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for the Scale of Balance pt.4

We've come to the point where balance must be considered. While there are many different types of forces/element you may want to balance in Dream the game, it's important to first start thinking of what balance really means. Balance inherently deals with opposing forces.  For example, game designers have to balance the increasing complexity of adding new content with how functional/unique the content is according to the design space. I can think of a bunch of new Goomba types to put into Super Mario Brothers, but none of them would add anything new or significant to the gameplay.


It's all about balance.

Another way to think about balance is the influence elements have on how players play. Sirlin has already written a fairly comprehensive series on multiplayer game balance. Since there's no point reinventing the wheel, I suggest reading part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4. If you're strapped for time then you should read the 4 page Overview instead.


A Few Comments About Sirlin's Work

  • PART 1
  • "A multiplayer game is balanced if a reasonably large number of options available to the player are viable--especially, but not limited to, during high-level play by expert players. Sirlin '01" Sirlin's definition of balance is a pretty good, practical definition for what most gamers mean when they say whether a game is balanced or not. Later in this post, we'll take a closer look at how versatile balancing really is.
  • "A multiplayer game is deep if it is still strategically interesting to play after expert players have studied and practiced it for years, decades, or centuries. Sirlin '02" This practical definition for game depth isn't going to work. Here at Critical-Gaming we know that depth is simply a measure of a game's interplay, and that this has nothing to do with whether or not expert players have even touched the game. The type of players and how long they work with a game doesn't affect the depth design of a game, so I ignore these factors as well. Also, glitches and other powerful, unintentional moves have been discovered in games long after they're released that have sweeping effects on the viable strategies for everyone who plays. If one of the moves happens to reduce a game's depth (interplay) by ignoring or removing counters, then is the game deep or did it only used to be so? Gamers have banned weapons, characters, and strategies from tournament play in order to balance the games they love. A game's depth is more accurately measured by the interplay design that both players play to whether due to in game rules, outside agreements, or both.
  • "Meanwhile, Guilty Gear, a fighting game you’ve probably never heard of, has more diversity than any other game in the genre that I know of." I'll take your Guilty Gear and raise you a Super Smash Brothers Brawl. The core design of Smash is more dynamic, there are more characters, the stages are integral parts of the gameplay, there are many stages, and there are items that all play into the character diversity.
  • PART 2
  • "Checkmate situations" can be combos that end in a kill or matrixes as I've detailed here.
  • "Design space is the set of all possible design decisions you could possibly make in your game. Whether your game is symmetric or asymmetric, it’s usually a good idea for your game to touch as many corners of the design space as possible. This helps give a game depth and nuance, but also tends to protect you from dominant moves." This kind of language and advice is far too vague. I think when Sirlin says that a design space should "touch as many corners" he means that the elements you design should be functionally spaced out from each so that they all have a distinct, unique function. Still, fleshing out a design space does not necessarily give a game more depth (interplay) or nuance. It could just add more complexities while reducing depth.
  • PART 3
  • The reason why "counter matches" have to be so seriously addressed is because Street Fighter is a series that's still based on the design of an SNES game. A good universal defensive system helps curb the need to study matchups so intently. If Street Fighter was design around more core dynamics or with a more next-gen interplay/decay design, identifying and correcting minute matchup balance problems wouldn't be so difficult.
  • Sirlin identified several ways designers can "cop out" when balancing their games. Along these same lines, the fail-safe system in Guilty Gear XX seems like a cop out. Any game can be balanced if the designers are willing to add a mountain of complexities on top of their game systems. Filling the game with extra meters and cancels just to get the job done reflects just how strained and dated the core design is. I also find Sirlin's RTS spread sheet balancing cop out example to be interesting. I know that the Advance Wars games are designed around a damage chart where each unit does a different amount of damage to each other. Perhaps Advance Wars is inherently different because it's a turn based strategy game where players are free to check the damage of any encounter before engaging.


For our purposes and from a critical perspective, we can think of balancing single player and multiplayer games with the same approach. Though the experiences are very different, the issues still fall back to how the game is designed. Just because the computer AI doesn't care that you're using the same overpowered move repeatedly throughout the game to win, doesn't make the design any less unbalanced or any less worthy to be fixed than if a player does the same in a multiplayer game. In both cases, the hard work put into the variegated content is being compromised.

Why Balance a video game? Everything that Sirlin has said about how an unfair tactic in a competitive multiplayer game can be like a virus that spreads quickly potentially ruining the entire experience for everyone is true. Also, unbalanced additions can take away from a game (single or multiplayer) instead of adding to it. Beyond these reasons, I don't think of the process of designing a game as one where the designer considers to balance their game or not. All games have forces that are always competing in some kind of balance between each other. A game's balance is the scale by which all interactions are measured by. In the same way that baking is a science that depends on the balance between ingredients and temperatures, shaping the desired gameplay experience in a video game also depends on a delicate balance. It's always there whether you pay attention to it or not. The first step is recognizing what kinds of opposing forces exist in a game. The second step is to correct the balance if you so see fit.


The Forces At Work

Let's look at Super Mario Brothers for an example of opposing forces in game design. In SMB, the primary function and mechanic is JUMP. Aside from MOVE (which is a given for most spatial games), the mechanic the player does the most is JUMP. The levels are designed so that players must jump over pipes, pits, and platforms to progress. The enemy elements are designed and arranged so that players must jump over them, maneuver under them, or kill them to survive. To kill enemies players can jump on most of them, kick Koopa shells into them, run into them with a Starman powerup (which is pretty rare), or throw a fire ball after grabbing the Fire Flower powerup.

The way SMB is designed, the player JUMPs most of the time. To keep the Fire Flower power up significant, functionally unique, and empowering to the player, most of the enemies (land or sea) in the game are designed to die from fire balls. Even the Bowsers at the end of each world die from enough hits of this powerful powerup. How much the designers want the powerup to change the gameplay is an issue of balance. The more effective the fireballs are as a long range weapon, the less threatening/influential enemies become. After all, if all the enemies are killed before they even get close to Mario, then the only challenge left in the game is to jump over the level elements. Without the influence of enemies and the dynamic role they play with the level and player elements, the rich 3 layered counterpoint design of SMB would be reduced to 2 considerably less interesting layers.


To balance out the effectiveness of fireballs and the deconstructive effect it can have on the core gameplay (making things less interesting JUMP wise for the player), the developers of Super Mario Brothers implemented some genius design features.

  1. Only 2/12 land enemies are impervious to fireballs. The Bullet Bill and the Buzzle Beetle have hard, metal-like exteriors that absorb fireballs. 
  2. Only 2 fireballs can be on the screen at the same time. If you aimlessly throw fireballs while moving forward, you increase the chance that you won't have any shots left if you run up against an enemy. This reduces the tendency for the player to spam projectiles, which is an especially important feature when there's infinite ammo. Also, because the fireballs bounce on the ground and extinguish on vertical structures instead of passing through solid level elements (like in Mega Man), the fireballs obey the same limitations as Mario does.
  3. The fireballs bounce at a vertical height that just clears the brick unit. This means that small creatures (almost all enemies in the game) have a chance of passing right under a fire ball if the timing works out. This bit of interplay (natural counter) with the fireball design encourages players to look and see if their shots connect. When moving forward, if your shots miss a target(s), the next best thing to do to avoid danger is to JUMP, the core mechanic/primary function of the game.
  4. The fire balls come out at a downward angle of about 45 degrees. This makes the space directly in front of Mario protectable. However, the functional blind spot above and behind Mario is the same as it is without the Fire Flower powerup. In other words, Mario is still highly vulnerable from top and back attacks. To hit elevated targets relative to Mario, players have to JUMP to adjust their aim like in a MegaMan game.

For all of these reasons, the powerup design of the fireballs in Super Mario Brothers achieves a balance between the core dynamic/gameplay (JUMPing and engaging with gravity) and empowering the player while increasing the interplay of the system. As good as the fireballs are, one wrong move and you're back to Small (relatively powerless) Mario. Holding on to this powerup long enough to use it on Boswer forces the player to play with no mistakes after a certain point. If you can play that well, then you deserve to take out Bowser from afar.


As a game designer, you have to be aware of how a given design implementation will influence players, the core gameplay, and the challenges of the game. Balancing a game is about looking at the design space, recognizing or selecting which mechanics/types of interaction you want to promote over everything else, and creating/altering content efficiently and effectively to that end. With that said, you can design games that balance the use of mechanics against other mechanics in addition to balancing things like characters, play styles, strategies, types of skill, or against emergent possibilities. The scale of balance covers the entire range of game design. Though I won't get to it in this article, even the issue of ludonarrative dissonance has to do with the balance between the interactive parts of a game and the fictional elements. Balance is a part of all craft, art, and expression.

Like with the Mario Melodies series, we'll take a look at different balancing acts from the base up, starting with mechanics and moving on to interplay, variation, and the emergent product that is gameplay.


Balance of Mechanics

Mechanics are the root of all interaction in games. When mechanics are designed to be efficient, taking up as much of a unique design space as possible, you don't have to worry so much about their balance involving the usefulness of each. In Super Mario Brothers, JUMP, DUCK, RUN, MOVE are all very different actions with very unique functions in the design space. In this case, the mechanics are so unique that they layer together nicely. You can DUCK+JUMP, RUN+JUMP, RUN+DUCK = SLIDE, etc. Because each mechanic is unique and they all interact with the core dynamics of gravity and moving through 2D space, it's very likely that each mechanic will be functionally useful to the player for the emergent challenges in the actual game.

In a game like Super Metroid, some mechanics are upgraded. When players get the space jump ability, it replaces the old JUMP mechanic. With the new ability, players can jump higher than ever before. Because this upgrade doesn't prevent the player from making short jumps, one doesn't have to worry as much about balancing these abilities. Though the regular jump and the space jump take up a lot of the same design space (they're both kinds of jumps), because the space jump ability is an extension of the base JUMP mechanic, the player never has to consider using one over the other in any kind of situation.

For games that feature a lot of mechanics of the same type, creating a balance between the mechanics often comes as a result of making sure that each mechanic has a unique function toward achieving the goal and or playing to the core dynamic. Let's look at Super Smash Brothers Brawl as an example.

Brawl is a fighting game where, like any other in the genre, the main draw of the game is to compete against other human players. Unlocking stuff may be necessary. The single player mode can be a nice distraction. But the vast majority of the time spent for the gamers who compete and delve into fighting games spend it in versus mode against other human players. With a triangle of interplay typically based around attack-block-grab, the core design of such fighters gives each of these categories functional importance. Imagine playing a game of Rock Paper Scissors without access to one of the hands. If you did this, you'd have a glaring weakness simply because of how the game is designed. Though each type of mechanic is important for the triangle of interplay, typically in fighting games, attacking in various way and combinations is what the designers want the players to focus on. Because of this, there are typically a few ways to block and grab while there are many different attacking moves. So let's focus on the balance of attacks.

To use some of Sirlin's terms, Brawl is an asymmetric fighting game. This means that matches are played where two players can have access to very different starting/playing options because they're locked into playing a single character for an entire match. With over 35 characters that are all very unique with over 20 attacks/moves each, there's a lot of attack move variation to consider. Like with all fighting games, it's important to think about how each character will be able to attack and defend against each other. Trying to analyze a gigantic spread sheet of each character's attacks would be a nightmare. Good thing there's a better way.


Mechanical/Individual Balance

The first step to balancing mechanics is to create a framework of positive and negative properties that any move can have based on the primary function(s), core dynamic(s), and the most common type of counter in your game system. For Super Smash Brothers Brawl, knocking characters around is how kills are made. The more damage a player has the easier it is to launch them long distances. Also, natural counters are the most common type of counter. This means that the effectiveness of moves mostly has to do with time and space both for the moves themselves and how they affect the target. 

For any given attack in Brawl it's always good to have the lots following attributes.

  • range
  • priority
  • damage
  • knockback
  • Speed (low activation time & low recovery time)


After the properties are identified, it's up to the developer to create a general mechanical balancing formula. Perhaps, for every 1 positive attribute a move has, the same move also needs at least 1 negative attribute. It's like balancing an equation. A good way of thinking about it is trying to zero out your mechanics. If you add up all the positive and negative values, the sum should be zero for a fairly balanced mechanic. Because Brawl's most common counters are natural counters and this is what the mechanical balancing formula is designed around, players can easily learn how the moves are balanced visually. They may say things like "Wow that move is huge, but it doesn't do a lot of damage or send me very far." or "Geez, that move is strong. At least it takes a while to come out and recover."

Sticking to the formula is a great way to balancing your game on the most basic level of interaction, but it can also create a game that's very predictable and "formulaic." What I mean by this is if every one of Brawls 35 characters had 20 or so moves where each move balanced out to about 0 (as many positive attributes as negative), then all the characters and moves would be about the same (I'm greatly simplifying things here so just work with me). Even if all the attacks were balanced between the range of -1 to 1, they would all have about the same effectiveness. For a game with a lot of characters, it's important to find a greater range of variation to work with. To really add some contrast and spice things up, you might want to make a move a +2 or even a +4! How you balance such moves is a matter of...


Internal Relative/Local Balance

Brawl, like most fighters, doesn't give players the option of picking their favorite moves from any character in the game and going from there. You pick a character, and you're locked into all of that character's strengths and weaknesses. In StarCraft, you can't build buildings/units from more than one race at a time. You pick a race and deal with it. When a game locks players in to a fixed set of mechanics/moves, the options for balancing the game can be expanded to take into account this local level of commitment.



To stick with our Brawl examples, Fox is a character with a high damaging, high knockback, high speed up smash with good range and priority. Without even considering other factors like being able to up smash from shield and execute sliding up smashes from a dash, this single attack is very good. One might even consider it a +5! This move may not be as balanced as other moves, but Fox as a character can still be very balanced. If all of foxes moves (including the +5 up smash) add up to to be 0, is he balanced? Not necessarily. If Fox has a +5 move and a -5 move, players will most likely not use the -5 move at all and use the +5 move a lot. Answering this question requires looking more specifically at how the game is actually played.

If Fox's most practical kill move is his up smash, when it's time to take out the opponent, this one move out of the 20 possible moves is the only one that can reasonably get the job done. Though this attack is very good, it's not unavoidable. Though it has pretty good range, Fox can only do it from the ground which limits its application. When you know an enemy Fox wants to kill you, you can assume that an upsmash is coming. Fox's design makes him somewhat predictable in this way.

This example illustrates that looking at the local level is important for figuring out balance. Playtesting a game is very important in helping you figure out how the game actually plays. When you make a game with mechanics that aren't limited to a range of -1 to 1 but can be in the range of -3 to 5, you have a lot more room to make your game interesting whether it's with more varied characters, races, or whatever. It's like the difference between composing a melody with 3 notes versus 8. "When everything is too similar in a game, it feels like one-note design rather than a symphony." Sirlin.

But what happens when you push things too far and you make a character that's so powerful or so unique that it warps the gameplay when others try to counter it?


External Relative/Global Balance

Sirlin frowns upon it, and I don't stand for it in the least bit. I'm talking about the root balance and design problem behind the concept of "bad matchups." You see, in some fighting games, some characters naturally have advantages over other specific characters. Sometimes, these advantages are so extreme that the chances of the disadvantage player winning is very slim. Simply because of the way the two characters' abilities match up, it can make the disadvantaged character's moves seem dysfunctional. After all, if all your attacks get out ranged, out prioritized, and beaten to the punch every time, then the basic function of your moves, characters, and actions fail.

At some point, as a developer seeking to balance a game, you have to ask yourself what kinds of core game dynamics/gameplay you want to promote and in what proportions. Then you have to look at all the types of characters (races, cars, or any other local level) a player may be locked into and weigh how countering that character aligns with the core interplay system of the game. If a character promotes a system of counters outside of the core system of the game, do you want players to have to study the new system for that one character just to be able to fight effectively against it? If a character shifts the battle dynamic away from the common type of counter in the game to another type is that worth it? Does that character dilute the focus of the design? With all the complexities in games anyway, how many more do you want to add to the core system? Every design decision is a balancing act.

In the same way that visually clean games communicate to the player better than cluttered games, it does a world of good when a game is designed around a clear and limited set of rules/parameters.


Nuance vs. Power

Power is something easy to understand especially with combat video games. Even when numerical values aren't displayed, the strength of different mechanics can often be expressed in numbers. RPGs display these numbers prominently. Brawl simply displays the total damage each player has been dealt at the bottom of the screen. And the weapons in Halo do point based damage even though players only have a health bar.

Though power can often be measured on simple linear scales, power is a concept that is much more complicated. Some people use the word power to mean effectiveness, potential, strength, or damage. So, I make this distinction between power and nuance.

  • Power: the obvious, straight forward means to achieve a functional goal according to the primary function of the game.
  • Nuance: any effect/property/detail that cannot be placed (or easily placed) on the scale of power of a game.


Trust me. Though this move doesn't do any damage, it has a lot of nuances and potential.


Nuances, properties of moves that can't be optimized or simplified as players seek to gain advantages, are very important. As Sirlin has said, designing nuances requires being creative and exploring the design space of a game. When it's not obvious or even clear which moves are better because of their nuances/properties, it's more likely that players will pick moves/characters based on less straightforward tactics/strategies. As players gravitate and figure out how to make nuances work for them, they simultaneously find unique ways to express themselves forming very personalized play styles.

Here's the thing about nuances. The more core dynamics a game features the more nuances that game will be able support. Also the more efficiently you flesh out the design space of a game the more likely the nuance will be able to be converted into a practical function (ie. power). Rock Paper Scissors doesn't have a core dynamic. The game is made up of 3 moves each set in a perfectly balanced triangle of interplay. There really aren't any nuances to it. In the StarCraft summaries by Sirlin, every glitch from Mutalisk stacking to how gathering units can bypass certain structures when mining are all great examples of nuances turned into power. Some of my most deadly strategies with Kirby in Super Smash Brothers Melee were all about capitalizing on the nuances of animations I could force my opponent into after breaking free from certain attacks. I'm quite confident that I've developed the most nuanced strategies that can kill opponents in a fighting game without doing a single point of damage. Who knew that Kirby's inhale attack and back throws could be so deadly?

Nuance and other factors like glitches and emergent strategies make balancing games on paper nearly impossible. Even when developers have the luxury of playtesting their games (even in publicly released betas) there's still a good chance they can over look certain design elements that could blow up and greatly alter the balance of a game years down the line. Before games could be updated or patched via relatively painless internet downloads, gamers simply had to live with whatever the developers shipped. This practice may seem like gambling, but there are ways to balance a game against the kinds of exploits and strategies that might emerge down the line.


Balance of Variation/Emergence

Sirlin has talked about fail-safes and self balancing forces extensively on his blog. An additional example I can toss in is the defensive system in Brawl. The shields that all characters have are large and round covering up the character from all sides. In addition to shielding, players can dodge in a variety of ways in the air and on the ground. These universal measures alone are enough to give all characters options of escaping from attack that can come in from any direction. But, as an additional defensive measure, if players activate their shield the split moment before the impact of an incoming attack, they can drop their shield and take advantage of having virtually no hit stun to retaliate. This technique is called perfect shielding. With this defensive potential, if players are willing to live a little closer to danger (higher risk) they can get the advantage in situations when they wouldn't be able to otherwise (higher reward). Even some of the best spacing/zoning from an opponent can be countered with perfect shielding.

In general when seeking to make games as efficient and clean as possible adding any elements or complexities can have negative effects on the final product. Design wise, you can always add things on top on of your game system to help balance it. I feel that the the universal defensive system in Guilty Gear XX is a cheap way out. There are more advanced and more next-gen design features that can be implemented into a game system to function as fail safes against emergent game balance altering discoveries that don't rely on the complexity of multiple meters and cancels.

As I have explained and detailed in my series on Super Smash Brothers Melee/Brawl, there are many design features that truly set the Smash Brothers series apart as a "next-gen" fighting game. Two such features that prevent the game variation from being reduced by combos and that help to give each move a dynamic functional context are...

  • Dynamic hit stun: Like most fighters, successfully landed attacks knock the enemy around in a direction for a period of time where they cannot respond with attacks or much else. Instead of hit stun being a static property of each move, in Smash the hit stun/knockback increases as the opponent gains damage. This design alone makes the function of most moves gradually shift from relatively weak, medium, to strong. Depending on the situation and the opponent's damage, you may want to use a weaker move to kill instead of a riskier smash attack.
  • Stale move negation: At the end of the day, if you want to win in Smash Brothers you probably have to hit the opponent(s) so hard that they fly clear out of the arena. Each character's strongest moves are commonly referred to as their kill moves, which become more important when it's ready to deliver a kill. As a deterrent from players using the same strong/kill move over and over exclusively, Smash features a design that decreases the damage and knockback of a successfully landed move when used in succession. To power a weakened move back up, you have to successfully land other moves. Think of it as giving your swinging arm/kicking leg a rest. So even when a single move can get the job done, if you're not careful, the strength of a kill move can go from strong, medium, to weak. 

Designing a game around dynamic factors like this are better ways to keep the complexities down while preventing certain kinds of unbalancing effects in your game. Stale move negation is a kind of decay design like limited ammo in a FPS game. As good as the snipe is in Halo 3, you only get a handful of shots to take before you run out of ammo.

With that said, there are ways to design a game in order to balance overarching concepts of gameplay like skill.


Balance of Gameplay

The way I see things, there are 5 basic types of skill. Knowledge. Timing. Reflex. Dexterity. And adaptation. Some games like StarCraft (high APM), DDR, Wii Sports, and very technical fighters put a lot of importance on the skill of dexterity or how well players can manipulate the controller. Some games put the greatest emphasis on knowledge like Scrabble with the thousands of words in the English language that are fair game for tournament play. Some games stress timing like Guitar Hero and other music rhythm games. Some games prioritize reflexes like quick draw light gun games. And finally, some games focus on adaptation like many Nintendo multiplayer games (Mario Kart, Mario Strikers Charged, Pikmin 2 battle mode, The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords battle mode, etc).

A game designer should be aware of what kinds of skills are necessary to progress in single player games and in various levels of competitive play in multiplayer games.

  • KNOWLEDGE PROMOTES PRACTICE AND STUDY: Knowledge becomes stressed the more elements/complexities you add to a game that can't be generally organized or simplified using any kind of formula/concept. The more you simply have to learn, memorize, and specifically practice against a character/strategy to stay competitive, the more having that knowledge becomes important. 
  • TIMING PROMOTES FOCUS AND ACCURACY: Timing becomes stressed depending on how accurate the player must time their inputs to execute moves successfully. Super Smash Brothers Melee doesn't feature the ability for players to buffer their moves ahead of time so that there's a small window of opportunity. Instead, players have to be precisely on cue. For a fast paced game like Melee, practice is required to keep your fingers well oiled for the timing of maneuvers. Because Brawl added an input buffer of about 10 frames, it's much easier for players to make precise maneuvers without nearly as much practice.
  • REFLEX FAVORS YOUNGER PLAYERS AND PROMOTES FAST ACTION: They say the older you get the slower you reflexes become. Without acute training, older/more sluggish gamers simply can't compete with twitchy youth that seemingly tap into an infinite well of energy. In fast action games where quick reflexes give players significant advantages, there typically isnt' time to react in the blink of an eye and come up with a brilliant strategy. Such actions games are usually designed around relatively simple actions as opposed to deep, sweeping strategies.
  • DEXTERITY FAVORS THE LIMBER AND THE COORDINATED: Though I haven't found a game that requires the dextrous skill of a Chopin Etude on piano or other wonderful solos for the violin, some input methods for some games are still pretty engaging. Take Wii Sports Tennis for example. The amount of arm and even full body control you need to accurately place a high flying, side spinning, lob shot to the back of the court is significant. If you want to to know how many intricacies and subtleties can be designed into motion controls, getting platinum metals in the Wii Sports training modes is a good start. On a side note, I have yet to get 4 stars on some of the Wii Fit yoga poses. These poses are as difficult as some of the hardest games I've ever played in a very different way. 
  • ADAPTATION PROMOTES THINKING ON ONE'S TOES: Prioritizing adaptation is like the opposite of prioritizing knowledge. Instead of rewarding the player who studies the game and its many possible scenarios, you reward the player who can play in the moment, break habits, and put to use all the new data that's being communicated. The concept of adaptation goes hand in hand with the concepts of "play" from video games that create a lot of interesting challenges from a few rules. In other words, like how Super Mario Brothers is designed to inform the player of upcoming platforms and hazards so he/she doesn't have to memorize any part of any level, promoting adaptation and designing the type of game that can best support it makes every decision meaningful and to the player's credit because in such games, the player holds all the cards and sees all the factors.


In the same way you can shape the balance of required skill for a game, you can also design for or against specific play styles. If you don't want players to camp all the time in an FPS, put in a radar system like in Halo3 or Call of Duty4. Even though these systems can tell you if people are waiting around the corner for you, there's a lot of interplay too. Walking slowly, crouch walking, and radar jammers can fake out Halo3's motion sensor. And in COD4, using silenced weapons, not shooting, or selecting the radar jamming perk are ways to get around being spotted on the radar.


Every interactive design element you implement tips the scales of balance in one direction or another. The more you figure out what type of gameplay experience you want to create, the easier it is to focus your design to that end.

The next type of variation we'll cover is pacing.

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Reader Comments (2)

you definitely seemed smarter before i found out you think that smash has more depth than guilty gear.

maybe you've had your mind changed or maybe you simply never gave guilty gear a fair chance, but the primary defensive mechanics are pretty straightforward.

Block, FD, Instant Block, Backdash, guard meter, .

2d fighter blocking is the same thing it's always been. FD is blocking but creates spacing. Instant block is blocking but harder and better (analogous to instant shield in smash). Backdash is temporary invincibility, rewarding tight timing (analogous to rolls in smash) and guard meter is to punish you for getting wailed on without retaliation (analogous to damage % in smash). Burst is a button you smash to get out of trouble once or twice a game that's not hard. None of these defensive mechanics are difficult to comprehend at all, you just have to get comfortable enough that you remember them all.

Except the functional capacity to control space in Guilty Gear is really, really deep. Every character has at least 15 normal moves, several special attacks, and a couple supers. Every single one of these options is carefully balanced to have a tactical or strategic use (instead of being primarily useless), and by committing resources the properties of moves can change (really in like 2 ways). Characters typically have several intuitive movement options at a given time.

The guard meter and tension pulse mechanics unobtrusively reward gaining momentum in the game, making the last thing that happened important to what is happening now. Because they are abstract and difficult to measure, you can't calculate precisely what kind of rewards an attack will yield.

Remaining life, current distance from each other, current status (hitstun blockstun, standing, airborne, knocked down) how much tension bar you have, who has the momentum, current distance from the corner on top of character specific factors like Dizzy's fish or Venom's pool balls or how many coins Johnny has or what the last item Faust threw was are all /mechanically/ important factors. Verticality and distance between characters/from corner determine which of your many moves will hit and what combo options you have afterwards. Tension bar increases the number of moves you can perform, how easily you can defend, or your number of safe options via roman cancel.

Smash has lots of "options" but few that are viable while meaningfully different from others, especially if we're talking about Brawl.

December 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterm0ng00se


Thanks for the detailed response. But... I think you're arguing for something that I never argued against.

Looking back over the article, I didn't say that GG is not deep (shallow). This article is about balance and the methods of creating gameplay balance. For example...

"I'll take your Guilty Gear and raise you a Super Smash Brothers Brawl. The core design of Smash is more dynamic, there are more characters, the stages are integral parts of the gameplay, there are many stages, and there are items that all play into the character diversity."

When I said this, I was specifically talking about gameplay diversity. This is a tricky subject to talk about because it hard to pin down at what relative view point we enter the discussion. But in general, I just said that Smash has more factors that go into its tournament level play than GG including more players (2v2) and stages that are very different from each other. There are also items that enter the match via some character abilities.

This is what I meant by Smash being more dynamic. It's not a knock against GG. Also, because I'm not very familiar with GG, I opened this statement in a kind of "I see your bet and I raise you this" just to put the idea out there. Not to make any kind of absolute hard statement comparing both games.

" Along these same lines, the fail-safe system in Guilty Gear XX seems like a cop out."

Here, again, is a tricky issue. What makes one design choice more abstract or more of a cop out than another. Getting to the bottom of this kind of investigating is really difficult. I just wanted to point out that I think Sirlin not including GG's balancing design elements in the same "cop out" category as some of the other examples he presented seemed a bit arbitrary to me.

So this comment is more about Sirlin's thoughts than GG.

" I feel that the the universal defensive system in Guilty Gear XX is a cheap way out. There are more advanced and more next-gen design features that can be implemented into a game system to function as fail safes against emergent game balance altering discoveries that don't rely on the complexity of multiple meters and cancels."

And finally, I say here that there are other, more intuitive, more efficient design choices that can be made to avoid having so many abstractions like cancels and meters just to balance out a game. While this is true, it's not a statement of what GG should have been but more of a statement of what could have been. Since writing this article years ago, I've since relaxed a bit on trying to evaluate different design decisions in such a zoomed in fashion. I now look at the bigger picture which makes talking about these subjects so much harder.

I have since fleshed out a lot of ideas that are "secretly" embedded in this post, which include: design space, clean design, intuitive design, skill, and metagames. So if you're sensing that I've bitten off more than I could chew here, you're probably right.

Sounds like you know a lot about GG. We should chat sometime about it. I'll bring all the Brawl experience to the table, and you can bring the GG. Sound fair?


December 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

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