The concept of “balance” in a game experience encompasses many ideas. Everyone wants to create a balanced game…it’s just…what is a balanced game? Is it the idea of not too challenging but not too difficult? Is it creating an experience that is completely fair with each person having an opportunity to win every time they play. It is the proper mix of gathering inventory and earning coins? Is it the careful trade-off between aesthetics and mechanics? Is it a game that unfolds at a comfortable pace but with surprises thrown-in? In the case of instructional game-design is it the perfect off-setting of fun game play and deep, meaningful learning? Defining balance is games design…especially instructional game design is tricky.
And even after you define it, how do you ensure that a game doesn’t become unbalanced through elements introduced during the game play? How do you avoid a player becoming so far behind in a game that they feel they are going to lose half-way into the game but skirt around the fact that if a player finds the “magic jewel” in her first turn she we most certainly win? Crafting balance into an instructional game design process is something that requires careful consideration.
And to top it off, balancing a game is not an algorithmic calculation. As a fascinating article on Gamasutra states:
A game being “balanced” is also always, at best, a rough approximation. No game is truly perfectly balanced — even in chess, one player gets to go first. A game being “in balance” is like a person being “in shape”; there’s no strict, defined line at which a game goes from being in balance to out of balance, it’s a gradual continuum
But just because balance is not easy to define, achieve or accomplish doesn’t mean an instructional game designer shouldn’t strive for balance…she should.
So, how is balance achieved? Here are three methods that can help create a balanced instructional game:
1.) Give all players an equal chance. This means that players can start with the same resources, the same amount of money or the same location on a game board. Players want to feel that a game is fair so start them all off equally. (if you do have a game that has an unequal start–like each player having a different role and different powers, don’t make one role or power so great that it dwarfs others. Strive to make all powers/roles equally good/bad.)
2) Build randomness and chance into the progress of the players. There needs to be opportunities where a lead player can fall behind and a far behind player can catch up. Maybe these are special boosters or the power of a player to play a “loose a turn card” on another player. Lot’s of games have mechanisms that a behind player can use to slow down or sabotage a player who is ahead. But if that is too rough for your learning game, a healthy dose of “chance” works well to keep the playing field even by having randomness play an important part in the game (WARNING: with a learning game, don’t make randomness the key to winning, make learning the key to winning. For example in Trivial Pursuit, the role of the dice is random as to what color question you get to travel to an answer but to earn the piece, you need to actually be able to answer the question. A pretty good balance of randomness and knowledge.)
3) Create a list of the key elements you want to balance (check it off as you design your game). Of course you want learning vs. fun. But do you want to balance resources vs. capturing territory? Do you want to balance the need to acquire properties with the need to maintain cash flow? Do you need to balance making progress with collecting information? Do you need to balance obtaining points with avoiding obstacles. Knowing what you are trying to balance can help define the undefinable of “balance.” Listing what you are trying to balance can often make the balancing process clearer and easier to deconstruct as you work to create your game.
Once you’ve employed these three methods, that still doesn’t ensure a successfully balanced game. Perhaps the best way is to playtest your game. Use your list of items to balance and observation of the players as well as direct feedback to see if the players feel the game was properly balanced, that it felt fair, moved at a decent pace and provided the right mix of learning and engagement. Playtesting is a great way to help define balance for your game and help your team create an effective, balanced instructional game.