Principles of Good Game Design - Part 2 - Gameplay Balance

This is part two of my feature on good game design. I’ve gathered a bunch of principles of good game design from various game designers, including myself. I will present one every day and gather them all in a final blog post in a week or so. Some of these are arguable and, of course, they shouldn’t be followed religiously. After all, game design is a creative act, where magic sometimes occurs when breaking the laws or principles of what a good game is. But they can be used as general guidelines, I suppose. After a description of each principle, I’ve selected a game that I believe adheares particularly well to said principle. When the feature is over, I will tell you about how I’m trying to incorporate some of the principles in my upcoming Iphone/Ipad game, called Bouncy Flame.

Principle 2: Gameplay Balance
“When players have multiple options or routes to victory, each option or route should have a risk-reward relationship that prevents dominant strategies. The level design, in particular, should accommodate this feature.”

In most games, you can complete a task in several ways. You might be able to choose different playable characters, weapons, or tools before a mission. There might also be different routes to victory – for example a shortcut in a racing game. The amount of solution options obviously varies a lot from game to game. Some are very open while others offer a more linear progression. Nevertheless, it’s important that the players are put in a dilemma about which option to choose. A shortcut in a racing game has the obvious advantage – or reward – of being quicker. ‘However to compensate for this advantage, the game designer could make this route more difficult – by making it more narrow and full of tight turns, for instance. This will make the player’s choice interesting. Should he risk taking the shorter more difficult route, or opt for the safe one? The decision might depend on his current position in the race, his skill level, his mood and so forth. On the other hand, if the short cut is undeniably better in all situations, taking it would be a dominant strategy, removing these satisfying considerations.

The same thing is seen in strategy and role-playing game, in which you choose a race in the beginning. Here, it’s also important that no race always triumphs. Otherwise, why even include the others in the game. Blizzard, in particular, is known for mastering this game design principle, constantly releasing patches to level the playing field between races.

So in conclusion, forcing the player into making strategic, interesting considerations is a basic principle of game design. This goes well together with Sid Meier’s well known quote: "A [good] game is a series of interesting choices"

Principle found in: Resident Evil 5.
Resident Evil 5 has a mode called Mercenaries. Here, you must kill as many zombies as possible within a set time frame. You can obviously shoot the zombies, but you can also go into close combat. This sets up an interesting choice of risk-reward. The safest solution would be to keep your distance, and take them out one by one, After all, zombies are much more lethal in close combat. However, this solution uses up valuable ammo. What’s more, killing a zombie with a close combat move, gives you extra time, in which to kill more zombies and increase your score. This is a significant and tempting reward for an otherwise risky action. If you miss your close combat attack, you risk death.

As a player, you are constantly faced with these interesting choices – using the gun or your fisticuffs. Your decision is influenced by many factors, including the zombie’s remaining health, the number of zombies in the area, your current score, the remaining time, etc. These considerations represent a very satisfying challenge that could not materialise without gameplay balance. If one strategy had been the most dominant in all situations, you would lose this appealing aspect of games.

I hope this all makes sense. If it does, please like it on Facebook☺ Look in the blog archive to the left for more game design principles.

Read about all 8 game design principles here.