Fun vs. Balance – Design Philosophy

Balance is the cause of endless heated discussions on almost any gaming-related forum. Terms like “overpowered” and “flavor of the month” have become an essential part of gaming lingo. Balance must be a really important part of game design, right?

Not necessarily.

These terms and discussions should exist purely in the realm of multiplayer games, especially ones where the main feature is Player vs. Player (PvP) gameplay. Extremely popular titles like Overwatch, League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive fall under this umbrella. I’m not here to discuss the balancing work or philosophy of this type of game: the enjoyment they bring to players arises largely from the competetive aspect, which makes balance crucial.

CS:GO is first and foremost a competetive PvP game; therefore its design must be carefully balanced.

However, in recent years, many developers have begun to apply the same philosophy of seeking “perfect balance” in cooperative multiplayer, or even fully single player, titles. This is where we disagree. Balance is a positive quality in game design, but it must be left clearly secondary to the most important quality: fun. Often in the name of balance developers cut out or ‘nerf’ strategies that made players feel awesome and powerful when they first found it. To illustrate the issue, let’s take a look at one of the most egregious examples from recent times: the sad tale of Diablo 3.

The Diablo Case

Despite the dramatic intro there, I don’t think Diablo 3 was a bad game. There were certainly a lot of good things about it, but also some big mistakes that I believe arose specifically from putting balance on a pedestal in game design. The big one was itemization; instead of the varied items promoting all kinds of creative play styles of Diablo 2, Blizzard copied the bland and uninteresting itemization of (the expansions of) World of Warcraft.

In Diablo 2, players could find powerful and fun unique items early on…

It’s easy to imagine their reasoning: WoW was one of the greatest hits of the PC gaming world, why not copy elements from it? After all, if itemization essentially boils down to linear scaling with level, players should be able to constantly find upgrades! And finding new, better items is one of the main modes of progression in Diablo.

The problem is that Diablo is not an MMO. The competetive aspect of Diablo 2 may have become a major feature as the years rolled by and only the most hardcore fans still played, but the game did not win its fame or sales through rigorous balance. It was possible to find some of the best items in the game at a very early stage, and different sets of equipment could open a variety of playstyles not normally supported. The itemization supported creativity, and felt rewarding in a way that slightly increased numbers on a character sheet never could.

…whereas in Diablo 3, similarly rare items were only available at the highest levels, and even outclassed by rare perfect rolls on lesser items.

Diablo 3 was built with competition in mind, but the game did not support competition in the slightest at launch. There was no PvP; the only way to play with multiple people was in a cooperative manner. The design philosophy dumbed down the items and made classes feel nearly identical, and although the game was still successful it was far from the smash hit it was predicted to be.

Balance and Stirring Abyss

So, what are we taking away from all this? For one, we have no intention of curtailing the number of strategies available to the player in service of balance. We will, however, attempt to ensure that the most optimal strategies are fun and interactive. It is not important that every path is equally viable; we simply want to ensure players don’t feel punished for playing in a way they find compelling.

We will also be promoting strategic variety in other ways. As Stirring Abyss is a Rogue-like game, the randomization of the characters and world will help in this regard. Achievements are another way to reward the player for new ways to play the game, but we’ll try to keep them open-ended enough so they aren’t only possible to do exactly one pre-designed way. Replayability and allowing our players to find new ways to enjoy the game are very important to us: balance is one tool to allowing that, but never at the cost of something awesome.

“So through endless twilights I dreamed and waited, though I knew not what I waited for.”
– H.P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”


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