Vague Patch Notes: Balance in MMOs is overrated

I half-see.

Earlier this week, we did a post all about balance in Crucible. It was a detailed post explaining all of the ways that the team looks at data, at the title’s metagame, at what is and is not competitive. All important to balance, all very vital, and all things that show that the developers have a clear understanding of how to ensure that their game can adjust and improve overall balance for players.

All not the problem.

Balance is generally considered to be an important part of MMOs and online games, and it is, but I have this creeping sense that a lot of developers fixate on it simply because it’s a lot of work to get right, shows a real effort toward improving the game, and also doesn’t involve addressing bigger or more complex issues that can feel far harder to approach even as they have a much bigger impact on the game as a whole. Let’s be frank here: Balance is kind of overrated.

One of the things I’ve mentioned before specifically in reference to Final Fantasy XIV is that while that game has a really good balance overall, there are still jobs that wind up being better or worse. But that doesn’t mean that the balancing is bad; it means that balancing is naturally a practice through which some things end up better than others.

This is, I think, a part of the overall balance issue with MMOs. A lot of developers try to balance so that everything is basically on par with everything else. If the Spoon Fighter class is dealing 5% less damage than the Dart Thrower, then clearly Spoon Fighters need to be brought up to par with Dart Throwers. But since the two classes don’t have exactly the same abilities, it’s not as simple as just bumping up the Spoon Fighter numbers across the board…

And even if it were? The “problem” doesn’t necessarily exist.

If Spoon Fighters and Dart Throwers are both being played? If players of both enjoy the classes? If a party consisting solely of Spoon Fighters can clear content without significant troubles compared to Dart Throwers? There isn’t actually a problem here. There’s just… one number being a bit higher than another.


See, the thing about balance is that it doesn’t actually fix any of the real problems games can have. And you can see this pretty clearly with any popular game. Any one of them. Multiplayer games, single-player games, MMOs, the list goes on. Egregious balance issues – either via bugs or by simple oversight – are pretty common, even in directly competitive games like fighting games.

And yet people still play them. People still play fighting games that everyone knows are ludicrously unbalanced and broken. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is a broken game with a roster that’s more than half-useless, and yet players still enjoy playing the game and it was a fixture in fighting game tournaments for years.

Meanwhile, a lot of games that are much better balanced are basically forgotten or outright disliked. There are big egregious balance issues in Fortnite that have persisted even as the game has continued to make money, while better balanced battle royale titles have shuffled off into the land of wind and ghosts.

So why is that? Because in the broadest strokes, balance matters only once you’re already playing the game.

Most of the people reading this probably know that Final Fantasy XI was my first MMO ever. The first job I picked to focus on was the advanced job I wanted more than any other, the one that I had decided was just super cool: Dragoon. Unfortunately, as most anyone who knows the game on its North American launch is probably familiar with, Dragoon was notably undertuned and generally not in high demand…

Except that wasn’t really the problem I had with leveling Dragoon. The real problem was just that there were a lot of DPS jobs (we didn’t call them that at the time, but still) and not as many other vital roles, so Dragoons tended to be in low demand. The fact that they were lower on the balance end didn’t actually come up much, and when I got into parties on Dragoon I got a grand total of zero people complaining about how much damage I did or did not do. It was just not an issue.

And by the time it became an issue, I was already invested because I was having fun with the game.

Croooooooooooooooow (Jupon)

Fun is something difficult to quantify, and it’s also something that balance definitely can affect. If your MMO has 20 different character classes (or the like) but only a fifth of them are actually useful in gameplay, that’s going to affect people who really enjoy the other 80% of your game’s options. Clearly something is going wrong with the balancing there. But if a fifth of those classes are better than the other 80% within a reasonable margin, people might grouse, but they’ll still keep playing if they’re enjoying the game overall.

And therein lies the rub. While bad balance will definitely harm a game, good balance is not actually a selling point.

I’ve seen a whole lot of bad games tout their balance over the years. I’ve seen developers talk about spending a lot of time balancing the game and making sure that the game was really balanced within an inch of its life. And I’ve seen those same developers wonder why their games are somehow not attracting players, often to the point of ultimately shutting down, because balance was never the problem.

The problems were more like the game not being fun. Or lacking content for players. Or casting a very narrow net for the sort of people you want in your game. And the people who are most likely to be talking about balance problems are people who are already playing your game.

Consider, for a moment, that you run a restaurant. You notice that people aren’t coming in to eat at your restaurant, and you want to find out why. Your first pick for people to ask are the people who are already eating at the restaurant, naturally. But the problem is there in the premise. The people you’re asking about why no one comes to your restaurant are already in the restaurant. They don’t need to be convinced to come in.

So if you’re asking a dwindling group of players what’s wrong with the game? They’re going to talk about balance issues because those are things that affect their enjoyment. But if they’re still there and playing in the first place, they probably don’t have a lot of insight about what is keeping people from the game.

In other words, balance is kind of not a big deal. Sure, it matters. It makes games better. But it won’t make a bad game good; it’ll just make it a better bad game. And it won’t make games fun on their own. That requires a more intricate alchemy and one that cannot be reduced to a simple formula of making sure that all characters or classes or whatever are equally viable in content.

If no one’s enjoying your content in the first place, no one will care if it’s balanced.

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.
Previous articleGuild Wars 2 struggles with high latency but improves World Boss Rush
Next articleStar Citizen is on track to breaking sales records in 2020 as it passes last year’s $47.7M

No posts to display

oldest most liked
Inline Feedback
View all comments