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The contradictions of class balance...part 2

"Rock is overpowered, Paper is balanced, Scissors is underpowered - signed: Scissors"

The above quote can indeed sum up a good deal of the feedback that developers receive (and can probably summarize all those pretty words used in part one of this post down to an annoyingly accurate sound-bite!) but it does provide the perfect introduction to the next part of these musings about balance...why is it that players and developers often have a very different idea of what balance should be?


The problem we've been discussing... 

Is essentially based on the fact that at a fundamental level, players often feel that the best way to express 'balance' revolves around equality. It is often over generalized to a kind of wish for things to be defined in terms of any combination of two classes having a perfectly 50 / 50 chance of winning or losing against each other, or achieving the same performance in a specific measurement the player cares about.

The problem is that such an approach doesn't always take into account the scope of an RPG system.

There are many factors that come into play here, so let's take a look at them and examine some of the reasons why developers and players are often thinking about different things when they talk about balance.

The simple truth

Balance, in RPG terms, and equality, are not the same thing.

The different elements within an RPG system don't actually have to be equal to be balanced.

So class balance in an RPG system is not actually based on a 'balance' that would be defined as any combination of two classes having a perfectly 50 / 50 chance of winning or losing against each other. There are many factors that come into play here, so let's take a look at them...

Rock / Paper / Scissors

The old Rock / Paper / Scissors model...perfect balance of a sort...you always have the same odds of winning, losing or drawing. It never changes. It is also absolute, which is why it has never actually sat totally comfortably with RPG systems. Players generally don't like absolutes, the idea of always losing a certain matchup simply wouldn't be fun for a game based on an RPG system. RPG systems usually have an element of random chance to them. So even if they have, over time, adopted elements that can be compared to the classic Rock / Paper / Scissors model, they still rarely take it in purist form.

First person shooters (in particular team based shooters like Team Fortress 2) definitely use that concept of balance in a much purer form, because they don't generally have to worry about RPG progression.

The Trinity factor

Part of the problem is that somehow, over the last twenty years that basic 'Rock / Paper / Scissors' model got twisted by the invention of the so called 'holy trinity' of MMO classes, tanks, healers and dps (with purely support roles like crowd control and buffing / debuffing as complicating accessories). The problem with the trinity from a balance perspective is that they have effectively moved us away from what makes the Rock / Paper / Scissors elegant in the first place. MMO theory godfather Richard Bartle commented on this last year, in terms of the origins of the concept, and how the development of the genre reinforced it, well worth a read. It means though, that at a fairly fundamental level, the basic balance of the rock / paper / scissors model is no longer really valid as the roles have significantly changed. The only thing that modern RPG systems really have left in common with the old Rock / Paper / Scissors design idea is that it vaguely revolves around a similar concept of one thing being weak to one thing and strong against others.

Once it becomes about something more than just the damage you do to an opponent, then there are other factors that have to be considered in balance that don't necessarily help a player defeat another directly. How do you equalize all those secondary abilities, like crowd control, healing, damage mitigation, stat manipulation and make them somehow relative to damage? The answer of course is that most RPG systems don't even try. They take those abilities and create very different roles out of them, and not all of those roles relate directly to causing damage.

The RPG factor

The other element that RPGs inherently bring to the table is progression, and how players gain power (however that may be defined) over time. It's a core part of how most RPG systems have been designed, and further moves RPG based games away from the purity of that original Rock / Paper / Scissors concept. Now here some systems can accommodate progression and reflect those concepts, Guild Wars would be a good example, by forcing the selection of only X number of skills at a time, they switched the focus from bigger numbers to different tactics and embraced the roles they could create in different ways. Even then however, due to the way that those abilities are earned, there is still a progression above and beyond the pure 'skill' of using those skills.

In games that took their lead from the old MUDs, titles like Everquest, Ultima Online and eventually modern MMOs like World of Warcraft, Aion, and Rift have progression as a much more integral element of their systems.

In terms of a shared understanding of 'balance' however, players generally accept the fact that progression effects balance, and they don't expect variable levels of progression to be balanced. The concept that a level X players isn't equal to a level Y player is such a core part of RPG progression that players accept it. (Now some might prefer that more games moved away from that model, but it doesn't change the fact that they accept the influence that it has on design)

The Learning curve factor

Then we come to the fact that, to put it simply, balance is often best served by any given design having certain imbalances built into it.

It sounds contradictory doesn't it?

Not so when you think about it. Designers often need to offer classes that can cater to both more casual players and those that can offer more hardcore players a challenge. In an MMO there is usually a difference between classes, most often expressed through mechanical differences, that can mean some are 'easy' to player and still get good performance, and some that require more skill and timing to pull off correctly.

Designers have to make their games accessible, and fun, for a wide range of player skill levels. That means that it can be a good thing to have some classes whose mechanics ease players into the game, and provide an 'easier' option. Yes, that means that there is usually an inequality inherent in that design, as the benefits of being 'skilled' with one of the harder options available, probably doesn't offer as much of a power difference as the hardcore crowd would like (otherwise those 'easier' classes wouldn't be able to compete, when the whole point is to allow them to be at least somewhat competitive)

So this too adds to the players perception of inequality that developers have often included very consciously.

The dueling factor

This last one is usually the most contentious issue for many players. MMOs are social games, and there are many times when designers 'balance' content, in particular PVP, around groups of players, not just solo 1v1 combat. In a class based system where classes often have pretty well defined roles, as we mentioned earlier in relation to the so-called 'trinity', you invariably have some classes who have roles that might excel in group situations, but might not be able to stand toe to toe with a high dps class.

People really don't like perceived inequalities that they feel effect them every day. Every time that certain class is set upon 1v1 by one of those classes against whom they might have little defense (whether due to abilities or due to attacks of opportunity) it slowly and surely builds up a resentment against that class....they almost become a nemesis...it creates a situation where they don't care that the designers intended a complex relationship between classes for optimal team structure...they care that the damn [insert hated class here] always has the edge on them.

This is where developers and players most often disagree as certain classes will be excellent team members, and essential elements in a good combat squad, but none of that worth is really considered when the player is annoyed that he just got jumped again by [insert hated class here].

The key for a designer is to have the experience be good as often as possible, with as many combinations of players and tactics, but if they try and balance each and every class for one role - doing damage to another - that would be required to have 'perfect' 1v1 balance then they start to lose all the flavor and tactical options that are presented by a class based system.

The evolution thing

Now, that said, it is important for designers to ensure some flexibility in a class design. If the roles are too narrow they are often not as much fun in the context of an MMO. Players expect to be able to contribute general damage as well, and that is something the genre has improved at over the years. Many of the modern MMOs do provide options for most classes to output some decent damage as opposed to the original Everquest for example where a cleric was certainly doing little other than healing...at least now there usually is a choice hidden away in talent trees, character builds or other options, so there has been some evolution there. As the PVP elements of MMOs take more and more from the FPS genre we start to see some elements evolving back towards the purer forms of a Rock / Paper / Scissors model.

It is quite possible that in the future, the two will again converge in some form, but for now it's important to remember all the elements that go into an RPG class system the next time you are tempted to question the genetic lineage of the developers because that damned [insert hated class here] has just ganked you again...











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