I see two prevailing camps when it comes to discussing game balance: Those that think it’s not important, and those that think it is all important. Under those two main schools of thought, the first camp also has two primary subsets: That game balance is unimportant because it’s more important that the game is fun, and one that it’s unimportant because everybody can simply choose the strongest option or “the game is still fun even if you’re not playing optimally”.
All parties involved are wrong, of course, but the first subset of the “balance is unimportant” crowd have it closest to right. Balance is very important. It is a tool that is used to make the game more fun. But like all tools, it is just one of many in a designer’s belt. There is such a thing as going too far in making the game balanced to the point that it’s no longer fun, in the same way that a game that is too unbalanced is not fun.
This applies equally to single player and multiplayer games, but today we’ll be talking about competitive balance, the type of balance most important to multiplayer first person shooters, fighting games, and other competitive multiplayer genres. This type of balance is applied to all options available to any given player. In a first person shooter it is usually weapon choice (or in the case of class based FPSes, the class and abilities), in a fighting game it’s usually your choice of character, in a card game it might refer to the ability of any given card or combination of cards to affect a game, or anything else you might think of that affects the ability of one player to succeed against another.
So what makes competitive balance so important? Three primary things feed into it: Keeping the game fair, rewarding skill and game knowledge, and keeping engagements interesting.
Making the game fair is fairly self-explanatory and is what most people think of when they think “balance”. Nobody likes losing to an unfair tactic, which is generally considered something that requires less skill to execute than the proportional effect it has on the game. For an extreme example if a fighting game character could, with the press of a single button, execute an unblockable single hit kill attack that would be unfair. This is often the easiest element of game balance, which is why it’s the most visible when it’s done wrong. Everybody can identify an unfair tactic when it’s used against them. However, it’s also important to note that this is also the arena where strategic imbalance comes into play to make the game more fun. When the balance is severely under-tuned this is a problem, but tactical imbalance can often make a game more fun and enduring. This is often achieved by a rock-paper-scissors mechanic where something is good against one type of player or character but fails against another. Flying characters in an FPS are unbalanced and unfair from the perspective of ground based, close range characters, but not so from the perspective of long ranged characters or ones with rapid fire weaponry. The important thing here is that strategic imbalance is just that: Tactical. It should apply to individual small subsets of the game and vary on an engagement to engagement basis, not apply to the game as a whole. An optimal strategy that is always optimal is simply poor design, though sometimes unavoidable in less complex games that are “solvable” (like Checkers, which we’ll get to soon).
Rewarding skill and game knowledge is a bit muddier. Generally a mechanic can be somewhat balanced by how hard it is to execute, assuming there is an equally difficult or slightly easier method of countering it. Going back to the fighting game example, if the single button unblockable OHKO attack was instead a string of grabs (See: Astaroth from Soul Calibur) that needed impeccable timing to execute, and can be interrupted by a single successful grab escape the technique has been somewhat balanced. Likewise from the perspective of a new player a TF2 Soldier’s divebomb (rocket jump up in the air and shoot downward) may seem unfair, but with quick reflexes from an equally skilled player the tactic can often be counters; they have the time to get an extra shot in since the Soldier used one of his own to get airborne.
Both of these come together to keep situations interesting, and this is less a principle of balance than the end goal. Combining tactical imbalance, skill-based mechanics, and core fair gameplay can add a surprising amount of variety to any game. It’s why games as simple as Checkers have endured for so long. There are two distinct core mechanics (moving and jumping opposing pieces), one advanced mechanic (chain-jumping), and a single tactical imbalance (“kinging” a piece that makes it to the other end of the board) with a single relatively simple counter (properly protecting your back line/keeping pieces in reserve). And yet the game remains popular because there are many different variations of how the game can go in the moment-to-moment of gameplay due to these very simple interactions. Checkers is a solved game – meaning there are a finite number of ways the game can go based on any given choice the players make, making the outcome predictable from very early on – but to the average player, it is very balanced and there is no single optimal strategy.
To the advanced player, this is different, and the game may seem less balanced, but the discussion of whether to balance for the average player or the advanced player is one that crops up in almost any game (see people arguing over whether, say, Overwatch should be re-balanced to cater to those who primarily play Quick Play or the top level Competitive players) and one I feel would require an article all its own to properly explore. So for now I’ll leave off.