Vague Patch Notes: On balance and differentiation in MMOs

Do you like fighting games? I don’t. Let’s talk about fighting games. But bear with me because you’ll get where this is going.

While I might not personally care much about fighting games, I still wind up spending a lot of time reading about them because that’s just the sort of thing I read for fun. And balancing a fighting game is honestly pretty difficult, thus it’s something that gets talked about a lot. It’s difficult enough that there are, in fact, two different ways to do it.

This does have a lot of bearing on MMOs, though, where balance doesn’t get talked about nearly as much and tends to get talked about in rather dim tones when it is discussed. But in order to understand that you need to understand the difference in balance methods, why World of Warcraft players miss Mark of the Wild, and why balance matters in the first place.

On balance.But let’s keep on fighting games for a moment. As I mentioned, there are two basic approaches to balance. The first is the uniform approach (which is a term I’ve just created for this article). The idea here is that you give every character the same basic toolset, albeit with some slight differences: One character might have a lunging kick while another has a roll, but they both have the same basic gap-closing moves. You then tweak damage, durability, and so forth until all of the fighters are on the same basic level.

The other approach is the bonkers approach. Here, you give characters wildly different sets of tools, playstyles, and moves. You then carefully tweak damage as well as things like move speed and which move counters what, tooling through individual matches to see who suffers more or less in a given scenario and who needs extra tools to make a matchup fair.

The second one is far harder to do, obviously. It is also the one that contains nearly every fighting game anyone remembers. Street Fighter II? Definitely. Mortal Kombat? Yes. Super Smash Bros? Oh heck yes.

What’s usually brought up as an argument against this, of course, is that the result of the second balance method is the dreaded tier list, where some characters are simply better than others. But the problem is that tier lists aren’t usually used terribly well by the MMO community either, and looking at tier lists in fighting games is generally done incorrectly.

Let’s use Super Street Fighter II Turbo as an example. The tier list for that game is pretty well-known, and in that tier list Dhalsim is one of the top-tier characters while T. Hawk is near the bottom. Known facts. Except that players will also be quick to point out that T. Hawk also has an absolute unstoppable perfect throw loop he can set up wherein the opponent will just get thrown and die without any tools for getting out. Dhalsim has nothing like that. So how is he in a different tier?

The answer is that it’s all relative. Sure, T. Hawk has some pretty great tricks there… if he can get in and get the loop going. That’s hard to do, and against a good player it should be nearly impossible. Dhalsim, meanwhile, has an answer to almost every trick. He’s got very few things you can infinitely abuse, but he has tools to deal with almost anything, even though he still has matches wherein he actually is at a disadvantage.

To use an example I love bringing up in Final Fantasy XIV, people generally agree that at the moment Dark Knight is at the bottom of the tank list. This is true; however, there are three tanking jobs, and the nature of things means that one of them is always going to be on the bottom. No matter how many buffs one or the other receives, none of them can always be at the same spot unless their tools are completely equivalent.

White Mage is the worst, until it's the best again.And if they were? There would still be tiers. Because, in this case, Paladin would be worse. Even if all three had the exact same abilities, Paladin requires two gear slots for a sword and shield, while Dark Knights and Warriors don’t.

Someone always comes in last. That isn’t a failing, it isn’t a bug, it isn’t a problem. It’s the simple reality of the system. You can have a race between the dozen best runners in the world, and one of them will be first and one will be last. Run it four dozen times, and the best runner still won’t win every time.

This is why I get mad about World of Warcraft’s approach to balance, and it comes up again when we were told “oh, there’s no need for Mark of the Wild, we just rebalance things so that everyone gets that benefit.” I have no doubt that this is much easier to balance. It’s much simpler and straightforward.

It’s also totally missing the point. Part of what made people choose to play Druid over anything else was this particular sort of utility. Part of the reason why I long loved playing a Retribution Paladin was that it had these weird tools for healing and supporting the group with auras, even if it meant that my Paladin wasn’t actually hitting as hard as the Arms Warrior.

It’s a lot of work to balance that so that Retribution Paladins feel like they’re useful, fun, and still delivering that core flavor. But that is literally the point of balance.

Balance, when it comes to MMOs, isn’t about “having everyone deal about the same damage.” It’s about making sure that things are always doable, even with weird party configurations. It’s about saying “let’s say we have a group of five Druids covering all of the Druid specs; how can we make sure that this party can accomplish anything a more mixed party can?”

I don't feel like the shift to having everything become basically self-contained has made this game feel MORE diverse.The first thing that goes, any time you start going down this balance route, is the weird stuff. Any time you seek to make things easier to balance, the first thing you lose are the weird corner cases. Remember how the “shared” trees for every Star Wars: The Old Republic class existed? How Consulars and Inquisitors had a tree that made the melee spec more spell-focused and the spell-focused spec more capable in melee? How these trees were meant to be a shared link between both advanced classes?

Remember how that got gutted as they made the two advanced classes more distinct? It seems like more options when it’s actually fewer, more constrained.

That’s because weird stuff is hard to balance. How does a 10% boost to party damage balance against a class who can’t do that? Do you make the first class weaker all around? Does the bonus stack? Do you make everyone weaker? Do you make the bonus conditional and an option or a constant thing?

It’s much easier to balance it if everyone gets basically the same utility. And then it’s much easier to balance if everyone just gets those numbers baked in. And so you go, until everything is basically the same tricks with different flavor, at which point very minor differences determine what’s top tier because someone is still top tier because someone is always top tier.

That’s what balance is about. Making sure that even more esoteric options can still clear content and play the game, and then giving people distinct reasons to play everything. And if you think the goal is to give everyone basically the same numbers… well, go ahead and name a fighting game wherein everyone has the same basic toolsets and moves, one that’s actually remembered now instead of forgotten.

I’d say I’ll wait, but I don’t have that sort of time.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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Sarblade

That’s why pretty much ever MMORPG pre-2006 was farly superior to the most recent ones. Asymmetrical factions, different classes, so much damn variety.

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Zen Dadaist

I’ve always gone with the equal but different approach. I hate it when certain character race/class/faction/hairstyle/whatever combinations are flat-out overpowered or massively weak. Keep each one unique in terms of feel and playstyle and such – but get out of here with God-tier, Shit-tier etc when it’s the base characters themselves.

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Brother Maynard

There’s nothing better than a game with truly diverse classes.

And then there are game companies full of unimaginative, risk-averse and lazy developers. Often supported by their business teams getting a collective and persistent hard-on for e-sports. A match made in hell.

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Microwatt

Agreed. There is so much room for diversity with classes with an imaginative team, and yet so many MMOs just fall flat on their face in this aspect. After playing pen & paper RPGs more (Pathfinder / Starfinder), it really leaves a sour taste to log into an MMO and see 4-8 classes that aren’t even necessarily that different. Just reskinned numbers.

Veldan
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Veldan

This is what I find so interesting about Camelot Unchained’s classes. I guess we won’t know details until beta starts, but supposedly, they’re all unique, as in, the 3 realms have totally different classes instead of reskinned versions of a single set.

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Brother Maynard

Yeah, that’s one of the things that got me interested in CU.

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IronSalamander8 .

I love this article in so many ways!

Some of my favorite board games (Cthulhu Wars as a big example) use the idea of giving factions very disparate abilities or actions but have the same goal overall or like Vast:The Crystal Caverns, are VERY different in both how the players work and their victory goals, these are more fun to me than say Bloodrage where everyone is basically the same with some minor differences based on a few drafted cards.

Balancing in games like this are shooting for a comfortable variation of win% from a median more than a flat line. This is partly due to how the factions interact with each other (For example in Cthulhu Wars Great Cthulhu needs to fight often and early to win whereas Yellow Sign wants to avoid fighting while they spread their corruption, if Cthulhu hits YS hard they may have a hard time winning barring the other players getting involved but if they you replace Cthulhu with a less combat heavy faction like the Sleeper, it totally changes their dynamic). In an ideal world no matter how different factions, talents, roles, etc. are made they’d all be balanced to a straight % of power but making them different and exciting means we have to accept a certain amount of variation. Getting that variation in a comfortable band is what we shoot for.

Once per month I bring my own designs to the local Protospiel and my main current design is a multi-faction tactical battle game and I take these lessons to heart and use the feedback to make them stand out more from each other while also making them all viable to play. In fact an early criticism of my main game was that the factions felt too close to each other since the win conditions were more generic back then, by making each faction have more tuned conditions to gain VPs, the feedback has become more positive. No one wants to see a broken faction that can’t win or lose, at least not without serious mistakes by the players, but most have been of the same mind; get them all within a decent range of success while preserving their flavor to make each feel unique and fun while also being able to compete.

I tend to go to Icy Veins for my WoW builds to make a solid build for my characters but my WoW main is also a demonology Warlock so not exactly the darling of the community. You’re point of ‘of course someone will always be at the bottom’ is quite accurate, what matters is how low they are. If the difference is minimal or situational, it will only be noticed by the super hard core number crunchers. If it’s blatantly obvious that something is under-performing then even super casual players will likely notice it. We can’t expect a lot of variety to be perfectly balanced, we can expect them all to be viable though.

Polyanna
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Polyanna

I think balance gets harder the more tightly scripted your game world is. WoW tends to push even the slightest balance gaps front and center unusually forcefully because the game, and especially endgame encounters, are so pathologically heavily scripted to be done one way, and exactly one way, and not any other way, ever.

The looser a designer is with the allowable boundaries of NPC and player behavior, and encounter mechanics and victory conditions for a fight, the more wild they can get with “balance,” because while some classes will struggle in certain situations, there may be other situations, or even other approaches to the same situation, where they can do the same thing a different way with great ease. In some cases, classes with certain abilities (crowd control, for instance), can enable an entirely different approach to a fight than you might take if they were not there.

The problem for WoW is that Blizzard wants you to do everything exactly one way, and as long as there is exactly one way to do it, there will be an optimal setup for doing it that one way as fast or easy as possible. Which means, there is a single optimal class comp for each fight, and without that exact comp you’re at a disadvantage. Whether the fight is doable with a different comp or not, the only thing that “the community” will fixate on is doing it the one way, with the one comp, that has been deemed fastest or easiest. And with no other viable way to do it, there is no other viable comp.

So to make all classes “viable,” they wind up making them all more or less the same, so that nobody is suboptimal (or everyone sucks equally), and the only difference is the animations that are played for all the stock moves. That’s the only real option they have for making everyone equally good at things that only can be done one way.

The other thing they do, typically at the start of a new expansion, is reannouncing yet again, like they just discovered it, their big idea of making everyone equally good, but in different ways. The only problem is, they never are, either equally good, or good in different ways. Some wind up good and some are bad, and Blizzard typically only admits that some are bad at the end of an expansion when they’re abandoning a class design concept; then they’ll talk all about how it used to be bad, but now . . . oh, NOW, it is totally good and we fixed all that. When really all they did is either screwed it up in a different way, or screwed some other class up at the same time that they just fixed this one. And at the end of this expansion, then they’ll confess all the mistakes they made at the start of this one, and so on, etc.

After you’ve seen this happen a few times, you’ll realize this is just the way they do it, and they’re never going to do it any other way. So you might as well just play what you like and keep playing it regardless of whether it sucks, because sooner or later it won’t, and after that at some point it will again.

plasmajohn
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plasmajohn

After you’ve seen this happen a few times, you’ll realize this is just the way they do it, and they’re never going to do it any other way. So you might as well just play what you like and keep playing it regardless of whether it sucks, because sooner or later it won’t, and after that at some point it will again.

If only it was that simple. If the content you like requires viable role performance your choices are to either abandon the character or sit out the content that’s keeping you around in the first place.

I’ve gotten burned that way by both SW:TOR and WoW. At least with SW:TOR my main wasn’t screwed up until after I had a nice, diverse stable of alts. WoW was a different story. I only managed to get one character to end game when they shredded it’s mobility in the pre-WoD patch. I loathe plant-casters so soldiering on was not going to happen. The alternative was to grind out 100 levels on another character and I couldn’t stomach that thought so I picked option 3. Chose another game.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

It’s a lot of work

Yup. And time consuming. Which is why Blizzard has simplified all classes. Although many claim that pre-BC WoW is Vanilla, in truth, WoW as it exists now is truly vanilla, a flavor without a flavor.

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Bruno Brito

WoW was always oversimplified. Blizzard hates having to deal with balance issues, so they gut options. This isn’t something new.

Nowadays, they are even worse with that, but WoW was always oversimplified.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

So, is it now oversimplified simplification?

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Bruno Brito

It’s actually more complex than it ever was.

Vanilla was timeconsuming, TBC was timeconsuming and had the most open-ended endgame for several specs. Wrath made everyone had decent dps, so you could play anything, but at the same time, it shaved builds to keep balance.

Vanilla WoW is frostbolt/rolling ignites – Shadowbolt – Sunderspam/BT Spam if u go for fast clears with top tier gear as tank – There’s nothing complicated. The huge part of the work is outside the raid, not inside.

That being said, nowadays, WoW’s work is inside the raid. Period.

And i have a personal issue with WoW not following on War3 footsteps, but using everything in their power to keep War3 nostalgia alive. Not being able to be a troll shadowhunter, axethrower, spearthrower, not having the tauren totems from War3, the shaman sets, etc etc.

A lot of the stuff that was present in War3, got completely lost in WoW, and yet, people feel a connection that to this day, i’m trying to feel too.