Balancing your game: real-time or actions-based?

While you’re building your browsergame, there’s one important point to consider: balancing your game.

A lot of developers create browsergames without thinking about balancing them first – this usually tends to result in games that are released with some serious balance issues. Certain characters might be over-powered in comparison to others, and certain items might be complete gamebreakers – things that make the game virtually unplayable for players without the item by comparison.

How will you solve the balance problem in your browsergame?

One approach that a lot of browsergame developers take is limiting users to a certain number of turns in a day – that way, a user who has all the time in the world and a user who can only sign in for 5 minutes each day can both remain relatively close to each other in terms of in-game performance.

While action-point/turn-based systems are a good way to keep your players a little more evenly matched, they don’t (unfortunately) fix balance problems – at best, all they can do is prolong the amount of time that it takes for a balance issue to appear.

Here’s an example: you run a small browsergame, with 5000 users who are active daily. Players can play the game in real-time, and at any given moment there are at least 200 players online at once, interacting with the game. In a weekly update, you push out a new sword that can only be found after defeating a particular boss monster. Unbeknownst to you, this sword in combination with the armor you released three weeks ago combine to form the most powerful combination in the game – capable of instantly killing any player who is attacked by a player using both of them.

In a real-time game, you’ll notice this issue fairly quickly – all of a sudden, a handful of players will be able to instantly defeat any other player. You’ll soon start to see complaints in your forums (if you have them), and you’ll be able to watch as more players find the item and begin to exploit the balancing issues present.

Now think of the same scenario, in the context of a turn-based game. Users get 25 turns per day, and it takes them 40 turns to get to the boss (if they don’t use turns, they stack up). It will be at least 2 days post-update for a user to get to the boss, let alone retrieve the sword – and if it takes them a full turn to attack a player, a user who just acquired the sword (assuming they had 50 turns saved up) will be able to instantly kill 10 players. Now, is the 10 players being instantly defeated by a single player a balance issue, or just a player who is that much stronger than 10 other players?

As you can see, there are pros and cons to either system. If you build a real-time system, there are more balance issues related to keeping casual and hardcore players even – but you will quickly find balance issues that have to do with gameplay features. In a turn-based system, there are far less problems keeping individual players balanced – but gameplay features can easily cause balance headaches that you won’t find for a long period of time.

So how will you balance your game? The answer is entirely up to you – although I would recommend setting your game up in a way that suits your development style. If you heavily test your changes before deploying them to a production environment, you can probably safely get away with a turn-based system – you’ll just need to make sure you thoroughly test all of your changes before you deploy them. If you’d rather have your players do the testing for you, and just fix balance issues as they come up – go for real-time. Either way, it’s your game – and the only important thing is recovering from balance issues when they do appear.

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Luke is the primary editor of Building Browsergames, and has written a large portion of the articles that you read here. He generally has no idea what to say when asked to write about himself in the third person.

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008 balancing, design
  • Nox

    In my oppinion it's not a question of turns/real time at all and I think many assumptions in this article are not really correct.

    If it takes 2 days for player to kill the boss, than it should take 2 days in realtime, should you want only compare these systems balance-wise. But it doesn't have to as it doesn't matter how long it is, (if it takes 4 days than just noone has it before 4 days so the item does not affect anyone) and when it's used, the overpoweredness is visible in both systems.

    I believe the system of T/RT affects much more the system design of the game, playstyle and accessability (people who don't have so much time (going to work etc.) are not punished for not sitting at it the whole day, while doing some other reasonable things, we) than balance.

    Little digression here: @Scion: In many games I played it was very usual to save up to the maximum number of turns and then play, as you maximise your overview and control of your strategy, it's almost impossible to play the other way imho. Another advantage is, that the enemies do not have a time to adjust as you concentrate all your power to a small timeframe. It might depend on the game, but this is what I've learnt throughout the years

    Back to topic:
    I think many authors played games before so they should be aware of balance, but I know it's good to point it out (you could've focused a bit more on the "how to" part).

    But I don't see this as a bug problem to solve as it's just a question of numbers. If something breaks balanced, just go to the database and change values which are inapproprietly high / low.

    Much worse imho is badly designed system, which is hard to modify, has security issues and so on...resulting in need to rework whole game.
    But I don't say it's a bad topic, once more - good you've pointed it out, thanks

    P.S.: this comment textarea could be a bit larger :)
    P.P.S.: I hope it's readable and not full of mistakes...

  • Hi Scion,

    You've definitely got a point there! However, I think you may have misinterpreted something I mentioned - while doing things turn-based is certainly one way to balance your game, it's by no means the be-all and end-all. You should balance your game in a way that works best for you.

  • Scion

    Achieving balance is probably one of the hardest things to do.

    So the very first thing that should be asked is ... Do i need to balance that particular aspect of my game at all?

    Because if some aspect of your Game does need to be balanced then you should make sure that it is ....

    One common problem with using the limited Turns / Actions aproach to balancing player progression is that it often doesn't fully deal with players that spend a long time online....

    In games with turn limits its not uncommon to see players spreading out their actions over loang time spans to maximise the gains achived with each alloted turn/action spent. Where the available gain varies drastically then using turn restriction is not having the desired effect in terms of balancing progression...Although it may well be integral to the game for other reasons.

    Simply put, achieving properly balanced player progression is not as simple as just using a turn based aproach....

  • Very nice article, it seems you have a vast knowledge/experience in PBBG

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Building Browsergames is a blog about browsergames(also known as PBBG's). It's geared towards the beginner to intermediate developer who has an interest in building their own browsergame.


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