I’m going to walk through my thought process leading up to balancing a game. This is the method I follow to make sure I spend most of my time knowing what values I need to tweak and less time making random adjustments to see what happens, or worse, re-doing parts of the gameplay because I realized I balanced it incorrectly.
Look to the Objectives
After opening my spreadsheets and settling down with a hot beverage, I take a moment to remind myself what the core of the game’s experience is. Is it patience and strategy? Mayhem? Do players have to become quick-fingered? Is the pace the same but the challenge is harder? As we balance, we should check our progress against the objectives to see if we’re meeting them or straying too far away.
Identify the Rigid Values
After gathering the pile of values and elements I will be messing with to balance the game, I start to sort them. Constraints encourage creativity, so I start by nailing down which values should remain the same, or mostly rigid, throughout the entire game (which includes values that only change if the player makes them change, such as through an upgrade.) I will set aside values that give me the most control over pace and difficulty over time.
Examples of rigid values could be the rate of fire from the player’s weapon, how long a day lasts in your gardening game, the max number of customers that can wait in your restaurant’s line, and the size of certain AOE effects. Some of these may actually change in response to certain player actions or events in the game, but they are not values that will automatically change over time as the game progresses according to when the designer says they will. That’s what makes these values special.
I keep these values separate from the rest and sort them again by permanent (ones that will have the same value no matter what) and variable (ones that can change during gameplay but that I will not have precise control over in terms of when it happens.) Sometimes there’s no right answer, so I just pick certain values to be permanents and constrain myself to balancing around them.
This was especially helpful in balancing Dashboard Blitz. I knew what the shortest amount of time was that I’d be comfortable with and I knew how long the longest round should be. I was able to specify how long each round should be so that they gradually went from the min time to the max. I no longer had to worry about that value. If I hadn’t done this and instead just started balancing each round in turn up til the end, I could’ve have ended up increasing the time at a such a rate that the final round was super long. All my previous balancing would then be garbage.
If you’re trying to balance something that isn’t necessarily discrete number values (such as a level layout or an AI,) this concept still applies. For anything you know will be increasing or growing or getting harder as gameplay continues, you need to consider what its ultimate state looks like so you know how to pace yourself there.
In this way, we are slowly giving ourselves constraints to work within, saving ourselves time, and making sure that any other designers who take over some of the work (including our future selves) are aware of what they can and can’t do.
Identify Value Relationships
This is something that can be a headache if not well documented from the start: values that change with each other or have some sort of connection. Maybe there’s a group of values that change proportionally with another. Maybe two have an inverse relationship. An example could be two creatures that can never appear in the the same room, or can only appear in the same room. It could also be some number that decreases as another increases. I like to figure out which values are going to have to change based on each other and make a note of them where another designer or future-me can find them.
Find a Starting Point
The first place I start when balancing for real is in the middle. I balance a level or part of gameplay to a point where it’s as though the player has been playing for a while but may not be ready for intensely hard levels. This is the ideal difficulty I have in mind when I imagine what the game is like. Playtesting this early balanced section gives me new information about the elements I can play with and how everything comes together. I then balance backwards and forwards from this point to make the really easy, introductory difficulty and the more challenging one. Sometimes I’ll balance one easy difficulty, one medium, and one hard. They can serve as markers so I know how to adjust the parts of the game between them.
There are a ton of ways to approach balancing, and this is just one of them. There are certain types of games where this method is very useful, and others where it doesn’t really apply. I use this method to quickly balance games with many levels that are similar in terms of mechanics. What does translate well to other genres, though, is the idea of taking small steps before balancing to make decisions on as many things as possible so I’m not overwhelmed or going in blind.Take some time in each of these steps and you will ultimately spend less time messing with every game value and more time adjusting the important ones.