Introduction to Computer Game Design
• What is it?
• Why do I care?
• How do I get it?
2. (Short) break
3. Afternoon Exercise
• It’s a secret!
Let’s start with some
intentionally vague questions!
Is tic-tac-toe “balanced”?
How about chess?
Or Mario Kart?
What is game “balance”?
David Sirlin splits balance
into two components:
Players of equal skill have an equal
chance at winning
2. “Viable options” (depth)
Lots of meaningful choices presented to
Not fair: Super Smash Bros 64, Pikachu vs. Mario
Fair, but not deep: Tic-tac-toe
Fair(?), but not deep:
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Types of Balance
Symmetric vs. Asymmetric
• Measure of a game’s “diversity
in starting conditions”
• Players’ strategies are influenced
before the game even begins
• Various sides “play” differently
(e.g. Protoss and Zerg)
Types of Balance
Tennis, Warcraft II
StarCraft, Guilty Gear series
Team Fortress 2, Virtua Fighter series
What about Virtua Tennis??
So how about Chess? It’s fair and symmetrical, right?
Chess is a “solvable” game
In theory, possible to write out
all possible states of the game
Always an optimal move,
regardless of how your
Played by infinitely intelligent
beings, Chess has a pre-destined
ending (win, loss, or draw) –
without ever needing to play!
(becomes glorified tic-tac-toe)
So, Chess isn’t always “deep”…
and taken to the limit, it might
not be “fair” either…?
Of course, human beings may
not ever solve Chess…
Still, Chess is partially solved –
and people/computers take
advantage of this!
In Chess960, back pieces are
(mostly) randomly distributed
Invented by Bobby Fischer to
eliminate memorization in favor
of creativity and talent
Randomization can actually make
a game deeper
Go is also a “solvable” game
… but play is tabulated in
points (# pieces captured)
… and the records show
that, more so than in Chess,
going first does matter
Komi: number of points
added to white’s score
Komi values vary from culture
(e.g. Korea: 6.5; China: 7.5)
Values will probably continue
to fluctuate as Go gets
progressively more solved
“Objective” balance does not exist.
Balance can only ever be defined
in terms of specific groups of players!
OK, so then who should we balance for?
Balance for everyone, right?
Eat your cake and have it too!
Not so fast…
Focus on experts?
Rob Pardo, Blizzard:
“Balance for all skill levels -- though
balance is most important at the
upper skill levels, you need to
consider it for players of all levels.”
“A multiplayer game is balanced if a
reasonably large number of options
available to the player are viable--
especially, but not limited to, during
high-level play by expert players.”
Focus on experts?
Bateman & Boon:
“Ignoring the needs of the Hardcore
market to reach the larger mass market
is a risky prospect, since the Hardcore
gamers are the initial point from which
awareness of a game in the market as a
Top-down, “trickle-down” view
on game balance?
The infamous blue turtle shell…
Support the beginners?
“We make cards for the first level of
difficulty because many players exist at
that level. Remember that the average
Magic player is 13 years old. The future
health of the game rests on there being a
good entry point for beginners. If new
players stop joining, there will be no
Magic for the advanced players to play.”
“Bottom-up” view on balance?
At least the artwork is kind of nice? Or just profit-based view?
Ethics of balance?
“A competitive type 2 deck costs
around $300. Imagine if playing
Zangief (and no other characters)
cost $300. It’s absurd.”
Should Wizards of the Coast
just open up all cards (or at
least all new cards) to
everyone (e.g. online) and just
charge a subscription fee?
Aesthetics of balance?
Sirlin, on re-balancing
Puzzle Fighter for XBLA:
1. Balance to a specific “flavor”
Maintained “feel” of old drop patterns
for nostalgia’s sake.
2. Make an “efficient” design
Strived to make all characters (except
Dan) equally competitive
Aesthetics of balance?
Should we value efficient design?
In Marvel vs. Capcom 2, only 10
of 50+ characters are “viable.”
“Bleh. It’s confusing mess and we should
just axe these 30 bad characters.”
But isn’t absolute number of
viable choices all that really
• “Ryu gets 10% more hit points
when fighting Zangief”
• “In Blanka vs. Ryu, Blanka only has
to win 2 times, but Ryu has to win 3”
“It’s so terrible that I would not even
consider it for Street Fighter. […] It’s
pure cheating, laziness…”
Phew. Balance is a messy concept.
Remember, game balance only exists
in respect to particular players.
Enough theory! How do I balance my game?
Maps vs. Rules
In WarCraft III, almost all pro
complains center around maps,
not the game system
Ex. Lost Temple is thought to
favor Human and Orc players
Still, might be easier to localize
changes to a map, rather than
tinker w/ the entire system.
Maps as the komi of RTS
Flower Garden, visualized
Adam Carpenter, “Applying Risk Analysis To Play-Balance RPGs”
There’s no substitute for
• Results only as good as the
model that produced them
• The modeler must “know” their
players, be able to foresee how
they’ll act within a new system
“You have to live an authentic life in
your chosen area of interest to develop
true, deep knowledge of it.”
“In Street Fighter, there is no possible
way to create a ‘balancing algorithm’
that will tell you if Chun Li's walking
speed should be faster. […] You could
do a year of math on that and still be
more wrong about it than my guess in
I’ll cover that in my next
Art, Art Games, Game Art
Abusive Game Design
Balance is a messy term
It only makes sense to talk
about balance in terms of
Balancing is a tool – not a
replacement – for good
Playtest, playtest, playtest!
And now for the
“Balance” Mafia (aka Werewolf)
Meet in the GameLab in
10 minutes for more details!
Bateman, Chris & Boon, Richard. 21st Century Game Design. Hingham, Mass.: Charles River Media, Inc. 2006.
Carpenter, Adam. “Applying Risk Analysis To Play-Balance RPGs”. June, 2003.
Llopis, Noel. “Games from Within”. July, 2009.
Diamante, Vincent. “GDC: The Blizzard Approach to Multiplayer Design”. Gamasutra. February, 2008.
Rosewater, Mark. “When Cards Go Bad”. January, 2002.
Sirlin, David. “Balancing Multiplayer Games”. October, 2008.
Sirlin, David. “Balancing Puzzle Fighter”. August, 2007.
Sirlin, David. “The Most Balanced Games”. February, 2008.
(NOTE: Most of the comments – including some choice bits by Sirlin himself – are no longer available. However, I happen
to have a personal archive of the discussion. Contact me for a copy).
Smith, Michael. “The Lost Temple: A Lost Cause? Perspectives on Map Balance in WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne”.
Paper for Henry Lowood’s STS144 - Game Studies: Issues in Design, Technology and Player Creativity. Unpublished. June, 2008.
Most of the images were scavenged from around the Internet, especially from deviantArt. Below is a partial listing of
sources. Please contact me (dewilson AT itu DOT net) if you are the author and would like me to remove something.
Penny Arcade. “Disincentives”. April, 2008.