What does "Balance" actually mean?

There’s been several long discussions about various unlocks (Electrocution phone, Molotov, to give two examples) that have often brought up the concept of “balance” as it pertains to Hitman and other games. I have not seen, though, a good definition of what it actually means for a game to be balanced. I am hoping this thread can explore that subject without needing to tie to any specific unlocks or items.

Is a game balanced if it’s hard?
Is a game balanced if it’s accessible (and what does that mean, exactly)?
Is a game unbalanced if it’s easy? What is only some players find it easy?

Discuss!

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i’m not a game designer, but (for what it’s worth) the best definition i’ve heard of game balance is the art of creating a perception of fairness and ensuring options stay within a bandwidth conducive to the experience being delivered.

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This game maybe the best balanced game in the history of video games.

You have 3 levels, casual, pro, expert

It offers many options, from different ways to achieve victory.

I don’t know about anyone else, I paid for everything deluxe, Goty, requiem, everything at the premium price, even the case when hitman 2 came out.

In all my 40 years, the game keeps adding more content and I wouldn’t change a thing, these past 6 years.

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image

I think this chart does a pretty good job. In my opinion, Hitman is right in that green “sweet spot”, but some players may fall on either side of the line.

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Also, looking at that chart, I am finally understanding with some other players are talking about with items like the Molotov. I’m not saying I agree with them, just that I am finally understanding what they are saying.

I think they are saying that, for them, something like the electrocution phone or the molotov pushes the game from that green (or even yellow band) into the orange “mindless fun” or even “boring” areas because (according to their arguments) the Player Skill/Difficulty ratio is out of whack with those items. Am I understanding that argument correctly?

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that is probably the best chart to describe how you feel about a video game.

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That is, yeah, that’s basically it. You’ve solved it. The argument that couldn’t be solved.

May I ask where you got this graph from?

To give a non-hitman example; Sniper Elite 3 and 4 are hardcore fun; the game is very bitchy with how players use its mechanics, and is harder because of it.

Yes. The difficulty of the game scales with the balance requirements. Stealth games in particular are hard, simply by their nature of lacking weapons and gradually getting to your goal, and then getting out again, all without being seen, or taking actions so people don’t remember you. The difficulty of a game is often inherent to the genre.

Games like DiRT are ball-crushingly hard to get used to, but the tracks are consistent, callouts are good and precise, and the driving, once you get used to the physics of the game, is very good. And those physics are consistently being improved in each release (often to the point of being a selling point for the series) to be the best It can be to a proper rally experience. DiRT is not a game I like playing because it’s a lot to learn, and it is incredibly punishing if you mess up a corner or mis-remember a tracks’ terrain, but I don’t scream at my monitor that the game isn’t balanced if I screw up a corner, but because I messed up, and that’s a sign of good balance. If you don’t feel cheated, then it’s not badly balanced. If you do feel cheated, then it needs more work.

PAYDAY 2 stealth, which is also quite bitchy, has random elements within it. The level parts often change, NPC’s move locations, keycard, camera, and tools spawn in different places. And this resets every time you restart. Players feel cheated because they have no control over the game and how it royally fucks you over; the RNG gods decide your fate, not your weapons.

It’s not a surprise then, that the most popular stealth heist in the game is the Yacht Heist, which has no cameras, very little randomisation, and is mirrored on each side for easy navigation.

Yes, because making a game more accessible means more people will play it. Something I do appreciate with Square Enix and IOI in recent years is making the game easier for newcomers to play it by simplifying mechanics to make things more consistent and better understood (the enforcer system, instinct), with the only real gripe being sight cones being tied to the head (but even those are learnable as NPC’s all have the same looking animation). Mission Stories and Intel and other poking at the player is a good way to get people more involved, not to mention being good QOL.

That’s convenience for the player so you can think about more important and pertinent things.

Easiness depends on how a game is made and the motivation behind it. Difficulties are also permeable, not linear. For game balance to be effective, the game itself has to work as intended.

Sniping in Colorado at the water tower is notoriously buggy because of how the AI react to it, but that doesn’t make sniper rifles underpowered; it makes the AI’s coding flawed. Sniper rifles are underpowered because the game punishes you too harshly for using them and there’s basically no method to take advantage of sniping kills that grant S/A; not naturally anyway.

Of course, difficulty is subjective, to an extent. People simply do not like hard games, it’s why stealth games are usually quick to go on sale because of how few people play them. Until really recently, they’ve been a niche, akin to Horror video games.

Usually there’s logic, flawed or not, behind balancing decisions. And balance usually is for the benefit and/or detriment of everyone, not just one person. It’s not a perfect system, but better than a free-for-all. Hitman is a wide-open sandbox with mechanics and goals that are deliberately more linear, so as to keep people on task. Sandboxes, true sandboxes, have overarching goals and sidequests, which means weapon balance is handled differently to accommodate for that.

Long post is long, but I hope that provides some insight.

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To me balance is that any approach can work with enough determination. No approach is impossible.

The chart came from this blog. It’s 10 years old at this point, but seemed like it was still relevant.

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that was a really interesting post, but i’m not sure i follow this.

hitman isn’t what i would describe as linear, its a sandbox. players are given an objective, a set of tools and are largely left to use the latter to achieve the former.

hitman has tons of potential paths and methods for achieving each level’s goal. some are more prescribed (mission stories/opportunities) and others can be freeformed by savvy players using established systems and rules. these can all be approached from a multitude of angles and in pretty much any order the player decides.

that there is some guidance for several of the paths doesn’t make those paths linear. there are too many options available to pick from, plus many of these prescribed paths have steps that can be ‘broken’, skipped or tackled in an irregular order.

maybe i’m misreading what you’re saying?

This is why I used the term “Wide Open Sandbox”, because Hitman still has some rules in place to enforce its puzzle aspect, therefore not making it a true sandbox. Most other sandboxes tend not to have many mechanics to punish you on a scoring level (the closest you get is running into the authorities). I’m not saying “the game is linear”, I’m saying “the game wants you to complete the objective in the level as quietly as possible”.

This is a stealth game, after all, not Witcher or GTA. You can complete it guns blazing, but the game will mark you down for it for not completing the puzzle properly.

What a great discussion idea, @schatenjager! :+1:

Personally, I think the lines blur considerably between accessibility, difficulty, and “balance”.

When players come to a game, the one element they have little control over is “player skill” (to use the phrase from the chart above). This can be for a host of reasons, including how busy and crowded our lives become, limiting the time we can play, and/or a sliding scales of limited accessibility: sight, hearing, cognition, and so on.

For this reason, I think that balance is about giving the player control over their gaming experience so that they can create their own sense of balance.

There are two relatively games that really stand out to me:

  1. Shadow of the Tomb Raider
    In this game, the player can control three different difficulty settings: Combat, Exploration (controlling the presence or absence of visual markers/cues), and Puzzle (Lara will either remain silent or make varying levels of comments on how she perceives a way forward).
  2. The Last of Us Part II
    Plenty has already been said about this game, but it’s quite possibly one of the best game to date every produced to provide access to players of all skill levels. For example, the fact that a completely blind person can play and enjoy the game is quite remarkable (see YouTube: The Last of Us Part II Accessibility Demo).
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And absolutely nothing of consequence will happen if you kill 50 people. Whatever the game “wants”, it will proceed as if 47 completed the level flawlessly in his usual style. If you count getting a zero and being called a Messy Amateur as the game wanting you to do something a certain way, you take this way too seriously.

I think that chart above is the best thing I’ve seen describing game balance but it’s subjective. For Hitman, for example, the people who don’t like “OP” items think the game is imbalanced while others who don’t mind them think it’s fine or even funny. I think, for that reason, game balance is really in the eye of the beholder. For me, personally, since I assume this is really a thinly vailed discussion about things like the Molotov, game balance in Hitman specifically is whatever the player decides it is. It’s a single player game. The leaderboards don’t matter. Speedrunners on YouTube don’t matter. All that matters is your personal satisfaction in your performance. If you don’t like things like the Molotov, there is absolutely nobody forcing you to use it. There is no one forcing you to play any specific way. I myself have recently developed a tendency to only pick up one of a specific type of game at a time. If I pick up another gun I have to drop the one I already have somewhere first. No one made me do that, I just don’t like how many guns merging into one. I sure hope nobody made Heisenberg play the way he plays and he doesn’t force get mad when we play differently (he just gets disappointed).

If this was a multiplayer game or the leaderboards actually affected anything other personal satisfaction, I’d agree more with people about “OP” items. Or perhaps if it was more linear or levels failed you for doing something “wrong”. As it stands currently in a sandbox? Where the story will progress whether or not 47 was in and out in his suit in two minutes or spent four hours massacring everyone and is definitely got his face plastered all over the evening news? Perhaps more than any other game, player choice is the game balance in Hitman.

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sorry, but i’m not sure how that ties in to your having “mechanics and goals that are deliberately linear” point?

maybe it’s a semantic thing, but i don’t think the game really “enforces” anything. it certainly encourages a stealthy approach with the scoring system, but there isn’t anything literally stopping us from playing how we like.

compare a typical hitman level to the original splinter cell, a strictly linear stealth game. the latter imposes numerous gameplay conditionals (three alarms = mission failure, lots of no kill conditions on certain levels, etc) that directly impact play. the scoring system is more of a psychological nudge in comparison.

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Each map (Ambrose Island still pending) literally has set challenges that can only be counted complete if you perform it in 47’s style, and does not grant you that completion if you just mow down everybody. Now, this only counts if you’re a completionist or want to unlock something locked behind those challenges, and it only has to be done once, but the game does punish you (or at least withholds from you) for going with that play style on those grounds.

For me, “balance” is just the word used to justify the personal approval or disapproval individuals have about some aspect of the game. Like this thing? The game is “balanced.” Don’t like this thing? Game must be “unbalanced.” I really see no means of how the concept of balance, as described herein by other members, affects how I play the game. Now, I’m not saying that my lack of seeing any application of the concept of balanced doesn’t mean others won’t, or that it invalidates their claims of such; I’m just saying it’s a subjective concept, not an objective one. The constant usage of the concept of balance in regards to certain items being used in the game does nothing for me but bring this to mind:

Summary

They also have plenty of challenges that want players to bean someone in the face with a durian or feed a bunch of guards to piranhas, to name a couple. I’m sure you died a little inside of you did those. Or you chose not to do challenges like that. The point still stands; at no point (during the main story) does the game require the player to do anything to complete the objectives like the original post suggests.

Completely agree (and even said that myself).

You seem to be misunderstanding my use of the word “linear”. I did not mean the entire playstyle was linear, I meant that, compared to actual sandbox games, the game gives a much more direct goal to complete.

You can still complete the game in any way you want, but the game wants you to complete it stealthily, and will dock points by marking you down if you don’t do this.

That’s called Gameplay and Story Segregation, and this very much also applies to multiplayer games too (even moreso, as it’s basically the justification to have loosely related team fights instead of vaguely following a story). You seem to be missing the point here. Games make distinctions between “in-universe story” and “in-game mechanics and scoring”, and the mechanics in Hitman obviously don’t make much sense when applied to the story; that’s for the benefit of the player.

From what I understand about your original point is that the game punishes players for not playing a certain way. My point is that if a player doesn’t care about stars or score or where they end up on the leaderboard, and that’s the extent of the “punishment”, it’s not a punishment.

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I know that I have done maps with the specific intent of getting 5 stars, or doing it suit only, or only using a specific weapon, or some other arbitrary challenge I set for myself. Doing that, and achieving whatever goal I set does feel good and satisfying, obviously.

Other times though, I am totally unconcerned with how many stars I get. Maybe I only want to achieve a high score. Maybe I just want to kill as many NPCs as I can without getting spotted. Maybe I just want to blow up the whole map. The game allows all of that.

I think that’s part of balance too. I’m not ever restricted to one specific play style (barring escalations and contracts, obviously).

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