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Why players need to be heroes

In games, balance doesn’t always mean equal.

Most people do not play games to be the underdog. We like to succeed at the things we do, and games give us an accessible way to accomplish this feat. With this in mind, we still like to be challenged. Or, at least, feel like it.

Hence, the illusion of balance – making the player believe they’ve done well through their own skills or intelligent use of mechanics, without giving away the fact that this feeling has been ochestrated by the designer. Games after all are about fun, not punishment.

To do this, a game ultimately has to be balanced to favour the player. Consider the following scenario, which you’d find in almost any RPG or MMO:

A player encounters an AI opponent of equal level. Both characters are at maximum health. They begin to fight.

A whack here, a whack there… we get a resolution. Now, which of the following results do you believe is balanced?

  1. The player or the opponent wins, albeit almost dead.
  2. The player wins, with 50 percent or more health.
  3. The opponent wins, with 50 percent or more health.

Balance in its purest form would dictate answer one to be correct. In terms of a fun experience that doesn’t drive the player to self-harm, number two is accurate. Most people would agree that the last answer is neither balanced nor fun.

Obviously, many games feature players and AI opponents with different abilities, some not designed to deal damage, but to negate a benefit an enemy might have, or to improve their own state. It’s with these particulars that we avoid homogenisation, and where most balance problems arise.

But I digress. A game that uses answer one, which relies on the fickle nature of a random number generator, as the basis for balance would suffer from pacing problems, and perhaps those of hardness. Answer three is simply unacceptable from a difficulty perspective – the player would be forced to abuse game mechanics or worse, cheat, to obtain victory. Answer two is technically not balanced, but in the eyes of the player, who is just looking to enjoy themself, it’s not so bad.

Players need to feel more powerful than the status quo, and not just for reasons of ego. Progression is an important aspect of playing a game, and if the player feels like they’re banging their head against a wall, it does little to encourage them to continue playing. Taking into account the fact that for a game to feel balanced, the player must feel more powerful, or at least more capable, than the enemies they face, it’s understandable that achieving balance between two human players presents an enormous challenge.

If you tell a player through gameplay that they’re a hero, it’s hard to convince them otherwise when the AI is replaced with brains. The player feels they need an answer to every problem, to have the ability to counter every situation. Otherwise, how is it fair?

Sure, a designer can deliver this, but only if they’re willing to homogenise or alter the way in which players fight one another, compared to AI opponents.

It’s something to think about.

~ by Logan on August 21, 2008.

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