Too Good or Too Bad?: Game Balance and the “Ryanpeikou Dilemma”

When playing multiplayer games, we all at some point come across options or paths for victory that are less than ideal. If it’s possible to adjust the rules or patch a game such that the option in question is better or more rewarding, then it might be better for the game. However, sometimes it’s not, and if one has to choose between making a move “too good” or “too bad,” the latter can be the better option for the sake of the overall health of competition. This is what I call the “ryanpeikou dilemma,” after a particular hand in Japanese mahjong.

Ryanpeikou is the older brother of the “iipeikou,” a hand that consists of two identical straights. For example, 123 and 123 both in the same suit would qualify as iipeikou. It’s a fairly common hand in Japanese mahjong, and while it isn’t worth a lot of points the setup for iipeikou is often quite flexible, and so even if you don’t get it you can still be rewarded with something nice.

Ryanpeikou, then, is essentially two “iipeikou”: 123 123 of the same suit with 456 456 of another suit is one example of a ryanpeikou. However, while the two hands are related, ryanpeikou is significantly more difficult to obtain, and in fact in my experience I think I can count on one hand how many times I’ve achieved ryanpeikou. Given the rarity of this hand, it’s understandably worth more (3 han instead of iipeikou’s 1 han), but for the trouble that it’s worth it really is relatively weak. Why go for a ryanpeikou when it’s possible to aim for hands that are easier to achieve and score more in the process?

The issue is that ryanpeikou is a little too weak as a 3 han hand, but would be a little too strong for a 4 han hand. If it’s made too good, and it also has the similar late-game flexibility of iipeikou, then it overshadows many of the other hands around it. Because of the rules of Japanese mahjong, ryanpeikou cannot achieve a satisfying equilibrium of risk vs. reward. At the same time, it would be wrong to get rid of it entirely, because then you wouldn’t be rewarding the player at all.

Buffing in and of itself is seemingly simple enough: all you have to do is make a character or a weapon or spell more powerful. However, the wrong buffs could have unforeseen repercussions, such as over-centralizing the game, and in some cases it might not be possible to deliver the proper buff due to the mechanics or rules of the game itself. So before you ask why a game can’t just make everything powerful, or that it is “always better to buff than to nerf,” keep in mind the ryanpeikou dilemma.


Game Design: Patches, Iterative Design, and Basketball

When it comes to competitive gaming and eSports, one debate that’s often at the center of developer-player relationships is the decision to either leave a game alone—thus letting the players do what they want with the hope that they will advance the game on their own—or to patch it, essentially modifying the rules for the sake of making it a more enjoyable experience.

I occasionally see discussions about this go to real sports, but in actuality real sports also have examples of both “iterative designs” and “patches.” In particular, basketball provides a couple of interesting examples.

James Naismith square

The classic example of letting players influence the parameters of a game is dribbling in basketball. When basketball inventor James Naismith first developed the game, players were primarily supposed to pass the ball to move it forward. His students were the ones who started dribbling as a kind of loophole around the rules (they were “passing it to themselves”), and Naismith allowed it. Rather than seeing dribbling as a distortion of how the game should be, it was welcomed and ultimately proved to be a skill that enhances the sport of basketball.


However, decades later a new problem arose. Wilt Chamberlain, One of the greatest athletes ever, Wilt was known for having a critical weakness: he was terrible at free throws. At the time, there was no off-the-ball foul rule, so even if Wilt wasn’t holding the ball at the time, opposing players would chase him down just so that they could foul him. The aforementioned rule was implemented to keep the game from becoming ridiculous. It was decided that watching a bunch of guys run around not actually playing basketball was detrimental to the sport, and while some residual problems still exist, it was also good for the game that just needed another “patch.”

Two different cases of “messing with the rules,” two different solutions. In the case of dribbling, it was welcomed with open arms, but when the optimal strategy was to turn basketball into an absurd game of tag, the rules governing the game were changed to prevent this from developing further.

So, when people talk about how the solution is to leave a game alone and let the players handle it, or that continuous patches and modifications to the game are the key to longevity, remember that neither is inherently right or wrong. It depends on the given situation, the community surrounding the game, and the direction that it would be taken should things either be changed too drastically or ignored entirely. In other words, it’s not wise to let yourself take a polarized philosophy in terms of what makes games, competitive or otherwise, “work.”

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