Game Design Theory: Balancing For Single Player
Most people know instinctively why competitive balance is desirable in a multiplayer game, even if they’re not necessarily an expert on what goes into making good game balance. Single player games, however, are where the waters get muddy for some people. Many think single player balance isn’t important, at least consciously, but subconsciously we tend to be frustrated by single player imbalance even more than multiplayer. So why is that?
Generally, it’s because of a key principle: All games are more fun with friends. Not necessarily better, but more fun. Any time you play a game with friends, or people that could be your friends, the fun you’re having interacting with these other people is going to make you overlook a lot of a game’s flaws because you just don’t care unless they’re really egregiously bad. At the same time, competitive multiplayer (when done well) is going to get your adrenaline pumping with that moment to moment gratification. The rush will also hide many flaws, again excepting particularly egregious ones.
When you’re playing a single player game, this does not apply. It’s just you and the game, and the game needs to sell you on its world and mechanics purely on its own merits as a game, without any distractions from that. Any flaws in the game from minor graphical hiccups to mechanical quirks will be much more easily apparent since you’re focused on everything the game has to offer and not much else. Likewise, balance issues are going to become clear much faster if they are apparent. Generally people call a single player game of any kind boring when they find themselves repeating the exact same actions and choices over and over. Sometimes this is a result of bad design in other aspects, like having very repetitive missions like basic fetch quests or “go here, kill that” directives being the only thing the game offers (Skyrim’s radiant quests that are meant to provide “infinite gameplay”, to paraphrase Todd Howard, are a good example of this done wrong). Other time it’s the result of imbalance: a dominant strategy becomes easily apparent early on, and the player is kind of forced into using it. Oh sure, you can choose to avoid the “cheap” strategy, but when you’re applying self-imposed challenges on the first run of a game, the game has already made its failure apparent to you.Mind you, dominant strategies are not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, they can be very good for a game, particular games made by designers that know that it’s impossible to perfectly balance every option and take the dominant strategy into account when building the rest of the game. Every game is going to have some kind of dominant or optimal strategy (speedrunning is in large part based on finding these) but an imbalanced game makes it easy to find that strategy and flawlessly execute it every time. As an example, spamming Super moves (particularly Rush attacks) in the Dragon Ball Z Budokai Tenkaichi series is the way to go, no question about it. Sure, you can play it as a fighting game, learning combos and how to combo into your Supers, but in general it is much easier and just as effective to simply charge, get into your optimal range, and fire. For what that game is, this is fine. It’s meant to be a DBZ themed toybox more than a fighting game, but you can see how that would be problematic transferred to a game that is meant to have some kind of challenge or story mode like, say, Dragonball Xenoverse which has the same problem without all the fun of being able to set up your own fan favorite fights to your heart’s desire. As a result, Xenoverse, despite having more content and customization falls much flatter as a game and is not as near-universally liked as the Tenkaichi games.
Now the big elephant in the room: Power fantasy games. Prototype and Saint’s Row 4 are two good examples of this, not least because one game does the power fantasy right and the other…not so much. These types of games at first glance seem to defy the idea of single player balance being at all important, but they’re the kind of game that dominant strategies will more easily become apparent since power levels are so exaggerated. Power fantasy games need to walk a fine line between making a player feel powerful, while periodically also making them feel threatened. Prototype and Saint’s Row 4 sort of taking the same approach to this: Your character is an unstoppable juggernaut when facing nameless mooks (Blackwatch soldiers and Marines or aliens respectively), but the action is occasionally broken up by stronger or boss-type enemies that can be a terror to fight. The difference between the two is in scaling.
In Prototype you start off strong and steadily, repeatedly get stronger and able to do more and varied things in combat. Hunters don’t become a joke much later on just because of your damage increases, but because you get new weapon transformations that make their fighting style easier to counter. Saint’s Row 4 fails at this. You start off overwhelmingly powerful (potentially literally) butt naked and then more gear and extra powers get added on top. You can play that game from the moment you get your superpowers to the end just running around punching enemies to death with little difficulty, and then guns and explosives and powers get added on top. The game gets boring because everything is a dominant strategy. There is no action you can take besides simply not acquiring new gear or upgrades that will make the game more challenging. In short, Prototype is a balanced game that uses that tactical imbalance we were talking about in the previous balance article to a liberal degree to evoke a sense of power and make the player feel cool, whereas Saint’s Row 4 uses imbalance far less tactically and with much less thought, making the game far less fun in the long term.
While, again, balance is not paramount it can add a lot of value to any game. Even a cursory attempt to make sure most options are viable without being dominant (such as in the Dark Souls series) can add a lot of fun to the game. Imbalance can be fun as well, but can mar an otherwise perfect game at the same time by making other parts of the game feel tacked on or less thought out. Dragon Age: Origins is a perfect example. Possibly the best RPG ever made, and mages are incredibly fun to play…but they outshine Rogues and Warriors (especially, at least Rogues are needed to pick locks) to the point they may as well not have been player options at all and left to the party members alone. But I feel I’ve gone on long enough at this point. I could go on (and may in a later article) but for now, That’s all!
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#Game Design Theory: Balancing For Single Player