For some MMO players, “balance” is a dirty word. And I’m not going to lie, I can hardly blame them. If you’re not a fan of sitting around running math for various options, it’s the sort of thing that can easily feel like it’s a term just thrown around for removing various things you find fun, especially if you play games where the designers are… let’s charitably say aren’t great at managing it. Or it’s a word designers use to explain why their derivative survival sandbox/MOBA/whatever isn’t lighting the world on fire (you know the ones).
This is understandable, and if all you know balance from is the vague concept of “balance is about making sure damage is equal,” then it’s easy to dislike the idea, right down to arguing that things don’t need to be balanced as long as they’re fair. Of course, that statement is advocating for balance. So let’s take a step back and examine what balance is by addressing some misunderstandings in a larger sense.
1. Balance isn’t just about numbers
The thing about balance is that it’s usually looked at as a numbers game. If Spoon-flingers and Fork-punchers deal the same amount of damage, they’re balanced; otherwise, they aren’t. But that isn’t actually balance. Balance is about making sure that in a larger sense, Spoon-flingers and Fork-punchers both have about the same level of advantages and disadvantages. So, for example, if Spoon-flingers can attack from range and thus always hit their targets, it’s all right if they deal less damage than Fork-punchers when Fork-punchers sometimes can’t reach their target. And it’s all right if Knife-casters deal less damage than either but can also debuff targets. Which naturally leads to the next point…
2. The goal of balance is actually choices
When balance is done right, it’s fixed around a pretty basic understanding: that you can choose what you want to do and have it not be wrong. That’s really the point. Any advantages you have are offset by disadvantages. Your Fork-puncher hurts way more than your Spatula-whapper, but it also has no real ranged attacks and can’t disarm meat traps. So you feel good about playing a Fork-puncher because you get what you want, and your friend playing a Spatula-whapper feels good about that choice, too. Your choice matters, but you don’t feel as if your friend can do everything you can do and other cool things you can’t do. That’s the goal, not making sure everything lines up on a spreadsheet.
3. No balance is ever perfect
Since balance incorporates a lot of factors outside of numbers, balance is an art, not a science. For example, if Fork-punchers deal twice as much damage as Spoon-flingers but can be in melee range only half of the time, that would be balanced… kind of. However, change that in either direction on a given fight and the balance shifts. The goal of balance is to make choices viable, but there are always going to be edge cases; we’ll come back to this.
4. Good balance matters everywhere
You might argue that you never PvP and thus you don’t care about balance. Heck, you might argue that you never play any group PvE content and have modded yourself to never see other players, and while that means you should probably just be playing Elden Ring or something, fine. You do what makes you happy. But the thing is that balance does, in fact, still matter. Even in solo challenges, you should have the opportunity to see how there are places where your choice in skills or class or build make some things easier and some things harder. Otherwise… why are you choosing them? If your choices don’t have an impact, they’re just noise.
5. Balance does not have anything to do with streamlining
Contrary to what you may think, streamlining systems is not about balancing them. It’s certainly true that streamlining makes them easier to balance on many occasions, and it’s entirely possible to streamline something until it becomes way less fun to actually play, but that’s not actually the same as balancing it. If you take away the ability for Spatula-whappers to disarm meat-traps, that actually unbalances the game because one of the main traits of the spec was all about doing that. Now you have to either give Spatula-whappers something else to do or bump up their damage to Fork-puncher levels.
That doesn’t mean streamlining is necessarily bad; if no one other than Spatula-whappers could interact with the meat-traps, that’s actually unbalanced too and not terribly fun. But the one is not inherently tied to the other.
6. You can’t balance a game into being fun
Is a game more fun when it’s better balanced? In broad strokes, sure… but the thing is that most of the stuff that makes a game fun is separate from balance in and of itself. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is a notoriously unbalanced fighting game, and yet it’s still a beloved fighting game despite that. You’d be hard-pressed to argue that many eras of World of Warcraft have been well-balanced, but that includes many eras when the game was a lot of fun. Final Fantasy XI’s balance is a mess and a half, but it’s still a fun game. Balance is important and makes a fun game more fun (imagine if you started playing a game and you picked a character race you liked and then lost damage because of it), but a game that isn’t fun won’t become fun when balanced.
7. No one actually knows exactly how to balance
“Wow, Eliot, you know so much about balancing, you should do this for a living,” you aren’t saying right now. “And you’re also very handsome and definitely deserve good things.” Thank you, hypothetical reader! And you’re kind of right, I do know about balancing, but that doesn’t mean I know exactly how to do it.
But that’s all right because no one actually has come up with a single Balance Formula that always works. Everyone is just kind of doing their best and guessing at what will probably work for balance, getting real-world data, and then making further guesses. Some people are better at it than others, and the more feedback is solicited from players instead of from the top, the more often it kinda turns messy… but no one is actually a perfect balance machine with 100% aim.
8. Making the balance harder and disrupting it is generally good for the game
No one is ever going to do a perfect job of balancing, but the fact of the matter is that people who are good at it look at the challenge as part of the point because – as I mentioned – the point of balance is giving you choices. The more diverse the choices, the more interesting they become, and so there’s always a constant push-pull of disrupting the state of things while trying to keep things balanced. It’s an ongoing challenge, and keeping it fluid helps the game feel more vibrant.
9. Most of the people who complain about it don’t understand it
I mentioned right in the intro that a lot of people see balance as kind of a bad thing because they’re used to the idea that balance is something that matters only for the kind of meter-pushing bullet-headed high-end elitist bell ends that make games unpleasant. And that’s half of the people who dislike balancing, misunderstanding it as a game of making performance uniform when in reality it’s about making sure that every gained advantage has a natural disadvantage. It’s making your choices matter in the way that you expect, and that’s actually a good thing.
The other half are people who complain about balance because they do not actually understand it nearly as well as they think they do and are the meter-pushing bullet-headed high-end elitist bell ends who are unable to look at a 1% reduction in their personal DPS as anything other than a slap in the face. This is literally how we wind up with NFTs. I’m not exaggerating.
10. Tier lists don’t come from poor balancing
There is a weird sentiment out there that any kind of tier list reflects balance going wrong, which is incorrect. Tier lists exist for everything. You could make a tier list for chess, either in terms of pieces or colors. (Elite chess games bias toward white. Seriously, it’s like 64% in favor. Go check!) This doesn’t mean anything has gone wrong in balancing; it just means that all else being equal, some choices are always going to be a little bit better because of environment, fights, and so forth.
But that’s not actually the point. Balance doesn’t exist to make sure that your Spatula-whapper, Fork-puncher, Knife-caster, and Spoon-flinger all do the same numbers. It’s about making sure that all of them can go do content together and feel equally impactful and relevant. That sometimes the Knife-caster is like “dang, that Fork-puncher is awesome” and sometimes it’s the Knife-caster’s time to shine. And that’s cool.