Ten ways to balance your learning game

Adapted from Jesse Schell’s ‘The Art of Game Design’

Balance between players

Players don’t want to feel that things are unfair: that the odds are stacked against them to an unreasonable extent. Opponents shouldn’t have an easier time of things, or be more powerful. The easiest way to achieve this is by giving everyone the same starting position and options.

Balance between too much and not enough challenge

Too much challenge equals frustration, but too little equals boredom. This is complicated by the fact that players generally get better over time, so what was challenging at the start may not stay that way.

Balance between choices and strategies

If every option is essentially the same, no choice is meaningful. But if one strategy is inherently better than others — a dominant strategy — it devalues all other choices. Similarly to balance between players, this often means balancing out one attribute of choice A with the right amount of a different attribute in choice B.

  • Something that gives a great payout but requires more skill
  • A chance to go for a greater payout, with the risk of getting nothing if you fail
  • A chance to grab something useful, but with a danger before you get there
  • A route that’s quicker, but with more dangers
  • A route that’s slower, but gives you more assets to use later

Balance between skill and chance

Games of pure skill, like chess, will mean that a more skilful player will almost always win. But where’s the fun in playing if you realise you’ll almost certainly lose? Chance can help with this. But too much chance, and you may as well play the lottery.

Balance between mental and physical

In a purely mental game, making the right choices is the whole game — you will never make a good choice but fail on execution. When you introduce a physical element of dexterity, speed or strength, execution will always vary. The right balance will depend on the game and the players — for some games, physicality is inappropriate — but some physical element, like chance, can add fun and surprise.

Balance between competition and cooperation

Many games default to competition by design. But cooperation is also a human instinct, and may be more suitable for workplace learning games. Do you want to teach your people how to win? Or how to work as a team?

Balance between too short and too long

Games that are too short don’t provide meaningful opportunities to execute strategies and learn from them. Many learning games have the opposite problem: like Monopoly, the point is well-made some time before the game is done.

  • use actual time as a game mechanic, with a ‘ticking clock’
  • introduce events that accelerate the end of the game or lower the bar for victory
  • push players into more conflict as time goes on, so that an end is more likely

Balance between too much and not enough freedom

Too many choices exhaust the player, and are hard to design for. But too few means the game doesn’t feel like a game. This is another balance that’s very situational, but the key lies in thinking about whether fewer choices would make the game clearer, versus whether more choices would make the players feel more empowered.

Balance between too simple and too complex

Simple can mean easy and boring, or it can mean elegant. Complex can mean fussy and complicated, or it can mean rich in detail. All of which makes this a very difficult kind of balance: we want our game to be elegant and not boring, rich and not complicated.

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Terry Pearce

A consultant and designer in game-based learning and gamification for learning. Go to www.untoldplay.com for more.