How Balancing for Cooperative Play Works In Video Games

To round out our miniseries on game balance, let’s talk about co-op. In my opinion cooperative balance is the hardest type to nail properly. Like every kind of game, the complexity and variance of the game exponentially increase what is involved in balancing it. The more things you have to juggle, the harder it gets to keep it all balanced.

team fortress

Cooperative balance adds a weird level of disconnect to the proceedings, however. Like a single player game, you are balancing a character’s capabilities against known (to you) quantities, NPCs and mobs of various sorts created by you and controlled by an AI system also created by you (or at least one you’re familiar with). That makes it relatively simple to play the numbers game and balance damage output/time to kill of players and enemies, along with other purely numerical calculations.

However…you then run into the problem of inter-party balance. And that’s where the issues come in. Assuming you want each character class or specialty to contribute equally to the game, you have some work to do. You have to be sure of (at least) five things, particularly in a game that can be played single player as well:

1.) Can each character complete any given challenge on their own?

2.) Can each character complete the entire game without getting locked out by certain mechanics, puzzles, or enemies?

3.) How does each character’s unique set of abilities interact with any given challenge in the game?

4.) How does each character’s unique set of abilities interact with every other character’s abilities?

5.) Does each character’s ability set bring something unique and valuable to any given party composition?

This might sound simple, but even with a relatively small roster (the magic number seems to be four, at least to start) that is four different results each for questions 1-3 and 5, sixty-four for question 4 (assuming you can have duplicate characters). The complexity increases exponentially if you add in more characters, or different character builds that can cover different roles in a party.


Failure to do this is going to significantly impact your players’ enjoyment moreso than any other type of imbalance. In a single player game if one option is under- or overpowered the AI companions are not going to be miffed at the player for being above the curve…but in a cooperative game (or especially a co-op competitive game like a class based team shooter ala Overwatch) people are going to notice imbalances and get downright jealous, potentially to the point of anger that the character they want to play or option they want to use is weaker or less effective than that of their buddy.

I remember two distinct games that elicited this response in my friend groups back in high school: Borderlands (the original) and Castle Crashers. The offenders here were the Siren class/character and Red Knight respectively, for much the same reason: Effort in to power out being really, really low. In the former case the Siren when built properly was more durable, more mobile, and dealt more damage over a wider area than any other character in the game, to the point of being the only class capable of reliably solo-killing the super hard bonus boss Crawmerax without hacked weaponry. In the latter, there was much the same problem but even more exacerbated. The Red Knight player merely needs to hold down their special ability button and occasionally walk forward; the damage was tweaked up so high on his lightning bolt power that bosses and normal enemies alike practically melted before him.


In both cases people got a bit peeved, and in both cases a gentleman’s agreement was made that nobody could play those characters so everyone else could have something to do instead of twiddle their thumbs while being carried. The same problem often arises in tabletop games, Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 and Pathfinder particularly, and the end result for all examples is a fairly toxic community in some cases where arguments over balance are common and gentleman’s agreements to not abuse exploitable things are necessary for the enjoyment of the game. This failure of balance is almost unique to cooperative games, since not only do you have people mad at players for using something overpowered, you get the other end where people get mad at players that DON’T.

diablo 3

Failure to balance in a cooperative game, in other words, causes twice as much backlash and toxicity to build up in a community. It being so hard to pull off is what makes it such a shame. I like all four games mentioned here, and others with similar problems as well (like Diablo III), and they’re very good games despite these issues.

I have no magic fix here, no silver bullet, but maybe I’ve at least given something of a perspective on why these games so often fail in these ways, and maybe people can be more forgiving of an overpowered ability seeing too much play in a game with six characters and 40 abilities per each one. It’s really easy to overlook that one, and berating the devs and other players don’t help much.

That’s all folks!

What do you guys think? Let us know in the comments below

#How Balancing for Cooperative Play Works In Video Games