Design Theory: Balancing for the middle
We’ve talked about balancing competitive games before, but what I’ve deliberately avoided doing until now is specifying where exactly that balance point is. That is, who do you balance the game for, exactly? There are generally three rough tiers of people that play any FPS. There are the people that are really bad, which is usually very new or very casual players (this group is generally the largest single group). Then there are the immensely skilled players, the ones that play in competitions and play the game seriously (this is usually the smallest group). In between those there is the third group: People that have picked up a decent base level of skill, but are nowhere near “professional” level by any stretch (this is usually much larger than group 2, but smaller than group 1). This third group could be considered the core community of any game, those who’ve stuck with it for a while but have no particular talent, or who are just generally experienced with that genre of game and are mostly drawing on cross-compatible skills (like twitch aiming in an FPS, or good positioning in a MOBA).
Choosing which group to balance for can be a tricky thing to determine, and is mostly dependent on which audience you want to chase: The casual player, the “core gamer”, or the “hardcore gamer”. There is nothing inherently wrong with catering to any of these, but for my money the best focus for long term appeal of a competitive game is that middle category. Making a game too casual can drive away core and hardcore gamers just as making a game too un-casual can drive away most casual players and a significant portion of core gamers. Aiming at that middle spot may not be the best for any burgeoning e-sports scene but it strikes the best chance of catching and keeping as many people as possible for as long as possible.
So what does this have to do with balance? Well, when you balance a game you need to keep in mind the band of skill floors and ceilings for each option in your game. A game catered primarily to a casual audience will make everything generally high floor and low ceiling, meaning things are easy to pick up and be effective with, but there is little room to improve. A good example of this is a game like Mario Kart. It’s easy to pick up and play, with very few advanced mechanics to learn, and a pretty hard cap on how skilled you can be at it. The inverse of this is a very e-sports or “hardcore gamer”-centric game, which will generally want things to be mid-high floor and high ceiling. In essence, these games have a steep learning curve. Many competitive FPSes fall into this since there’s a very high upper cap for how good twitch aim skills can get, so this is where your Counter Strikes and Halos end up. It is possible to be completely worthless in a game until you pick the trick, and there can remain a large gap between best and worst in the game (unlike a casual oriented game, where best player and worst player are within small increments of each other). This can make high level play very exciting to watch, particularly for fighting games that have this type of balance (which most of the major franchises do), but also sometimes make it feel more like a spectator sport than a game and alienate a lot of people from playing it.
The middle has a bit more wiggle room than the other two, allowing the game to as a whole have a wide range of skills coexisting (games with low skill floors and high skill ceilings do exist, but are very rare and relatively hard to produce; Super Smash Brothers is a good example here), or allowing options to encompass different bands of that range, with certain options (usually classes, heroes, or characters depending on the game) being low floor-low ceiling, high floor-high ceiling, or somewhere in between. Team Fortress 2 is a great example of this, with the core classes used in competitive (Scout, Soldier, Demoman, and Medic) all being relatively simple to use but all with advanced mechanics to master from better twitch aim to resource management to advanced movement techniques.
Any of these approaches work, but in my experience the ones that balance toward the middle have a more varied range of mechanics and can let each player shine even if they’re not good at a specific aspect. A good balance like that can make the game highly accessible but still with enough death to keep people hooked, where both of the other approaches tend to either have very high player turnover or short shelf-lives, or hemorrhage players until only the most dedicated are left.
I think something important though is that a company needs to stick with their design philosophy from day 1 and be consistent. Changing a game’s audience after it’s been released is difficult to pull off, and likely to harm a game more than hurt. Team Fortress 2 changing focus to cater to the newest, least skilled players has driven many people away, myself included. The same thing happened (in franchise rather than game) with Super Smash Bros. Brawl as opposed to Melee. And, unfortunately, I see the same thing in reverse happening to Overwatch as they seem to be trying to shift the game to a more e-sports focused one rather than a core game, to the detriment of its balance as things are thrown wildly out of whack every few patches based on win rates in competitive matches, which is unfortunate.
Still, I could be wrong about all of this, this is just the conclusion I’ve come to after years of discussion on the subject, but other people might think differently. I know a lot of people think games should always be catered to the highest skill demographic, while others think that that kind of talk is elitist. I’m interested to see where on the spectrum the readers around here are, because it seems to shift based on community.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below
#Design Theory: Balancing for the middle