posted Saturday, October 28th 2006 by
Something that I’ve begun to notice by examining the game design of Dungeons & Dragons is that game balance isn’t just something that applies to D&D – videogames frequently take their balance very seriously. While this is old news to MMORPG players who have long been used to patches subtly nerfing and buffing their classes for PvP fairness, I was surprised to realise that the developers of team-based first-person shooter Battlefield 2 had paid a lot of attention to their own game balance.
Battlefield 2 might be as far as you can go from swords and sorcery, but it does bear a few important resemblances to D&D. For one, it’s a multiplayer game where combat, resources and communication between allies is important. For another, the game has a class-based system, where your class determines what weapons and armour you can use and what role you have. Players can organize themselves into self-sufficient squads of between two and six people and team up to go after a goal. Sound familiar yet?
Naturally, in any team game like this it’s important to strike a balance between choices, or else the one or two best choices will simply dominate the play. Consider the much older (and in this blogger’s opinion, inferior) team-based FPS Counterstrike, in which your class was merely a matter of appearance and the power of your equipment was related only to the amount of prize money you were able to spend on it – a poor balancing factor, in hindsight, since it merely penalized players for losing. Gameplay was dominated by one or two powerful weapons and a handful of predictable tactics, not to mention ridiculous techniques like bunnyhopping and pulling out knives to run faster. No doubt you can name countless games in which one weapon, class or tactic simply outclassed all others to the point of exclusion.
We see no such bias in Battlefield 2. Each class is carefully balanced against each other in terms of weapons, armour, stamina and special abilities; and likewise, each weapon a player has, including each of the classes’ special unlockable weapons, are balanced against each other. One does not gain a benefit simply because their team won last round, and wherever they do gain a benefit it’s at the cost of some other drawback or responsibility. No single class, weapon or team dominates the game.
For example, the sniper class (a weapon which largely dominates Counterstrike) is not allowed to dominate due to the prevalence of armoured vehicles, the limitations of the weapon (it’s rarely a one-shot kill) and the sniper’s weakness in close combat (making it risky to capture flags, a major game aspect). The unlockable sniper rifle ignores armour and can shoot through helicopter cockpits, but is less accurate. The assault class has good armour and weaponry, but doesn’t have the sniper’s range and can’t earn points doing things like repairing vehicles (which the engineer can, at the cost of being inferior at long-range combat).
Even the knife is balanced in this game; it can be drawn quickly and is exceedingly lethal, with the obvious drawback that it must be used at very close range against opponents who, more likely than not, are armed with plenty in the way of guns. Interestingly, even the medic’s wounded-ally-reviving shockpaddles when used as offensively are balanced relative to the knife – instantly lethal and even ignores armour, but with a much greater “reload” time. In many cases, realism is compromised for a balance, such as sniper rifles that normally penetrate armour or kill instantly being shown not to do so to keep the game from becoming a ridiculous sniper match. That this can be done without making the game seem unrealistic shows an excellent sense that all game developers in this field should have.
Unrelated to game balance, but relevant to D&D is how Battlefield also makes a point of showing multiple high scores at the end of a round; it’s not just the man with the most points who is commended, but the best sniper, the best engineer, the medic with the most kills (as well as separate awards for the best at healing and reviving), even the best aircraft pilot, and so forth. Thus players are commended for doing their individual role best, which I think is also a big part of what’s good about D&D’s class system. You might not have had the most kills, but at least you saved an ally’s life by healing him, or disarmed the trapped treasure chest before picking the complex lock. I think that’s one reason why both games are enjoyable, because they commend teamwork and in doing so allow each person to come #1 in their own, very vital role, and thus when the team’s a winner, everyone’s a winner.