In defense of OP
Four reasons why it’s sometimes okay for things to be overpowered.
Go to the official forum for any multiplayer game and you’ll find dozens of threads debating which characters, items, or strategies are overpowered.
“Why are druids so OP?” asks a poster on the World of Warcraft forum. “FKING OP Riot pls fix the problem with yasuo is so fcking op,” adds a fine contributor on the League of Legends forum. “AWP Overpowered,” says a CS:GO player.
The responses are predictable. “There’s plenty of classes to complain about and druid is LOW on that list.” “You obviously don’t know how to play against him.” “Its not OP because it depends you have to hit the shot some people are really bad with awps and cant use them.”
Implicit in every argument is the assumption that overpowered is bad. Sometimes that’s true, but not always. When used correctly, overpowered content can be a powerful tool in a game designer’s toolkit. Here are four good design reasons for content to be OP.
It creates a new archetype
Gameplay variety is a good thing. It keeps the game fresh for longer, gives players more interesting things to learn, and rewards thoughtful play. Hearthstone creates gameplay variety with obscenely overpowered class cards.
One of the clearest examples of this is Savanna Highmane, a card that’s only available to hunters. It’s a 6 mana 6/5 beast who spawns two 2/2 beasts when it dies. That’s a total of 10 attack and 9 health on a minion that will survive a board clear. Compare this to Boulderfist Ogre, a 6 mana neutral 6/7. Savanna Highmane is completely, totally, inarguably overpowered.
So why is this a good thing? It’s good because creates a distinct archetype called Midrange Hunter. This is a deck that plays for the middle-game. It attempts to outlast aggressive decks and beat slow decks before they can reach the endgame. Other than Midrange Hunter, the only competitively viable option for hunters is Face Hunter, a deck that mostly ignores all enemy minions and plays for an early win. If there were no Savanna Highmane, there would be no Midrange Hunter. If there were no Midrange Hunter, every hunter in a competitive context would be playing the same archetype.
It shakes up the meta
Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes is a mobile game where you collect iconic Star Wars characters, such as Rey, Lando, and—everyone’s favorite—the generic First Order Officer. In the game’s arena mode, you pit these characters against one another in turn-based JRPG style combat.
Until recently, the arena in SW:GoH was stale. The same teams were everywhere. Despite having 92 available heroes, you continually faced only a handful of different team compositions. Two of the most popular teams had a leader that made everyone good at dodging (either Old Ben Kenobi or Count Dooku). These teams had no clear counter.
Recently, Capital Games added Emperor Palpatine, a brand new hero. Emperor Palpatine is overpowered. He has an absurd leader ability, and his basic attack, which has no cooldown, inflicts a devastating debuff.
Palpatine teams destroy dodge teams. The difference between Palpatine and Old Ben, however, is that there are several ways to disable Palpatine. You can run teams which do AOE damage, teams that stunlock Palpatine, or single-target nuke teams. Even the Palpatine teams themselves can have a variety of auxiliary strategies.
Suddenly, the arena is flush with interesting teams, and players have room to experiment. Each team has counters. I now use different teams depending on who I’m facing. Emperor Palpatine can sometimes feel like he’s too powerful, and the PvP still has plenty of issues, but the game is better because of his addition.
Early OP eases players into complex gameplay
You might not realize it, but Clash of Clans is a complicated and difficult game. You have no control over what your troops do when you place them, so all of your attacks are dependent on three things: your army composition, the timing and positioning of your troop and spell deployment, and whether you’ve properly assessed the vulnerabilities of the base you’re attacking.
Designers working on complicated games often want to ease players into the experience by adding mechanics and components slowly. However, they don’t want early-game players to feel like there are no interesting decisions to make. In CoC, Town Hall rank 7 is the first time that players really have an opportunity to sink their teeth into the war system. They already have lots of different troops available to them, and like I mentioned before, the game is complicated. Supercell came up with a very clever way to simplify the initial war experience: at Town Hall 7, dragon attacks are way overpowered.
The strongest attacks later in the game use three to six different types of troops, but a mass dragon attack only uses one. If deployed correctly, dragons can take down any Town Hall 7 opponent. The player doesn’t need to worry yet about selecting or even fine-tuning their troop composition. They only have one type of troop to place. This gives players the time to learn about other fundamental game concepts, such as how to scout correctly and determine the best angle of attack.
The overpowered dragon attack at Town Hall 7 in Clash of Clans is an example of encouraging simplicity. It aligns the logical way to learn and the optimal way to play.
It keeps a particular type of play in check
We return now to Hearthstone to examine Dr. Boom. Dr. Boom is no longer available in the standard format, but it is one of the most complained-about cards in the history of the game. Unlike Savanna Highmane, Dr. Boom can be played by any class. Like Savanna Highmane, it is a card that is clearly OP. Dr. Boom is better in every way than War Golem. War Golem is a 7/7 minion. Dr. Boom is a 7/7 minion AND two 1/1 minions that deal 1-4 damage to a random enemy when killed. They both cost 7 mana, but Dr. Boom has considerable additional value.
Dr. Boom did not allow for a new archetype. Almost all top level decks included him, as he was the best 7 cost card by a long shot. Aggro decks, however, never included Dr. Boom.
Aggro (short for aggressive) decks attempt to win the game quickly by flooding the board with cheap minions and prioritizing champion damage over efficient trades. They’re popular, and they will always be popular, because they’re the fastest decks in the game. They’re a crucial part of the meta, but they should not be the decks with the highest win rate.
For optimal game balance, aggro decks should be slightly worse than other decks. This is true for a few different reasons, but the simplest one is that there must be a cost for every benefit. Fast games are a benefit. Climbing the ladder in Hearthstone's ranked system requires a huge number of games. Games with aggro decks are orders of magnitude faster than those with other decks. Game Designers want to balance the game in a way that will foster deck variety on the ladder. If aggro decks had a win rate equal to that of other decks, they would be sizably over-represented. If they have a slightly lower win rate, there is a cost for their speed. The game is more fun when you play against a variety of decks. So, oddly enough, making aggro decks a little bit weaker than other decks makes the game more fun even for the aggro players, because they will not be facing off against the same strategy in every game. If aggro decks had the fastest play and the highest win rate, optimal play would essentially require their use.
This is where Dr. Boom comes in. He wasn’t included in aggro decks because he was too expensive and too slow. His effect paid off on turn 8, and if an aggro deck hasn’t won by turn 8, it’s probably losing, and Dr. Boom was often the nail in the coffin. Dr. Boom was a single card that kept an entire style of play in check by buffing every other style of play. He regularly punished aggro decks for letting games go on too long. If Dr. Boom had been nerfed back into line with other cards, aggro would have been too good.
Overpowered content can be unhealthy. It can limit the number of viable choices for the player, it can make the “correct” play mismatched with the “fun” play, and it can punish players for making early decisions about what to invest in, trusting that any path is a workable one. Each of the examples above have counter-points, just as any decision that a game designer makes has a cost and a benefit. But if there’s an OP character, card, spell, weapon, or song in a game, it isn’t always because the balance team didn’t see it.