Friday, July 24, 2020

The Pursuit of Balance Part II: What We Gained and What We Lost

[Continued from The Pursuit of Balance Part I]

To be sure there are some good things about extreme balance. It makes PuGs a lot easier to assemble if everyone can both put out high DPS and take a few hits.  I have even seen developers brag about game designs where "everyone is a DPS, no-one has to play a tank."  Homogenization also helps eliminate new player traps on the character creation screen.  It really sucks to put 100 hours into a character and then find out you will never be particularly good at the class role you have chosen. You don't have to worry about that in modern MMOs because if two classes can fill the same role at all, they will tend to have a very similar cap on how effective they can be at it.   That's far from a terrible thing.

However I also can't help but feel like we have lost something that originally attracted to me to MMOs. Different classes used to (and in older MMOs generally still do) have wildly different capabilities. This forced you to approach the game from a completely different perspective when you played different classes. I may never have to worry about spending a month of my spare time raising a cripple,  but I also won't need to approach modern games from as many angles. A game with deep, highly varied systems helps create the illusion that you are immersed in a different reality.  Class diversity can be a big part of that.

Take Dark Age of Camelot.  The developers have cut the PvE experience back so much in the last few years that it only takes a few weeks or months to see almost all of it.  Yet when I first restarted this blog a few years ago, I had been wildly entertained for a solid year doing nothing but trying out different classes. The way that classes play is incredibly diverse there.  Learning how to play a mushroom summoner (Animist) teaches you almost nothing about how to play a melee DPS (e.g., Blademaster).  Just getting the basic attack combos down with a class you've never tried before might take hours.  Things that are easy to do on some classes are completely impossible when playing others.  It's not always fair, especially in PvP matchups that tend to go a lot like rock-paper-scissors, but it also leads to gameplay that is incredibly varied.

It doesn't seem to me that there has ever been much of a conversation about whether extreme class balance/ homogenization is a good thing or a bad thing, save for players whining when developers get it wrong. Because of this, developers keep sanding down the rough balance edges, or revising old designs that seemed flawed, and we just sort of ended up where we are now. For better or worse,  in most modern games you can pick any class you want on the character creation screen and have a pretty similar experience playing through most of the content. No matter what class you decide to try,  you'll probably never find that you need to radically re-evaluate your approach to moment-to-moment gameplay, at least once you've gotten the basics of a game down.

I'll return the the example I started with because almost anyone reading this blog is probably familiar with it. Consider how much more varied playing different classes is in WoW Classic compared to Retail.  Totems on a Shaman, hunting down rare animals to tame to learn new skills on a Hunter, convoluted quests to earn new summons on a Warlock.  Heck, even running out of mana constantly on a Balance Druid.  That's the kind of diversity we've lost from much of the genre.  I have mixed feelings about whether the balance we've gained is ultimately worth it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Pursuit of Balance Part I: Where we Ended Up

This post by Bhagpuss got me thinking about class balance, where it started , where we ended up and whether that is a place I'm happy, unhappy or ambivalent about.  In modern MMOs class choice often feels more like a cosmetic decision to me than anything else.  For example, take retail WoW.  Assuming that you are in a DPS spec, the damage that different classes can put out is very similar.  Even a a DPS speced tank class like a Paladin can put out roughly the same damage as a Mage or a Rogue. Your class determines whether you apply most of your damage in melee or at range, and how difficult the rotations are to get the hang of.  It also determines what additional roles you can perform (tank, healing, or only different flavors of DPS), but doesn't really affect your potential damage output by much.  Classes don't have identical DPS of course.  But certainly it's close enough that when out questing solo your time-to-kill feels very similar on nearly any class, and any class can act as a DPS in an instance.

Other games take it even further.  I recently started playing Elder Scroll Online.  At first I was really frustrated by the way classes work.  It didn't seem to make any difference at all which class I picked, they all played pretty much the same.  At low levels you intersperse some kind of weapon attack with whatever your first "spammable" attack skill is. These skills all do pretty much do the same thing, they just look different.  For example, Dragon Knights spam fire whips, and Tempests spam light spears, but they do about the same damage and cost roughly the same mana per use.  In ESO diversity is further diluted by how skills work. Out of dozens of abilities, any given character picks and chooses either five or ten abilities to actually put on their hot bars (and thus be able to use).  These abilities come from various skill lines, and among those skill lines way fewer than half are actually related to your class.  Most of them come from weapons, armor, guilds, and other assorted lines that every class shares.  If you wanted to you could build nearly identical characters starting with different base classes.

Eventually I did come to appreciate the system in ESO.  It makes sense if you consider the offline Elder Scrolls games where any character can develop any skill.  However, ESO falls firmly into the camp of lot of more modern games such as Destiny 2 and Warframe where the effects of the class you pick are pretty subtle.  Maybe one class can turn invisible while another one can occasionally shoot lightening.  But overall the weapon you are using has much more of an impact on gameplay than your class abilities, particularly at low levels.  Functionally the differences among classes in modern games tend to be closer to flavor than the sorts of stark contrasts that separated them in older MMOs. 

For example, in older MMOs the difference in potential damage output among classes used to vary wildly, likely by an order of magnitude. Solo in a game like EQ, DAoC, or FFXI some classes kill things so slowly you could practically eat a sandwich while waiting for a mob to drop.  Yet there are others that can nearly one shot most mobs.  You just don't see those kinds of wild differences very often in modern games.  In modern games, the tendency is for classes to be easier to figure out how to play and to be somewhat homogenized compared to older MMOs.

The reason we ended up here is because modern designers are more interested in balance than diversity.  Given how much players obsess over the tiniest difference in the capabilities of classes, that may also be how most gamers want things.  I have seen arguments break out on message boards about how one class is completely overpowered or another is completely crippled based on comparisons of classes that differ by less than 5% in potential DPS.   Some players seemingly won't be satisfied until the capabilities of every class are literally identical.  This obsession with balance has slowly led to widespread class homogenization.

Tomorrow I'll actually get to the point of all this :-) 

[Part II here.  I decided to break this post up because it really got away from me.  Looking over it on my lunch break, "Wall of text hits, wall of text crits you for 200 damage!"  started going through my head.  If you managed to catch the whole thing while the second half was up, and actually read it all, bravo!]