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May 19, 2022
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User Research: Do you believe in players saying unbalanced game?

by Yongcheng Liu on 10/29/21 07:20:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


01 Did we say that a game is unbalanced?

As a game user researcher, player feedback of all kinds has become common to us and we often see players complaining: This hero/character is too strong and influences the game balance. However, when players say that the game is unbalanced, do you really believe in them and just take their words into your decision-making process?

Putting the answer aside for a moment, imagine when you're playing a MOBA yourself, and you've played five or six in a row with a hero you often use after the new version. No matter what hero is on the opposite side, you just get beaten every single game. Where do you think the problem lies? When we add the condition that this hero is often played by players in the game, and the win rate is not low, then what is the problem?

02 Where does the balance in game lie?

The core of the problem is in the experience of different users and the choices designers make. They are all looking at the problem in a different aspect. Players conclude based on what they subjectively think and feel because they play the game, and if the feelings and results are bad, then there is a problem. And the pros and the average player are clearly different; the average player may play for show-making, for fun, for a better KDA, while the pros start with winning the game and make more comprehensive control attempts and choices.

Speaking of designers, Sid Meier said at GDC 1989 that a game is a series of interesting choices (fit in the context of Civilization series), and that finger guessing, for example, is a game of the simplest of choices, which is super balanced. Games are designed with many choices in nature, and the more complex the choices, the more likely they are to cause an imbalance in-game. Game designers look more at the variety in the game's choice process and then make adjustments based on important stats such as win rate and pick rate. A hero that has a high win rate and pick rate in every rank is bound to be nerfed and conversely strengthened.

But for players, they tend not to focus on the decision of choices, however, they rely more on the intuitive feelings and direct results stated before. Also, people always remember negative things more clearly, for example, if a 5-game winning in a row and a 5-game loss in a row happen in a 10-game day, people will remember the 5-game loss in a row more clearly.

Researcher at Boston University has found that after functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of the human brain, cellular activity in brain regions associated with emotions is enhanced when people experience negative events. So people feel deserved after a win, but stuck in negative emotions after a loss, and proceed to say that the game is unbalanced. They judge it on a whole different dimension than the game designer. They are sometimes actually cheating themselves, and that's the point of the next statement - buck passing.

03 Is it the nature of humans to pass the buck?

When players complain about the imbalance in game, it is likely that they are trying to pass the buck consciously.

Fritz Heider realized this early on, knowing that buck-passing might be one of the human nature, and came up with the Attribution theory.

 The theory itself is not difficult to understand, and there have been many variations of it since. For example, a teacher had a cup of coffee in his hand, and because it was raining outside without an umbrella. He hurried all the way from the office to the classroom, and the coffee in the cup wobbled and spilled out, and the teacher might say“Oh bad weather".
 Of course, rainy days are very common and coffee is very common. 

Such complaints are more common, but the teacher suddenly realized, and said: "this is the Attribution theory". Spoiled coffee is basically because of not carrying an umbrella and running all the way to the classroom. There are reasons for himself/herself to cause the coffee to spoil. Heider believes that there are only two types of causes for events: "internal" and "external". Another pattern he concluded is that people tend to have a dispositional attribution when explaining other people's behavior, and a situational attribution when explaining their own behavior.

To make it easier for you to better understand what the difference between the two is, let's use some examples of in-game behavior. For example, in the popular MOBA game LOL, who do you give credit to when you use your hero to lead players to victory with a very high KDA? When you're playing an AD carry position and you're dominating in the mid to late game, do you say "thanks to my support teammate for keeping me comfortable to level up in the early game"?

When you're a support and you help AD carry in the early game and get a huge bottom lane advantage, do you say "thanks to my AD carry teammate for living up to the hype and taking over the game in the mid-late game"? It's not hard to explain that after a player has carried a game to the final winning, they usually don't mention balance issue, but instead say things like "I'm so skilled" or "I'm unstoppable and just wait for winning", which in their eyes are true words from their heart - to attribute the victory to themselves.

Of course, it's not just ability, other internal factors include emotions, attitude, personality are often important when players want to show their importance in-game. For example, you'll hear a voice saying that if I hadn't talked to some of my teammates into pulling together this game, we would have collapsed". 

Similarly, how does our behavior change when we lose a game? At this point, let's try some more examples with a popular FPS game - CS: GO. What do you think when you are in a game of CS: GO and your opponent comes out of nowhere with an AK47 headshot? You will think is he too lucky to find good timing or is he cheating. But instead, you tend not to really think that he's just strong and you're just plain rookie. Similarly, thinking back carefully to see if you had many times after getting smurfed, you just concluded that the opponent was cheating and you reported. Would you then carefully download the clip to check in detail to find out exactly how he beat you over and over again? Usually no. Because you don't want to admit that the problem appears to be your own skills. That's what we call situational attribution.

When one loses he/she will have many kinds of scenarios to attribute to (it can't be their own bad skills in the first place). The first is to complain about balance: my hero/character is really weak in this patch, and it should really be strengthened. However, the balance problem mentioned by the player might not necessarily really exist. The other reasons are also very common, such as my 4 teammates are so weak or the opponent is so strong. But players usually do not attribute the cause to their own in the first place, but rather bad teammates or strong opponents.

04 Summary

The above is only a potential explanation for "blaming balance" based on attribution theory. Attribution theory itself can be explored in a number of ways, as it entangles the core processes of motivation, intention, and emotion. And the attribution fallacy is an interesting extension of it, such as self-interest attributions (being late to work because of traffic, but in fact, traffic is heavy every day).
When a player says the game is unbalanced, it's not necessarily that the game is really unbalanced. Researchers might need to dig deeper into it to find out what caused players to complain about balance instead.


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