Thought Experiment: perfectly balanced game

The cause of my considerations:
As soon as AOE IV was released there were complains about broken civs and how the developers were not able to deliver balanced civs from the start. Until before the start of the Genesis tournament the French were considered as OP and many asked for a balancing patch, as far as I can judge as a mere spectator. During this tournament the French civ could not meet the expectations. (At this point, I do not care whether the reason is that the players only developed counter strategies instead of also improving the french strategy or whether the French really aren’t that OP.) So I was thinking…

Thought Experiment:
Assume that the developers not only implemented the game, but also have the perfect meta for each civ. Let’s further assume that the game is perfectly balanced when each civ is played perfectly according to their best meta. Then, the game gets released and the player base has to learn the game from scratch and develop strategies how to play each civ. For some civs it might be easy to find good/perfect metas, for some others it might be more difficult and might take a very long time to do so. So, while the player base is learning the game and understanding the mechanics better and better, they discover new and better metas and counter strategies. However, until the best strategies of all civs are revealed, the perfectly balanced game may not be considered as balanced by the player base.

What should developers do in this probably very unrealistic thought experiment if the community asks for balancing patches?

  1. Reveal the perfect meta for each civ? I guess not, since this is the players task and fun to discover!?
  2. Do nothing with the remark that the players have not yet discovered the perfect strategies?
  3. Listen to the player base and update an in theory perfectly balanced game because the game is unbalanced with the so far discovered strategies?
  4. Other possibilities?

So far I tend to the 3rd proposal. However, I don’t think balancing patches should be released too early, since the players also need some time to find new strategies.
My conclusion based on this answer:
It would be a waste of resources if the developers try to implement a perfectly balanced game before release and therefore it should not be the expectations of the players. It is more efficient to balance the game along with the learning curve of the player base.

What are your thoughts on this?

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How would the devs know the game is perfectly balanced? Assuming the devs are top tier players because they would have to be to perfectly balance the game they could do a dev stream and crush the ladder with the civ witch is perceived the worst. Then they could say that the community has not figured everything out and should wait a bit before complaining about balance.

Although to be fair most gaming communities are so toxic that a lot of devs don’t really want to interact with the community, as I feel like is the case with relic as well preferring to leave the little community interaction what is done to MS.

I don’t think any RTS player expects a perfectly balanced game on release, I don’t think any RTS player expects a perfectly balanced game a year from release. I also think most players do not wish for a balance patch to release too early and understand the downsides of that.

That said, this is not an excuse to ignore clear balance issues for a long time, the community has already had the fun of discovering how to counter France on water maps (alt-f4), there is no room for this particular meta to develop any further, we need a balance patch to address this by either allowing us to rebind alt-f4 to mouse 4 or mouse 5 for quicker access or something else needs to be done, yesterday. They can have an emergency fix like they did for the Mongol douche by creating an “Early Hulk” that is simply as powerful as other Feudal Age ships. Worst case scenario is France can’t win on water maps and then only 1 civilization can’t play them instead of 7.

The problem is, that perfect balance introduces some variances that are hard to catch up front.
For a simpler example, you can craft a perfect balance on paper for weapons in a shooter with hit scan.
This is only a math problem when you match range and dps for an equal time to kill.
But this goes all to hell the moment that the average range of the average line of sight introduces a normal instead of a uniform distribution in maps. Then, all of a sudden some weapons become more viable by map design, which wasn’t considered in your design. For RTS, especially asymmetric setups, this becomes very complicated quite fast.
Basically, you can’t solve this by math alone realistically, which is why most issues in balancing become visible when you give it a swarm of users that will test your system in any combination you can’t think of and thus revealing the discrepancy between the game is played and how you want the game to be played.
Good balance starts with stable metrics and math, a lot of testing, and a good setup for examining data. The best base metric to go for overall is that the risk/reward ratio is identical for everything you do, which is what I personally think the existence of a Meta is just a measurement of error. If you design a game with 100 options and only half of it is used, it’s basically saying, half of your design is broken, as you never create something with the intent to not being used. So in a perfectly balanced game, the meta is the sum of all options the game offers. But as you can see with SC2, if you ask two people how balanced this game is after 20 years, you get two different answers.

So any sane designer for a game complex like this is happy for all the data they gather by players playing the game. Community feedback is one, watchdog data is another part, and interpretation of it is also important.

Also, there is this phenomenon of beginner-friendly setups publishers like to throw in. Therefore, some things are obviously broken, but won’t get fixed for some time. I would call the french civ such an outliner. No matter how people turn and twist it, alone on the paper, this civ screws the risk/reward ratio considerably.

Thinking balance is perfect when the game is released is as naive as thinking that it will be with after some patches. This would require either a couple of genius brains in multithreading mode or an immeasurable amount of luck. It’s an ongoing journey to a point, that never can be reached. It’s more of a question of how far astray the devs get on their road to a point, where it’s good enough.

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I don’t think games can be perfectly balanced. The main thing developers can do to counteract unbalanced features is hightening response time for patches. It’s a difficult process, don’t get me wrong, but I think they should at first devote everything to balancing. We don’t need new features yet.

Also nice post to OP, it looks like the experiments I have to do for my job.

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Maybe not the right thread - but I think the game is really missing resource collection graphs. I.E. at 5 minutes you’d collecting X food, Y gold, Z wood etc. These would I think set out a more objective reality than “player X played Y against Z a handful of times and won, clearly its overpowered.”

I think they’d reveal an awful lot about early game balance - which would in turn allow us to make clear suggestions rather than rely on gut feel that faction X is overpowered, faction Y is useless etc.

Partly biased because I just lost a game as China to France where the French player collected 40% more resources than me. And this wasn’t a knight harass game. This was “brief skirmishes, both sides staying on 1 TC and troops, feels kind of so-so, then wham, 13-14 minute mass attack with rams”.

Now is it just that China is left miles behind in such a game, you need to find the resources to get into Song Dynasty reasonably early? Or they just need a buff the end? Or did I do something critically wrong and China can collect far more stuff (while maintaining sufficient military units to fend off France etc)? Because I can see the French player got their upgrades earlier than I did - but otherwise I had them more or less matched villager to villager, and I had IOs on my resource collection hubs for much of the game.

You balance the game against the subjective metas of the most competitive of the playerbase. Fortunately, that coincides with the metas of the humans on the balance team.

Normal players are generally unhelpful at balancing because their medium normal skill and faults make for noisy data. Leave balancing to the best players. The rest can just get good.

But if the Mista, Viper, RecoN, ZertoN, etc. say a unit or tech needs tweaking, so it shall be done.

Starcraft 2.

Lowko recently went back and showed a wings of liberty pro game. That is, pro’s playing on an older balance patch, and older maps, of Starcraft 2.

Back then, you had infestors who rooted infantry instead of slowing them down, and siege tanks could be placed on reaper ledges, with no safe overlord lookout spots.

As the game progressed, and things became more and more developed, strategies refined, and counter-play worked out, things were rebalanced. They no longer have the mothership for the protoss early game, for example, as it warped the game.
the maps were re-designed with less resources per base, but with more safe bases, a natural and a third.
The game evolved over time. more and more balance patches and more shifts in meta later, we wound up with the current balance in starcraft. People still criticize it, especially the protoss.

In magic the gathering’s early days, creatures such as shivan dragon and Djinn were pretty good, but after a couple of years, the creature meta and viewing them as staying spells became the norm. Now, a 5/5 flying fire breathing for 6 is bad in constructed, but it was the bomb beforehand.
AOE4 will follow a similar trend, and if we discover there’s an easy way to deal with knights, those nations will shift towards needing a buff, likewise if the scales shift too far with the upcoming balance changes. Some high ranking players like outpost pushing gold as the mongols with double spears, but that’s risky, and if it becomes more commonplace, french players will simply adapt.

This doesn’t mean not to criticize the meta, but simply acknowledging perspectives shift and will continue to shift as the game advances. Early on, in the mongol showmatch, an in-house commentator remarked “yeah, people really like outpost rushing the mongols”…I’ve never seen that against the mongols, yet.

We may reach the meta where the french are weak on water because they can’t reliably kill demo ships.
but at the moment, right now, self healing knights are strong. faster vill production is strong, and the french hulk is strong.

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What does perfectly balanced even mean? Where are you going to balance the civs around? Top 1%, Lowest 1%, at 50% elo? There is no right anwser. Most civs are fine for the top tier players, but for lower elos some get more powerfull then others due to lack of skill. As far as you can say by watching genesis: French a little bit to op since everybody plays them, and chinese are a little bit to weak for noone played them. But that doesn’t mean chinese couldn’t beat french. Just can’t beat them on the same elo. Balancing is ultra hard, and there will never be a single perfectly balanced multiplayer game and I think most people are just fine with that. And some who can’t deal with reality are ranting and leaving rts after a few days/weeks.

Those familiar with League of Legends might have also read a blog entry from one of the balancing team.

You don’t ever try to perfectly balance a game like this. You try to hit the sweat spot were unbalance leeds to a new meta without an overwhelming oppression of one game mechanic (like hulks from french or french knight play on open maps).

And with every balance patch the meta slightly changes, giving the game a new depth. But indeed balance still needs to be at a level where all civilizations (or heros in lol) are playable and have a similar winrate.

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I believe that a developer trying to achieve perfect balance as a goal is more toxic than having the playerbase demand “balance”.

As others have pointed out, balance is subjective as hell. As a developer you HAVE to know this. This is why I’d lean towards your option of just letting players game it out and git gud as the meta shifts.

Starcraft is a great example of an “unbalanced” game. Its only mayor patch was the subsequent expansion which allowed for more robust strategies. Then it was only as the pro-scene discovered vulture micro, mutalisk stacking and other technical skills that the game flourished into the chess-like balance of the modern meta. There are whole classes of units that are unreliable within given matchups (Terran bio vs Protoss for example). There’s even a gamebreaking bug that was fixed 19 YEARS later. That would be the Valkyrie not shooting due to game engine fail.

By contrast Starcraft 2 was a game obsessed with being an esport. David Kim lead the effort to preach balance to the players for a full decade. I’d say he did a great job at that, but overall the game suffered. Innovation was pruned quickly as expansions and new units were introduced. The game meta was often unfun for new players, particularly during Heart of the Swarm. Casual game modes were second priority too.

Now if you ask the pros what they think, often some will say they like Broodwar over SC2. The former being more technical and difficult while the later tried to emulate this through gimmicky high-risk high-reward mechanics. The rest of the pros admit the limitations of Broodwar and it’s monotony, prefering SC2.

I believe a developer’s goal should be to make the game fun to play. In that joy metas evolve and different balance thresholds can be found and lost.