So you’ve tested your game, and it works! Yay! All done, right? Ready to manufacture?
It might work, it might be fun, it very well could be the best game ever created, but you’re not done, it still probably sucks and is completely unplayable. (Well, not completely unplayable, but definitely only fun for that one guy who picks the right faction and gets to repeatedly blow his enemies into oblivion.) In fact, now the real detailed work starts. Balance testing!
All games need it, although to wildly different degrees. In many games, the players are given the exact same set of rules – chess, for example. Even with a game like this, there is balance testing. For a chess-type game (one with a simple rule set where both players have the same conditions), the focus is to ensure there is balance between who goes first or last. However, I’m not going to be talking about that type of game, as it would be terribly boring…and I’d be done with this post by now, because I just made my point.
I’m focused on games in which there’s a clear asymmetry between players. Malifaux is again a good, and rather extreme example, but this comes up in any game where players are given different conditions (even if those different conditions are slight). Are the jobs in Chez Geek all comparable? Are there any race/characteristic combinations in Small World which create a completely unfair advantage or disadvantage? This occurs everywhere, but since I know Malifaux best, I’ll stick with it as my primary point of reference.
On the surface, balance testing seems like it should be basically the same as previous testing. The goal is to see what works and what doesn’t, to bring things back into line, and to weed out everything which throws the game out of balance in one way or another.
There is one huge pitfall to this process. For the most part, all of your playtest feedback will focus on those things which are overpowered. While this is vital, and gives you what you need to rein in those overpowered pieces, half of the equation is missing. Those parts of your game that are dramatically underpowered will likely be overlooked and forgotten. (Don’t worry, I’m getting to a solution to this though, wait for it…)
Your testers won’t do it on purpose, and some of these underpowered parts of your game will be caught. For the most part however, players simply won’t play with things which don’t excite them. They won’t report to you when their opponent plays with something that doesn’t beat them. They won’t report boring, because they’re so focused on the part of the game that just rampaged uncontested across the game, singlehandedly claiming victory. And even if a player thinks that’s fun and isn’t going to report the imbalance (please refer to my previous article on playtesters and their biases), you know their opponent will certainly let you know of the problems.
So how do you make sure that models don’t get forgotten into this underbelly of pathetic? Go extreme with all your models at one time or another!!
Make sure that, at some point, everything you test is overpowered to a broken degree. Your playtesters WILL think you’re crazy (I say that because of all the times I’ve had my playtesters tell me “Eric, are you f***ing crazy?”) and that you have no clue what you’re doing and think that you simply aren’t even trying to balance things. How could you consistently be so far off??! They think this because they think you’re aiming for balance right away. You’re not. You’re aiming for their attention, and their feedback.
Once part of your game is overpowered, it gets attention. That attention leads to the feedback you need to take the incremental steps to slowly dial back the imbalance. And take it slow! If you try to fix it all in one revision, you’ll just as likely end up overcompensating. Fix it a little, and see if it’s still getting attention, and then take another baby step, and if needed, another.
Following this process, at some point, your playtesters will stop yelling about how crazy you are, and how terribly unbalanced a game you’ve created, and that’s when you know that part of your game is back to a good place, just in time for you to break and terribly imbalance something and start the process again.
Do this over and over. By pushing all parts of your game to extremes until you break it, you will ultimately end up with the tools from your playtesters to know that you’re achieving balance. A pleasant side effect is that you also might discover aspects of your game that might have seemed stupidcrazybroken but are awesome fun, work wonderfully, are actually balanced, and quite simply make your game better.
To sum up, while it may seem counter-intuitive at first, your goal when balance testing is not to aim for balance. At least not at first. Nearly every underpowered mistake I’ve made was because I wrote something which I thought was wonderfully balanced right out of the gate. I thought wrong. But you have playtesters, so don’t trust what you think is balanced. Use the process to KNOW what is balanced.