Vitalik's warlock probably deserved it

Balance changes keep games from dying. Can they be coordinated without centralization?

Good morning gang,

Memberships are migrated! If you’re a member, you should be able to sign in with your email and get a magic link sent to you. This should give you access to all the member-only posts in the archive. Let me know if you have any issues.

On to the post:

—-

For the past week, I’ve been playing Riot’s new game Team Fight Tactics. I absolutely love this game because it feels more like playing chess than an esports title. Each game is played against seven other players in a free-for-all so it feels more like a single-player puzzle than a high-stakes 1-vs-1 card game. But since ranked matchmaking came out last week, some big balance issues have been exposed which make the game less fun.

To simplify a bit, two units are so strong that building strategies around those units will beat anybody not building strategies around those units.

An imbalanced game isn’t fun because it becomes one-note. For the game to survive, the developers have to change the game. Otherwise players lose interest.

  • A common way to approach balance is to simply “nerf” things. If a unit is too strong, make it less strong by pulling any number of levers e.g. reduce stats, increase cost.

  • Or make substitutes better so they’re more comparable to the overpowered thing. This is called “buffing.”

  • Or change the environment around the game to make the overpowered thing less overpowered (e.g. introduce a new thing that’s especially useful at defeating the overpowered thing). I don’t know if there’s a term for this.

Oftentimes, a big balance patch will do all three of these things.

After losing a game to a player using one of the overpowered strategies, I remembered a bit of blockchain lore about Vitalik Buterin and World of Warcraft. He explains on his about.me that Ethereum was motivated in part because:

I happily played World of Warcraft during 2007-2010, but one day Blizzard removed the damage component from my beloved warlock’s Siphon Life spell. I cried myself to sleep, and on that day I realized what horrors centralized services can bring.

Obviously this story is sort of a joke. (But is it really? It’s brought up so often as a legitimate example of centralization being bad.) But for the sake of exploring the concept, let’s take it at face value. Here, a character’s skill got nerfed. Is that bad? Blizzard is balancing the game. Should they be unable to do that?

First, let’s define what we’re optimizing for. I’d say sustainable growth of the game–a mix of number of players and number of hours played. But you can do this exercise with whatever metric you want.

With games, sustainable growth is inextricably tied to having fun. If the game is not fun, players will not start playing. And existing players will play less and eventually leave.

An imbalanced game is not fun. Imagine playing chess but the white pieces have better abilities than the black pieces. Why would you ever sit down at the board?

Games like Chess and Go are perfectly balanced. Balance for video games is much harder because of the many sources of randomness. While Starcraft Brood Wars (released in 1998) hasn’t seen a balance change since 2001, almost all modern games see frequent patches, oftentimes containing substantial balance changes.

Balance changes are in part necessary because modern games tend to continuously release new content. Growing up, games had a shelf-life. You bought a cartridge, played it for a while, and then bought the next generation of a game. Today, online games can live on for decades (WoW was released in 2004!). To continuously re-engage users, they have to deliver new content.

Aside of fixing clearly over- or under-powered aspects of a game, balance can also be viewed through a “new content” lens. Sometimes even minor tweaks can completely change the “meta-game”–or the strategies to win the game. When the “meta” changes, the experience of playing (or watching) the game changes with it. I’ve attended a few Dota 2 International Tournaments and the strategies each year are different. This keeps the game exciting.

Riot has committed to weekly balance patches for Team Fight Tactics (to great fanfare). Imagine if they were unable to. The game would get stale and die. So in this case, centralized power is critical for the health of the ecosystem.

Obviously there are times when you’d prefer stronger guarantees of immutability. Or at least a better understanding around how a system can change. But one thing is clear to me: for competitive video games, you can’t make a successful game without the ability to power to change balance. And even if you can change balance, it’s not clear that finding the perfect balance and letting it stay there is the best strategy to compete for players.

If Blizzard never did things like nerf Siphon Life, it probably wouldn’t be relevant today.

In this case, the centralized operator is a necessity. But could we achieve the same or better results with blockchain-based coordination today-- “decentralized governance?”

Lots of interesting questions arise from this line of thinking. But I’ll leave you with one: how would we balance a game without omnipotent game designers? Would it be better? I think it’s probably tractable because the community plays a large role in balance changes today (complain on reddit, post on game forum, etc). What if those were like EIPs and devs discussed proposed balance changes on public calls?

Here’s a suggestion. Since we still don’t know what we’re doing with governance (by and large), maybe we should try balancing a game to get a sort of “deliberate practice” at governance. I think of it like skiing. The peak experience for me is dropping down a steep chute in deep powder. But you only get that experience for a few minutes a year if you’re lucky. It’s an extremely infrequent occurrence that’s hard to train for due to both environmental randomness (big snowstorm) and difficulty of access (get to mountain, ride the lift, sometimes hike to the chute).

This feels similar to the infrequent but extremely high stakes governance issues faced by blockchains. Most of the time, you’re not skiing deep and steep. You’re sitting on your couch watching Veronica Mars. But then suddenly somebody wants bigger blocks. Or a dev reward. And we don’t have the repetitions in to feel confident in our skills or systems.

Instead of “twitch plays pokemon,” this would be like “ethereum balances hearthstone.” But probably a new game with lots of flaws. Not sure how we could incentive this yet but would be interested in continuing to develop this idea if others are interested.

Oh and I played a warlock in WoW. The class was clearly overpowered for many patches. A more realistic story would be: “I played a Paladin in WoW and kept losing to Warlocks but Blizzard failed to make the appropriate balance changes despite the community clearly asking for them. That’s when I realized the limitations of centralized control and realized the importance of governance by stakeholders.”