Dissecting Class Balance
Class Balance; invariably there are dozens of discussions about this issue in any MMORPG forum prior to release, and exponentially more post release once each individual class is represented by its own unique community. But when one sits down and really thinks about it, the entire discussion is based around some general assumptions and perceived truths that, like it or not, can often prevent anything truly beneficial from ever coming out of the whole mess. So how does a developer like Sigil end up with a product that is compelling to the end user, yet also true to the vision they have for the game? How do players separate what the community thinks of a particular class from what they can actually achieve in game? And how do players effectively discuss the issue of class balance with developers when the time comes? I believe it can all be accomplished by having both players and developers become more cognizant of the issues at hand and
The biggest barrier to having a productive conversation about the pros and cons of a particular class is that of perspective. A developer has the opportunity to see the overall picture of a game. With access to data behind the scenes that most characters in game will never see, let alone understand, developers have particular insights that will never be clear to the majority of a game’s community. Moreover, developers have a unique privilege: It’s their game, so they can create classes in a way that fit their view of how a game should play, regardless of balance. Ideally, of course, they would do so in a manner that is most appealing to their target audience, but they do have the authority to take an ideal crowd control enchanter and yank his abilities from the final product if they so choose.
I don’t believe for a minute that developers are ignorant to the problems presented throughout this editorial; on the contrary, their experience would dictate that they have far more knowledge than I. But I do believe that they have in the past been indecisive or ineffectual in effectively communicating their desires and philosophies with the playerbase and also in determining which aspects of the community have input that can actually help with the further development of the class system. That is understandable given the often violent and unrelenting reaction from certain members of the audience, but I believe the key to successfully utilizing the community is to identify those players who best understand the developers’ perspective and then develop a continuing dialogue with the intent to better the game as a whole, not just the perceived plight of a single class.
What do players know?
Players often have a singular perspective: what my class is doing right now. On the positive side, such a concentrated area of focus often leads to an incredible expertise that could potentially escape even those on the development team. It is reasonable that an atypical MMORPG player with 80 hours per week to spend online playing their Ranger would end up with a better overall understanding of how their class plays out in the game; how he interacts with skills of other players, how he fares against various types of content within the game. This type of expertise is not the norm, though, and it is impossible to ignore that, even with an incredible understanding of the end product, a player outside of the development team cannot fully understand exactly how each class is intended to play, or how these classes are balanced against the intended abilities of other classes.
That is, unless there is effective communication, but more on that later…
Players are also impacted greatly by their own perception of how their character and others are playing out in game. SOE’s Steve Danuser recently discussed this phenomenon
at Moorgard.com. Players are influenced by what they perceive to be reality in game. A problem arises when those with less experience than described above or those with a lack of understanding of the factors influencing their perspective begin campaigning for changes that they themselves do not fully understand. You cannot effectively argue that a stealth skill is overpowered if you do not first understand how it can be effectively used in game by the better players of a particular class, how it was intended to be used when implemented by the developers, and how similar skills utilized by other classes stack up. Unfortunately, this understanding is not a prerequisite for discussing the issue in a setting like the official Vanguard forums
. These are discussions that will continue to multiply as more is learned about the individual classes and assumptions are made based only on what we perceive to be inequalities. Expect them to increase exponentially after players actually see how classes interact within the game world. And don’t expect them to stop; after all, there are still dozens of perspectives on which classes in EverQuest were overpowered
and why. The potential negatives of this (and something Aradune has referenced before
) type of behavior is clear: if players perceive that their class is inferior and that mindset begins to permeate the game’s community, it effectively becomes true. Classes become shunned in group situations, players stop playing that particular class, or in the worst case they begin canceling their accounts.
This much is true (maybe).
One of the biggest assumptions made in the class balance argument is that balance is attainable. Another is that balance is inherently a good thing. I would argue that neither is necessarily true. Balance is a poor choice of words for the real purpose of the discussion at hand. There are far too many variables in a modern MMORPG and too many ways to measure class utility to actually obtain quantifiable balance. What should be discussed, rather, is class desirability. If a developer can create a class system where no class is ineffectual in group play, you can have an enjoyable system. The trick is getting players to buy into the idea that their class has a role to play; easier said than done.
Sounds pretty bleak, eh?
Just as developers and players have different perspectives on the problem, they have different roles to play in making the class balance discussion a positive issue rather than a divisive one. Thus far, Sigil has shined. Two quotes from Aradune are particularly important for this discussion:
Balance is obviously very important. but balance can mean different things. [To] me, making sure each class is wanted in groups and fun to play it more important than making sure, numbers-wise and running logs, etc. that they are truly balanced from a power standpoint. The latter is important but hard, and also requiring constant maintenance as other changes in the game can affect all of the classes or a subset of them.
So, yes, balance is very important to us, and always has been.
But we're also VERY aware of two important things:
1. you can never achieve true balance (we're just human, balance is somewhat subjective to the playerbase, these games evolve and change (moving target), etc and
2. While fun and relative balance often go hand in hand, if you have a situation where one has to 'win', we will choose fun.
From the top down, Sigil has already communicated with the playerbase that the goal of this game is not perfect balance, and that balance is not a numerical value or measure of power, but a general feeling about how a particular class is able to fit into group play. The greatest pressure is on Sigil to follow through with this philosophy with proper execution in game. As we have seen recently, good pre-release philosophy about balance
doesn’t necessarily translate into proper execution. One significant difference I see in Sigil is that there is a consistency in philosophy throughout the entire team, from Aradune on down. And while developers for EQII espoused the “flavor” that would be added to classes in each archetype, Sigil seems to be implementing more concrete differences between each class with the understanding that one class may be better than another in certain situations, and that will be fine if they are both fun to play.
What many developers have failed at after the fact is being able to continually reinforce their “vision” of the game and individual classes as content continues to be developed and refined. One area that may benefit Sigil is the association of fansites that they have helped to prop up early on. Attempting to discuss the reason a particular class is “nerfed” in a setting like the OVF would be similar to having a Fox television executive try to explain to a bunch of Browncoat cosplayers why Serenity was cancelled. The reasoned voices are far too often drowned out in such a mob setting. In moving the focus to community sites, Sigil can monitor such discussions more easily, seeing which ones continue to pop up at various sites, and (theoretically) should be able to take part in those discussions in a more subdued environment. It is time for developers to start explaining class balance issues and gameplay changes with players in a more detailed way; not just appealing to the basest members of the community who want to rant and rave, but directing the discussion more towards the guilds and class representatives that really dissect and think critically about such information.
Where does the player come in?
For the sake of the discussion, let’s assume Sigil does get the job done and delivers a game that is not necessarily perfectly balanced, but is still rather fun to play. People will still complain about imbalances in the class system. One developer in particular refers to it as ‘the boy who cried ‘nerf’ syndrome
.’ The one thing that I have never quite completely understood is the often over the top “me first” attitude of some gamers who would fit into this ‘boy who cried nerf’ category. MMORPG’s are certainly a genre where individual character advancement and wealth accumulation are goals, but these goals are often obtained through social partnerships, be it groups, guilds, fellowships, or some other means implemented by the developer. It would be nigh on impossible to find a player in the top tier of a game like EverQuest who hasn’t been involved to some degree with a raiding guild… and most certainly with group play. And while it is undoubtedly true that both loot and experience have an influence in the desire to group, join a guild, and then raid, the romantic in me just refuses to believe that there isn’t something about the journey itself (the actual content delivered in the game and the ability to enjoy it with others) that is also part of the equation.
Instead of asking “Is my character capable of tanking like a Warrior?” the question should be “Do the abilities of my character make me viable for group play?” If the answer to that question is “no,” then the first thing that a player should explore is whether or not they are playing their character in a manner that best fits the classes role. If a caster is at the forefront of battle hacking away, chances are they wouldn’t be very popular in a group.
If a player has a role in a group and has found a way to play their class well, I believe the vast majority of the class balance argument can be eliminated. I’ve played my fair share of classes that were at times during their development considered pariahs, be it an EQ druid in the days of “dr00ds with attitudes” or a EQ ranger at any point of their storied history. Yet I’ve always found a way to use the class to the best of its ability and make plenty of friends doing so… making grouping in the future a much simpler proposition. In my opinion, there are several keys to taking a character that the community perceives to be underpowered and turning it into a powerhouse in game:
1. Play bigger than you are – Not all classes are created equally, and there will be several classes that can perform better than you in certain situations. Know what the strength of your class is and maximize it in group play. Don’t give people time to focus on your inadequacies, “wow” them with your ability to make them better players by doing your job the very best way possible with what you have. Perception is very powerful, and a good player will have the mindset that regardless of a class’s reputation in the community, they can single-handedly change it one group at a time.
I’m sure we have all been in groups where one player in particular impressed us with their style of play, convincing us to roll up an alt of the same class just for fun. I know I spent a great deal of time playing an EQ bard simply because of a few hours I spent in the middle of Solusek B with a brilliant player. I doubt he was the best bard around, but he played his character with the confidence that he was and knew how to effectively blend his skills with the rest of the group. You can do that regardless of what class you are. The impact of a single quality player over the lifetime of their character’s development is really staggering; it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a player who groups regularly could influence the 250 or more other players and how they perceive any particular class.
2. Play for something bigger than yourself – Never forget that these are social games, and that if you are going to be part of a group or, perhaps more importantly, a great guild, you’re going to have other players and other classes depending upon you so that they can reach their goals, just as you depend on them to reach yours. Take enjoyment not only from the individual conquests that you have a part in, but being able to play a role in something bigger than just your character or their class. If you are able to master #1 and fill a role then you are capable of contributing to a guild in some way, regardless of class. Everyone can’t be the main tank or the primary healer, but every role played is an important one. Enjoy the opportunity to play your best with friends online and take down enemies that would be impossible alone.
3. When the time comes to complain, do it the right way – There will come a time when a change needs to be made to your class. When that happens, try to think only about your experience and expertise of the class, but also from the perspective of the developer. Running over to SilkyVenom.com and posting “Rangers stink!” isn’t going to get anyone anywhere. Give feedback based on hard evidence from the game that helps build a case that your class isn’t viable for the role they are designed to fill in a group situation. In a system like Vanguard’s, it’s not necessarily about comparing your class to another, it’s more about determining whether or not you are able to effectively fill a role in group play. If your tank isn’t capable of doing his job in a group then demonstrate how and why he fails. The more we as players can bring to the table, the better chance we have of finding common ground with developers in these situations.
The toughest part as players is to separate class-envy from a real functional problem. The difference between what is viable and what is “the best” is filled with a potentially large grey area. If the problem is simply that one doesn’t enjoy playing a particular class, it’s probably not a balance issue. If one consistently cannot find a group or is not allowed to fill the designed role for the archetype, then the problem is worth investigating. But above all else, it’s important to think critically about the situation and give the developers something concrete to think about rather than opinionated conjecture and wild rantings. If the community can hold up this end of the bargain, it should be much easier for a company like Sigil with the penchant to interact with the community already to do so on a level that has not been possible before.
We should not pretend there is anything revolutionary or particularly insightful here; most of this I would consider to be common sense. But often in something where community members are so passionate, it is difficult to prevent emotion from influencing the discussion negatively. If we can think critically about the design and implementation of our character classes and eliminate incorrect perceptions and emotional reactions, I believe we can get much more out of our time in Vanguard. From experience, the best way to play through class balance issues is to avoid focusing on aspects of your character that the community perceives as being inadequate and instead impress your group and guild with your efficiency with those skills that your character does have and your willingness to fill the role you need to help get the job done. Then take what you do know about your class and find a way to communicate that with the rest of the community and the developers for the betterment of your class and the rest of the game.
If you can do that, don’t be surprised if your guild sends someone else in for that Harm-touch during the next raid.