26 September, 2006
The Grouchy Gnome was at it again, boldly stating that Balance is Impossible.
That’s what you get for letting a community manager play with design. Stay tuned for my community article, “Winning friends and influencing people with judicious use of the word ‘fuck’.”
Anyway, as someone with a published book chapter on balance, let me say this: balance is possible. Oh, but there are always caveats, aren’t there?
The problem is that not everyone is going to agree when something is balanced. I’ve always quipped that you can tell when something is balanced when everyone is bitching equally. It’s not that far from the truth, really.
So, the trick here is to figure out when something is balanced enough. I consider something balanced when it is just as appealing as other choices. In Meridian 59, things are relatively balanced since there are a variety of characters you can make. While some people have favorite builds, there is endless discussion about what constitutes a “perfect” character. Almost every ability has a counter or a foil, so there isn’t one single build that dominates everything. Of course, this wasn’t always the case; in the past there was the “one true way” to build a character and if you didn’t build it that way, you were gimped. (Of course, few people get past the first few steps in the game to appreciate the balance, but that’s another topic.)
Alternatively, we can take a look at a game that isn’t quite so well balanced. If you want to play a highly solo-friendly character in WoW, for example, you’d be silly not to take a Hunter. (Or Necromancer in EQ2.) A hunter is so much more powerful when it comes to soloing that I don’t think it’s “balanced”. This isn’t to say that you can’t solo with other characters, but the options are not equally attractive, IMHO at least.
One of the biggest problems in trying to establish “balance” is player perception. It can be very hard to change perceptions once they are set. Even if WoW were to give every class huge boosts, many people would probably still see the Hunter as the most powerful solo character. It takes a while for the conventional wisdom to shift, unfortunately. People will cling to the old ways, and some will even complain when things change. But, Hunters are supposed to be the soloers, some would cry. Why are you buffing all the other classes? Yes, that’s right, you simply cannot win.
The other big issue is that developers don’t understand balance very well, mostly because they often don’t understand the mechanics. Take, for example, a classic blunder: +1 to damage in exchange for -1 to hit. Assuming a D&D type system of mechanics, this trade off is always beneficial to the player. The player that takes this benefit will have an advantage over one that does not, all other things being equal. The newbie designer thinks, “Well, +1 and -1 equal out to 0, so it’s balanced!” But, the experienced developer with a head for math realizes that -1 to a 1d20 to-hit roll does not compensate for a +1 on a 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, or 1d10 damage roll.
There’s also the issue of not understanding how the system works in practice. Take, for example, Druids in WoW. The flexibility of the class is lost in many situations, such as the pick up group or raid. The flexibility isn’t a bonus, and people expect the Druid to play a very specific role: healing. So, Druids aren’t really balanced given the general way that people expect Druids to play. (If I wanted to play a healer, I would have rolled a Priest… but I’m not bitter! Again, the options are not equally appealing in this case.)
So, I think that balance is possible, but it tends to be very subjective. For the players losing power, they will think it’s not fair and therefore not balanced. For the people that want more power, it’s not fun and therefore not balanced. For the developer, not listening to the player smack of The Vision(tm), and that sucks. So, you don’t see a whole lot of balance in games these days.
There’s my opinion. What’s yours?