Tipping the Scales

“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered. Where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this…”

-Agent Smith

Continuing the topic of game design and constraints on the industry, I want to comment on one aspect that is familiar – often sacred – to all gamers and especially the denizens of many game forums: balance.

What do dark patterns have to do with game balance? In F2P games, specifically online multiplayer games, developers have (perhaps naturally) learned to make games harder to balance by weighing them down with features which are popular to the players. Of course, it makes sense if the players want these features, they must be good, right? Well, not necessarily good for balance, because the players don’t always request changes for balance reasons.

If the F2P in question is 1v1 competitive, the average player’s idea of balance may be “the strategy I employ should be able to win”, which is clearly not the same as balancing according to skill. In fact, a game where every player has an equal chance to win is also “balanced” in a sense, but obviously there is no skill in a coin flip or a lottery. But what is increasingly common in modern game design, even amongst competitive games which tout themselves as e-sports, is a trend to include elements of randomness to allow “less skilled” players the ability to win sometimes, or at least feel like they can win even in a match they are completely losing.

The reasons for including randomness go beyond just questions of skill though; frequently in recent years there has been a growing discussion of accessibility in games. As the industry tries to get more people playing games, they need to reach people who may have a hard time competing in skill-intensive games simply due to various limitations. But it makes no sense for large game studios to produce a game which is only targeting small audiences which have historically been shut out of the market, instead they just incorporate ways to bring those groups into a game that was going to be made anyway. It is much easier and more efficient to tweak a product to appeal to a wider audience than it is to make one which caters to a narrow audience, at least in terms of profitability.

Incidentally, Rollings & Adams suggest that some randomness can exist in balanced games, even though they define a balanced game as one that requires skill. But randomness is only part of the balance dilemma.

Players and game developers see balance through different lenses. The gamers want a game where they have a chance to win, and the devs want a game that people will play. Did you catch the problem? Neither of those desires is necessarily about having a balanced, skill-based game.

In practice, balancing a game isn’t about creating a timeless classic strategy game like Chess that is played for a thousand years or more. When it comes to competitive F2P games, the developer wants to get paid, and the gamer wants to win roughly half of the time. These desires produce a different sense of balance, one which results in devs creating games which involve a cycle of tasks and buttons and minor challenges, each with colorful animations and carefully engineered sound effects to hit the players in the dopamine centers of their brains. Balancing an F2P game is more about balancing “the economy” of the game, both in profits and the amount of attention it receives. The biggest metrics for F2P games are all related to revenue-per-user, number of users, and number of returning users.*** The idea is that if you made a good game, players will come back to play it frequently, they will want to spend money, and they will tell their friends about it. And so the metrics that are chosen reflect that thinking. But the reverse statement is not always true. A game that players come back to play frequently and tell their friends about and want to spend money on could be a good game. Or it could be an addiction that consumes the player’s every thought.

A traditional business model is focused on producing a product and selling it. In the game industry, this means making a game, releasing it and then working on a new game. Many game studios still operate in this way. But the rise of F2P games has offered a new model. F2P games are less of a product and more of a service. They are free for everyone, so even gamers with budgetary constraints can try them out. They make their money from what are known as “whales”, the people who have plenty of disposable income to throw at a video game every month. As such, the development of these games caters to these big spenders. While devs are always looking for ways to increase the number of total spending players, their metrics really only care about total income, not total number of players willing to spend money. And since there are some customers who will never spend a penny, while others will buy everything you offer, many F2P games have focused on catering to the whales to fuel their revenues. And it turns out that what whales want out of games is not balance. Because while they are referred to as whales, we cannot forget they are still humans, and many humans crave social status.

The game industry discovered that our desire for social status could be extended to in-game items ever since Valve put hats into Team Fortress 2. While digital goods were experimented with before then, TF2’s hats and the ensuing economy really changed the perspective in many ways. Previously, it was believed people wanted cosmetic items just to vary up how they looked to themselves. But TF2 is a first person shooter, meaning you rarely even see the items you bought because you rarely see your own character’s head. And while the success of hats was intertwined with the ability to trade them to others and a minority of the population was actually profiting in the real world from buying and selling hats in the game, the message was clear: people want to show off. People with money want to show off that they have money, and this was a new space for them to do so.

Selling cosmetic items is generally considered an acceptable way to monetize a F2P game from the players’ perspectives. There are many more dubious ways to monetize these games, so many gamers have accepted monetizing social status to be a necessary evil to continue to provide them the game they want. F2P games usually require this model because they are games that simply will not work without people playing at all times. As long as the game keeps players playing, it will keep players wanting to show off, and players will keep spending. The more people that play, the higher the value of that social status gained from spending money, too. The only thing left for the developer to do is keep players playing. As long as people play, they don’t need to create another game again, until everyone quits spending money on their current game. Their full-time job is no longer about making games, but optimizing the profit and longevity of one game. When it comes to generating revenue, balance is only important up to a point. These games just need to be balanced enough that it takes time for players to realize the optimal strategy. Then the devs can make a minor tweak, and let players find the new optimum.

When I still played TF2 before it was F2P, I was always confused by the balance updates. Every time the game would receive an update, it seemed like they were intentionally keeping the game unbalanced, just in a different way. From my perspective, if there were some theoretical point where the game was completely balanced, it seemed like the developers were going in circles, trying to orbit that theoretical optimum instead of actually reaching it. It took a lot more experience with various F2P games before I realized that these balance orbits may have been intentional, and understood why.

A balanced game can actually be boring and not fun. Regardless of whether it is pure chance like a coin-flip, or deeply strategic like Chess, or pure skill and finesse like Ping-Pong, playing a balanced game can be boring. The coin-flip is obviously boring and holds no one’s interest for long. With Chess or Ping-Pong, the best case scenario is playing with an equally matched opponent. When people think of a great, balanced game, we typically recall moments where we had a similarly-skilled opponent, and we block out all of the times where we did not. If our opponent is significantly worse than us, it’s not fun to stomp them. If they are significantly better, it’s not fun to be stomped on. Balanced games also require effort just to enjoy them. You have to learn how to play, and as you improve you have to increase your competition level so that you keep having more to learn. A balanced game can provide a tremendous amount of satisfying experience for those who enjoy the perpetual cycle of challenging themselves, only to need a new challenge once they’ve conquered the old one. But it can also be mentally draining and people need breaks from those kinds of efforts. Tragically, players taking breaks does not make money for the developers.**** Jokes aside, many people play games to escape stress, not induce it. They want fun, not frustrations.

When it comes to the F2P model, maximum profits might only come from games which are not mentally taxing, which do not require as many breaks, games which always have some loophole to find, or random chances which can grant wins without really trying. Balanced, skill-based gameplay is what many gamers want to believe is the defining characteristic of a great game. But in reality, a game cannot be great if no one is playing it. And so our human nature drove the game industry to create a plethora of unbalanced, often addictive, but profitable games. Games which try to maximize how much time non-paying players spend in the game, and maximize how much money the paying players are spending on the game. In our modern world, for F2P games, this is what is actually being balanced.

*Yes, that is the title, and it makes two references in a row now that the creators put their name in the title of their work.

****Okay, if you are familiar with the industry, you know that some F2P games actually do the reverse. They limit free players to only playing a brief period each day, and charge money to remove the time limit. However, those games are typically in progression-based genres like story-driven games, RPGs, stuff where you develop a character over time. These types of games do not need to be balanced in the same way as an e-sport does. I tried to find one example of any F2P games which used this time limit model but were also competitive e-sports where skill was hyped as a primary factor, and I could not.

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