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'...is 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 question...do 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'?
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