Theory: Designing for Imbalance

As a Philly native, I’m usually rooting for bad sports teams. The Eagles are often more worth following for the soap opera than for the on-field play. The Sixers are, charitably, rebuilding. The Flyers haven’t been the Broad Street Bullies for a long time, and the Phillies are in such dire straits that their manager recently couldn’t call for a relief pitcher because someone had left the bullpen phone off the hook!

Here’s the thing, though: rooting for those teams is a lot of fun. It’s not disappointing when they lose, and it’s a thrill when they win. What’s more, talking about a lousy team is way more fun than talking about a great one; there’s more room for disagreement, more topics to hash out, and more debate to be had.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, either. It’s long established that people like to root for the underdog. We can see that in every sports movie for kids; they feature plucky come-from-behind wins, not the crushing dominance of the best squad.

Given all of that, I’m surprised that more attention hasn’t been given to designing multiplayer games that are intentionally unbalanced. We have imbalance in professional sports, and it makes them more fun, not less. Why not tap into that same dynamic in other genres?

For example, imagine a two-player game in which the players choose their sides. One side is visibly stronger at the outset: it has more pieces, a better position, whatever. However, both players have the same victory condition: to get X points, or to remove all the opponent’s pieces.

This game would absolutely be unfair–but I’m not at all convinced it would be unfun. Whoever picks the stronger side is likely to win, and everybody likes winning. Furthermore, winning could still be a challenge and something to take pride in.

The player on the weak side will probably lose. What he or she gets in return is the chance to be the underdog. Losing isn’t a big deal, and winning means he or she shot the moon!

In this design, then, fun would be decoupled from fairness. The players would know in advance who was likely to win, but that wouldn’t matter because each one would have entertaining things to do. Rather than the fun coming from the players competing for victory, the fun would come from each player helping the other play out a great experience: the player who begins the game with the advantage gets to be the skilled master, while the player who starts out weak gets to be the never-say-die hero.

It would be important, of course, that the players in this game pick their sides. Not everyone enjoys struggling uphill; those players shouldn’t be forced to be the underdog. For those who like the challenge, though, I think this could be an exciting way to make losing fun. If a player isn’t expected to win, but will be hugely rewarded for doing so, then there’s entertainment just in giving it a try.

Obviously, this doesn’t work for every game or every circumstance. Strict tests of skill, for example, should start on a level playing field. Not every design needs to be for tournament play, however, and we don’t need to let the requirements of tournaments limit the avenues we explore. Sports have taught us that it can be fun to start from a bad position; other types of games might benefit from exploring how to apply that lesson in other contexts.

One thought on “Theory: Designing for Imbalance

  1. I think what you are suggesting can be partially done in some games by selection of race, strategy, or stage, at least in RTS games. For example, using a game I am familiar with – Starcraft, you can try to a certain strategy that works good for long-term but has a risk of being hit with an early rush. If you want to really play with a disadvantage you can say “I won’t do something for the first minute or the game”. Or you can be a race which is known to be weaker in a certain situation (maybe Zerg on certain boards)

    At least in in RTS games, I am not sure if the “play with a handicap” thing would be attractive for many players, especially since winning is usually the #1 goal and motivator when playing against another human. And a good ladder system assures that you are already playing against something with roughly the same or slightly better skill, which is is a sense a handicap.

    In the single player realm, difficulty levels or bonus objectives take care of the “handicap” concept pretty well in many games.

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