In speaking with developer Razz, or @IvanMeat, about progress on forthcoming run-and-gun Iron Meat, he mentioned much of his recent work consisted of game balance. This includes enemy variation throughout certain levels (YES, there is a level on a high-speed Meat-infested train) and projectile deployment. In comparison to adding new features like character skins or making more blood and body parts explode on screen, game balance seems a very tedious and elusive way to provide hungry fans with an update.
However, if you believe this... you are sorely mistaken.
You see, success behind a game can be measured in the way it is balanced. If your title has even a moderate sense of imbalance, less than positive results will arise. But first it is important to understand what game balance is and is not to create it.
Balance makes games, whether board, video, or even tic-tac-toe, fair and enjoyable to all players. The more balanced your game, the better replay value it undoubtedly has, making it a memorable experience beyond its shelf life. If players feel the gameplay is even, if the constructs are fair and the chance to win is possible for all involved, it will be a better experience, thus causing players to return time and time again. How long has Monopoly been around for? What about chess?!
The easiest way to achieve balance in a video game is to develop a minimal, but necessary number of essential elements that compliment each other, which consequently minimizes cross-wiring of unagreeable mechanics. Logic is key here: The less factors there are, the less likely they will be at odds with one another. A well-balanced game should provide players with progression through acquired skills, a chance to recover from early mistakes, and enough control that errors are the player’s fault and not the game itself. Also, developers should always consider balance throughout the development of a game and how each new element presented will react to previously established elements. It may seem that you are simplifying the game, but within constraints, true complexity is born. Any writer, editor, or artist will agree.
In an era of AAA games trying to outdo each other based on how many mechanics can be crammed into one title, or how many patches, or in-game advertising, or pay-to-play rewards are needed to create a semblance of balance, suddenly a game becomes more complicated, and thus more time consuming than is really necessary for the audience’s enjoyment. Many times, as well, these elements are not tailored toward user experience but in the interest of capital or nefarious gain. An imbalanced game does not sacrifice anything to benefit the player’s enjoyment, fails to prepare the player when obstacles do appear, (or unfair difficulty spikes), and/or makes tasks impossible to achieve.
I feel a great example of a well-balanced game within these parameters is Mario Kart 8. Even during earlier iterations of the title, racers that fall behind early on are given numerous chances to redeem themselves and are generally not punished by the game. This is why you’ll receive crappy bananas when you are in first place, but be granted the loathed blue shell of death while trailing (or the star or Bullet Bill). I usually fall somewhere in the middle, so red shells are my besties. Equal parts chance, skill, and appropriate reward.
But will Iron Meat be a well-balanced game? The fact that Razz is working and perfecting the game’s balance as I type this is an extremely positive sign. Also, I’m in the mood for the Meat as I’m allergic to bananas anyway.
What are some other games that achieve near-perfect balance? Do you think game balance is as important as other aspects of video game design? Do good game balance and retro titles have something in common with a collective affinity for a bygone era?
Let me know what you think! 🥩
Note: This is only an overview and many have explained this design technique better and in more detail. For more info about game balancing, check out these rad sources: