Game Balance: One Step Away From Politics

It’s become more and more apparent to me, as I’ve dug deeper and deeper into game balance and design at high levels of play, that what determines the design philosophy behind a development team’s game balance isn’t always hard data or objective analysis, rather, an overwhelming push from the community that’s often driven by unofficially elected leaders.

Streamers, youtubers, and professional players who have an opinion about an aspect of a game, whether their opinions are founded on a solid basis or an emotional reaction without much long-term consistency with game health, dictate the path of a game’s balance far more than the occasions where statistics driving a game’s direction happen to show themselves.

Even games like League of Legends, who’s developers have game balance as close to science as any studio out there, suffer from this phenomena. In fact, what I call the Aatrox effect was actually born out of League of Legends itself (go figure).

Aatrox, a champion in League, received a rework a couple years ago. His look, abilities, and overall strategies employed were changed to a huge degree. Upon his reentry to the game, players weren’t well practiced with him. They hadn’t been accustom to the mechanics he brought to the table, either. Both of these facts basically meant that the majority of the community sucked with Aarox, and as a result, the majority of the community called for Aatrox buffs. That is to say, they wanted the devs to make him stronger.

Because of the overwhelming support from the community, Riot Games decided to repeatedly buff the reworked champion, all the while players continued practicing with him. Both of these things combined meant that, once players got a hold of Aatrox’s strengths, they would have a champion that was so overtuned he required continuous nerfs to bring him in line so that professional players would stop stomping the floor with him every chance they got. He was essentially a 100% pick/ban champ. That is, you either pick him, or you ban him. You never let the enemy team use him.

This tight-rope walk of developers trying to appease their audience while also have a consistent philosophy behind game balance reminds me of American Politics. These days, it seems politicians have trouble appealing to everyone and their mother while also remaining a consistent voice of reason for the sake of their voters (and dignity, if they have any).

What I mean to say is that the average person can’t possibly know what exactly a game needs to improve in terms of balance. If they could, or if they could do it exceptionally, they’d be on a balance team somewhere, or they’d at least be an above average person. After all, an average assessment of a game’s balance is… well… average.

This is true for politics as well. The average person might know what policies might need to be in place to effect their situations for the better, but they can’t possibly know, on a consistent basis, what needs to happen for the country as a whole to get better across the board, or whether the theories they hold can truly be implemented effectively. All the same, politicians have to pretend that they have the answers, that the people’s answers and ideas are sufficient enough to implement, and that they aren’t usually pawns in a popularity contest with no real clue how to make the country a healthier one, both socially and economically.

All of this is true for the developer as well, except that their work is proof of their talents, meaning they have some idea of how to make their country (their game) healthier. And it’s for this reason that they get my sympathy vote, the poor, poor bastards.