The Most Dangerous Game: Designed Imbalance in Multiplayer

Richard Connell’s short story, “The Most Dangerous Game”, is heralded as the best example of the ‘man versus man’ narrative archetype, or so your middle-school literature teacher may have told you. The story revolves around a big-game hunter, Sanger Rainsford who finds himself stranded on a remote island in the Caribbean. He finds a mansion on the island, where another big-game hunter, a Cossack, lives and thinks himself saved; however, the Cossack has other plans in store. Over dinner, the Cossack tells Rainsford that he has grown tired of hunting animals, and now hunts men: the most dangerous game. The Cossack then releases Rainsford into the jungle with nothing but some food, clothes, a knife, and a three hour head-start, after which the Cossack, armed with a gun and a pack of hunting dogs, sets out to kill him.

One of the reasons “The Most Dangerous Game” is so memorable isn’t just the drama inherent in a mano-a-mano fight, but in the fact that the fight isn’t fair. Rainsford is left at a disadvantage, forced to rely on his wits and a knife, whereas the Cossack is armed with a firearm, hunting dogs, and a knowledge of the island’s geography. This imbalance leverages the core conflict, the hunting of another man, and raises the stakes. In the end, they are both seasoned hunters with similar experiences, but are using dramatically different tools. Rainsford’s eventual victory is made all the more meaningful given the lopsidedness of the conflict. This inequity between players is something most competitive online games avoid.

Competitive multiplayer games like Call of Duty, StarCraft 2, Super Street Fighter, are generally off-putting to the average player. They have steep learning curves in regards to competitive play, and contenders must spend dozens and dozens of hours essentially learning through continual failure before they can feel like they are achieving something. They require huge investments upfront, and while clearly the end result is compelling to millions of players, it creates divide between those who play and those who don’t. Like chess, there is a huge disparity between an average-level player’s appreciation and enjoyment in playing or spectating a game compared to those who are intimately familiar with the intricacies and strategies required for advanced competitive play. There is little middle-ground.


These are also games whose designers and players are obsessed with the concept of balance. Everything must be balanced. This is a mantra and a battle cry. In order to level the playing field so that the most skilled player with the most effective strategy wins, there must be no exploits. The infamous ‘noob tube’, or rifle-mounted grenade launcher and players who use it are derided in Call of Duty as it allows for unskilled kills. Combos are broken down frame-by-frame by Super Street Fighter vets to expose the slightest advantages in specific avatars. The need to finely tune and balance the tools available to the players is the lynchpin in the game’s success in the competitive scene.

Yet the games above also suffer for their perfect balance. For new players, first order optimal strategies appears that require little skill in to power out. This is evidence in the use of the aforementioned noob tube or the tactic of zerg rushing in StarCraft. These strategies are effective at low levels of play, but the player becomes so reliant on them that they hit a brick wall once these first order optimal strategies are no longer useful, as the players have not developed the required skills to execute on more complex strategies. Conversely, at high-level play, often a set series of strategies or play styles become definitive. One only needs to look at chess, StarCraft or Call of Duty to see that the only way to become competitive is to memorize the most effective strategies and then learn to execute on them faster and more efficiently than your opponent. Due to this symmetry, these games become about speed and precision, and not tactics and wits.

While clearly there is a place for these balanced, symmetrical games that rely on efficiency and speed, The Most Dangerous Game highlights the drama inherent in a wits versus power situation, one which a handful of games have explored. These games are designed to be purposefully imbalanced, and often dynamic, where the field of play is constantly shifting. This requires players to constantly assess and reassess their play style. For many, video games are more about problem-solving and understanding systems more than they are about dexterous play, and these games speak to that.

The Splinter Cell franchise introduced the multiplayer mode called “Spies versus Mercs” with the entry in to the series Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (and will be reintroducing the mode in the upcoming Splinter Cell: Blacklist). In this mode, two players are mercenaries armed to the teeth with a first person perspective, and two players are spies working in tangent to achieve an objective. The spies play from third person, and able to traverse areas of the map the mercs cannot, are equipped with gear the mercs are not, but are largely unarmed.

This creates a dynamic experience that is often more satisfying than, ‘who can shoot the fastest’. It also clearly communicates to the player the differences in abilities between players. When a spy dies at the hand of a well-placed mine or a merc fails to hunt down a spy before the time limit expires, it feels less like a personal failure due to lack of skill, and more the inability to successfully predict the other player’s plan, which is easier for most people to swallow as it’s less tied to individual egos. Even if inaccurate, a failed spy can say, ‘well I have no defense against mines, so clearly it’s not my fault’, and disassociate themselves from the failure. The inverse of success however, is all the more thrilling given the apparent, if not actual, lack of power the spies have. This game is the best take on the motif displayed by The Most Dangerous Game of wits over raw power to date.

Another game that uses designed imbalanced to great effect is League of Legends. Now while LoL has barriers to entry stemming from other factors (hostile community and sheer complexity from its current scale), the designed imbalance in the game is one of the things that makes the game interesting to new players and ensures its longevity. LoL creates an incredibly dynamic meta-game by continually introducing new characters. There is a huge selection of characters for players to choose from, but no single character remains ‘the most optimal’ for very long, because players rush to find an appropriate counter. Introducing new characters continually upends these relationships, as old strategies become obsoleted and players rush to find new ones. It’s important to note that this dynamic has led to LoL being the most played game in the world.

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Designers clearly understand the important of designed imbalance, and encouraging players to use their wits. Respawn Games, compromised of the core team that made Call of Duty’s online multiplayer such a phenomenon, are looking to introduce purposeful imbalance into their new game, TitanFall. In TitanFall, players, known as pilots in the game, can call down giant mechs to use. This results in the game oscillating between pilots versus pilots, pilots versus mechs and mechs versus mechs all in the same match. Clearly the giant mechs have a sheer power and durability advantage over the human pilots, but increased mobility and other tools ensure that pilots can take down a mech all on their own. Maps are also designed with large open areas where mechs can duke it out, but also more confined smaller spaces only accessible to the pilots. The fact that the developer CoD, one of the seminal skill-based competitive shooters is seeking to purposefully design a competitive shooter with designed imbalances shouldn’t be understated. Anecdotally, the response from people who typically would not be interested in playing CoD online, but are very excited about TitanFall bears this out.

Players don’t largely mind losing to a game when it’s clear to them what mistakes they made and that these errors aren’t significantly tied to pure skill. When a game sets up a scenario where we lose because we simply ‘aren’t good enough’, it’s hard not to take it personally. However we are always thirsty to overcome challenges, and when multiplayer games set up situations where failure teaches the player something new, where clear differences in abilities and tools, and our understanding of use of them are responsible for success and failure, not speed or efficiency, players will dust themselves and jump back in. Not that speed and efficiency aren’t important, but when we play competitive online games, the goal is to *play the game* against each other, not simply play against each other’s dexterity. When games can set-up interesting and dynamic scenarios for us to compete in, everybody wins.

Nick Hahneman

Nick Hahneman

Nick Hahneman

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  • Great overview of multiplayer balance/imbalance! I’ve definitely seen the improper balance perspective in StarCraft, especially the original. The whole reason I loved playing StarCraft over LAN with my friends was because of the insanity of trying to jump into online multiplayer matches – I just had to hope I’d get an awesome ally who could shield me against the inevitable rush, at least long enough for me to make a decent contribution.

    Contrast that to Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2, where the focus was more on how you could react in the heat of battle to an opponent’s (or group of opponents) skill combo. It didn’t matter if you had a great skill combo, if it gets screwed up you have to react FAST or you’re toast. Technically that was also true in single player where I spent most of my time, especially against the higher-level bosses.

    • Thanks Nate! Yeah the original StarCraft 1 is a great example, because it initially started off unintentionally imbalanced which then lead to zerg rushing and other techniques. When they continued to ‘fix’ the game, it ended up being more about executing on codified strategies faster than your opponent. Both these situations can still be fun, but I’m also in this trend of multiplayer games like LoL, Spies vs Mercs, and Titanfall where these imbalances are *intentional*.

      Guild Wars 2 is a great game, I haven’t taken much time to explore the competitive aspects of the game, but the way they approach cooperative multiplayer in the standard game is really inventive. I love how they designed the game to encourage ‘organic’ grouping around events, something that Bungie seems to be looking to recreate in Destiny.

      • Yeah, they’ve put a lot of time and effort into making GW2 a place where anyone can find something fun to do. I prefer single-player quests and running around, but I love participating in the dynamic events that pop up. The community aspect makes it a lot of fun – suddenly there’s 20 people who want to help you destroy a freakin’ hard giant, and now it’s fun instead of stressful/impossible. They have a lot of competitive multiplayer options as well, but I haven’t tried those as much.

        • It’s the only MMO I ever got into in a meaningful way. Put a good chunk of time into last summer, maybe it’s time I dive back in and see what all the updates are about 😀

  • Eric H

    Wow. Where do I even begin? First, absolutely stunning article. It’s not only well written but totally relevant to my interests as a gamer. I think you raise some pretty significant points about designed imbalance, many of which I’ve not thought about myself. Perhaps, though, we might consider intentional design imbalance as a barrier to new players rather than a boon? I play SC II, but let’s stick with LOL since that’s a more stark example because of its contrast with DOTA 2, a competitor with a pretty big focus on balance.

    I suspect LOL deters new players with its perfected imbalance because it has no handle that a new player can latch onto in an effort to get a grip on the game. These meta strategies which you say (and rightly so) populate the end metas of so many competitive games are also the well developed strategies that give players a stable base from which learning can occur. I’ve found that my skill in games has improved not when I get owned by players much better than me, but when I compete against players of similar skill. By having a collective pool of workable tactics from which everyone can draw, we create a leveling between pro players and newbies. It closes the player gap in much the same way welfare closes the socioeconomic one: by redistributing the wealth (of pro knowledge) to all players more equally. Does it end up becoming a twitch match where he who executes his strategy fastest wins? Sure, to some extent, but my experience at the higher tiers of SC II have been radically different. It’s the pro players who have mastered the core strategies and then moved onto “tweaking,” creating little pockets of individuality in their competitive thinking that make for some very fun play.

    My experience in LOL has been very different, too. I’ve played LOL, in total, for over a year. I’ve just recently come back to the game and I find I can’t get a grip on the meta. None of my friends can, and we have consistently played a MOBA game for almost 6 years, so it’s not like we’re completely new to the genre. Yet I have seen in almost all of my games a single character get ungodly in his ability to take on a whole other team. This is discouraging, not encouraging, because I can’t understand where my failure is coming from. I can’t “appeal” to a common pool of knowledge, not one that, in my humble opinion, is helpful in a game that is designed to be imbalanced. Perhaps LOL is the most played game in the world, but is that because its a successful model of gaming or a “broken” game that allows even the most novice of players to take advantage of failures inherent in its system? Then again, if the latter is correct, why am I, a veteran player of MOBA, not using those strategies?

    I guess what I’m saying is balance creates strategies that everyone can adhere to, making gameplay more accessible and more meaningful. I suspect it limits the highs of imbalanced gameplay in favor of also limiting its lows, preferring a happy medium of enjoyment for all players to one of constant discouragement for some.

    In any case, just some food for thought. Absolutely excellent article, good sir.

    • Thanks Eric, you’re too kind!

      I think you raise a good point that designed imbalance can cut both ways. LOL is definitely an interesting example as it is kind of both an argument for and against what I’m talking about. I think a lot of LOL’s issues are that the feedback loop from continually introducing new units to keep the game dynamic has been going on with enough frequency that the baseline level of knowledge new players need is super-high.

      I think I largely agree with you that in more ‘stable’ multiplayer environments, new players can draw on codified strategies to learn how to win at the game. For me personally, that’s a little less appealing, as it becomes a bit of an exercise in memorization and execution rather than what I’ll just call ‘play’. But it’s definitely not a black and white issue and I don’t want to characterize it too simply. I would also agree that the balance reduces the ‘peaks’ and ‘troughs’ of the experience.

      I’m not familiar with LOL on a first-hand basis, but I wonder how much of the issues in that community are simply from a match-making perspective? Could you also have ‘lower’ tiers of matches where only certain core characters were available, so as not to overwhelm new players?

      Anyways thanks again for your feedback and thoughts, I really appreciate it.

      • Eric H

        I actually had a riveting discussion about this article over dinner last night with an old friend. He is a much larger proponent of LOL than me, and he has participated in consistent rank play for several years now. In any case, he pointed out some good thoughts on LOL, one of which is that different heroes are balanced at different ELO ranks. This means that some heroes dominate in low ranking games while other heroes dominant in high ranking games. The reason Riot does this is because it imbalances a few heroes heavily, but gives a larger tone of balance that the player can experience overall. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but that’s certainly a worthy goal.

        I think the matchmaking is certainly an issue in LOL. I think any game that has a metascale (leveling system, items you can buy that alter in-game play, etc.) is inherently imbalanced and makes matchmaking a problem. No matchmaking is good enough to make perfect matches, and there is also a problem with smurfing in LOL. Smurfing is where players that are much more experienced at the game create new accounts to beat up on newbies at lower ranks. In any case, I think having different heroes available at different levels might aid ranked play, but pub play would still be screwed. Also, low tier heroes that aren’t as good tend to already be filtered out of ranked play by virtue of higher ranked players realizing those heroes are untenable. Would limiting the hero pool be good at keeping new players from feelings overwhelmed? Perhaps, but I’m not sure that’s in the spirit of the game. A lot of the fun is in having almost 100 characters to choose from. Limit that and you leave the player feeling cheated for something he’s not responsible for.

        In any case, hope that answers your question! Thanks for the response!

  • I deared Spies vs Mercs, when I was playing as a Spy I felt so overpowered everytime a Merc entered a room gun-blazing; then I played a Merc and I felt so scared to get caught by a stalking Spy anywhere I went; it’s really amazing.

    • I recently revisited SC: Chaos Theory: Spies vs Mercs on Steam which was actually the catalyst for this piece! I think that is kind of the prime example of what I’m talking about. When you fail as either the spy or the merc, for me at least, it feels so much less bruising to my ego than when I get sniped in CoD. It’s such a dynamic experience, and really taps into that tension that I highlighted in The Most Dangerous Game. It’s not an unfair mode by any means, but the dynamism in it and the dramatically different toolsets available to the opposing teams make it feel so much more about wits over dexterity.