Theory: Balancing for Whom?

(I’m on vacation this week; this post is going up automatically. I’ll respond to any comments when I get back!)

There’s a predicate issue we often skip right over when balancing a game: who will the balance affect? Who are the “players” that the game needs to treat fairly? The answer can dictate a great deal about a game’s design.

Certainly, most of the time the answer is obvious. The players are the ones sitting at the table, or in front of their computers. Game balance affects them, and they’re the ones we’re concerned about.

However, the people immediately making the decisions and pushing the components around aren’t the only possibilities. For example, consider the courtroom. Many people see game-like elements in a trial: there’s strategy, tactics, resources, winners and losers. However, the players aren’t just the lawyers. The clients are playing too–sometimes for life-changing (or even life-ending) stakes. The “game” of law needs to be balanced for these players who often have little opportunity to influence what’s going on.

That might seem an unsolvable problem–how can a game be made fair for players who can’t leverage their skill?–but the writers of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure found partial answers thanks to some out-of-the-box thinking. In essence, they introduced co-op elements into the law, requiring attorneys to, for example, provide certain important information to the opposing party. When those co-op aspects of the law work well, they eliminate a number of “gotchas” and ensure that the clients have a chance to put on their case.

We might alternatively look toward spectators as potential players. Many games are explicitly designed for spectator appeal; basketball, for example, has on occasion changed its rules in part because the game was trending in a direction that was functional but boring. Thinking about balance in terms of the viewers might be more useful than thinking about it in terms of the people actually engaged in the sport, when those viewers generate multiple billions of dollars every year.

Game design is, to some extent, about creating an experience. It’s therefore sensible to ask “whose experiences?” Always ask that question; the answer might be surprising, and might push a design in fascinating directions.

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