Massively Overthinking: Is MMO class balance achievable – or even desirable?


This past week, a chunk of the endgame-focused Guild Wars 2 community was up in arms over the profession balance update and the perception that the devs working on class balance in the game don’t understand or play or like the classes they balance.

This is not a new discussion in Guild Wars 2 or MMOs, of course; it’s a fight MMOs have been having for 25 years, and it’s assuredly a fight that went on in earlier genres too, so it’s one I want to talk about. And in fact, it’s one at least one reader (hi, Psytic!) also wanted us to talk about! No, I don’t want your opinion on whether ArenaNet hates your favorite class; I want your opinion on whether class balance is even a worthwhile pursuit.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, let’s discuss class balance in MMOs. Is it achievable? And if it is, is it even desirable? Does it matter in PvE MMOs or just in PvP MMOs? Are players whiny, or are devs just bad at this? Does the nature of MMO development make balance attempts doomed to fail? Is perfect MMO class balance ever possible, and does it even matter?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I feel like balancing is often a reason I prefer skill-based games to class-based games. Balancing in general is hard, and I feel like, especially with popular games, the devs find they have players who are better designers than themselves, especially because those players may actually get to play more than they do in certain contexts. Having skills instead may feel more boring or could even cause more issues because they can be combined with other skills, but many games I’ve played make it less painful for the players because it’s easier to switch. Were swords nerfed bad? Change to axes. Fire magic too slow now? Switch to ice. There’s always going to be people – PvE, PvP, or a combination of the two – who get upset with balance changes, and sometimes those people may be flat out wrong, like when a class/skill is so out of line, it threatens the design of the rest of the game. Completely ignoring balance seems like a bad idea, but I think minimizing its impact is important.

That being said, I do think visuals should somewhat match power. I know with a class based system you’re bound to a kind of theme, but I feel that’s a little easier to balance than a more open skills game that might let you have an Armeggedon spell and Sword Storm skill, yet twirling your sword may do more damage than a meteor-shower-nuke. Balance is tough in a numbers sense, but I feel like big effects that don’t feel big is much more jarring. I’ve only run into this issue a few times, but they were in more skill-based games.

Andy McAdams: Balance is one of those things that seems like it should be super easy to define but really isn’t. When we talk about balance, everyone has a different perspective on what that means. Lots of gamers equate balance to “everyone can hit everything as hard as everyone else” or heal as well as anyone else in every situation. Others look at utility you bring, but rarely does a group of gamers agree on what utility balance is — is that everyone can do all the things, meaning the utility is either homogenized or make so ineffective as to not matter, or that everyone should have unique abilities they bring to the group, which leads to groups have mandatory slots for that particular class?

So everyone nods sagely at each other (while apparently lobbing death threats at developers because reasons), agreeing that balance is important, but not really stopping to define what balance means. Newer games seem to suffer from the “balance must be achieved at all costs, including fun,” while older games seemed to be less… myopically obsessed with it (and this includes gamers as well as developers).

Because I often take inspiration from the games I’m currently playing, in EverQuest II I play an Illusionist. As far as “balance” goes by most modern senses, the class underperforms. It’s difficult to solo with, it’s never at the top of the DPS meters, in most groups my mezzing abilities aren’t needed. But damn if it’s not still fun to play. I love being a utility class that can help make sure everyone is good on mana/power, that can turn that one sloppy pull almost guaranteed to wipe the group into a butt-clenching-holy-shit-we-lived moment. But if we looked at the just pure of the class, it’s unbalanced and underpowered because I can only draw lots of dotted lines to how I make everyone else better while doing below the median DPS.

The Bureaucrat in Anarchy Online was very similar. Subpar DPS, hard to play, hard to solo – added almost nothing to groups except a pretty hefty XP buff. You could say similar things about the Trader (who debuffs the world but does subpar DPS) or the Metaphysicist, who does abysmal DPS but can mezz, lightly heal, and buff the ever-loving crap out of people. But again, from most contemporary understandings of balance, all three of those classes would be underperforming.

All of this is to say I think that optimizing for balance far too often means optimizing the fun out of classes that aren’t exclusively focused on combat. I think optimizing for balance means we lose other styles of play that aren’t “DPS the things with all the AOEs until dead.” Optimizing for balance is is an unattainable goal, and one that if pursued with a singular focus, hurts the game at large, sacrificing fun on the altar of optimization and efficiency.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I look at balance in online games as I look at a lot of progression in life: It’s never perfect, it’s never finished, and you have to keep trying anyway. We don’t give up just because we know we can never get to a win state. Push the damn rock up that hill.

It obviously matters a lot more in MMO PvP than elsewhere, though I tend to think things like team play, faction play, anti-grief mechanics, and character choice are useful mitigating tools for imperfect individual class balance in all game modes.

No MMO dev can play everything; balance is an ongoing team effort of listening and watching and testing all kinds of player types and situations both in simulation and in production. As long as studios are trying hard, I’m hard-pressed to flip tables over it, especially when a few months from now the meta will have shifted yet again. Play the long game, guys.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I feel for the devs who have to hear waves of angry digital shouting, especially when balance is ultimately a pipe dream. It certainly feels like the devs of a game don’t really play the games they make, or at the very minimum don’t play them at the depth and attentiveness of the regular person. This is probably not helped by a dev’s insider knowledge – recognizing how, mathematically speaking, things are “better.”

I feel like this becomes a bigger problem in PvP, exacerbated by the intense competitiveness inherent in that playstyle, but it most definitely has an effect on PvE as well; nobody likes to feel underpowered either in attack or defense, but at the same time it sucks when things get a bit too easy, since failure is an important step forward to success.

That statement openly derides those who bow out of PUGs after one wipe of a raid because they can’t handle an L, by the way.

The trick here, I think, is trying to ignore the numbers and focusing more on feel and fun. Disregard the DPS parsers and the metabuilders that crunch numbers like a bowl of cereal because they ignore the sensation of power over the numerical formulas of power. Feeling and looking badass is just as vital as dishing out big, juicy numbers or taking immense attacks to the face. In the end, I don’t mind needing to hit more buttons if the end result feels fun, and I don’t care about balance tuning so long as my mage can still blow things up or my knight can still absorb a giant cleave.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Class balancing is a thankless yet necessary task that I don’t envy for any MMO developer. But when the whole genre revolves around constantly updating and evolving worlds, there’s always going to be a need to tweak and balance. Devs should be looking at what’s going on in live and tune characters if they’re overpowered, underpowered, or not functioning as designed.

That said, I do get the impression that devs are sometimes a little too ambitious in reinventing the class wheel at every turn. If something largely works well, then leave it the heck alone, I say. Jerking the wheel of class development sharply to one side creates cranky players who find that you’ve now irreparably changed what they had long gotten used to playing. Small, careful, well-tested tweaks are the way to go, along with constant evaluation.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): In a PvP game, you don’t want any classes that are totally helpless to defend themselves, so in that sense, classes need to be balanced and re-balanced as the game grows and changes. Every class should be viable in PvP.

In a PvE context, I wish that devs would spend more time on making classes more distinct from one another. As it is, they often tend to fall into categories — tank, healer, DPS, buffer, debuffer — and one or two classes are considered optimal in each category. This makes some classes just less desirable than others. Less desirable classes will still have their adherents for RP or stylistic reasons, but I think it would be far better to have fewer classes that were more distinct, or many classes that blur the lines of traditional roles.

There are always going to be some people who are unhappy with class changes. If another class improves, they feel like they are losing something. If their own class changes, it will always be too much or not enough for some players. There’s no winning on that front. People eventually adapt. Devs have to do what’s best for the health of the whole game, even if it makes some people cry.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I don’t think perfect balance is achievable in an MMO. Not with the typical class systems we’re used to and I don’t want to give those up either. You may want perfect balance in pure arena PvP games and BRs but not in most MMOs. Crafting your class is a big part of our identity and what we love about playing MMOs.

But I don’t think that means balance passes are without merit. Developers absolutely should make attempts to level the builds, but expecting it to ever be perfect is naive. Instead, I rather think of it as a dance or a roller coaster. The meta should move back and forth and classes with an edge will rise and fall. I’m not advocating intentionally overpowering certain classes, but decades of experience shows that’s just what will happen. We should embrace it but also call out issues when they arise.

Balance passes shouldn’t be limited to PvP either. Even in PvE-heavy or -only games, players will find optimal combos that push some classes and skills above others. The developers should attempt to flatten those differences by adjusting skills.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I find most discussions of balance exhausting. It feels like one of those situations where the least knowledgeable voices speak the loudest.

Firstly, RPGs (MMO or otherwise) are not well-balanced, and they never will be. There’s too many moving parts between differing build options and progression systems for perfect balance to ever be achieved. The best we can hope for is for most things to not be super broken, most of the time. If you want a fair and level playing field, you’re in the wrong genre.

Secondly, for most people in most circumstances, balance doesn’t matter very much. Most people aren’t skilled enough for the differences in power between various builds to be the sole determining factor (I include myself in this). Most of the time if you want your character to be more powerful, improving your own skills will be more effective than demanding buffs.

Another major issue in these discussions is that people tend to focus far too much on rankings. If people see their class is at the bottom of the DPS chart, they get angry… even if their DPS is still perfectly viable. The reality is there’s always going to be someone at the bottom of the totem pole. But being at the bottom doesn’t really matter; all that matters is whether you can clear content or not. In many games the difference between the top tier and the bottom tier might be only a few percentage points, but people still feel that being at the bottom is an injustice of some kind. Some people are wise enough to recognize that there will always be a bottom rung on the ladder, but then go straight back to crazytown by arguing that classes should regularly be rebalanced such that everyone gets a chance to be top dog. All that does is create an endless, exhausting balance rollercoaster.

For myself, I only find myself caring about balance changes when something is so over or under powered that it starts to create unpleasant gameplay, regardless of whether you’re winning or losing. If your class is so resource-starved you spend half your time auto-attacking, that class should have its resource generation buffed. If one class has a CC combo that can permanently lock down another player and prevent them fighting back, that combo should be nerfed. But if X class does 4.7% better DPS than Y class against a target dummy? That’s never worth wasting emotional energy on.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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