From the Bullpen: Imbalances Are Cool!

Most people have heard the term “a level playing field.” It means that the state of affairs is balanced, and is very applicable to sports that count on literal level playing fields – football, basketball, baseball, etc. There’s not too much to comment about concerning the balance of a level playing field. In videogames, however, the playing field is often not level at all, or rather, the elements that make up the game are not equal at all. And yet the most popular eSports games being played right now are all games based on an imbalanced gamestate – different characters that players control, different races to command, different guns one can wield from different spawn points, different decks with different cards you may or may not draw.

Why are we drawn to imbalances, even though (it goes without saying) we hate it when things are unfair? Aren’t play imbalances an invitation to disaster?

When I say “imbalances,” I’m talking about the differences between players and the elements they control in the game which make the game fun. For Heroes of the Storm, that means the Heroes themselves. I don’t mean when a particular game element is over- or under-powered in general – that certainly happens in games despite developers’ best efforts to prevent it, and it’s certainly an “imbalance,” but it’s one that detracts from the fun, rather than adding to it. This blog is about how power differences make things fun.

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Imbalances create fun role-playing opportunities

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Asymmetry between Heroes is fun – we think different players prefer different roles, and there are many players that enjoy exploring many different roles. We try to make the roles as unique as possible, first through one of our four Hero roles (Warrior, Assassin, Support, and Specialist), then via mechanics (“I like split-pushing and destroying towns”), and finally, at a fantasy level (“I am Azmodan, Lord of Sin, and master of the endless armies of Hell!”) Diversity on all of these levels opens up lots of play space for players to engage in, and allows designers to create pointed, interesting mechanics.

The Protoss in StarCraft can assemble an entire base with just one worker unit. Mages in World of Warcraft can turn enemies into sheep. Goalies get to touch the ball with their hands. Imbalances like these give rare expertise to players, and we think things get really interesting when combined with a team!

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Imbalances allow us to make Heroes feel more powerful

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This follows from creating pointy role-playing opportunities. Because Heroes have a finite set of abilities that do specific things, and must make trade-offs depending on their role, we’re able to make them more powerful in the role they specialize in.

For example: Nova was intentionally designed to have very low health, no “escape” abilities, and furthermore, players cannot make up those deficiencies by picking Talents. These attributes may make her sound pretty weak in a vacuum, but anyone who has played with or against Nova knows her abilities hit like a truck, and she’s permanently cloaked before attacking. Those advantages feel powerful and game-breaking. Nova’s role has been refined to a needlepoint. We’re able to make her powerful because her role is so defined, and players (if my own feelings are anything to go by) love playing with this power.

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Imbalances have the potential to drive interesting gameplay

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There’s a book I often refer to in game design that’s actually not about game design at all; it’s called How to Reassess Your Chess by international chess master Jeremy Silman. In it, Silman explains that high-level chess play is governed largely by the imbalances on the board – which player captured more valuable pieces, the structure and positioning of pieces on the board, which player is attacking at the present moment, and so on. Chess starts as an equal playing field, with each side having an equal amount of pieces in equal positions. Throughout the game, players are trying to create imbalances, and then to use those imbalances to create advantages that will eventually help them win.

The same thing happens in any other competitive game by varying degrees, including Heroes of the Storm, where the game begins in an “imbalanced” state because of the Heroes. Each team has different Heroes, with different strengths and weaknesses, and players try to convert these factors into imbalances favoring their team - being ahead in levels, destroying forts, securing map objectives, all to the point of winning the game. Being able to identify imbalances in the game and acting on them is key to playing at a more competitive level, and makes just watching games as eSports fun and interesting. I think strategic analysis of imbalances in all kinds of videogames could easily fill a book – what are some kinds of imbalances you can think of that drive gameplay?

Despite all of the interesting gameplay we gain from designing these imbalances (i.e. different Heroes), we can easily lose that gameplay if we don’t keep things fair. If there’s a Hero that is simply too powerful for whatever reason, the gameplay we will end up with becomes homogenized and uninteresting. Every game may include that Hero, for example, or revolves entirely around dealing with that Hero using hard-counters. Identifying and correcting that problem is a topic for next time: when imbalances turn into unfairness!

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We hope you’re enjoying a look behind the curtain into Heroes of the Storm game design that Technical Designer John Hodgson has been sharing through this blog series. If you’d like to keep up with John on a day-to-day basis, be sure to follow @BlizzJohnzee on Twitter, or stay tuned right here at HeroesoftheStorm.com to catch his next post. Until next time, we’ll see you in the Nexus!

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