beats everything else [...]

    You mean this []?

    [...] 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.

    Time spent training is a large factor, if not the largest, in attaining a high level of skill. Good equipment helps in real-life games and sports, too. Some even insist that shell and slate stones make them play better go. Go figure. :)

  • Natural Selection (Score:4, Interesting)

    by plams ( 744927 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @07:27AM (#27164527) Homepage

    Natural Selection [] had success in balancing itself by inviting diversity among its players. The marine team has chain of command - it allows less experienced players to be effective by following orders. On the alien team every player is equal. Both teams need strategic thinkers and good shooters. It leads to a enjoyable game for a larger spread of personality and experience level compared to, say, Counterstrike.

  • Re:Quake Live (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Archon-X ( 264195 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @07:32AM (#27164569)

    Alternatively, I've always found myself to be quite a decent FPS player, and will always finish in the top 3 in HL2 DM, TF2, Unreal Tourny, Day of Defeat - all quite different playing dynamics.

    Quake3, however, is a different kettle of fish. The people I play against are significantly harder [read, they finish on 30 and I'm on 5], whereas if I play down a level, it'll be similar results but in my favour.

    Quake3 is obviously built for speed and sheer mayhem, but the thing that I do find is that its maps are heavily weighted towards longer living players.
    IE - weapon stops are quite a distance away - on more open / busy maps, you can spend 5 - 6 respawns just trying to get to a weapon successfully.

    In addition to which, weapon stay seems to be turned off, so people camping near weapons just keep on collecting them, preventing others from getting them.

    Not sure if I'm being a cry-baby or these points have merit.

    Apart from that, it seems quite balanced.

  • by Celarnor ( 835542 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @07:39AM (#27164619)

    Explain how this rewards griefing.

    I think the idea itself has merit. If you see a possible exploit, you should maybe explain how it could be done so the flaw can be removed.

    Its pretty simple.

    Person ranked #2 decides he wants to be ranked #1. He's not really good at the game, but he does have a lot of time on his hands. So, he spends 20 hours a day fighting and killing people who just started playing. Even though he's only getting one or two points a kill, it doesn't matter; if he can kill new players at a rate 24x that of player ranked #1, then he can ascend to that spot. Does that help?

    This would work in most current MMOs because playability is tied to the level; e.g, a high-level character is going to be better than a low-level character. You can't take a low-level character and put him with a bunch of high-level characters and expect him to be of any use. With the possible exception of games like EVE Online, where even a newly made character can at the very least jam you and run away, the new players would get walked all over for points.

    It doesn't really need to be said how it rewards griefing; it already intrinsically does so. if it offers any kind of benefit at all for killing newer players, and especially if it offers the same or better benefits, taking into account the amount of time required to kill one, number killed per day, etc, its going to reward it.

    The question is how to make it NOT do that; e.g, establish a point below which no reward is gained, and stick it about halfway down from your current level or whatever.

    Please, as the GP posts, don't consider implementing this anywhere without addressing some of the more glaring issues.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @07:49AM (#27164679)

    Many games offer a seemingly large freedom when creating your character, playset or play style, but eventually you find out that only a very narrowly defined path leads to success. Take WoW. You can, in theory, create almost limitless variants of skill point distribution, yet only a handful "work". For some classes, it's basically set in stone that you have this or that distribution, depending on whether you want to go against other players or some large raid encounter.

    In other games, too, you are limited to a narrow set of viable choices. TFA uses beat 'em ups as an example where you can only pick a handful, or even only one, character to succeed, the others being basically fluff.

    It's also not really "balanced" when you're basically forced to play by a certain strategy because all the others simply do not work. If you play an MMO and your class excels in mezzing, it ruins your class if mezzing is simply unnecessary, no matter how much you excel in it. Instead, you have to rely on your other spells which are maybe (in the end, when the devs heard enough whining and don't want to "break" the game for the others and make mezzing important) even as strong as the ones of another class, yet an important part of your character, maybe the reason why you chose it in the first place, becomes completely obsolete.

    This can actually break a game. For a player, or for all.

    Imagine an MMO where healing becomes obsolete because items became so powerful that nothing (short of a player wielded weapon) can harm a tank. Dedicated healer classes would certainly feel unbalanced and "useless". Now, instead of making healers important again, they're giving a boost to their damage spell lines and are told to behave like offensive casters. That's not what I made. I made a healer. If I wanted a damage caster, I would have made one.

    Thus "balancing" a game may actually ruin it, when it is done without first considering what the player actually wants...

  • Re:Bland Games (Score:1, Interesting)

    by ady1 ( 873490 ) * on Thursday March 12, 2009 @07:51AM (#27164699)

    I blame it on the consoles.
    Note that it has become impossible to find a good and worth playing game now a days (few exceptions).
    Interesting Story and Complex gameplay is now a thing of the past.
    Now every game has to be able to be played through the controller and have to be easy enough to not intimidate the so called 'casual player'.

  • by chadplusplus ( 1432889 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @09:33AM (#27165729)

    is currently used by not only the chess society, but Major League Baseball, American college football and basketball, The North American National Scrabble Association, The European Go Federation, Guild Wars, World of Warcraft, Yahoo Games and a lot of other places.

    And Halo.

    Halo matchmaking takes it another step, which I find interesting, in that it attempts to match you up based upon ranking, but also upon the amount of time or tries that it has taken you to attain that level. If I've attained a level 20 after only 30 games, it is more likely that I will be matched up with others who have attained level 20 after around 30 games instead of those who are stuck at level 20 after 1,000 games.

    I note that the above is a bit of a simplification of how it is done, as it is technically based upon rank and experience points in game type and experience points overall, but the above suffices for this discussion.

    If Quake Live is able to implement an effective ranking/matchmaking system, I may finally have the justification to build a new PC.

  • Re:Bland Games (Score:2, Interesting)

    by PracticalM ( 1089001 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @09:37AM (#27165787)
    German or Designer board games often balance things by auctions or player choice. There are still first move advantages but auction do help balance.

    Though different game groups often have different balance points. I've played with some groups that valued items differently in Princes of Florence than my usual group did.

    Some games like Power Grid reverse the turn order to give advantages to players behind.

    And Agricola has different players all picking from exclusive actions where each player is trying to follow their own strategy based on some of their cards (minor improvements and occupations).

    Designer board games are fairly well balanced but skill will generally put you ahead. They are often designed to play with the entire family (most have rules about the youngest player going first usually a kid playing against parents).

    Sure some of these games can be considered lightly themed, but the interesting part of the games are the mechanics not the theme. Some of the better games have mechanics that go well with the theme. Other games are less successful in matching theme to mechanic. Some of us are more interested in the mechanics though.

  • by Admiral Ag ( 829695 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @09:57AM (#27166105)

    The real life comparison is important, since a lot of the unfairness in online social gaming occurs because of the anonymity and the ability of people to create new accounts to bypass handicapping systems. In Warhawk, people were creating new accounts simply in order to enter noob servers and stomp people. That's silly and self defeating, especially for a game with a small playerbase.

    If you want online gaming to be fair, then it will have to be fair the same way sports are fair, by rigorous policing of permitted equipment and making sure folks karma follows them around.

    Fairness in design is much less of a problem in most games.

  • Re: Blacks vs Jews (Score:3, Interesting)

    by GargamelSpaceman ( 992546 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @10:30AM (#27166565) Homepage Journal
    When a black person calls another black person a Nigga it's obvious to any non-blacks in the room that they aren't welcome to play. But if a Jew starts slinging antisemetic phrases around it's not that obvious to anyone who is a Jew and who is a non-Jew usually. It opens up endless Andy Kaufmannesque possibilities creating chaos someone like Bobby Fischer might be able to take advantage of strategically.

    Someone with the ability to play chess at top level obviously has certain mental powers that mean his actions have to be examined VERY closely before pronouncing them insane. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic etc..

    Not that I know much about Bobby Fischer. Is he even alive? All signs point to the probability that he is/was nuttier than a fruitcake. Still, I'd have to know alot more about him to be sure.

  • by Paul Fernhout ( 109597 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @01:33PM (#27169665) Homepage

    This article just assumes games should be competitive. There are cooperative games. The Wii is pioneering more such cooperative games. Here is a general site on the topic of cooperative computer games: []

    There are even cooperative board games: []

    One great thing about cooperative games is that they make it easy for players of different skill levels to play together.

    From Alfie Kohn's book, "No Contest: The Case Against Competition": []
    "Contending that competition in all areas -- school, family, sports and business -- is destructive, and that success so achieved is at the expense of another's failure, Kohn, a correspondent for USA Today, advocates a restructuring of our institutions to replace competition with cooperation. He persuasively demonstrates how the ingrained American myth that competition is the only normal and desirable way of life -- from Little Leagues to the presidency -- is counterproductive, personally and for the national economy, and how psychologically it poisons relationships, fosters anxiety and takes the fun out of work and play. He charges that competition is a learned phenomenon and denies that it builds character and self-esteem. Kohn's measures to encourage cooperation in lieu of competition include promoting noncompetitive games, eliminating scholastic grades and substitution of mutual security for national security. ... In closely reasoned argument he shows that, while competition is deeply ingrained, it is also inherently destructive, especially where self-esteem is contingent on winning at the expense of others."

    So, there are other ways to have more fun. []

  • by Draek ( 916851 ) on Thursday March 12, 2009 @02:44PM (#27170841)

    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.

    Wrong. Because all humans are capable of learning and adapting, practice on competitive games only gives you a temporary edge against newbies, nothing more.

    My personal take on it is the old adage, "know yourself, know your enemy and you shall have a thousand victories", and the most common mistake by unskilled players is assuming either is constant. On TF2 for instance, playing as engineer requires not only knowledge of the map itself (which is a factor of playing time), but also knowing where to place sentry guns which, unlike what the unskilled player thinks, isn't fixed but dependant on the strategies applied by the opposing team, and even of yours as well.

    That's why in single-player games (and to a large extent, cooperative games such as WoW) time *is* such a big factor, because the opposing AI usually has only a few strategies and reactions that are almost exclusively deterministic, so practice not only gives you an edge on knowing the map and weapons, but also your enemy which is impossible to do against real, skilled humans.

God helps them that themselves. -- Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanac"