Design structures in a game which works towards players having equal chances of succeeding with actions in a game or with winning the game.
Most players want games to have the rules and structures that give each player the same or better chances to win or succeed with actions as other players. As this typically means that all players need the same chances to win or succeed, most games try to have Player Balance. However, this Player Balance does not usually consider the skill of players and usually only apply to the beginning of games.
Note: this pattern is categorized as a Subjective Pattern since players may have subjective feelings if the design structures in place are good enough (or too good) at balancing the fortunes of all players.
The symmetry in traditional board games such as Chess or Go guarantee a high level of initial Player Balance, although being the first player to do a move usually has some advantage. Go has handicap systems to even further balance starting positions by giving stones (points) to the player that is not the first player.
Fighting games, i.e. the Mortal Kombat series or the Tekken series, can allow players to modify individual attack strengths or how much damage their characters individually can take to counter imbalances in the skill of damaging the opponent.
Racing games such as the Mario Kart series and Super Monkey Ball series have mechanics to provide benefits for those not leading races. In the Mario Kart series leaders cannot get all power-ups and some power-ups specifically target the leaders. In the Super Monkey Ball series leaders have lower top speeds (which can make certain jumps more difficult or impossible).
Using the pattern
The main challenge with having Player Balance in a game is that so many other design features can work against it. The primary one is Multiplayer Games which is also the pattern that makes there be a need for Player Balance. Other central challenges to Player Balance come from patterns that cause asymmetry between players in their possibilities to compete with each other, i.e. Asymmetric Abilities, Asymmetric Goals, Asymmetric Resource Distribution, and Asymmetric Starting Conditions. Many patterns relate to some of these asymmetries and to players, i.e. players having too powerful Abilities due to being AI Players, Entitled Players, being in high tiers in games with Tiered Participation, having Player Augmentations (but these can also be used to boost to Abilities of disadvantaged players), or having Empowerment. Others, e.g. Invulnerabilities, Privileged Abilities, and Privileged Movement, cause imbalances in Abilities. These imbalances may also be caused by imbalances in how Skills, Strategic Locations, Tools, Vehicles, or Weapons are distributed, which makes Procedurally Generated Game Worlds or Reconfigurable Game Worlds a potential source for such imbalances as well (but also tools for working towards Player Balance).
Asymmetry regarding resources and starting conditions may also come from games having First Player Advantages, allowing Early Leaving Players, or having to deal with Late Arriving Players (especially in games where their Player Characters are subject to Game Element Insertion) or players that become potential Kingmakers. Asymmetric Starting Conditions regarding Abstract Player Constructs or Characters is another way in which asymmetry can break Player Balance easily (typically significant play testing is necessary to determine that a game is balanced when this type of asymmetry exists). Any type of Multiplayer Game where players can improve in Persistent Game Worlds, e.g. through Abstract Player Construct Development, Character Development, or Crafting, can create an asymmetry simply due to differences in spent time. Players having support due to external reasons, e.g. Non-Player Help or Purchasable Game Advantages, can easily also destroy Player Balance. A more specific example of this can be found in Collectible Card Games such as Magic: The Gathering since it has Heterogeneous Game Element Ownership and the game elements (Cards in this case) create various Combos with each other. Finally, players who are good at a game, i.e. have Gameplay Mastery, automatically break Player Balance unless all players have the same level of Gameplay Mastery. Game Mastery issues can be compounded by imbalances in Abilities or Skills, i.e. games with Player/Character Skill Composites. The presences of Enemies can work against Player Balance also when they work more against some players than others or Enemies with different strengths and weaknesses are pitched against different players. However, the latter can also be used to modify the Player Balance (so the gameplay becomes either more or less balanced).
Player Balance can easily be upset in games due to consequences that rewards certain players without compensating others. Examples of these include Extra Turns, Flip-Flop Events, Geometric Rewards for Investments, New Abilities, and Power-Ups. Combos also have this problem but are tied to players performing actions in rapid succession. Possibility to engage in Camping activities show that players can have gained advantageous positions through their actions which upset Player Balance. Imbalances are especially likely to occur when the positive consequences for players increase their chances of getting further positive consequences, i.e. if the game contains Positive Feedback Loops related to such consequences. Randomness can be used to counter Positive Feedback Loops and Gameplay Master, but this is a fickle solution to achieving Player Balance since the Randomness in itself can disrupt a Player Balance. While games with Red Queen Dilemmas by definition have the ability to let other players also become better, this is a fickle solution to Player Balance which where any player taking a lead disrupts the balance; the pattern is more problematic concerning Player Balance the more players there are, especially if not all players can participate in the race. Taking the opposite view, Player Balance can also be disrupted by misfortunes happening to players, Player Elimination being the most definite one since it removes a player from gameplay followed by Player Killing that can either cause Player Elimination or (typically) cause Death Consequences.
While there are many types of patterns that can work against Player Balance there are also many patterns that can work towards it. Some of the most effectful ones rely on players and others being able to make actions (either game actions or other types of actions). Dedicated Game Facilitators and Game Masters let non-players have great influence on the balance between players and can function as trusted third parties. Free Game Element Manipulation, Negotiation, Player-Decided Results, and Sanctioned Cheating in Multiplayer Games all let players have the possibility to work against imbalances that has occurred in a game instance or was present at the beginning of a game. Another effectful category of patterns that can promote Player Balance are based on Symmetry, with Symmetric Goals and Symmetric Resource Distribution as examples of more specific patterns. However, these don't work for imbalances based on asymmetry (which is a common cause for needing to think about Player Balance).
Other patterns do not in themselves work towards Player Balance but can be used for balancing purposes. Who gets Ability Losses or Decreased Abilities can be used to make players possibilities more equal, as can modifications as to how Spawning occurs or which roles are reversed in Role Reversal situations. Tournaments can pitch players against each other so that obvious disparities between players chances are minimized. Supporting Goals can be provided only to disadvantaged players without necessarily making others feel that their efforts or Luck is nullified. Non-Renewable Resources and Challenging Gameplay can both put limits to how much advantages some players can have due to Resources becoming unavailable or the difficulty at some point becoming too hard. Terraforming Mars is an example of the former if one considers the "terraforming scales" and water tiles are Resources; players that have built Abstract Player Constructs that let them advance one scale very effectively will at some point no longer have a benefit from this since the scale cannot be raised more.
Patterns supporting Player Balance during game instance but not doing so through letting people perform balancing actions typically do so through Negative Feedback Loops, with Diminishing Returns as a somewhat more specific way of achieving this. In contrast, a quite large group of patterns promote Player Balance by modifying the fortunes of players opposed to each other. That is, they are applicable in games with PvP or TvT gameplay. Balancing Effects, Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment and Handicap Systems are all generic ways of doing this with Symmetry being the most generic. Games can also rely on players working towards balancing gameplay. This is typically done through supporting Beat the Leader gameplay, with Public Player Statistics as one way of letting players know who the leader is. This is only a partial solution however since it does not support players that are behind the majority of players in some way. Paper-Rock-Scissors offers another solution in that even if one player begins to have an advantage against another player there are additional players that the "advantageous" player is fundamentally disadvantaged against. In contrast, specific balancing effects can be to provide Privileged Abilities or Variable Accuracy to players based upon their circumstances. Games with Power-Ups that use Randomness to determine the effects of getting the Power-Ups can promote Player Balance by skewing the distribution of effects based on the players' circumstances. The Mario Kart series is one example of a game using this solution.
In games with Team, Team Development can provide Player Balance if the possibility for development or amount of development is affected by the relative position of players. This can work both in games with TvT and PvP gameplay since a player may control a whole Team in games with PvP gameplay. Team Development can also let players modify their Abilities, Powers, etc. to be better suited against the other players' strategies. The same applies for games with Drafting.
Player Balance can also be achieved in PvP games through having Evolving Rule Sets so differences in power between different ways of playing can be evened out over time (one example of a game that does this is Magic: The Gathering). Sanctioned Cheating is another way in PvP games since those players that are disadvantaged often can have bigger gains from engaging in Sanctioned Cheating without necessarily suffering bigger losses if their cheating is revealed. Killcams in PvP games can let players learn about what they or other did to get killed (or to kill someone else) as well as expose killers strategies and locations. Specifically for TvT games, differences in strengths and weaknesses between individual team members can be mitigated through Orthogonal Differentiation within the Teams so the total effect is that the Teams are balanced and therefore a version of Player Balance is achieved (one has the same chance of belong to a winning team). Regardless of if games have Teams or not, Self-Facilitated Games can have Player Balance since the players themselves can modify game states and ignore rules for the purpose to balancing the gameplay.
One effect of providing Player Balance to a game is that it can let players have an Determinable Chance to Succeed. The presence of Player Balance naturally affects Competition and Gameplay Mastery but does not necessarily work against them. Instead, they can strive to make Competitions last longer and require more of players to show that they have Gameplay Mastery.
Can Be Instantiated By
Beat the Leader, Dedicated Game Facilitators, Diminishing Returns, Free Game Element Manipulation, Game Masters, Negative Feedback Loops, Negotiation, Paper-Rock-Scissors, Player Augmentations, Player-Decided Results, Privileged Abilities, Public Player Statistics, Randomness, Symmetric Goals, Symmetric Resource Distribution, Symmetry, Variable Accuracy
Balancing Effects, Drafting, Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, Evolving Rule Sets, Handicap Systems, Killcams, Orthogonal Differentiation, Sanctioned Cheating, Self-Facilitated Games, Symmetry, Team Development in games with PvP
Can Be Modulated By
Possible Closure Effects
Potentially Conflicting With
AI Players, Asymmetric Abilities, Asymmetric Goals, Asymmetric Resource Distribution, Asymmetric Starting Conditions, Camping, Combos, Death Consequences, Early Leaving Players, Empowerment, Enemies, Entitled Players, Extra Turns, First Player Advantages, Flip-Flop Events, Geometric Rewards for Investments, Invulnerabilities, Kingmaker, Late Arriving Players, Multiplayer Games, New Abilities, Non-Player Help, Player Augmentations, Player Elimination, Player Killing, Positive Feedback Loops, Power-Ups, Privileged Abilities, Privileged Movement, Procedurally Generated Game Worlds, Purchasable Game Advantages, Reconfigurable Game Worlds, Randomness, Red Queen Dilemmas, Strategic Locations, Tiered Participation
An updated version of the pattern Player Balance that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design.
- Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.