Game Balance and the Casual Competitive Conflict
What is game balance? In any game, there are a series of mechanics involved that allow the game to be fun, but fair. This gives all players involved an equal chance of winning, with discrepancies being based on skill or mind games. A game that is too broken becomes one sided and can be unfun. A game that is balanced incorrectly can be boring and predictable. In most games, players will rarely complain or comment if the game is balanced. If the game is balanced well, it will maintain a fanbase and most people will enjoy it. An example would be Skullgirls. It is mostly balanced with very few outliers, the only harm being the fact that fanbase is too small to warrant major tournaments. However, it is still considered enjoyable by those who play it.
However, something being broken is a completely different issue. Broken games are frustrating for some, hilarious for others, and not taken seriously by anyone. Single player games can get away with this more due to the fact that other aspects can carry the game as long as it’s not too broken. However, what does it mean to be “broken” and what can lead to a game being broken?
The technical meaning of “broken” is “ having been fractured or damaged and no longer in one piece or in working order.” TV Tropes described a Game Breaker as “ an often controversial element of gameplay that unexpectedly trumps all others.” In other words, broken describes any semblance of balance in a game being, well, broken. Whether or not things being broken is a good thing is something that will be explained later, as it often deals with the Casual/Competitive Conflict. There is more than one way for something to be considered broken, however. This can be broken into four ways: Overcentralizing the meta, having answers to many things, leaving opponents unable to respond, and/or having unintended powers and abilities. All concepts of what is and isn’t broken can be potentially controversial.
Overcentralization occurs when something, though ideally balanced, forces players to respond to it or lose. When something overcentralizes the meta, it creates an environment that forces players to have a response to a specific mechanic lest they be easily defeated. This can be a specific combo or character or skill. On one hand, powerful objects will be flocked to and everyone should just get used to it. On the other, many believe that it makes the game boring and predictable. An example of something overcentralizing the meta until it was banned was Aegislash being banned in Smogon in Gen VI.
During Gen VI of Pokemon, the handheld games, Aegislash was released to much fanfare, and then banned with many groans. While sporting a great design and interesting mechanics, it had too many options. Great defensive typing, multiple STAB, priority, a u nique ability, and a unique move in King’s Shield. Due to its stat spread and movepool, it could run as a support, physical sweeper, tank, or wall. This lead to a test and then a ban citing that the only valid responses to it were another Aegislash or Sableye, Hoopa-U, Buzzwole, and Metagross-M. Buzzwole was included in this article due to the fact that Aegislash was banned once again in Gen VII.
Every mechanic in a game should have strengths and weaknesses. Characters in games can respond to some some things very well while being unable to respond to other aspects of the game. For example, Firion in Dissidia: Final Fantasy can easily respond to any ground based attacks, but has few options for aerial assaults. However, when one aspect of the game can single handedly shut down over half of the meta, things become troublesome and problematic. Mental Misstep is a spell in Magic: The Gathering that fits this criteria in an interesting manner: by giving all decks this power.
For those not savvy with keywords in Magic, I’ll explain what this does. Most cards have a mana cost in the top right corner. It’s represented by a combination of colors and numbers. “Counter” means to resolve without it ever entering the field. “Converted mana cost” means the total mana one pays after adding up the colors and numbers. This skill is normally relegated to blue which has its own strengths and weaknesses to justify this powerful ability. However, this card has to option to be paid with using life rather than mana. This gives every deck in the game this ability. This card shuts down over half of the decks in Modern and Legacy tournament formats. And it does it all for free. God help the player whose opponent draws more than one on first turn. Very few cards get around this, at least early in the game.
The brother of this is simply being overpowered, in a sense that nothing can respond to an aspect of the game. In this instance, though an aspect may have weaknesses, they’re nearly impossible to exploit. A character my have low health, but puts up shields faster than they can be taken down, for example. An example of a game aspect that did this is from League of Legends: Zyra, Rise of the Thorns.
Zyra has since been nerfed, but during her release, she was scary broken. One couldn’t even farm against her as her plants made it far too dangerous. If a player managed to kill her, her passive could deal 125 true damage, which ignores armor and magic resist, to an opponent, easily killing most mid laners. Her kit contained a long range snare, poking and zoning while remaining out of range, an amazing initiation with both her E and R, and a low cost knockback. She was forced to receive both a hotfix and one of the biggest nerfs in LoL history, with the funniest nerf going to Irelia. As long as the players using Zyra was competent, she would win. If the player wasn’t, she could still go even with her passive, allowing her to keep up even at a loss.
Finally, the most controversial aspect of a game that can easily become broken is the unintended side effect. This is when a game is broken in a way that it was not meant to be. This can happen in one of two ways: the game was programmed a certain way, so players found a way to abuse the programming or an aspect of the game was overlooked by play testers and developers.
An example of a character being programmed in an unintended way is Yoda, a bonus character in Soulcalibur IV. He’s quite unorthodox to play with. The biggest problem fans had with him was the fact that he cannot be grabbed due to his short height. However, he could grab others quite easily. His existence disables a mechanic and cannot be done by any other character. While there are methods to avoid being grabbed accessible to every character, simply being impossible to grab is unique to Yoda and earned him a ban in every Soulcalibur tournament.
An example of a character being used in an unintended way while not mechanically breaking the game is Roadhog of Overwatch. Although, he was recently nerfed. Before that though, he would act as an assassin and go around to the enemy back line, hook them in, and then one shot squishier characters. As a tank class hero, he is supposed to protect and absorb damage from his enemies by being large and having an even larger health pool. But, due to his overwhelming damage and self sustain, he acted in the same vein as Tracer and Genji. He walked to the enemy back line, grabbed a low health target such as Zenyatta or Sombra, and then killed them. If he didn’t kill them, he was more than tanky enough to duel anyone in the game. He was recently nerfed. He now does less overall damage, but has an extra shot in his clip. He’s more of a team player now.
Some games are explicitly designed with imbalance in mind. They are balanced by nature of not being balanced. Fighting games are particularly prone to this. They have many characters who all have strengths and weaknesses and are all overpowered in their own way. However, because each character has a foil, each character will eventually lose. And with modern technology, any character that is too overwhelming can be nerfed as needed, such as Platinum the Trinity in Blazblue: Chronophantasma. There are other games such as Pokemon in which certain critters are imbalanced because it makes sense for the flavor of the game. A worm like Weedle should not be able to fight on equal ground with a dragon like Rayquaza. The game needs to be imbalanced in order for it to make any sense.
Some games will never be fully balanced until the sequel or expansion. This is particularly poignant in single player games. Since there is not competitive edge, just whether or not the players beat the game, broken aspects will rarely be fixed unless they break the mechanics of the game. These can actually be fun and sometimes purposely implemented in order for the players to find and feel good about once they find.
Opinions about balance in games are not always equal. This is where the casual/competitive conflict comes into play. Things such as character tiers, “cheap” mechanics, competitive balance, complacency, and even culture differences between casuals and competitive players can cause many arguments. All competitive games will experience this to some degree. Some will experience this more than others. Even which side is “right” can cause an argument. Do the developers listen to the casual players, who take up a much larger number of the market? Do they listen to competitive players who probably play more and understand the game more deeply? That’s a good question that can’t be easily answered. Sleep tight.