Often times I’ll get into a discussion about a particular game. I’ll mention that I consider one weakness of the game to be that something – some feature – is over-powered. And in return, I hear the same response over and over again:
“Well, just don’t use it, then.”
Okay, sure. I can just not use that over-powered thing. But then what I have done is I’ve created a new rule. A pretty significant new rule, too – I’ve chosen to effectively remove the most powerful thing in the game. If a game is a set of rules, and you change what that rule-set is, then what you really end up with is another game. Sure, it has the same assets and probably plays mostly the same – but it is a different game.
This means you cannot use this argument to defend your favorite games. I am saying, “I don’t like this ruleset called Super Pigeon Blaster 5000“, and you are saying “then change the ruleset”. Sure, I can change the ruleset, but then it will no longer be Super Pigeon Blaster 5000 anymore.
Whether through “mods”, “house rules”, or “variants” – whenever you are changing the rules of the game, you are changing what the game is. Anything can be modified into a good game – you can “mod” a roll of toilet paper into a good game. That doesn’t mean that a roll of toilet paper is a good game.
Games are about finding the optimal move
Games are systems which allow us to practice mastery. The best games allow you to seek mastery for a lifetime, but never find it. You cannot ask players to seek “a little bit mastery”. You cannot tell them, “do good, but not… too good”, like Dash at the end of the film The Incredibles. All you can do is what I described above: set new rules which now draw the new line for what mastery is. But again, once you do that, you’ve changed the game.
Below are a few examples of some games and various forms of this argument:
- Skyrim: “If you think using quicksave is too powerful, then don’t use it.” (Granted that this is a problem with almost every single player game, but that’s not an excuse. It’s still the most over-powered weapon ever wielded.)
- Counter-Strike: “Yeah, the AWP is too powerful, but just play on ‘no-AWP’ servers”.
- Super Mario World: “If you think using the cape to fly over entire levels is too powerful, then don’t get the feather / use its power”.
The main thing I want everyone to take from this article is that none of the above are defenses for these games. If I say “Counter Strike is good except I deduct some points for the overpowered AWP”, it is not a counter-argument to tell me to not use the AWP. That’s what’s really funny about this “defense”, is that when you give it, you are actually agreeing with me. You are saying yes, the game does indeed have that flaw, and suggesting that I play, again, a different game.
It’s also worth mentioning that most of the time, when you just rip one rule out of a game without changing anything else, it causes problems. Skyrim (and almost any RPG) is designed with save-scumming in mind. If you don’t use it, not only are you not playing the same game as was designed by Bethesda, but it actually may be a completely broken experience. A game ruleset is like a machine. If you just rip one cog out, the whole thing will likely break down.
Finally, I leave you with this question: if we’re charging players with the responsibility of balancing our games, then why do we even bother trying to balance games at all? If anything’s too powerful, we can simply trust that players will house-rule it out, right? Obviously, this is not what I believe, and I hope that other game designers are not thinking this way. Designers need to take pride in your work and trust that you have the ability to create a ruleset that couldn’t easily be improved by some random dude who happens to be paying for server fees.