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.


  1. FWIW, I quit SWTOR the 1st time 7? years ago precisely because it was so perfectly balanced (at least in the solo leveling game). The class you played didn't matter at all -- every class had the same time to kill on mobs, took the same amount of damage on a given fight, etc. The only differentiating thing was the animations. And the story for each class, I suppose, but I never found any of the stories to be compelling.

    I gave it another shot a bit over a year ago for a month or so. Leveling is much faster and only requires the class story quests to get to 50 anymore, but even with that, I still couldn't be bothered to go through all of them -- the "perfect balance" was still very much in play, the quests seemed designed to be as boring as possible with forced running through mazes to give the illusion of zone size, and the stories still weren't enough to make me wonder what was going to happen next, so...

    1. I almost used SWTOR as another example, but figured more readers would be familiar with WoW. I absolutely love the variety of story lines there (though if you don't enjoy the stories, I guess that won't help much!), but I agree that in the grand scheme of things any class tends to play pretty similarly. Now that everyone starts with a healing companion, a lot of the limited variety that was there at launch is further eliminated.

      You can certainly level up as a healer, or use stealth a lot if you want some variety. But like a lot of modern MMOs, you have to go out of your way to have an experience that varies in more than minor details mechanically.

  2. The more I think about it, the more I feel I don't want to see class balance in my games at all. I always knew I liked a lot of difference and diversity in classes - I imagine most players who like to make a lot of characters in the same games do - but I hadn't really been paying all that much attention to how the increasingly nit-picking attention to "balance" affects that diversity, chipping away at difference until everything ends up roughly the same.

    I'm guessing the root of the perceived problem comes from two things: firstly that typical engineer's obsession with getting everything aligned just so. That's the developers, sitting at their desks, endlessly widdling with the controls, trying to find that perfect version of the idea in their heads. Then from the other side there's the typical MMORPG gamer, who plays a main and an alt. They need their specific class to be exactly right and at least as good as anyone else's because they have no intention of playing more than one class and one more for a bit of light relief now and again.

    Those two attitudes come together to create the literally never-ending, literally unachievable obsession with balancing the classes. Ironically, although for everyone who isn't obsessed with playing just one or two classes this has the alienating, homogenizing effect you describe, for the developers and the main/alt players it becomes increasingly frustrating and infuriating as the perceived target recedes into ever-smaller focus. The search for balance satisfies no-one and frustrates everyone.

    I'd be very happy to play games with completely unbalanced classes so long as all the classes were intrinsically interesting enough to be someone's favorite and so long as there was enough synergy between them to make the shared content work. That seems to be a minority view these days, unfortunately for me.

    1. I think I'm there with you overall. It really does seem like a minority view these days. I remember hanging out on a SWTOR message board and reading a thread where players were arguing about DPS parses. The thing that really struck me was how similar they were across classes and specs, but the reason that they were put up is that the poster wanted to argue that his class was severely underpowered.

      I was also slightly amazed to see a responses to your blogpost along the lines of "We will never achieve perfect balance with these flawed systems, we need to try something even more radical!" Maybe I misread that.

  3. I don’t think that similar “DPS” is an issue with class diversity. A similar DPS should actually be the preferably end-goal of balance and maintaining class diversity, otherwise people reroll to the “flavor of the month” class. I’m not say they should do the same damage per skill, or damage at the same speed, but the “DPS” as in damage over an entire fight, should ideally be close to equal (at least for the DPS specific role).

    I think that the failure is in the pruning and homogenization of abilities and playstyles. WoW devs talk a lot about class fantasy (I guess the cosmetics of it?), but they removed so much of what makes a class or specialization so separate or unique in a lot of ways. Beast Master Hunter is probably one that was hit hardest compared to WotLK/Cataclysm days, it is just a shadow of itself since then, pets are so uninteresting now and mostly cosmetic. Subtlety Rogue is kind of similar as well, I miss being able to set up a sap, one or two hit another mob with Ambush + Eviscerate (setting up proper buffs with a 1.8 to 2 speed dagger), and Gouge yet another mob to allow my skills to come off cooldown and energy to refill before engaging or using Vanish.

    For ESO, it is more of a “build” creator game like GW2 and Archeage. It is really more about developing a personal build or playstyle than necessarily following a thematic class design. I actually think this method is one of the better ways to develop something unique without worrying so much about balance. I have quite a few wonderful builds I play in those games that I could never get out of WoW.

    Overall though, to be honest, I think you miss the overpowered feeling more than the diversity. That isn’t a bad thing really, but it isn’t good for a game’s health to have a one-sided overpowered class. As for homogenization, the way those developers have tended to approach the problem is in a very poor (and easy) way. When you first design classes, you should pick a fun and engaging way for the class to behave. Then, you develop a basic combat formula and differentiate it a bit per ability and per class, and you want to add in “knobs” to tune the abilities. Then, you add in ability interactions or combos of a sort (to add to “fun and engaging” combat). Basically the move they did was to cut out portions of each of those steps to make it easier to control the balance. I think the cost of simplifying it was too high for alienating their player-base. With the way WoW shakes up classes each expansion, I think their balance team must enjoy pain one way or the other.