Monday, June 19, 2006

Balance vs. Imbalance -- An Essay About Strategy

What is Balance?
I have found that in the course of making, beta-testing, and reviewing maps for the Unreal Tournament series, a subject that is often broached is balance. "Good" balance is often perceived as a map where players all have equal chances of reaching critical power-ups and weapons, and where there's no area of the map that a player can camp out and hold an overwhelming advantage. I will deal with this slight misperception later, as good balance can be difficult to spot. Most players/mappers have an easier time recognizing the opposite. For example, suppose your map includes a narrow corridor with lots of shock ammo on one end. A player might camp the end of that corridor spamming combos with little danger to himself. I will call this "poor" balance. With that in mind, let's try to figure out what "good" balance really is.

What Good Balance Is Not
Good balance is not a matter of measuring distances between weapons and power-ups to make them all even. Let's call that concept "fairness". As a mapper, you need to be reasonably fair to all your players, but acheiving this merely avoids poor balance; it doesn't create good balance. To make this point, consider the most "fair" gameplay there is. An instagib arena. Everyone spawns with the same weapon and unlimited ammo and they just have at it. Would you say such a map has good balance? No. It is merely fair. Good balance is more than this.

What Good Balance Is
Good balance is an approximately even potential between the strategic and tactical characteristics of a map.

In other words, the players can use strategy to overcome the tactical imbalances of the map. For example, in UT's classic Deck 16, players often camp the sniper roost at the top of the main atrium. The player on top has a tactical advantage of higher ground, a long-range weapon, and easy movement to avoid missiles. To overcome this, opponents could use several strategies. A player might try charging in with a short-range weapon like a flak cannon, or he might try lobbing a redeemer blast to force the sniper to leave. He might get directly below and try to catch him with a shock combo. The sniper might employ strategy as well. He may vary his position, sniping from different directions, or he may make frequent treks to the shield belt to give himself more staying power.

What is important to realize is that sniping is tactical. Putting yourself into position to succeed is strategic. A well-balanced map needs potential for both. When players can develop strategies (rushing the sniper with a flak cannon) to overcome tactical advantages ("that guy up there keeps taking my head off"), then the map can be said to have good balance.

Why is Good Balance Important?
Good balance is what makes a map fun. What's more fun than cleverly conceiving of a needed course of action and then summoning all your skill to bring your vision to success? As players, we all do this without even thinking about it. Every gametype has this interplay, in fact every sporting contest in the world has it as well. If a sport has an offense and a defense, then you can bet that each side is trying to exploit its strengths while minimizing those of the opponent. The more evenly matched the sides are, the more interesting the contest. But keep in mind what we've learned so far. "Even" does not mean the same. Take basketball. One team might have a strong inside game while the opponent has great outside shooters. Who wins? The answer is that it's the team who can use strategy to put itself in position to exploit its tactical advantage (great shooting/strong inside game).

Back to gaming. If your map is merely fair, then players rely on their tactical skills to gain victory. If your map is balanced, then players can develop strategies to overcome their opponents' tactics, and to help their own tactics succeed. The successful (or unsuccessful) execution of these strategies is what makes the game.

Better Balance Through Imbalance!?
Ironically, it is tactical imbalances that give us the balance we crave between strategy and tactics. Remember the instagib arena? With no tactical differences, it's hard to develop a successful strategy beyond dodge and shoot. But a well-balanced map with a variety of "tactical features" leaves us with many strategic possibilities. A tactical feature is some advantage that you might be able to exploit if you develop and execute the correct strategy. The sniping roost in Deck 16 is one example. Remember the corridor example at the beginning? I said this was poor balance, but that's not exactly true. It's merely a tactical imbalance. There's nothing wrong with a strong tactical feature, as long as it is balanced with strategic potential.

The more different tactical features you have, the more strategic possibilities you create. Every feature should have at least one or two ways it can be exploited and one or two ways it can be overcome. When you have players using strategy to attempt to overcome their opponents' tactics, you have achieved strong balance. It doesn't matter if the strategy succeeds, as long as the strategic potential is there. Remember a strategy that always succeeds is just as boring as a tactic that always succeeds.

Ok, Now What?
If you've come this far then, you should have some idea how to implement these ideas in your maps. Did you make your item layout completely fair? Hmmm, sounds like there might be a lack of tactical imbalances there. You might want to push two of those more powerful items closer together. Now what if your players start camping that area? Hmmm, maybe you should put in another route where opponents can sneak in from behind and smear the campers. Maybe you should create some more imbalances in other areas of your map so that players don't all flock to the same one. Sounds like fun? If you do it right, it will be.


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