Balancing the Game – Part 1

Posted on March 6, 2017 By

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I hate game balance. I mean, I like when games are balanced—who doesn’t? But I hate doing the balancing. You know the creative rush, the wide-eyed glee of the initial burst game design inspiration? Game balancing is sort of the opposite of that.

And so, for those of you who, like me, groan when we get to this part of the game design process, I present:

Darrell’s Guide to Game Balance That Mostly Works When I Remember to Use it

The first step is laying the groundwork, which is done in three steps:

Step One: Define your resources.

Think of everything in your game that has a number attached to it, and write it down. In a tabletop game, this is pretty easy: think victory points, action points, whatever you’re using for money, and anything that requires different colors of wooden cubes. Video games can be a bit trickier, especially if the players never see discrete units of your economy, but you probably still have elements that can be measured, like damage, speed, or even happiness levels.

Step Two: Find the common currency.

Now that you’ve got your master list of resources, you can start balancing. Only, it’s hard to weigh apples against oranges (or damage points against grain production) without a resource that they all have in common. To that end, pick a resource to be your common currency. This is usually your “money” resource—which allows you to say things like “apples are worth 2 gold apiece” or “a point of damage is worth 10 gold”—but really, it could be anything.

Step Three: Balance for preferred play.

Imagine how you want people to play your game. Is it primarily about trading with opponents, with little direct conflict? Is it a war game that discourages defensive play? Is a game of exploration, with many paths to victory and little penalty for failed experiments? With this mental model in mind, set the prices for your resources accordingly. (“This is a racing game, so speed and handling enhancements should be cheap, and weapons expensive but worthwhile.”)

Don’t worry about getting the numbers right the first time, because you won’t. I’m serious. Unless you’ve only got one or two resources to balance, or you’re a mathematician whose name rhymes with Steiner McSneezia, your first pass at game balance is going to be way off. And that’s fine! That’s what iteration is for, and that’s what we’ll talk about in part 2.

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