When I started working on Project Exist, I knew in advance that you can’t have all three no matter how many people are playing the game, at least not in an effective distribution. Imbalance is not unfair, unfair is not difficult, and difficult is not unbalanced. But in the industry, getting even two is starting to seem pretty hard. Why?
Balance in game design refers the parts of a game being compared to other parts of the same game (at least in terms of the game’s mechanics). There are always going to be favored playstyles because those are subjective. For instance, the process of maximizing damage output (or maximizing damage resistance) at the cost of minimizing everything else is often seen in RPG’s of every kind. In other words, specialized character types are always going to have a “best way to specialize that way” (also known as a build). But so what? The trick then should be to make it so that each specialization type is worthwhile. In other words, if maximum damage is a good idea, then maximum tanking also should be.
But this fails in two notable MMORPG’s: Guild Wars 2 and RuneScape 3. It fails in Guild Wars 2 because at the highest level of content, everything in sight will kill you with a single blade swing regardless of how much armor you have on. So maximum damage outdoes everything else. It fails in RuneScape 3 for a far more interesting reason. Imagine for a moment, that I am selling two different brands of concrete. They both have exactly the same durability, material make-up, whatever. The two differ only in terms of appearance (which you don’t care about because you’re going to be using this crap as a foundation for some building) and price. Knowing that both kinds of concrete will perform precisely the same, would you buy the cheaper one? I hope so, but this is the problem RS3 has. Often items will have precisely the same function, but have different prices. Would you rather have an obsidian shield that gives you +20 armor and costs $300, or a red shield that gives you +20 armor and costs $350? Hmm. Project Exist is in a strange place because the combat needs to be valued as much as the story, even if the combat doesn’t happen often. So how can a single-player game be balanced? Simple: make everything dynamic. If you run a tanking character, we’ll give you a higher-damage opponent. If you run a high-damage character, we’ll give you a tankier opponent. We will balance to you.
Fairness (don’t look in your dictionary) is very different, because it is subjective. Fairness outside of game design sort of works like this: no one has to study for their tests! Instead, you flip a coin. Heads you pass, tails you fail. Very boring, very unrewarding. Players prefer the game to be unfair, but the game still needs to feel fair. Imagine your typical gunfight to the death. Your life is at stake, “playing fair” damn well better not be a concern. You’ll use grenades if you have them, shelter if it’s there, and so on. Gamers like the Halo/Crysis/Call of Whatever π campaigns because they feel challenged. This challenge is what makes the game enjoyable; the lack thereof sucks. A game that requires you to earn $400 by the end of the game but gives you $400 at the start of the game is not fun. Unfairness is its own reward… sometimes. Unfair can go too far. Players should get frustrated. But that frustration shouldn’t come from false difficulty; it should come from them struggling to get better.
If players like unfair, then why is false difficulty bad? Victory often is its own reward if the fight to get it was arduous in a way that tested your skills. Imagine yourself driving down the street, and if at the first light you take a left, your car gets eaten by a dinosaur and so you respawn. You know taking a left is the fastest way to get to work, so you try taking your left… differently. While honking, without honking, while in neutral, while not signalling, and so on. Eventually, you realize that this “left turn” is an instant death trap, so you go straight this time and live. Then you take a right and this time you die because a washing machine falls on you. So you go straight, then take a left… This is trial and error, and not in a way that teaches the player skills. Instead of your capabilities, it’s really your patience that is being tested. Whenever a game is difficult, it should be because the skills are hard to master, and not because of invisible death traps. If the death traps are visible and you have to make the drive in under 4 minutes, that’s difficult but not in a false way. We’re still not sure how to make our game truly difficult in a fun way, but we’ll do what we can to make you happy. Just remember that fairness is not our focus (even if it looks like it is).