The Daily Grind: Which MMORPG is the worst at balancing difficulty?

Justin’s LOTRO Legendarium article on whether or not Mordor is too difficult struck a chord wth me. “I do not envy devs and their monumental task of creating world content that is somewhat balanced for players of varying skill and gear levels,” he wrote. “Make it too easy, and players get apathetic and drift away from your game. Make it too hard, and players pound their keyboards and ragequit.”

That’s a balance many MMORPGs have struggled with over the years as new patches are rolled out, from World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm to Guild Wars 2’s Heart of Thorns, and as Justin argues, some games take “wild swings” from too hard to too easy and leave us frustrated and hunting for a new online home.

Set aside the specific’s of the LOTRO issue for now and consider the question more broadly: Which MMORPG is the worst at balancing difficulty — and why?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!
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48 Comments on "The Daily Grind: Which MMORPG is the worst at balancing difficulty?"

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Tiresias

Wildstar.

A wonderful experience right up until when you reach the endgame.

I leveled 4 classes through the story and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Attempted to get into end-game content and immediately went back to GW2.

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Sally Bowls

I would characterize Justin’s first paragraph slightly differently: make it too hard some players leave; make it too easy and different players leave. So it is recognizing as you turn the difficulty knob you will lose some and gain some and there is an optimum spot that maximizes revenue/players.

I do think that is much tougher to get a single difficulty correct than user-selectable difficulty. By far and away my biggest complaint with the new hotness, zone scaling which unlike Rift’s user selectable scaling is fixed scaling. I lost the ability to do a level 25 zone at 23 on my BM hunter and 28 on my mage.

fistan77
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fistan77

Very true. In DDO, all quests have about 14 tiers of difficulty. In normal, you can clear very easily with whatever build you use. As you increase the difficulty, build efficiency increases more and more. This is an instanced game so this is possible. In an open world game, like ESO, having zones scale to you was a very good implementation to help balance the replayability of content without annoying group/mentoring mechanics

fistan77
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fistan77

Real life correctly portrays how PvP in games should function. If you enter an MMA ring as a boxer against an opponent who is trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, then you are probably going to lose. If, however, you enter against another boxer, then skill will make that determination. Same holds true in games. I believe there will be less QQ in arena if the combat was class locked; skill will shine more I believe.

In sports, you are told how many, and what types of players you will have on the field. It should work that way in Team arena.

If you choose to pull a knife on somebody holding a gun on you, well….I guess you should start carrying a gun or keep more friends around carrying knives. Open World PvP.

Balance just became a moot issue and now PVE and PVP can co-exist, in this case…art should imitate life.

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Rottenrotny

I never really agree with people frothing at the mouth over class balance.
To me Vanilla WoW was/is one of the best gaming experiences EVER and yet balance was completely laughable.

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Michael18

I think too much focus on class balance, in the sense of equal power and an equally fun overall experience for all classes, can even be detrimental to an MMORPG. The problem is that it often makes devs shy away from giving classes truly unique traits and characteristics. But this is important for an MMORPG, imo. Each class should have some quirks that make the game feel different when played with that class and give the class an identity.

(of course, in MMOs with a very strong focus on PVP, class balance is more important, but maybe the differences can then be in an area that does not affect combat)

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Koshelkin

I haven’t played a MMORPG in the last 5-6 years which posed a decent challenge. MMORPG’s were never hard to begin with but for most games it’s now a thing of spamming a couple of basic attacks to get through most of the leveling content.

The current design/balance-paradigm is clear: make the game so easy that a 12yo can beat it.

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Alex Malone

All of them are terrible.

They all still stick to vertical progression, via levels, skills, gear and whatever other progression mechanics they want to introduce. This means that balance is always completely non-existant until you reach endgame and the top of the power curve, at which point the devs actually know your power and can balance accordingly.

If you are lucky, there will be occasional moments whilst leveling where the content is accidentally balanced for where you’re at, but unless you are really dumb, chances are the whole game will be easy.

So, the first step towards balance needs to be a switch to horizontal progression. Not only would this make balancing easier, it would also solve a ton of other problems plaguing the MMO genre (obsolete content, finding people to group with etc).

Once you’ve done that, you then need to decide what sort of balance you want. Rock-paper-scissors? 1v1? DPS? Success rate? Group v Group? You can’t achieve balance in all areas, so you have to pick and choose. I prefer Rock-Paper-Scissors balanced around groups, as this is what allows for class diversity and fits with the MMO ethos best.

Finally, I completely disagree that you cannot achieve balance in an MMO that has both PvP and PvE. It is absolutely possible and not even that difficult to do, the devs just have to make balance a priority right from the start. The devs just need to make it clear what sort of balance they are aiming for. The problems tend to come because devs balance PvP around 1v1, but PvE around groups. That unique spell that makes a mage useful in a raid is suddenly unbalanced in PvP as nobody else has an equivalent. So, devs: pick a balancing strategy and stick with it.

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Ket Viliano

Most devs are so dull minded as to make powers do the same thing in PvE that they do in PvP. DPS in particular is easy to adjust.

presbytier
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presbytier

There is a reason why virtually all RPGs (including Pen and Paper) have stuck with vertical progression no one has figured out how to make horizontal progression work. The biggest issue is still the same you lose a feeling of accomplishment. The closest game to a horizontal progression system is GW2 and it bores me to death because combat never feels like it changes even if I am technically getting more powerful. As far as PvE vs PvP balance goes yeah it is impossible which is why no one can achieve it outside of separating PvP mechanics from PvE. FFXIV has done a great job of this recently; the abilities are still recognizable, but they have been changed depending on what you are doing and it allows them to balance the mechanics regardless of level. PvP and PvE are radically different aspects of a game and do require different approaches.

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Alex Malone

You’ve touched on something very important – combat not feeling like it changes, even though you are getting more powerful.

Whilst you use this as an argument against horizontal progression, it is in fact an argument against vertical progression. In literally every RPG I’ve ever played with vertical progression, that progression always reveals itself to be artificial because hardly any progression actually changes the way you play and experience the game! More stats / gear etc doesn’t change the way you play, it just alters what content is now achievable.

With vertical progression in an RPG, the only thing that actually changes the gameplay (and thus provides actual progression) is when you acquire new skills or traits. When this happens, you change your rotations, or approach to content – i.e. you progress.

But, how many times does that actually happen? In SWG, that would happen maybe 4 times whilst mastering a profession. In LotRO, that would happen maybe 5-10 times whilst leveling a class. In SWTOR, 3-5 times. WAR, maybe 5-10.

Now horizontal progression……the whole ethos of horizontal progression is specialising. Every bit of progression you make is about changing the way you play and experience the game. Your overall power level may stay the same, but you might start as an all-rounder, then unlock a crit specialisation, then an AoE, then a single target, then a DoT, then a tank spec etc etc. It is all about opening up options for the players, both allowing them to find the exact sweet spot that they enjoy, as well as providing motivation for continuing their progression.

I won’t lie, motivating the players in a horizontal progression game is a challenge. As your overall power level stays the same, there is no overt reason for unlocking new specialisations. So, you need to design the content carefully to encourage players to unlock. But, being the MMO genre, perhaps it is time for devs to look at other types of progression outside of character progression? Camelot Unchained’s CUBE system for example – players will be able to design and build their own structure in the world, the larger stuff taking weeks / months to build. That is still progression, it still has a purpose, yet it doesn’t directly affect characters. What about if devs started adding things like micro-managing your estates (like farmville within the mmo), so you can still progress your estate without it affecting the balance of your character.

There are so many awesome ideas for progression and features within MMOs but so few of them have actually been explored. We’ve become stuck in this extremely narrow view of what an MMO should be – grinding quests to obtain more power – and we need to break free of it.

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Ket Viliano

PvP and PvE are really only different if the mobs are not built like players and the AI is bad. EvE is a good example of this, as the old PvE is weak, repetitive stuff, but the new updated PvE has been made more like PvP including better AI. The improvements have been observable over time, and many legacy systems are still around, which makes EvE a good historical reference.

In our IRL gaming groups, the DMs would always resort to giving powerful NPCs player levels and powers to make them competitive, even dragons wind up getting Magic User levels to make them dangerous.

presbytier
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presbytier

I would actually be curious to this in a game. I imagine it would change the monotony of mob grinding.

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Ket Viliano

The AI in old Darkfall Online was not great, but better than most. The mobs would run in a stupid circle, yet this is still better than most mobs in most games. They would notice if you were aiming at them, and *move*, what I did was to draw my arrow, which took just a bit of time, and then aim and shoot before they would respond, rather than aim while drawing, only to have the mob get out of the way.

Not great, but a good start it was.

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Rottenrotny

Personally I won’t enjoy a game nearly as much if it doesn’t follow the classic RPG style.
ie: Start at lvl 1 with a dagger and 4 hit points and sloooooowly increase in power as you spend time developing your character.
Another player may play a different class and even though they’re the same level they have the scissor to your paper. It’s fine. This is the way RPGs work.
This whole everyone needs to be equally powerful makes for boring gameplay imo.

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Ket Viliano

That is fine for solo or small group PvE, but terrible in a high concurrency games. Concurrency changes the design space dramatically, and most MMORPGs just ignore this.

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Robert Mann

There are three issues here, all of which affect games, and all of which are not a one size fits all solution.

Balancing issue #1: PvE and PvP. Simply put, unless a game actually fully splits the two, and stops dinking around with one to fix something in the other, it doesn’t work. MMOs have started down that path, some have tried and failed, others have tried with mixed results, and a very few have actually just fully split the two. The downside? Players who like a persistent character and experience across the game are unhappy. The Upside? Players who are focused on one or the other and don’t care that things are a little different if they ever do the other are happy.

Balancing issue #2: Time. This could also be called class output. Simply put, if a class is so much more powerful than others to level, it feels to many like a punishment to play the lower end classes. On the other hand, some people will enjoy the challenge or exclusivity of leveling on such a class.

Balancing issue #3: Mobs. There are actually three areas here that can be a problem. First, HP bloat. Bosses in most single player games are a classic case of HP bloat, where fights take 15 minutes despite you having learned the patterns and all long ago. Second, EZ mode. If things die without any challenge, some people will be bored. Third, frustration mode. If combat is difficult to the point where more people lose than win, some people will be frustrated.

The problem with each and every one of them is that you can’t please everyone. The problem with MMOs is that they try to please everyone. What ends up happening is some half-baked nonsense where the things that a game could have done well are left feeling less than excellent, and those where it was weak feel a little less weak… but are still not very good.

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Ket Viliano

As I noted earlier, PvP and PvE can be separate at the state machine level. The best way to do this is just to set damage in PvE apart from PvP, keeping defenses the same, such that the same gear is used for both. Other aspects of the game have to keep this in mind, namely building mobs the way you would any other player, and including a decent AI.

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Castagere Shaikura

No such thing as mmo balance as long as PVP is in the mmo. Its a joke and Devs know this. They just say they are trying to do this to keep PVPer’s from QQ all the time. They could always do what SWTOR is doing by so called balancing the classes to the point where the player base just gives up and just excepts whatever they do.

styopa
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styopa

Balance is a fallacy, and I think devs waste way too much effort chasing it.
The problem, of course, is that almost all MMOs believe that they HAVE TO HAVE COMPETITIVE PVP eSPORT-whatever in their future.

The best historical RPGs *don’t* waste much effort making sure a thief could kill a warrior could kill a mage could kill a cleric in PRECISELY the same amount of time in an arena fight with everything equal. That’s just silly.

The fact is the ideal of balance is inherently contradictory to a gated-content, gear-heavy, accumulated-rewards, open world MMO.

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jaif13

It’s not just PvP. Raiders can be even more exclusionary with regards to perceived balance issues, e.g. no druid healers because hybrids can’t heal as well…that sort of thing.

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Robert Mann

Yep. Then again, I keep poking about that levels, stats on gear, and thus gating content via those metrics are… not needed.

There’s a lot of other ways to reward players, and to show growth. There’s a chance to make the in game currency matter (outside of people who never have money for repairs somehow, and those who aim to max out the currency for giggles) within that. There’s dozens of different options which aren’t explored.

For the current design status quo, you are 100% correct. A perfect balance is a myth anywhere at any time, honestly, in something so complex. However, the chances of getting closer are much better without certain systems that aren’t really needed in all such games.

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Rottenrotny

Getting rid of levels, gear stats etc will alienate many players. Possibly myself included. If I wanted to play a game where everyone had the same abilities I’d go play a multiplayer death match game, not an RPG.
Part of what I loved when I first started playing MMOs was that it was like a video game version of D&D.
You have a bastard sword that does 1d8 dmg and I have a dagger that does 1d4, you could easily one shot me… but I can also read magic or put you to sleep and maybe one day I’ll get a wand of fireball and you’re toast.
RNG and vertical progression keeps things interesting.
Combat balance isn’t as important to me as class diversity/flavor. Horizontal progression is a snooze fest imo.

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Robert Mann

The idea that differences between characters have to go away is… one that I feel is false. What if, instead of having a mage class learn a ‘fireball’ spell, instead you had a quest with pre-requisites? So you have to build a character to do certain things.

Or, what if instead of having pre-requisites on the quest it was a built in effect on the action? For example, that brute fighter with minimal brainpower does the quest and gets the spell unlocked, but when casting it just makes a puff of smoke in front of their face.

Agreed, though, that not everyone will like the ideas. Some people want that extreme vertical progression, specific classes, levels, etc. I’m just not interested in those dividers so much, and would prefer something where the depth and choices I make provide the diversity, at least for an MMO. I’m more than happy to grind away on a level based game, but… I tend to go single player route there and MMOs that way feel a little stale to me.

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Rottenrotny

I tend toward traditional RPG elements and gameplay, but I’m open to new iterations as well. Games like the Secret World with it’s classless system are pretty neat.
But to me having your character start off weak and build power over time through leveling and getting better gear are integral parts of the RPG experience and a player who has 999 hours into their character should rightfully roflstomp another player who only has 100 hours invested.

styopa
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styopa

Entirely agree.
I’d further add that there seems to be a broader misunderstanding that additionally confuses the issue: balance doesn’t necessarily mean simplistic notions of equality in all aspects.
Chess is balanced, but in no sense is a pawn equal to a queen. Checkers is balanced and the pieces are entirely equal. The former is generally considered the more interesting game.

Polyanna
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Polyanna

I don’t know what is the worst, but I can say which is the best, which is STO, since it has, and always had, a useful “Difficulty” slider for all solo content. Best way I have seen in any game to put an end to the “too easy / too hard” debate before it ever gets started.

SWTOR goes a step beyond with having a solo difficulty lever, and also power scaling in group instances as well (on top of “solo” mode for just seeing the story), for any difficulty short of nightmare.

The best difficulty is the one you can choose, any time, any where, to match your ability, or your mood. After you have played with that choice, anything else feels plain dumb.