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On the subject of balance...and a question

I took part in an interview with Ten Ton Hammer this week that once again sparked thought and debate on the subject of how you balance MMOs. You can find the whole interview here (Yes, it is one of those articles you have to be a member to see. Whether you want to support them is down to you, and no, they haven't asked me to plug them. They are though nice guys and I like sites that allow us developers to chat a little bit about things other than 'what is coming up' in our games!). Writing on development is something I always find enjoyable, and I like hearing what some of my fellow developers have to say on the matter. I find myself with a knowing smile and nodding as I see what the others have to say as well, and like hearing about how other approach the same challenges we have.

One question though that underlies the discussion about balance in MMOs, and in particular in relation to player versus player combat, is what exactly players consider to be 'balanced' in the first place. Now I am not talking just about our own game here, my musings on this blog tend to be more generic about the genre and gaming as a whole...so I do have a question for you all - What do you consider to be the 'perfect' balance in an MMO?

Surely that question is easy you say? Maybe not, I would challenge the notion that it is anything close to obvious, and in fact can be very different things to different people. From many years speaking to players and developers (both as a dev myself and as a journalist before that, and as a player myself) you start to hear very different things about what this mythical 'balance' thing actually is.

You might think it was easiest to define it very straightforwardly as 'every time I fight I have a 50/50 chance of winning or losing based my skill and approach' but when you actually push players about what they feel about gameplay the reality is that they would feel balance was better when they have a chance of losing, but that they should win more than lose. Most seem to tend towards wanting something like a 75/25 mix of winning to losing...so they recognize the need for, and want, a chance of losing, but they generally feel that its more fun when they win more often than they lose, as long as it isn't too much.

...so for many they don't actually want, and wouldn't find enjoyable a situation where they always had a 50/50 chance of failing. So to many that isn't actually a balance they would want.

So that is where the old 'rock, paper, scissors' approach comes in. Someone always has a chance to beat someone and lose to someone...but that isn't directly translatable into an MMO setting as you don't want to establish any situation where a player will lose every time. So we end up with systems where certain classes have advantages and disadvantages against others and thus can win more often that lose if they pick their targets correctly (and learn when to run away!), but with MMO titles often having up to a dozen classes that balance also has various pitfalls...is it fun to have classes you almost always have to avoid? Is that balance?

It is also about being honest with ourselves about our desires as players, and balancing the gratification of winning and the satisfaction of demonstrating our skill against the knowledge of when it is too easy, and where the balance actually need to be within the game.

The other factor that also plays into it is equality. Some players want a totally equal playing field where the only differentiation is player skill or reflexes. That outlook has kind of bled into MMOs from other genres like first person shooters, which is to be expected as MMO titles have become more and more mainstream.

Once you have an RPG system though such balance is problematic as an RPG system will almost always have differences from class to class that are inherent in their design. You also have the added factor of having different classes having different mechanics. As designers it is often beneficial to include options for players that is easier to master alongside the mechanics that take time to master. Once you have that then some players bemoan the existence of that 'easy option', even if it is probably good for the approachability of your game. is that good balance or should we let new players learn the 'hard way' and truly be cannon fodder until they learn the systems or improve - is that good balance?

Now how we as designers approach it very much depends on the game, the RPG system the game uses and the way your game mechanics are set up....we are always trying to figure out how best to balance things so that they are fun! That fun factor is the main thing we strive for, and the key to that is trying to establish how we can balance those player desires about what they really want from their PVP experience. So what do you personally consider to be the 'perfect' balance an MMO should strive for?

It's a subject that fascinates me, and I always like considering...

...in other news just preparing the last few odds and ends for the trip to Gamescom next week in Cologne. I always prefer shows that are also open to the public as I like getting to meet and chat with players as well (even if the public shows are a degree more hectic). The team have done a fantastic job getting everything together for the show, and I'm looking forward to letting people see what we have been working on.

Preparations has meant I still haven't been able to try out the Ghostbusters game...guess it will have to wait until after the show now!

Next stop...Germany!
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9 comments

Cyan said...

For me balance is probably closer to what you described as the 'rock, paper, scissors' approach, but yeah, I definitely like to win more often than I lose. MMOs are NOT FPS games and people need to realise that, I would not want an MMO to be purely reflex based, strategy and timing fine, but not just speed of reaction, that should be left in the FPS space

Grant said...

I think that an MMO could have a purely skill based system. Why cant a base level be even? All if would take is for the game to not be item based...you could have a system based on just adding new attacks and abilities (.i.e not amend base statistics)...sounds like games like Global Agenda might be heading in that direction (although not totally), but they also are only arguably an MMO due to how much they instance.

I thought AoC and the likes are in the direction, but you are going back to being more item centric...I would love, LOVE, a purely skill based MMO...and then you can have 50/50 chances as a baseline, then player skill modifies that.

Could be done!

Anonymous said...

I can see your point with including mechanics which are easier to master, but once you permit that to be the case across the board, you create an uneven playing field.

The great thing about a level-based MMO is that it can allow players to learn at their own speed. It also means that even the easiest mechanics can be made more difficult to master as the player progresses, thus hopefully placing all players on a level footing by the time they "top out".

If this _doesn't_ happen, the following is almost inevitable:

A selection of class-types benefit from "easier" mechanics. The remaining class-types enjoy harder (and hopefully more fun) mechanics. The difference in mechanics directly equates to "it is easier to score kills with the former classes". Thus, you have a PvP imbalance which might be minor during the "learning" levels but at peak induces imbalance and weights the population toward the easier playstyle.

I'd hope to see MMOs recognize this and make "easy" mechanics more and more closely resemble "hard" mechanics as the player gains experience, both in terms of hours logged and XP.

This would give us a much better chance at a balanced MMO.

Aell
AoC Ranger Advocate

Cyan said...

@Aell

but if you dont have some easier to play classes then you turn the noobs and less skilled people off PVP totally and it is seen as a reserve of the hardcore. I think active good PVP needs noobs too, if you dont have a class with some simpler mechanics then you dont get them to play, if time spent is the only factor (or worse reflexes UGHH!) then you can't bring new people into PVP.

I think that approach is fine as long as the classes who do have harder mechanics can shine in the hands of the hardcore. Why should the hardcore care if a noob gets a few more kill stats? As long as the hardcore guy can get his too isnt it just envy if the noob can also score? Why should the hardcore care about what another person scores as long as he or she scores well?

omnibudsman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
omnibudsman said...

What do you consider to be the 'perfect' balance in an MMO?

Points to consider:

50/50 chances WITHOUT gears or potions among SAME LEVEL and average players.

75/25 chances WITH gears and potions among SAME LEVEL hardcore players.

Balance is made of actual experience, not maths.

Balance is made for same level players, so you can't get balance among different level players. Obvious.

So, FFA PvP does not mean to allow fights at will among different level players.

FFA PvP can't be just free ganking.

Fights with large level gaps allowed in FFA PvP is a suicidal path in any MMO.

Yes, official ranking is a must and Devs should follow it for balance adjusts.

Arenas are the best way for fair FFA PvP...

End game is secondary to the balance because without balance there are not enough players for end game.

AoC is the best to be the best when well balanced.

Anonymous said...

Make more PvP objectives and make players hard to kill.

PvP -- especially group/massive PvP -- is about targeting or focus-firing or zerging your opponents' weakest elements. But that puts the magnifying glass on the game's weakest features, because people are going to be constantly blaming "balance" for their losses.

If PCs were a bit harder to kill overall, and PvP was more about accomplishing objectives -- defending a point, killing an NPC (or PC) general, surviving for X amount of time, etc. -- then "good" PvP would be less about zeroing in on the "weak" classes and more about positioning/strategy/coordination.

Nathan said...

I think the 50/50 chance of winning (when all things are equal) is ideal.

The reason people actually feel they should win 75/25 is because they consider themselves better players than average and so that should skew their chances in their favor.

I think some people who are not confident in their MMO skills are happy winning only 25% of the time or even at all, because that's still better than they expect when they compare their likely skill level to that of other players.

So yeah I think balance is, when you put two classes together played by bots of equal skill (which is impossible, I know), then they win an equal amount of time on average. When you factor in player skill, it should skew the average in their favor or against them.

That being said, I kind of LIKE that classes are not perfectly balanced. It kind of allows you to choose your difficulty of play. I play a Dark Templar, and I LIKE the fact that it's an uphill battle to do well in PvP.
If someone would like less of a challenge they could play a necro (no offense, necros). I don't think there's anything wrong with some classes being more challenging to win with than others, as long as everyone knows it.

It's obvious that people don't really want balance, or they would gravitate to the more balanced characters.

The most played classes are always the overpowered classes. A lot of people clearly LIKE being overpowered, so it's hard to take seriously these cries for balance.
Most people that play an underpowered class know that they will be underpowered going into it, but they play it anyway. They like the challenge I guess (and they like to talk about how their chosen class is underpowered).

Soooo... What was I saying.

omnibudsman said...

I had forget to say before:

The 'rock, paper, scissors' concept is bullshit.
PvP is xp+skill vs. xp+skill = balance.

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