This is an article I wrote a few years back on how I feel multiplayer games are balanced, and observations i’ve made while playing many different types of multiplayer games. Enjoy!!!
Multiplayer games need to be balanced for many different levels of players. I do believe making a fun and balanced multiplayer game for everyone is a real problem, and a almost impossible one to solve completely. While I believe a highly skilled player should almost always defeat a player that is not as skilled, there is still design and balancing issues that should be considered so that neither player becomes frustrated with the game. One way is to balance multiplayer is to make sure everything has a counter, even if it doesn’t seem like its going to dominate the game, its best to put in a fail safe to make sure it can be stopped. The next thing is to make sure that the game has a large number of options during the game, this allows the player to figure out a way to do better. The most fair method comes from a balanced matchmaking service, that balances out teams or versus matches based on current skill levels.
There should never be a god weapon, god move, god character, god vehicle or god anything in a multiplayer game. By using the term “god” I’m referring to something that is so powerful that you would be stupid not to use it, or something extremely powerful that has very little if any weaknesses or drawbacks. Everything should have a counter, even if it doesn’t seem very powerful, it should still have one in case some one figures out a way to exploit it. I constantly hear in “Call of Duty 4” that the sniper is overpowered, but really the sniper can be countered easily. Most of the time the sniper is sitting still with his site raised looking for someone to kill, which opens him up to a very easy knife kill from behind. If there is a really strong weapon like the hammer or sword in “Halo 3” it could also have drawbacks that make it easily stopped. In fact I’ve found the sword almost unplayable in a multiplayer match because it requires such a close range to your enemy. In card games such as “Magic the Gathering” new mechanics are introduced in each set, along with those mechanics are a few cards that counter it, just in case the new mechanic gets out of control. In my mind the first way to have a balanced multiplayer game for players of all skill levels is to make sure everything has something that stops it. I still find players becoming frustrated from what some think are cheap kills such as the grenade drop ability in “Call of Duty 4”. I personally see this as a fair compromise since everyone has abilities they can set, and in most cases there is plenty of warning to escape the grenade explosion. I do understand their argument since there’s not really any skill involved in dropping the grenade, but is does provide a player a moment of joy as they kill the person that stabbed them in the back. Playtesting is the best way to determine that nothing is overpowered, and that everything can be countered. Experienced players will understand each item or class’s weakness, while new players should pick up this knowledge quickly. As long as each player feels like they have a chance against anything the opponent throws at them they will very likely never get frustrated. There has to be times in a game when one player or team has no chance to win a match, that is completely expected in any game, but its really everything before that point thats important.
Providing the player options before and during the game are important to balancing any multiplayer game. In “Call of Duty: WAW” and “Call of Duty: 4” the player can switch classes anytime they die. This allows the player to dynamically adjust to the action. If I’m playing against mainly snipers, I would switch to light weapon with extra grenades, so I have a better chance at sneaking up on my enemy. In “Unreal Tournament 3” players can drive many different types of vehicles from huge tanks to quick hovercrafts, this type of diversity allows players to adjust their play style to whats happening in the game. Vehicles also give players a sense of power that they probably won’t have while on foot. I’ve always preferred very grounded shooters so when I play “Halo 3” I usually will lose in a one on one gun fight simply because my opponent will start jumping while I’m staying put on the ground. I started getting very frustrated with the game because of this, but then I found that a simple sticky grenade on my jumping opponent will usually result in us both dieing. This brief moment of joy was enough for me to keep playing “Halo 3”. Giving the player the option to jump in “Halo 3” changes the way the game is played, as does adding the option to use the sticky grenade. If all players feel they can try something different the next time they respawn then that limits the frustration of dieing.
Another way to provide a balanced gameplay experience for everyone is to use a sophisticated matchmaking service that pairs players based on skill. Microsoft’s TrueSkill rating is used by default when a search for a Ranked Match is done on Xbox Live. Each player is assigned a TrueSkill number based on their prior performances. The TrueSkill number dynamically changes based on the result of each Ranked Match, the number will make larger jumps if the uncertainty value in the TrueSkill ranking is still large and the player does extremely different from his current skill level. Some games even uses this as your leaderboard ranking such as “Magic The Gathering” on XBLA and “Marble Blast Ultra” on XBLA. Other games such as “Halo 3” use their own matchmaking service to make a balanced game, while some games like “Call of Duty 4” don’t seem to do any balancing. In “Halo 3” each player is assigned a level based on their skill level, I’m not sure if that ties into TrueSkill or not, but I felt punished when that number would drop. I personally think the best way is to hide that information from the player, and instead give them a leveling system that doesn’t decrease due to losing a few matches. The TrueSkill system is not a perfect solution, but it does seem the best for “head-to-head” style games like “Magic The Gathering” or “Madden NFL 2009”. The player will find himself playing an opponent of similar skill level, and is much more likely to have a good time playing the game. This type of filtering when done correctly really limits newer players frustration levels, and it also provides more experienced players with matches in their skill level.
The TrueSkill or custom matchmaking service seems to be more designed for “head-to-head” style games, but I thinks its just as applicable to team based games. Making sure that everything has a counter is a very important part of balancing multiplayer games no matter how its played. Providing a seemingly deep game with a lot of options after the game starts is important during any multiplayer match whether team or “head-to-head”. New players would become less frustrated playing with players of similar skill level, but even if they are paired with highly skilled players they should feel they have a way to stop anything their opponent is doing. Experienced players will appreciate the number of options they have at their disposal, and understand how different elements counteract one another, which should hopefully prevent them from becoming frustrated. Overall I feel that design choices made to balance the game during one multiplayer match would mostly be applicable in any game mode, and no matter how the players are connected.