Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

26 September, 2006

Balance is possible
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:45 PM

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?

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  1. IANADev, but as a player of probably most of the MMORPGs that have come out since UO I have always raised an eyebrow at the concept of balance in these games. I mean, I always understood why players were frustrated with certain things about a class, but I could never fathom how some people expected a perfect balance.

    Seems to me that the sign of true imbalance is if a majority of players are only playing one or two out of the available classes. But I don’t recall playing a game where that was the case. Not saying such games aren’t (weren’t) out there, but I just never happened upon them or I was not playing them during a period of obvious imbalance.

    What I’d be interested in learning is the extent to which perceived imbalances emerge from what, at design time, should have been a relatively innocuous characteristic. Of course, it’s hard for me to pinpoint an example since I’ve taken a break from MMOs for the past several months.

    Comment by chabuhi — 27 September, 2006 @ 8:39 AM

  2. Balance Is/Isn’t Possible?

    [...] Nerfbat and Psychochild are going to duke it out over game balance. I touched on the subject a little in my latest MMO Ideas article, but this subject is hard to solve. [...]

    Pingback by Sierra Kilo — 27 September, 2006 @ 8:53 AM

  3. Balance is Possible

    [...] Psychochild, a game developer with a published book chapter on balance, say’s that balance is possible: “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.” [...]

    Pingback by Gamedevnews — 27 September, 2006 @ 10:08 AM

  4. As mentioned by others, I believe “balance” is largely in the eye of the beholder. For example, I currently waste what little free time I have when not working on my own designs by logging into DDO and frustrating myself trying to play my 9th level mage/rogue. It’s a great incentivizer for me, because it reminds me of all the goals I’ve set for my own designs that have never been met in other multiplayer game I’ve played. I have an alt, a 5th level Cleric on the same server that finds it easier to solo than my poor mage/rogue, in the same dungeons, same difficulty levels.

    So… are those classes balanced? Well… in terms of the current implementation, I’d vote no, but I can easily see why someone would disagree. After all, mages get all the really fun spells, and rogues do have the trap mitigation all to themselves… it’s not that hard to wrangle an invite to a group if you’re sporting a decent Disable Device bonus….

    It usually comes down to not meeting some pre-set expectation, whether established by the game itself or by other outside experience. If your vision of a “true thief” is as a solitary lurker in the shadows… the DDO implementation may be rather disappointing, and you may find the “balance” of the class lacking. On the other hand, if the only concern is whether you can get into groups regularly… it’s probably not so bad as is.

    For my part, I fully agree with previous comments re: multiple reward systems, i.e. alternative avenues of success. A big part of what I will be experimenting with in my little test bed, if it ever gets done to my satisfaction, , will be seeking out and evaluating different options in that very arena.

    Comment by Craig Huber — 27 September, 2006 @ 10:11 AM

  5. The problem is in the definition of “balance”. When I hear balance I think of each character equally matched to any other character. This results in a game of checkers. Sure it’s possible to “balance” an RPG, but I’m not interested in playing it, thank you very much. I’d rather play a game of chess, where all pieces are not equal, but all the pieces are usefull and needed. I have little interest in being the queen or knight, but I’d like to play as the bishop.

    The dream of making every class different but equal IS impossible. Making every class equally appealing IS impossible. All of them equally appealing to me? Forget it. All of them equally appealing so that there is an even class distribution? Sorry the personalities of the world don’t match up that nicely.

    Comment by BugHunter — 27 September, 2006 @ 10:40 AM

  6. 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.

    Actually it depends on the defense of whatever the player is fighting. The damage bonus is +40% / +28% / +22% / +18% on d4 / d6 / d8 / d10 weapons, so the damage bonus is outweighed by the hit penalty when fighting creatures that the player – pre-penalty – needs to roll 19 / 18 / 17 / 16 to hit.

    Still disgustingly unbalanced, but not in the way you said.

    Comment by Laiq — 27 September, 2006 @ 11:18 AM

  7. Balance is Still Impossible

    [...] In response to Psychochild’s claim that balance is not impossible… Let’s remove players from the equation for a moment, and ignore their perception of balance. The only way to truly achieve statistical balance in an MMO is to have a really crappy, really stale game. Everything would have to be pretty much identical. [...]

    Pingback by Nerfbat — 27 September, 2006 @ 12:34 PM

  8. Yea, Ballanced does not mean equal. I think Psychochild is right on the nose: “I’ve always quipped that you can tell when something is balanced when everyone is bitching equally.” If you look at complaints, and 33% want you to nerf “rock”, 33% want you to do somthing about the power of “paper”, and 34% think “scissors” should be replaced with safty scissors then you’ve gotten your ballance so fine tuned you might want to think about breaking it.

    As far as Hunters in WoW being able to solo well, they sure do. But they group poorly. Is that an even trade? Only the player with a hunter can tell you.

    Comment by Rik — 27 September, 2006 @ 3:40 PM

  9. “Only the player with a hunter can tell you.” If the player knew before selecting the class what sort of gameplay he was getting into, then I don’t see a problem, as long as there is significant interest in that class (meaning the complaints wouldn’t bother me).

    However, as a player (and, hopefully, future dev) of these games for almost a decade, I’ve never thought it acceptable for balancing to occur post-launch. I don’t expect MMOs to be completely static, but that is one element of the game I expect to be polished and solidified before shipping. If expansions screw up the initial balance, then the expansion content needs to be redesigned, not the initial content. If the expansion content can’t be redesigned, then that’s evidence of poor foresight.

    Comment by Aaron — 27 September, 2006 @ 4:12 PM

  10. chabuhi wrote:
    Seems to me that the sign of true imbalance is if a majority of players are only playing one or two out of the available classes.

    Not necessarily. When I was playing WoW regularly, about 20-25% of the server population was Hunters. In a game with 7 classes on the side I was on, this seems out of proportion, even if Hunters were intended to be more numerous. You will almost never see your scenario, chabuhi, because other classes are still necessary in the game. Hunters may rock up solo, but you still need Warriors, Priests, etc. in groups. Even if everyone wanted to play just Hunters (and maybe a few Rogues, Paladins, and Shamans to keep it interesting), some people are gonna want to group or go on raids, so some poor sucker has to play the healer.

    BugHunter wrote:
    The problem is in the definition of “balance”. When I hear balance I think of each character equally matched to any other character.

    But, that’s not the definition of balance I’m using. I said, “I consider something balanced when it is just as appealing as other choices.” This doesn’t mean that when a Mage and a Rogue fight, they will each win 50% of the time. Rather, if you were to ask people “In a PvP battle, would you rather be the Rogue or the Mage?” As soon as you get about 50% of the people answering either way (or having no opinion), then a PvP fight between these two would be balanced. It doesn’t matter if Rogues still win 80% of the time, as long as the players think they have a fighting chance with either character. Of course, the chances that you’ll get close to 50% parity here is highly unlikely.

    Also note that you usually don’t want to strive for absolute “balance” in small comparisons like this. Rather, you want the choices to be comparable over a wide range of activities. Maybe Rogues pwn at PvP, but Mages might be better at PvE, be cheaper to supply, etc.

    This is one reason why I believe Ryan’s response, trackbacked below, is flawed. You cannot remove the players from the equation, because they intrinsically define balance. Balanced is determined by the choices they make, not any abstract mathematical definition.

    Laiq wrote:
    Still disgustingly unbalanced, but not in the way you said.

    It is the way I said, I just didn’t add the proper caveat that it’s not 100% beneficial. But, notice that the to-hits that correspond to the damage dice closely mirror what you might find in 2nd edition AD&D classes? The Wizard has THAC0 19 and has a weapon doing 1d4 damage, etc. So, if you continue the D&D focus on mechanics, it works out to be nearly always true.

    Rik wrote:
    As far as Hunters in WoW being able to solo well, they sure do. But they group poorly.

    I think that’s more a function of the player rather than the character class. :) If all you do is solo in the open, grouping in an instance is going to be difficult for you.

    Only the player with a hunter can tell you.

    Which is exactly my point. :)

    Aaron wrote:
    I’ve never thought it acceptable for balancing to occur post-launch.

    I will have to disagree here. Even if the mechanics don’t change, players are creative and may find new tactics that require re-evaluation of the game system. I think that post-launch balancing needs to be done very carefully, but I will disagree with the absolute. Sometimes you gotta change things to keep it fun and fair. The trick is to make small changes over time instead of making big changes or, worse, making multiple changes as an overreaction to a perceived problem.

    My further thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 27 September, 2006 @ 6:18 PM

  11. Yes, the problem with WoW hunters in a group does get added to by the fact that they haven’t grouped as much as say a cloth-wearer. But the real problem is the pet, his pet’s pathfinding and his pet’s selection of targets. This can get a whole team killed and worse, can get a whole group of players grumpy. Unless they group with you a lot, and feel that your pet normmally pulls his weight and this was a one-time fluke, they ask you to put the pet away. In fact, they will ask every Hunter from now on to put the pet away when grouping, despite the fact that some can control their pets. A Hunter Pet is probably about 25% of what a hunter brings to a party, with out it you have a mage with no area-effects, no short range damage and better armor. Most groups will then select to bring a mage instead. (It’s not so bad for warlocks because they have the imp and the succubus, which are both low agro and some can even sacrifice the pet for a buff instead. Also succubuss are easy on the eyes. :) )

    Yes, it’s a shame that you make two choices in WoW that mater, race and class, and both of them before you play the game and understand if these are right for you.

    No, I think it’s good to add things and rebalance. Moving the cheese is part of what keeps the game insteresting.

    Comment by Rik — 27 September, 2006 @ 8:01 PM

  12. I felt a great imbalance in the Force …

    [...] Count Dooku: It’s silly. Wat Tambor: It’s very silly. Darth Vader: It’s impossible! Obi-Wan: Is not! Han Solo: Fight Fight! (P.S. Is not!) Darth Vader: Uh huh! Is too! Princess Leia: Look, this is how you do it. Jek Porkins: But what about … [explosion] [...]

    Pingback by WorldIV — 28 September, 2006 @ 10:31 AM

  13. Balance Continued…

    [...] What began as a debate about whether balance is even possible between Psychochild and I (See: Balance is Impossible | Balance is Possible | Balance is Still Impossible) turned into an email conversation between the two of us. We’re both going to pull pertinent points from our emails, which really stopped arguing whether balance is possible and started talking about balance in general. [...]

    Pingback by Nerfbat — 28 September, 2006 @ 11:52 AM

  14. Game Designers: WTF?

    [...] Something very disturbing happened in the last few days, a bunch of game developer’s blogs passed around discussions on balance (particularly in MMOs) and some of the conclusions that were made seem unsettling. A hilarious, and informative, summary can be found at WorldIV. The first part of the discussion I stumbled upon was at Psychochild’s site (link), where he was refuting a claim that balance in games is impossible. A bold statement to say the least, and I commend Psychochild on his avid defense (and publishing) on the topic of balance, but the part that really disturbed me was in the response to his post. The originator was Ryan over at Nerfbat, arguing at first that balance is impossible and then retorting with more of the same. The part that really inspired this response was something he said in his response: Basically, to make a completely balanced game, everything would have to have a counterpart, or everyone would have to be perfectly identical. That, in my opinion, is entirely unfun. So truthfully, I shouldn’t be arguing that balance is or isn’t possible, because I feel that true balance shouldn’t be sought when developing a game. [...]

    Pingback by Critical Hits — 28 September, 2006 @ 12:44 PM

  15. Errrrr…. what attribute are balancing.

    I believe a common assumption would be rate of achievement (exp/hr blah blah), or the success rate of pvp battles. I mean it can’t be fun that is balanced. That would be… impossible.

    -Nathan J.

    Comment by Nathan Johnston — 28 September, 2006 @ 8:50 PM

  16. “But, that’s not the definition of balance I’m using.”

    I think you’re incorrectly applying a defintion to a word that means something entirely different to most MMOG players. What you’re talking about is desirability, not class balance. You’re trying to achieve an even distribution of desirability between classes (or builds in a stats based game). That’s not class balancing as most people think about it. That’s desirability balancing. Two different subjects with the word “balance” being applied to them, and they mean two totally different things.

    Desirability balancing is, however, what deveopers *should* be working on, in my opinion. But by writing that (“that’s not the definition I’m using”) you are intentionally mucking the waters. You’re creating confusion where there doesn’t need to be any.

    It shouldn’t suprise me by now, but it still does, how the failure to utilize the English language correctly is the central problem when it comes to MMOG discussions. This reminds me of the classic “casual vs. hardcore” discussion, because folks can’t come to a common meaning about what “casual” really means. Some people translate that literally (they play casually; infrequently) and others have applied a wholly different definition to it relating to playstyle, goals, achievement and aggressive behavior.

    Until everyone can get on the same page with with same vernacular – until folks can agree on what “class balance” means – this whole discussion is pointless.

    Comment by Chris — 29 September, 2006 @ 10:34 AM

  17. One of the wondrous things about the English language is in its flexibility. Words have multiple meanings, and the world “balance” is no exception. I’m not using the word “balance” in the accounting sense, either, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t use the word.

    I think you’re incorrectly applying a definition to a word that means something entirely different to most MMOG players.

    Yes, they are using it imprecisely. Statistical “balance” is not a useful concept to talk about because it is boring, as people have pointed out. Having identical abilities with identical features but with different names isn’t interesting. I think this is obvious, so why do most people talk about how things are “balanced” in a game? There’s an important concept here, and complaining because people aren’t using a word in a specific is not particularly productive. It is best to give a definition, work from it, and hope others follow.

    So, I’m giving a meaningful definition to the word “balance”. So that we can have a conversation without me defining a bunch of words that only I will use. Even if I did start using a new word (say “equilibrium”, which is a synonym for “balance”), that doesn’t mean people would follow my example. I’ve disliked the term MMORPG for a long time, but that doesn’t mean people have stopped using it in favor of “virtual world” or even “online game”. Trying to define a new term is just another example of muddying the waters since other people are not likely to start using your new term; the discussion will still be about “balance”, so it’s more useful to assign a meaningful definition to allow us to discuss this.

    Yes, I know, Horror! People will actually have to read and comprehend a discussion.

    The problem is that the way most players use the term “balance” is just as incorrect. They usually mean it as:
    1. My class (skill set/whatever) is too weak, so balance it out by making me stronger!
    2. That class (skill set/whatever) that I’m not playing is too strong, so balance everything out by making it weaker!

    This is what leads to the cycle of nerfs and buffs that people claim to hate. What I have tried to do is give a useful metric for measuring when things are “balanced” in a game. Desirability, as you put it, is a good litmus test for determining the first-order effect of having a balanced system. If the different options are equally desirable (even if they are not equally selected), then you have what most players would call a balanced system.

    As I mentioned above, there are some caveats. Not everyone will agree when something is “balanced” in the game. If 90% of the people agree something is balanced, is it balanced? (Well, yes, especially if that last 10% are the board warriors that bitch about anything you do. ;) Also note that having a completely balanced game doesn’t mean people stop complaining. If you look at my examples of player-defined balance above, you’ll see that most of the time it’s the assertion, “I want my character to have more power.” This means that even if everything is balanced, people will still want any advantage they can squeeze out.

    In the end, we’re talking about an art here, not a science. Statistical “balance” is a science using mathematics, but we’ve established that it is the most boring option. Therefore, the words we use don’t have scientific precision and never will. The definitions of some words are often subjective, just as the terms “balance” or “fun” are. Yet, we have to come up with a definition and work with it if we are going to have a useful conversation.

    Comment by Psychochild — 29 September, 2006 @ 12:45 PM

  18. Stay classy

    [...] as usual, the best answer lies between the two extremes. As I've mentioned before, Meridian 59 achieved a level of balance by providing some structure. Each "spell school" had a [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 20 January, 2011 @ 5:24 PM

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