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I've had a discussion on the internet about game balancement. Actually, this was a Pokemon fansite, and the discussion started from a simple observation that some pokemon are OP while others are outright bad.

Now I know that Pokemon is a peculiar game... Still, I believe, this topic can be easily generalized to almost any competitve multiplayer game.

Namely, most people were making the argument that while Pokemon gameplay is very inbalanced, it is a good thing, because a perfectly balanced gameplay is inherently boring and dull.

Let me try to quote some of their arguments, (redacting them so that they become more readable outside of chat):

It'd just turn into a game of "lets use my favourite pokemon yayayay". The only thing that would matter than would be type matchups. Or, if the tank/glass cannon diversity was retained, then a team full of tanks would always win.

Pokemon is inherently unbalanced and that's what makes it interesting IMO.

"Optimal" gameplay, for anything, always becomes boring. What's fun to see is to see niche pokemon and gimmicks. There will always be something better that what you say is the best.

You could just make every pokemon 100 across the board and identical everything. Of course, that loses the point of the game.

Being able to use a "bad" mon well is one of the coolest things. There's an optimal team that wins a lot but cteaming exists and you can't really make it un-exist. It's always more fun to win with a stall team than a real shoot em up team.

Perfect games becomes boring, not optimal gameplay. If everyone plays well, there's nothing wrong with that; but if everyone has a perfect team, then what?

That goes right in the face of what I always believed about game balancement. In short, I believed that, regardless of the game's genre: If we have a mon, or unit, or champion, or whatever, which is known to have little to no place in any competetively viable strategy (the Pokemon case) or, if we have a "meta", that is, a strategy that is, in general, the only competetively viable strategy (the League of Legends case), then this is what makes gameplay dull and boring, since it clearly, almost by definition, greatly reduces the pool of viable picks and strategies; and that game designers ought to avoid these pitfalls. Thus, a "perfect" game should have many viable picks, each different than another but none clearly useless, (that is, we should avoid the situation that if one wants to pick A, picking B instead will always be a better idea - some picks may and should be niche and/or situational though), that can be mixed in a plethora of ways to make a plethora of different, but viable teams, thus creating a plethora of different, but viable strategies (this doesn't mean that each team is equivalent or that a team assembled randomly is viable; teams can still be good or bad, but we should avoid the situation that there is only one viable prescription for a good team).

However, what I was being told seems to boil down to something opposite. The people I quoted seemed to think that good balancement of a game can only be achieved at the cost of making all possible picks equivalent, to the point of making it matterless what to pick. They also seemed to think that therefore, in such a scenario, an obvious winning strategy would inevitably emerge, making the game trivial.

Is it really true that a game can only be well balanced if it sacrifices all of its diversity? Is it really true that getting rid of useless picks can only be achieved at the cost of introducing a trivial winning strategy??

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This is a misunderstanding of the concept of game balance.

Game balance does not mean uniformity among the tools used by players; it means that no one tool (or set of tools) sits far above the rest in terms of efficacy.

At its perfection, game balance pursues a situation where it is not the tool that matters (be it a pokemon, a weapon, a character or an ability set etc.) but the player's familiarity, understanding and skill with use of the tool to achieve success: the tools work differently, play differently, require their own unique pursuit of mastery, but have no outstanding fundamental "better"ness above the others.

This does not, however, mean they must all be identical or even remotely similar in utility and performance! There are several techniques that aim to balance a game while making each tool unique:

  • Making a tool powerful in many circumstances but with a fatal, exploitable flaw
    • Different skill ceilings for different tools - a seemingly weak tool, with practice, exceeds others
    • "Rock paper scissors" - no one tool is better than all the others, it is strong against some but countered by others
    • A more powerful tool may have limited resources, requiring the player to manage their use of it

Pokemon makes use of a few of these, the obvious one being its "Rock paper scissors" style use of elemental types with strengths and weaknesses (going down two levels for further complexity).


Pokemon is an interesting example because it is arguably not strictly a competitive game - its initial iterations were very poorly balanced, in fact, but as you said it relies to some degree on emotional connection to the team you catch and train. However it does have a significant competitive scene which has gone to long lengths to "round off" some of the edges to make things fairer - such as bans on some of the explicitly more powerful pokemon (legendaries etc.) and limitations on some moves to prevent overt exploitation.

In the end I'd actually argue against your perception of it as an "Imbalanced game" - balance is a sliding scale and I would wager a game any more complicated than pong or tetris is near impossible to balance perfectly. Even games that do have identical rules for both players are imbalanced to some degree - see first move advantage in Chess, where white wins slightly over 50% of the time!!

Game balance is like philosophy: it is not the achievement of the perfect answer that counts, but the pursuit of one. To bring up some good examples, Starcraft is known for constant tweaking of its mere three races to come as close as possible to that perfect 1:1 ratio, while League of Legends similarly has to battle with introducing new content while updating the old to keep them in line.


Another thing to consider which is missed when considering tools purely at the mathematical level... it misses the human element:

If I pick the rubber-chicken-on-a-wheel against a skilled swordsman you might think it a foregone conclusion... but being a master of poultry I might trick him into underestimating my ability; I might confuse him into exposing his weakness; I might anger him into making a fatal mistake; I might even just humiliate him into forfeiting the match!

All games are psychological games: if you can beat your opponent's mind, whatever tool you pick becomes irrelevant...

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for your answer! +1. BTW: Though I'm digressing, why would you argue against considering pkmn to be imba? On one side of the spectrum we have RayMega, which was so OP it had to be banned EVEN from Ubers! On the other side of the spectrum we have the likes of Unown, very clearly designed to be useless in the first place; and even if we rule Unown out, we still have Castform for example, so bad that he is nigh useless EVEN in PU; that's a shame IMO, he has such an interesting ability they should make him better. That's the definition of imbalancement according to your post? \$\endgroup\$ – gaazkam Apr 7 '18 at 14:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ ...even more digressing: Farfetch'd is an interestig case. His very name suggests he was designed to be useless; yet through generations they were giving him some perks, apparently in an attempt to bring him out of the trash can, while still keeping him nowhere near good. \$\endgroup\$ – gaazkam Apr 7 '18 at 14:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ As I said, I would argue against the terms "balanced" and "imbalanced" as a binary; balance is a rolling process, not a ticked box. \$\endgroup\$ – Tay W Apr 7 '18 at 15:20

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