The contradictions of class balance...part 1

Class balance...

...this will be a two parter, as there are two very different aspects of this subject that I wanted to talk about, and each looks at the challenges surrounding it from a different point of view, firstly from how players approach it (and what that means for developers) and then what it means to developers (and what that means for players!)...this will be one of those with a question for you all at the end as well...

Class balance is the one subject guaranteed to raise the ire of players, who feel that developers always fail to deliver, and is the source of more letters, words, paragraphs, posts, threads, disagreements, arguments, moderator interventions, flaring tempers, and all out forum warfare than any other subject you care to think of...

...class balance is something everyone has an opinion about... 

The problem is that those opinions can be quite biased...not a surprise right? However it presents a unique challenge for developers. We are in the middle of a set of changes with Age of Conan that relate to the games crowd control elements, which means changes for every class, and once again I am always amazed by the feedback. Players always have a lot of different opinions, but it is never more contradictory and passionate than when talking about class balance issues. Depending on who you listen to X class will either be the best or the worst of all the classes after Y change

Feedback loops

Usually, developers, as well as reading the forums, and listening in game, will also have a list of players that they have close contact with how they trust to give knowledgeable feedback on upcoming changes. That could be from the test server, or from high end guilds, constructive forum posters, or long-time friends and associates...usually those people are good for sanity checking ideas, concepts or changes...usually...when it comes to class balance considerations though things tend to change.

I have been speaking to people who I know are very knowledgeable about the game. They don't always agree with us, but they generally provide good pro and con style feedback, but when it comes to class balance issues they can often have a blind spot. 

So here are people that I know are usually sane, knowledgeable and helpful, and that I could usually be able to trust to provide a relatively insightful opinion, have this massive blind spot when it comes to 'their' class. It makes feedback on class changes very, very hard to nail down. It is one of those situations where you really have to trust in the developers to be looking at it objectively.

Why does it matter?

Now it's easy to say 'well developers never agree with us anyway', but that genuinely isn't true. Developers get an awful lot of great feedback from players...a good majority of the changes or additions that make it into a game are generally rooted in player feedback in one form or another...which makes losing that option, or at least finding it a little more potentially biased, all the more of an issue.

Yes, you can never really rely on player feedback to be totally impartial, but in general terms it does help, and you can usually shift through their perspective to understand the basis of their feedback. When it comes to class balance it becomes much harder to decipher.

Forum users generally have a wide variety of opinions, but when it comes to this subject, you almost always have opinions that are absolutely contradictory.

It is a strange phenomena.

Is it an envy thing?

So why is it such a hard topic to be impartial about?

Is it purely that players, deep down, really just want to 'win' the need to be competitive that is generated by modern culture the overriding factor in the biased nature of this feedback. is it simply that people only want to make sure that they get stronger, and others get weaker...

Is it a 'meta-game'? Do you really know that you are being biased, but you hope that some vociferous feedback will somehow sway the developers in order to make your character stronger. Is it all an extension of the battles you fight in game every day? 

Even those who are already at the more powerful end of the game balance equation can be found bemoaning their weaknesses and claiming that they need boosting in one way or another. Even if they win 75% of the time, they will be complaining about the things that cost them that 25% rather than be content they win far more often than they lose.

The question...

So a question for you all out there...when you provide feedback, or offer an opinion, on class balance, are you aware of your inherent bias? What is it about class balance that means often rational people have an irrational fear of being objective rather than subjective and biased?

...or is it more a case of players having a different set of assumptions that they are basing their opinions on?

Do you genuinely feel that the developers 'don't understand' how to balance, or do you accept that they do, and all the fervent feedback is simply a kind of 'meta-game' to argue your corner and try and preserve your status or a wish to see others pegged back by the developers?

Moving on...

That hints at one of the core problems in any 'balance' discussion. The problem for developers is that many amongst the general population of players have a base assumption that class balance means that things should be...well...balanced...equal.. that everything should be equal...that everything should be balanced...which isn't actually true...but that's a subject of the next post...

...but in the meantime, back to the you feel that your feedback on class balance is biased or do you genuinely feel that all the evul developers out there really just don't 'get it'?


Digger said…
I usually try and be impartial, but it is hard when you see other players with an advantage that you don't have. It is part of not wanting to be being cheated. You always tend to assume that you didnt lose because you suck, you lose because some other bugger is cheating.
Karl said…
The problem is that the valid opinions get lost in the stupid 'imba' discussions amongst the kids. There are rational voices out there, they just get really hard to hear when all the rest of the thread is taken up with extreme views that are stupidly biased. Like Rangers claiming they are underpowered :p

Make sure you the CC changes fix that for a start!
dreamss said…
I have a better question for you, do players know what balance means? for example someone playing a healer usually wants to do as much damage as a dps class.

they might not understand the rock paper scissor balance aoc has has, and to be fair the player base is a bit traumatized from the lack of changes to out of control damage (tos 1 shot/gems) that stayed in game FAR to long.

for example everyone tells me the ranger revamp made the ranger WAY to powerful same for the necro revamp

also on that note the necromancer class has been changed more than 5 times since the game started, even if players gave fair feedback the changes were to complex and things might fall trough the cracks
Anonymous said…
Hello SIl. This is Mykro. I think that you made a very good article. I wanted to first off say that I think the Devs are doing a great job with the revamp so far. They have made a lot of well thought out changes and I am looking forward to them.

I think people are always scared when these types of changes occur because people have a vested interest in the changes. Some people have spent weeks or months or even years working on a character. They think to themselves: What if all of sudden my character is much worse than most out there? I think this is the fear that drives a lot of people's responses to the changes.

You are right though, I even find myself, who is generally very rationale arguing for things that would clearly benefit a character I have or a character I want to make on the new server. However, all of my feedback that is not directly linked to either my character or one I want to make is more or less unbiased. So yes I would say it is more likely that feedback directly related to one's own character is more biased than feedback on other characters.

I think part of the problem is also there is a general feeling on the forums that "if we complain enough about X, eventually FC will listen and make that change." The thing is, that to some degree, that statement is true. If I say on the forums right now, in 10 different threads, that when this revamp goes live Barbs are going to be useless, the reality is that this WILL in fact have some sway on future tweaks to the Barb. So its like pavlon conditioning, you (FC) are rewarding people's complaining to some degree. However, a lot of time there is some truth in the complaining, so it's always hard to pin point what needs to be done. In general, there is some truth in complaints, however they are generally exaggerated.

Bottom line is yes people's inputs on class balance is VERY biased, more than any other subject. I think the dev's need to read the feedback, and first try to decipher is this person just whining? Does this person actually know what they are talking about? Is this person bright? The last one sounds like a silly question, but trust me their are a lot of people that post on the forums that I probably wouldn't take advice from ;)

Another problem is, it is shocking how many people post and give input on something they truly do not fully understand. So, the devs need to take the feedback, determine the credibility and reliability of the arguments, and then just think whether their argument is strong enough to warrant any change.

Another thing is that since the grind is so long now, people are restricted to one or two characters max. So people think: what if the one character I pick to play ends up not being as good as another? Take this and add onto the fact that in the past FC has taken VERY long to make minor changes that have clearly been needed (i.e., sin, ranger and guard all being OP for a long time). So if I choose an underpowered class, and invest months into it, and cannot quickly change to a new class, and future balance updates will take a very long time or never occur... then I think this whole situation adds to people being biased.
Anonymous said…
Lastly, I would like to point out that the pvp in this game is competitive and ill even use the word "nasty." People shit talk each other all the time. So people are looking for an edge anyway they can get it to do well in pvp, to defend "their ego." This means that they want to start with a strong toon and move on from their. I personally think one of the fundamental problems with AoC is the fact that there is no Horde Vs. Alliance setup like in wow. In world of warcraft, if you were alliance, you could not talk to horde and vice versa. This prevented shit talking from occurring. That is not the case in AoC. This makes PvP very personal and emotional, and this competitive nature leads people to want any edge they can get, and that includes having a stronger class.

I hope that helps answer the question some :)

But bottom line: Yes you are right 95% of feedback on class balance is biased, but that does not mean it should be ignored (which I am not claiming it is). All feedback should be taken with a grain of salt, and should be considered. In the end though, developers need to make the final call, and you need to trust them, as long as they know they need to be unbiased.
Craig Morrison said…

Yes, you are right, we'll talk a little about that in the next is definitely part of the issue.


Yup, it is a challenge because there is generally some truth to most of those opinions, the issue for developers is having to second guess all of it...even that from people whose opinions they can usually trust.
Anonymous said…
Yea I agree Craig. I think there is generally some truth to people's concerns about class balance, but it is also generally exaggerated to some degree as well. So its good to listen, second guess some things, make a few tweaks based on feedback, but move forward with intuition as well.

In general I think the changes are really good. Only concerns I have are:

-burst of aggression for conqs
-some of the cast times on the sins fear and stun (making them combos might be better) (a sin needs to be constantly moving or else they will die..)
-1 second cast time on the hox root (should be .1 or .5 seconds instead)
-making some melee interrupts (sin, guard, and conq) have too long of a cast time to work as a "reflex" skill, which an interrupt should work like.

Also I know the CC immunity timers have been lowered to 20, 25, or 30 seconds for all CC's. I am a little worried that this will make people CC'ed more often, and be counter productive in the goal to get rid of "chain cc'ing." Being rooted, and then rooted again 20 seconds later on a melee toon might be frustrating :) But I guess we will see, and I am sure tweaks will happen if they need to.

Hey Craig, one quick question for you... Does the team still seem to be on schedule for the end of May for the new B&G server?

I ask, because I will be returning back home from medical school at the end of May and was looking forward to rolling on the new server for the summer. ;)

Thanks again for your hard work Craig. Looks like things are beginning to come together on the pvp front. After the release of the pvp server (and no more bori!)... I just look forward to sieging being tweaked to 24 v24 and an arena system ;) and then pvp in the game will be amazing :)

Oh an congratulations on getting married, was glad to hear that!

Take care,

Anonymous said…
Nice article, Sil.

I think you hit the nail on the head here. I often find myself doing the very thing you describe and looking out for my own class/classes rather than for the greater good. People do it for the reasons you describe and envy and competitiveness really is a big part of it.

In a perfect world, you wouldn't need to rely on player feedback for balancing issues. Optimally, every single employee working on Age of Conan should be actively pvp'ing on your internal test servers. Not just occassional pvp to test issues but your staff and internal test team should be among the best skilled pvp'ers in the game so as to fully understand balancing. You'd also be able to see first hand if the issues people are talking about are true or if they are just looking out for their class.

I think one thing that could definitely use improvement is the time it takes to put out balancing. Rather than working for months on massive balancing patches, you should focus on small adjustments to damage or survivability that get released every week based somewhat on player feedback but more so on your internal testing. With how long changes take, players are extremely passionate about getting their word in when it comes to balancing. Even people playing classes like Guardian, Ranger, and Assassin which most will agree are grossly overpowered will defend their class to the last breath because they know that if their class gets hit by the nerf bat and their class becomes underpowered, that it will be a long time before their class is buffed up again.

To add to the suggestions Mykro said, I think its important to keep fast CC's as a form of survivability for the more vulnerable classes. Not just hox as Mykro said, but necro, demo, and possibly assassin need to have at least a couple cc's be instant cast or close to instant cast. (.1-.3 second cast) A 5 meter range and one second cast for classes as squishy as these will be devastating to their survivability.

How soon do you anticipate pushing the CC patch to live? Days? Weeks? A month or more?

Thanks and take care,

Anonymous said…
Tho DT's doing same damage as a DPS class in defensive stance with a certaint AA, Guardians running around in frenzy with 20% mitigation and doing same burst dmg as a dps class every 20 second.
It's stuff like this that is gamebreaking, coupled with bubbles.
Anonymous said…
Good discussion Craig and even I find myself biased when it comes to concerns about my class so I try and only respond to wrong statements concerning either the BS or Demo class instead of saying this is underpowered with my class and needs buffing.

I think a good rule of thumb would be not to listen to people giving arguments about their main class, only take their suggestions into consideration if they can logically prove that a deficiency exists. Let the other players (other main classes) then debate the pros and cons of said change and trust toe people who play that class as their main to point out any flawed arguments.

One major problem I always see when class balancing is discussed is the comparisons between so and so class. While trying to talk about why Guardians are OP for instance, it suddenly turns into what a Conq and DT can do instead of how to balance the guardian. Tell a Ranger that they should have a 2nd LoS for obvious reason and it quickly turns into what other classes do instead of justifying why Ragners dont have a 2nd LoS.

Ultimately like others have said above, the devs just have to pick something and go with it. However, just because they picked something and went with it doesn't mean that it was the right choice and once something hits Live, dont let the developers ego (or any reason why a fix is not immediately worked on if feedback points out obvious imbalances) get in the way of making an obvious fix in a timely manner.

We as players expect there to be some imbalances any time a major change happens but we players also expect "timely" fixes to be made in accordance with our feedback. The long break after the Ranger revamp went Live in July of last year can never happen again. And sometimes when a dev gets it wrong, dont let them be afraid to admit it and make immediate fixes. We all make mistakes.

Anonymous said…
What dreamss said is imo wrong and it's sad you agree with him sil. All classes should be as deadly as each other, a build for pvp that has the potential to provide equal opportunity of killing others, as they have of you.

You can't say to a pom hey you chose a healer so you cant kill people like those other classes so suck it up. This is wrong it alienates and frustrates countless players and leads to many a lost subscription.

You can start to fix the problems by giving all players easy access to the pvp 8 to 10 items. Quadruple the amount of pvp xp gained from real pvp that involves fighting and at the same time announce plans for a new 5 pvp levels and new content to make the lvl 10 to 15 enjoyable.

A random example could be placing 3 or 4 static large aoe areas in ce border kingdoms, where if you are in that area your pvp xp will be 5 times the amount it normally is, but only when you actually fight and kill players, you could also encourage people to go there by having a pvp xp tick on the player that gives x amount of pvp xp for time spent in the aoe zone eg: every 5 mins 1k pvp xp?

I'm pulling numbers out of my ass here but I think you can see the point I'm trying to make. Also would be a great idea to remove ranger tracking from the area, so that people can actually zone in without being chased out of the zone by multiple rangers, before you even try to get in a fight.

Who knows though maybe I'm just talking out of my ass, just my random thoughts I guess.

Ps: I'm a DT btw never played a pom.
Pps:Please fix in combat stamina regens. :)
KRA_77 said…
It's really hard not to be biased, but it's not only because you prefer one class over the other, but also because people's lack of knowledge about other classes. Even thou you might have every class on your login screen, no way u can have indept knowledge of all of them unless it's a fulltime job.

I believe the true problem with class ballance is lack of resources, or manpower. It seems that with every rewamp a class gets OP, and you have to adjust that class for the comming months. And with 2-4 rewamps a year there will allways be ballance issues.

The new direction of the game you introduced with more gear dependance and AA all cause a class ballance problem imo. And not to forget, BK buffs, it's a dealbreaker for new players I believe.

I welcome the CC changes thou, even though I believe it will shift class ballance as well, CC in this game is out of hand and needs to be nerfed. Imo at least 50% of current CC should be removed from game.

People like to play the game, not be CC's and nuked to death.
Arcalimon said…
My original comment has been deletade by a page refresh so I'll be short.

I actually have 5 characters at level 80, soon they'll be 6, I rolled them to understand at what degree the rumors about one being op and the other one being poor were true.

With this I mean that everytime i'm going to post any kind of analysis, suggestion, review, idea or whatever I always try to analyze stuff from different points of view, this does not mean that i'm alwyas right or that I expect others to always agree with me, it's just that I want to say something which can be at least verified with a bit of tests, something that can be obvious in some cases or brand new in other cases.

I believe that the CC revamp is on the overall a good change, it still needs to be tweaked and to be brought at the same level of impact for all the classes, there's a lack of balance probably between Melee new CC system and caster new CC syste as well as some differences within thos 2 categories themselves, like for example necro with 2 instant CC and HoX without them (Word of Command changed to 1 second casting time above all the rest), but once fixed it will be a good revamp.

The problem anyway is to verify how this revamp will scale into the single class reality, and that's the argument that is filling the forums, after some tests some classes resulted to have benefits from this but other had huge penalties from these changes and unfortunately my class (HoX) is on of those.

So, as a line of principle, yes I try to be impartial everytime I post anything both on TL/Live forums and my personal blog, but at some degree I believe that none can really claim to be 100% impartial, for it is pretty much impossible from my point of view!

dreamss said…
Anonymous AoC is based on budgets, and healers spent most of the budget cause they have heals.

what they needs is a "shadow priest mode" so the healer budget can be spent as dps. as long they able to heal and dps. their dps will be subpar to dps classes
Anonymous said…
Don't feel there's any evil developers.

Sometimes we feel that the developers aren't throughout enough though. There's alot of aspects to be considered for every tiny change. How does it impact the player in PVP, Solo, instances and raids.

We all have different core interests, that we'll be inherently biased towards, and I think it's rather here we sometimes have a harder time differentiating.

You can't and shouldn't listen to your players all the time on class balancing. However in most games, the developers actually follow the activities of players involved in those core activities.

Follow some raids around and get the players input, don't be afraid of being visibile, the more visible the better. Follow some groups around etc. even if some of the feedback is inherently biased, players will see you actively taking a role receiving that feedback.

Talk with players at the very start of the game challenges, talk with some at the very end.
When doing balances for raids for example, it's always been a puzzlement why you aren't actively following the players being affected by those changes doing all your content.