11 April, 2009
My thoughts have been going toward balance again. It’s an interesting topic, and one I haven’t visited in while.
So, let’s take a look at what makes different options balanced, but not identical.
People often think that true balance requires a gross simplification of a system to the point where only truly balanced scenario is one where the options are nearly identical. Using classes as an example, classes are only balanced if every class has nearly identical abilities; the logical consequence is that you can’t truly balance a healer against a damage dealer in a meaningful way.
I don’t agree. In my previous posting on balance, I said:
An option is balanced when that choice is just as appealing as other options.
Now, you still have one tremendous caveat here: You have to consider multiple contexts. One option may be much better in a PvP situation, for example, but it may be balanced against another option that is much more suited to some non-PvP situation. Or, one individual may prefer one power due to his or her playstyle. But, as long as both options are equally appealing across your playerbase and considering the situations in your game, then they are balanced overall.
There are a few problems to evaluating and measuring balance. First, it’s not a hard science, but rather part opinion and part groupthink. You can’t look at game data and determine if something is balanced; things may be perfectly balanced by the designer’s model, but the players decided (or determined) that some aspect is tremendously more important than the designer modeled, and you have perceived imbalances. Players also tend to be very selfish when evaluating balance; they often want more relative power for their individual characters despite how powerful they might actually be.
So, how can different options be equally appealing but not necessarily identical? Let’s take a look at the balance between tanks in the last WoW expansion, The Burning Crusade (TBC).
As most people reading this know, tanks are there to take the damage and keep aggro on monsters. This is one of the “holy trinity” of DIKU gameplay, the other two being damage/DPS and healers. In TBC, there were three primary tanks classes: Feral Druids, Protection Paladins, and Protection Warriors. Each had their relative strengths and weaknesses and were fairly well balanced against each other. All could fill in a general tank role in a pinch in most of the normal content. The place where their differences started to be noticed were in raid content.
Feral Druids were able to assume bear form to tank. Bear tanks got a significant increase in armor value from items; a well-equipped Druid in leather armor would often have much higher armor value than a plate-wearing tank. Bear form also gave a bonus to Stamina, which meant more hit points for the Druid. Druids also gained aggro quickly on enemies. On the downside, Druids only had one “avoidance” stat, dodge, and could not parry or block attacks with a shield as other tanks did. They also had the fewest options of all classes, and could not even use health potions in dire situations. Druid tanks were meat shields in the truest sense, with lots of armor and hit points to outlast an enemy, but they had few options to get out of trouble fast. Druids also had a measure of flexibility; a properly specced Druid could go from tank to DPS roles easily by switching equipment, and could sometimes change roles in the middle of a fight if required.
For what it’s worth, I played a Feral Druid in a raiding guild in TBC. I preferred doing DPS, but I often filled in as an off-tank in guild raids.
Protection Paladins were the second major tank class. They could wear heavy armor and had some pretty nice abilities to give them extra protection. As an added bonus, a Paladin could heal him- or herself if needed. Paladins also had a very handy AoE damage ability that allowed them to grab aggro on many different enemies; this was often useful in situations where swarms of enemies had to be dealt with. However, Paladins had to balance more stats, since they needed Int for a larger mana pool, a stat that the other tanks could ignore; a Paladin with no mana could not tank very effectively.
The last of the main tank classes was the classic mainstay: the Warrior. Warriors wore heavy armor and used shields like Paladins. Warriors also used Rage to fuel their abilities, and Rage regenerated by doing and taking damage. A Warrior taking massive damage from a boss monster usually had all the resources they needed to use the abilities they needed. They also had a wide variety of abilities to help in tight spots; these were often referred to as the “Oh shit! buttons”. They didn’t have any particular weaknesses, overall.
As I said before, each class was a reasonable tank in normal small group situations. A healer might have to adjust slightly, but each was capable of holding their own if played by a competent player.
Raids were a bit different. Different raid encounters called for different types of tanks. If a tank needed to keep lots of small enemies occupied, a Paladin was often the best choice, although a talented tank of another class could also work (although they’d have to work harder). A big monster that hit hard and had unpredictably spiky damage would probably be best suited to a Warrior, although a Paladin could fill the shoes, too. Druids were best at picking up sudden spawns since they could gain aggro fast, perfectly filling the role of off-tank. A good Feral Druid who didn’t mind swapping equipment to do DPS was also useful the times when you didn’t need as many tanks.
Overall, these different classes felt balanced between themselves. They handled the basic tasks of tanking rather well, but they had different strengths in a raid situation. I enjoyed my roles in a raid, and didn’t feel that I was at a severe overall disadvantage compared to Warriors and Paladins; therefore, I thought the classes were well balanced.
Of course, not everyone is going to agree that these were balanced; many classes looked at the other class’ abilities and were envious. I know more than once I wished my Druid had a Shield Wall or Holy Shield type ability to get out of tight scrapes, or could use potions in those times when the healers were falling just a little behind. I know some other classes got jealous when comparing armor values or total hit points with my character in bear form.
This discussion also ignores strange cases like Rogue tanks, where a specifically geared Rogue gained enough avoidance to be completely unhittable. That’s not balanced, though. ;)
What is interesting is that with the latest expansion, the WoW dev team have stated that they want to focus more on evening all the roles out between the classes, including tanks. For example, the Swipe ability Feral Druids get in bear form now hit all enemies in the area of effect; previously it only hit a maximum of 3 targets. This means that a Druid can now tank large groups of enemies about as well as a Paladin previously could. Many other changes have evened out the tank classes so that none is better than the other. Druids lost the armor multiplier bonus on some of their equipment, bringing their armor values down. In addition, there has been a push to separate out the Tank and DPS roles of Feral Druids so that they have to specialize in one or the other to gain the most efficiency to balance things out; this has lessened my interest in the Feral spec for my character (and my interest in my character, overall). It’s interesting that the game feels less balanced now that the developers are taking the approach that most people say is the only way to be balanced: making everything similar.
So, what types of balance do you see that are not quite equal in games? How could you incorporate this into other areas of MMO games, even beyond DIKU style gameplay?