The nature of balance discussion

Discussing how to balance a game with so many factors this early is a tricky thing. Right now, there are people at Blizzard discussing what to do, when to do it, and how much of it to do when they do it. Meanwhile, the community is having their own discussion. But there are some important reasons why even having a discussion about balance is inherently tricky.

Let’s take a look at why it’s hard to discuss balance, so that we can hopefully improve the conversation. I’ll number them in order to make it simpler to follow. I hope you enjoy the read and take it into consideration in the ongoing discussion of balance. With each point, I will try to give the typical solution to the problem, and reasons why those solutions are generally failing to help the discussion as well.

[b]1. What to blame[/b]

The #1 most important factor that makes balance discussion tricky is actually [b]not[/b] the game’s newness, but rather, the fact that there is always something else to blame besides the “imbalance”, if indeed there is imbalance. If the losing player had done A, B, and C a little bit differently, he would have won; and if the winner had failed to do X, Y, and Z, he would have lost. Ultimately, if we trace the [b]root cause[/b] of a player’s loss, we’ll arrive at some juncture where he could have done things differently, and won. So, there’s no “need” to balance, right? Wrong.
Just because there will never be a match-up that’s [b]impossible[/b] to win, that doesn’t mean you should purely blame the players. They didn’t scout at the right time, or they failed to put pressure on the right part of the map, or they neglected to protect something vital in a critical moment, etc. but at some point the question becomes how much a player [b]should[/b] be asked to do in a given situation.

For example, if a fourth race was introduced, which [b]could technically[/b] win in any match-up, but only if the player had over 1,000 Actions Per Minute or the opponent made several critical errors, you could call that balanced. If both player have equal APM and equal “skill”, he would lose — but because technically it was possible to win, then it’s purely the player’s fault for not being “good enough”. If only he had learned to play that race better! Obviously this is a huge exaggeration, but it’s to prove that player-blame is a flawed matrix for discussion.

As long as “human error” is visible, we’ll always be able to blame the players. How tricky indeed.

[quote][b]Typical solution:[/b] Look at trends of highly skilled players, everywhere. A global trend indicates an underlying cause that isn’t based on a human error. Regional differences also seem to prove that balance is a matter of strategy and “meta-game”, not unfair numbers, so a truly global approach is needed. Only if we see a universal trend should it be taken seriously in balance discussion.

[b]Problem with the solution:[/b] [i]StarCraft: Brood War[/i] has proven beyond a doubt that it’s possible for a game’s balance to shift in huge ways with relatively minor shifts in strategy, not actual numbers adjustment. Certain races seem to be “underpowered” in certain matchups for years, and then suddenly become dominant thanks to better thinking. This means that even universal trends are meaningless, because a single innovation could revolutionize it everywhere.[/quote]

[b]2. Perspective and burden of proof[/b]

Another reason why discussing balance is tricky is because every player who has a favorite race can be called biased, and those who select Random or have no favorite race are never as familiar with the cutting-edge strategies of the races as somebody who specializes. The probability of a biased perspective means that we should probably “filter” every opinion by assuming every player wants their race to be at least a little bit overpowered, and their other races to be at a slight disadvantage. You can never trust a player to be truly fair.

Related to this is the way the “burden of proof” phenomenon. Almost everybody who [b]defends[/b] the balance of their race seems to carry a very “reasonable” manner and tone (assuming they aren’t being sarcastic or mocking a “complaint”,) suggesting a moderate point of view, greater consideration, more analysis, and a slower judgment — whereas those who are voicing concerns about balance are carrying the burden of proof. It’s always harder to advocate a small change than it is to advocate staying the same.

So, problems must be either mathematically proven (which is impossible thanks to player blame and long term meta-game shifts) or exaggerated, making them difficult to take seriously. Another example, this time in daily life: if somebody were to suggest to you that you should paint the walls of your room a totally different color, they could probably make a bold argument to support their opinion (for example, baby blue instead of white). It may be radical, but if it [b]was[/b] an improvement, at least it would be worth the effort of changing it. On the other hand, if the person suggested making the tone a just a single shade different, how could you [b]justify the expense[/b]? In this case, would be justifying the work of creating and downloading a balance patch, which automatically triggers huge discussion and reconsideration of the meta-game, and an apparent admission on Blizzard’s part that things up until that point have been unfair! [b]Bold changes are easy to argue in favor of, but it’s hard to make a bold argument for a small change[/b] — so either way, discussing balance becomes a matter of bias, perspective, and lopsided arguments.

[quote][b]Typical solution:[/b] Trust nobody. Petitions, complaints, and arguments are always biased by personal motivation, or otherwise ignorant. Those who care a lot about a race will skew their opinions, and those who don’t care about a race obviously won’t be critical and even-handed to begin with. This is quite tricky.

[b]Problem with solution:[/b] Even though it’s unlikely, it’s entirely possible for somebody to recognize and remove their own bias, care a lot about their race, and still make a valid argument for a small change. Dismissing opinions because somebody is passionately arguing for their own race leads to players feeling even less cared for. If you were short-changed a dollar at a store, and raised a complaint to the manager to get your dollar back, they may say the amount was too small to care about. The injustice of this would escalate the complaint until it seemed hysterical, which in turn makes it dismissible! This escalation can go on forever, unfortunately, until the complainer is absolutely livid about a very small (but valid) thing.[/quote]

[b]3. Too early to tell[/b]

Probably the most popular (but not the most important, in my estimation,) impediment¬† to discussing balance is the fact that it’s so new. People think that there will be a natural revelation of any problems that might exist in due time, and that discussing balance should only take place once a problem is self-evident, but not acted upon. People who advocate the “wait and see” mentality halt discussion by marginalizing the need for discussion to begin with. They don’t trust that people are capable of recognizing actual unfairness or imbalance so quickly, because there’s a certain amount of time they think is appropriate before a judgment can be made.

Likewise, players have faith that Blizzard will detect and correct any problems as soon as it’s justified. This may be a reasonable belief, but it still makes discussing balance tricky.

[quote][b]Typical solution:[/b] Be quiet, play, and wait. Trust that things will be resolved naturally in time, without community discussion or argument.

[b]Problem with solution:[/b] Blizzard is not omniscient, they encourage discussion for a reason: the game is supposed to be enjoyable, challenging, fair and rewarding for the players themselves. The game should be easy to learn, but hard to master, meaning that all levels of discussion should be welcome. If nothing else, serious discussion shows Blizzard how seriously players perceive a problem to be, and gives them ideas they may not have considered, or simply direct their attention to a certain area of concern and keep it there. [/quote]

[b]4. Skill = winning[/b]

Yet another reason balance discussion is tricky is thanks to the problem of valuing only the top player’s opinions. Low level and average players, it is believed, have no knowledge of what is actually required to be good — otherwise they would be doing it themselves. Your rank is like credentials, authorizing you to discuss things and be taken seriously. You earn your place at the discussion table.

Unfortunately, the fact is that even people who have never played the game can know a good deal about its balance, and whether or not certain things are fair. Many people who are good at the game don’t actually pay attention to the underlying dynamics, but creative minds who understand game design principles, puzzle construction, and general ways of making something that’s “easy to play, hard to master” can be much more insightful than those mechanically-oriented athletes whose only concerns are planning and executing their next strategy. Like any pragmatic soldier, they don’t question things, they just accept the situation and do their best. If you listen to some well known players discussing the finer points of the game, you may notice a surprising small-mindedness about the game itself.

Highly skilled players often consider every part of the game to be unquestionable, not because they think it’s perfect, but because they can’t afford to be distracted with hopes and wishes and second-guessing. Even if something were objectively unfair, they are so pragmatic that they simply blame the player for not “working the system” appropriately. It goes back to the example of the 1,000 APM race. Low-level players are concerned with questions of how things [b]should[/b] be, while high-level players are concerned with how things simply are. And those high-skilled players who do question things often feel an obligation to protect their reputation and standings by insisting that skill is all that matters.

If skill is nothing more than the ability to win, then nothing would ever be unfair. Those people who pick the 1,000 APM fourth race and lose constantly, despite being better players, would still be labeled as unskilled (otherwise they would win!) and never reach the discussion table.

[quote][b]Typical solution:[/b] Be extra careful to only listen to proven veterans. Even diamond-level players are growing daily, as divisions are created without end, so their opinions are becoming less and less relevant. Only famous, remarkable and otherwise respected players’ opinions matter, because they are the ones who are truly skilled — and therefore truly knowledgeable about game balance.

[b]Problem with solution:[/b] In order to become respected, famous, or remarkable in the eyes of the community, players are often expected to be well-mannered, gracious, and humble. If they begin to express concern (“whine”), their reputation is attacked and their opinions are dismissed. Only those who display an ability to transcend questions of balance, are considered qualified to discuss balance! Those veterans who prefer to “tell it like it is” and forgo politeness are seen as bullies, cynics or biased. Who is really qualified to point out a balance issue?[/quote]

[b]Conclusion: [/b]

Ultimately, with all these tricky factors considered, the best solution is for both Blizzard and the community to aim for a more open-minded, creative, and unhesitating discussion of possibilities in balance, not a more stifled, narrow or elitist one. If we recognize that it’s impossible to perfectly balance a game by doing math (as Brood War has clearly proven with its meta-game shifts) but that certain things [b]should[/b] be easier or more difficult in order to have the right feeling, we have many options for dealing with a single “problem”. This also means that there is no reason to demand proof (because you will never get it, thanks to player-blame) or credentials (which only indicate the ability to win, not necessarily the ability to perceive issues/create solutions for actual game balance itself,) or wait for some day when everything will be obvious (since that day will never come if we don’t bother to discuss things).

Hopefully this explains why balance discussions are so hard to have, and what we can do to avoid making it worse than is necessary.

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About Mr. Wolfe
Mr. Wolfe has earned somewhat of a reputation due to his commendable feats of self-restraint while discussing and analyzing the world around him.

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