The Fickle Nature of Multiplayer Balance

I probably don’t have to do much of an intro for this, but for those of you who play multiplayer games–especially in a competitive form–this issue is practically infused to the game. At some point, its pretty much a given that someone is gonna whine in the chat/comms/whatever about weapon X or strategy Y and talk about how overpowered (“OP”) it is.

Most people want a fair and balanced gaming experience. But why is it an ongoing, never-ending process? How is it month after month we keep having head-scratching moments where we go, “How did they let THAT slip through testing?” Are we forever doomed to never-ending toxicity, where there’s always something that the community vehemently despises?

As someone who is compelled by the multiplayer competitive landscape but often woefully under-skilled at it, I’d like to offer my thoughts on why we collectively–as game developers and players–are in constant warfare over game balance. Actual mechanical balance has a lot to do with it, but there’s a huge mental aspect to it as well.

Parity and Self-Expression

A-Core Gaming recently did a fantastic video on the contentious state of Street Fighter V’s balance. I don’t play SFV (I gravitate more towards FPS’s personally) but I still understand the issues he raises here and they are noteworthy for our discussion. He argues that by reducing the skill gap, it brings closer parity between newcomers and experienced players, for better or for worse. One of the more interesting points relevant to our conversation is about what happens when players feel like their unique identity is being jeopardized (this thought more prominently comes into play around 6:39 of the video.)

Game balance is, in one sense, the lofty ideal of trying to make everyone feel special. It could be trying to make high-level play more accessible to newcomers or making every weapon in the game feel impactful… the process of trying to make sure no person, game mechanic or strategy feels left out or ostracized from play. Everyone has easy access to the tools and means by which to succeed. Everyone can be a pro. Everyone can be special!

But what does it mean to be special? Just winning? Obviously, a huge aspect of balance (and specifically relating to the video above, accessibility) is to spread the wealth on winning. But at the end of the day–even at the highest level of competitive play–I would argue most people don’t care exclusively about winning. If that were the case, why not just pick the most “OP” gun or hero? If there are clear winners and losers in any given “meta,” why not just conform and join the crowd? Though the scales tip more and more towards “win first” the farther up the competitive landscape you go, the idea of self-expression is not completely lost on even the most pro players. That’s because if everyone looks, acts like and is a champion, then being a champion isn’t so special anymore, is it?

Its not just about winning, but how you win. Its about how you put your own spin on getting to the top or even climbing a single rung on the competitive ladder. Self-expression is important at each level of play. The tastes and skills of a playerbase often cover a broad spectrum; it would be foolish to assume everyone wants or would be OK with playing the exact same way as everyone else, even within smaller communities. And from a casual perspective even, let’s not forget that we as players tend to bore easily. More options means more content to engage with over time, and we can ping-pong between different things as our daily tastes fluctuate. But perhaps more important than all of this is that it allows us to establish a unique identity within the confines of the game. Yes, your playstyle will most likely intersect with other people’s at some point, but more choices will theoretically allow for more separation between Player A’s and Player B’s in-game personality.

Back when I was more into Call of Duty, I played a lot of Black Ops II, which is well regarded for introducing the “Pick 10” Customization System. Instead of strictly dictating that you could have X number of weapons and Y number of skills, you could spend extra points to break the customization rules. One of my absolute favorite classes was nothing more than a silenced pistol, a hacking device and an overload of skill perks (for those of who are interested, those perks were Lightweight, Ghost, Scavenger, Extreme Conditioning and Engineer.) It didn’t have the best 1-on-1 gunplay odds, but that’s not what I was going for. I wanted mobility and stealth-based shenanigans, and it worked for what I wanted it to be. Black Ops II is considered by many to be one of the best entries in the series in part because of its revolutionary customization options. Many of its successors would end up following suit.

That’s a nice plane you have there. Be a shame if something happened to it.

Unfortunately, being different is by its very nature imbalanced. Its easy to measure something like a weapon as the sum of its stats–power, fire rate, range, clip size–but balance is far more than a simple number-crunching game. Its not unusual for statistics themselves to become tiered (ex: range > power,) where the presence or lack of a certain statistic can drastically polarize something’s usefulness. Let me give a more concrete example: in my experience with fighting games, power-type or grappler characters are often the most vulnerable candidates for being bottom-tier in the competitive landscape. This is because they often sacrifice range or speed in exchange for power, but in fighting games stats like speed are often top-tier premium statistics. You can crank the power up as high as you want on a fighter: if they can’t close distance and secure any hits, all the power in the world doesn’t matter.

How do we fix this? We could give the power-type a boost in the “premium” stat department, but will that just make them the new definition of “OP?” We could turn down its power, but then what’s the difference now between the power and speed characters? These are highly simplified examples, but they reveal how its the nitty-gritty details that make balance a catch-22. We as players want to be unique but somehow equal, making game balance something of an oxymoron. In this way, players who favor and use the “power” archetype sometimes have to live with a disproportionate disadvantage.

And yet, people still pick the underdog. People still play the “power-types.” Why? Because in some respect, they value their self-expression over the desire to win. They would rather chase the tiny chance of victory on their own terms than blend into the status quo of competitiveness. Of course, many would prefer that their playstyle of choice was more viable… or at least that more people would subscribe to their vision of the game.

The Truth behind “Git Gud”

The most popular team-based shooter over the last year has been, without a doubt, Blizzard’s Overwatch. As you might guess or know firsthand, this game is no exception to the issues of game balance. The game has been through several “metas” over the past year. Between radical character overhauls and new content drops that shake things up, equilibrium has been difficult to come by. If you were to browse the competitive forums for five minutes (not that I would recommend it,) its obvious that people are not happy with the game’s balance. We could chalk this up to the vocal minority, but even reputable Overwatch Youtubers gain traction on these issues from time to time. It seems like there is always something.

Jeff Kaplan, the director of Overwatch, recently made a post about balance where he said something rather profound:

Perception is relative to each individual. It should not be surprising to learn that if we as players value self-expression (which is also relative,) then the lens through which we view game balance are also prone to be subjective.

In most if not all multiplayer games, the end-goal built directly into the game is to win. As we established earlier, most people value winning. However, how we should win (self-expression) is up for debate. Sometimes winning is a form of self-expression, but other times the two are more like allies who move in the same direction. If I like explosives and explosives happen to be a viable form of winning, then great. But when self-expression and winning are forced separate ways by the “meta,” players can feel like they have to make an uncomfortable choice.

Decisions, decisions…

For this reason there’s often a hidden context when you hear the statement “git gud.” Often, what someone really means when they say that is “You need to get good, but on my terms.” Everyone may want to win, but having to give up their own self-expression to do it can be an incredibly personal loss. So instead of switching their tactics to something more efficient, they demand that others change theirs.

This is what is known to some as the Scrub Mentality, where players are scorned or looked down upon because of their playstyle. This can happen on both ends of the skill spectrum: a lower-skill player is exasperated by spam tactics they haven’t learned to counter, while a high-skill player is infuriated when their marksmanship is nullified by a one-trick, rocket launcher artist who only corner-peeks. When your flavor of play is belittled–even for a moment–toxicity can take over. How dare there be some noob weapon that mocks my pinpoint accuracy! How dare there be some pro scene tactics that make gimmick weapons hard to use!

When the validity of one person’s identity is “threatened” by another, sparks can fly quickly and furiously. And when the stars align and an entire community’s furor is pooled together… well, some effects of this may be less obvious than others.

The Influence of Opportunity Costs

In microeconomics, there is a term for something called an opportunity cost. To summarize, when you make a decision to do something, the opportunity cost is the value (or enjoyment) you miss out on by not choosing the next best alternative. One of the primary aspects of this concept is that it is not the combined value of all the options you didn’t choose; it only considers the option with the next best return on value. This, to me, is at the heart of the balance issue and why its so hard to objectively balance a game as a whole.

As a very simple example, let’s say that there are only two classes of weapons in a stripped-down shooter: assault rifles and shotguns. A competitive player identifies the assault rifle as the strongest weapon type and primarily uses that. However, said player finds that they have more fun when they are playing with shotguns, even though their winrate suffers. Said player wants to have fun, but they also value winning. In this simplified example, the player has to make a decision and deal with the associated opportunity cost:

  • If they play with assault rifles, the opportunity cost is that they aren’t having as much fun as they could be
  • If they play with shotguns, the opportunity cost is that they aren’t being as competitive as they could be

From my perspective, the general playerbase is very prone to focusing on their opportunity costs. Once they’ve decided how they want to play, they’ll start trying to minimize their associated opportunity cost. When we consider this in light of the massive scope that most competitive multiplayer games possess, the focus on opportunity costs can lead to a narrow and perpetual cascade effect.

Its very common for the opportunity costs of several players to fall in line with each other, and generally this revolves around a central object of notoriety. Remember, the opportunity cost is only the next-best return on value. Its easy to assume that the B-Tier players want to see the A-Tier tactics nerfed. But what about the C-Tier and D-Tier? Sure, they have multiple tiers above them, but its not unusual to see the brunt of their fury going directly at the A-Tier as well. Everyone is focusing on A-Tier, because that tier is the next-best option for victory. A-Tier is the cause of everyone else’s opportunity costs.

As such, its often A-Tier that takes the hit and receives something like a nerf. Whether or not it was deserved, however, is not the point. Let’s say that A-Tier gets hit really hard and becomes the new E-Tier, while no qualitative adjustments are made to the other tiers. Things may look good… until you realize that we’ve simply shuffled the opportunity costs around. C-Tier has gotten A-Tier out of the way, but this has exposed B-Tier as the threat it truly was. The same can be said of D-Tier and the new E-Tier. B-Tier has now become the root cause of everyone else’s opportunity costs.

Artwork by KAIZA, as shown on the Smogon website

And so it goes. Its as if the moniker of “OP” is simply passed from mechanic to mechanic in an infinite cycle. We want our cake and to eat it too, so we try to take someone else’s. This cycle is easy to spot, but viewing it relative to the opportunity cost concept exposes some of its frustrating nuances. This is why nerfs tend to be more frequent and extreme than buffs. This is why a bottom-tier character can sit in irrelevance for months with no help in sight. Its a lot easier for the player base to agree on what they hate (their common opportunity costs) than it is for them to agree on what they love (their personal forms of self-expression.)

And if you only iterate on one or two things at a time, reaching equilibrium can become a very slow and tedious process. This approach isn’t entirely the fault of developers either: if there’s lacking player data on a hero or weapon because no one plays it, how do they know what to change? Its much easier to change something that everyone is pointing fingers at because there is often a lot more data to analyze.

Conclusion : Moving Forward

In the midst of all this, let’s not misunderstand: game balance is a real issue and it can be talked about objectively. How can we improve the general culture behind this befuddling enigma?

As players, I don’t think its inappropriate to discuss balance and lobby for changes so long as its done respectfully. The general lack of respect around balance conversations right now is a big problem that makes it difficult to cut through the noise. But sometimes, we just have to accept that our style of play isn’t–and may never be–the optimal style of play. That’s not to say we can’t push it to its limits. Find niche uses, abuse hidden strengths and discover the maps and contingencies where it can shine, even if only briefly. And if a particular game strays too far from what you consider fun, maybe its just time to move on. Maybe the game, through no fault of its own, is or has become something different than you originally wanted it to be. But that doesn’t mean the entire community has to change just for you. Remember, what fun is there in everyone being the exact same? If possible, carve your own little slice out of the game and savor it; we don’t all have to be eSports champions.

From the development side, I think its important to maintain a consistent vision of what the game should be. When in doubt, at least you have a light to hold up buffs and nerfs too. Also, I think games should continue to use “alternative” playlists. Call of Duty has had, for several iterations now, a competitive playlist that’s separate from the main multiplayer playlist. This competitive playlist has its own set of rules and restrictions that favors more traditional FPS skillsets, and provides a great alternative for more hardcore players without necessarily having to affect the casual crowd. Of course, local meetups and tournaments can develop their own rules and tiers too. Its still a fine line to walk as you probably still won’t please everyone, but again its an extra choice that’s there for someone to take advantage of.

Beyond that, I’d contend that more variety is better than less, even if it is at the expense of balance. A strong diversity in weapons, maps, abilities and whatever else means more opportunities for interesting match-ups. Imagine if “rock-paper-scissors” was just “rock-paper.” Of course you’re going to have a bad time if you specialize in playing rock! But more diversity theoretically means that, at some point, your playstyle will get its fifteen minutes of fame.

Just remember not to spite others when its their turn.

And no, I am not a Roadhog main. 😉

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