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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