A Balancing Act

posted by on 17th June 2013, at 9:35pm | Discuss Article

Why is it that when people are on the winning side, they want to stay there and when they are on the losing side, they want to switch to the winning side? Well it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. It’s simple: no one likes losing, but everyone likes winning. At the same time however, not everyone can be on the winning side. There always has to be losing side. But rather than just hope to be on the winning side in life, on a team, or in whatever they do, humans incorporate fairness and balance into the mix. Measures are put in place to ensure that everyone, if not from the same station in life, has the same equal opportunity to become a winner or get on the winning side.

Case in point, high school sports tryouts. During tryouts, anyone and everyone is allowed to compete for a spot on a team. Of course, the coaches will only pick the best people they think will help them win during the season. Anyone not good enough is put on a lower team or cut if they are not good enough. But the makeup of the teams is not predetermined (at least in a lot of cases). Every year, tryouts are held, allowing people who perhaps a year or two before were not good enough to play for another shot to make the team. This ensures that even if not picked the first time on the first try, students can still try out again next year. This also means that students who played last year on the team are not guaranteed a spot next year, but have to keep competing with everyone else to retain their spot. This is fairness and balance in action.

Where, you ask, am I going with all this? Incorporating fairness and balance into real life is hard to do and almost never perfect, but it can be even more difficult to achieve in video games. Nevertheless, it is essential that both real life and video games include fairness and balance when it comes to competition. True, it does matter more in real life how a person does, but video games should still try to mimic real life in all ways possible, including equal opportunity and competition.

In video games, fairness and balance are near impossible goals to achieve. Take for example a game like League of Legends. Developer company Riot is always trying to achieve a better balance in competition among players. How do they do this? By constantly patching and updating the game, tweaking heroes, abilities, items, minions…anything that is part of the game. However, by “balancing” the game with a new patch, new imbalances are created. Heroes become stronger or weaker; abilities become too useful or completely useless, items more helpful or not helpful at all. This forces Riot to constantly keep tweaking the game to create a better balance for the players. On a positive note, this constant flux in balance keeps players on their toes and forces them to adapt. On the whole, this is a good thing as it makes players more competitive, more risky, and better gamers.

Though Riot uses a complicated process of maintaining balance, other games use much more simple tactics. In FPS games like Team Fortress 2 or Counter Strike, autobalancing of teams is a common method to balance gameplay. The first round of a match starts out with players splitting up onto different teams. After playing through a few rounds, players are moved by the game automatically to balance the teams according to score. Say for example there were six people playing. The red team had players with scores of 20, 15, and 13 while the blue team had players with scores of 10, 7, and 6. After autobalancing, one team would have the players with 20, 13, and 7 while the other team would have 15, 10, and 6. As you can see, the AI follows a pattern of alternating each score starting with the highest on one team, second highest on the other, and so on. Granted, the teams may still be unbalanced even after this method, but according to score, the AI has done the best it can to achieve a fairer balance between the teams.

While these solutions work well to some degree, the qualm I have with them is that don’t take everything into account. To take League of Legends for example, Riot could do as much as possible to balance the champions and game content, but at the end of the day, the best players will always do better against the weaker players. While Riot can try to balance matches by player level, not every level 10 player is equal to players of the same level. Level also does not equate to playing ability either, but rather how much a person has played. Two people who are level 30 could be completely mismatched if their time played were compared side by side.

As I am suggesting, the problem of achieving balance lies in the depth one must go to analyze every significant factor, not just one factor or a few. Not only must game mechanics, weapons stats, map layout, and abilities be examined, but how much playing time a player has, their k/d ratio, win/loss ratio, total number of games, most common weapons or heroes used, and latency as well. This isn’t a complete and exhaustive list of factors, but what it shows is that player ability in addition to game characteristics must be taken into account if a better level of balance and fairness is to be achieved in a video game.

Balance is still an issue developers struggle with solving. Often times, in the case of LoL, it’s an ongoing process of patching, evaluating, and patching again that helps to even the playing field. Each attempt to balance creates unforeseen imbalances that themselves must be rebalanced with no possibility of finding equilibrium. Other times, it’s as simple one step of evening up the teams by splitting up each player based on score. But even given these attempts, I still believe developers are not trying hard enough nor giving the problem enough time to be dealt with. Without balance, players are not able to enjoy video games as much as possible; they do not have a fair chance to be on a winning team, and they are not challenged to get better against equal or better competition. And that’s what gaming is all about: fun, winning, and self-improvement.