Balancing classes when we bring players, not classes

| Monday, January 24, 2011
Tesh is asking dangerous questions about balance, classes, and the holy trinity again. Shun the non-believer!

The issue of balance is an important one. If people have a preferred class or style, if that one is weak, then they may be rejected from groups, making the game less fun for them, so they quit, and now there's less money for the developers to use to snort coke and the players left over will be left with a less interesting world, leading to more quitting, and before long the devs are out on the streets doing horrible things to support their addictions. It's quite terrible. What I'm trying to say is that poor game balance is the root cause of that homeless guy on the train who uh... well anyway, you get the idea.

So we want balanced classes. Note that this is not exclusive to a class system, but that I find it easier to use the word class (because I'm a communist) than to try to get at every intricacy of a class or talent or skill or whatever else based system. So pretend that when I say warlock I mean a chaotic evil caster who specializes in demonic summoning and destruction magic.

As any capitalist can tell you, class warfare is a bad idea. Instead it is better to turn the classes inward against each other. This is why we invented racism. We can apply the same method to classes in MMORPGs, reducing the conflict between classes, presumably by balancing them to be interchangeable, and instead causing players within each class to despise each other for the competition.

So how do we get every class to do the same DPS, healing output, effective health, and mitigation? That's right: we don't. That would be a fruitless endeavor to get them exactly the same. Merely adding mobility elements to a fight will make DoTs and instant cast spells better, while lots of adds favor AoE, quick deaths hurt DoT damage, long fights favor efficiency and regen, and so on. They can be close, but never exactly the same, so don't even bother trying for the last few percent. Or more.

Burning Crusade used a model that fit this. Each class brought its own buff(s): totems, magic or physical damage debuffs, auras, judgements, and most importantly, divine sacrifice to save two repair bills because we died a lot. DPS between classes was not balance. At all. But because each class brought a unique, or at least not commonly shared, buff or debuff, adding another class was usually better than stacking up on a single class, even if it appeared to be more powerful. So a class that did 10% less damage but gave a 2% damage buff to 20 people was still better than the 10% higher damage. This was a great situation for everyone around: developers could casually dismiss DPS meters, bad players could casually dismiss DPS meters, and good players could know that they are awesome, because good players don't need a bunch of numbers to know that. There was one group that got left out, a group which I despise for two reasons: first, they ruin my earlier claim of "a great situation for everyone" and second, because these are the self-centered jackasses who ruin just about everything by obsessing over DPS meters.

For some reason Blizzard decided to cater to this last group. This brought about their concept of "bring the player, not the class", which was nice, in theory. In practice it meant that the small DPS differences were put right back in the center. Pinning the balance of a game on a problem which can never be fixed, and also calling huge amounts of attention to it, is a terrible idea. The ironic result is that when attempting to make us bring players rather than classes, given the impossibility of perfect balance, we were more driven to pick classes. Because there was no longer incentive to diversify, that left only the pure DPS numbers as motivators.

I'm not suggesting that it is better to require one of every class, and in fact that wasn't the case. I've seen firsthand the results of fight-specific mechanics to force raid composition. I might have benefited from those gimmicks, thank you very much, Garr, and your eight identical adds which like to attack healers, thereby giving my warlock a guaranteed raid slot. But there is a middle ground, somewhere between stacking the flavor of the month and canceling the raid because of a lack of mages, and in that middle ground the balance between classes is made easier, small differences papered over and made invisible, also leveling some of the effects of player skill. That last part may be the cause of all this trouble, that something feels instinctively wrong about bringing a lesser player for their passive buffs rather than a better player for their epeen-growing DPS results, but when developer instinct conflicts with player fun, it must be set aside.

Well, unless of course they just enjoy watching flame wars between angered customers.


Nils said...

Great post. I also just wrote about the issue and didn't think about the way classic/TBC handled it. I think I'll add that ;)

Nils said...

Mmh. Sorry for double post, but to answer the question WHY Blizzard made the jump to homogenize the classes: They introduced 10-man raids in WotLK and the TBC approach required a raid size near the number of speccs.

There was no way to create a challenging 10-man raid if you cannot know what buffs the people have. Making the buffs less powerful would have resulted in the whole system breaking down.

Moreover, 10-mans (and 5-mans!) cannot be made challenging if the 30 speccs are not very similar, even ignoring buffs.

I can understand Blizzard decision to change classes in a way that they only differ in style, not capability.

The only alternative would be bigger groups/raids or even no limit .. like in those original virtual worlds ;)

Tesh said...

Yeah, I have a nasty habit of asking questions and prodding the sacred cows. Thanks for the link. ;)

Well, the ultimate in "balance" is to give everyone the exact same tools and let player skill settle the debate. That means no classes *or* skills, just a generic character who can do anything at any time. No gear, no talent tree, no levels, no *progress* curve, no functional differences beside player ability and choice. Cosmetic differences, maybe, but you may as well make 'em all brownshirts, just for thematic unity.

I'd actually like to see such a game, if only to see how it plays out. Doom PvP, pistols only, anyone?

Justisraiser said...


Gotta disagree with you here, at least at what happened in BC. I never raided in Vanilla.

- Buffs in BC were only party-wide, not raid-wide. This is why so many raids stacked shamans, so their totems could apply raid-wide. Also so they could chain-cast heroism. No one was giving a 20% buff to 20 people, they were giving it to 4 people, which is why you had to bring 5 of them.

- Because the group buff was so much higher than another potential person's contribution, you never brought that other person. Consider a raid with 3 warlocks. Would you bring a 4th warlock so they could all benefit for an even better Curse of Shadows? Or would you bring a mage with slightly better gear? The warlock always got brought along.

- In the event you had a particularly unique buff, the raid brought exactly ONE of your class. So you had the one shadowpriest for replenishment and that's it. Are you the second shadowpriest in the guild? Well you better hire to someone to take out the kneecaps of the first shadowpriest, because there's no way they're bringing you when they could bring another warlock.

I think you raised some decent points with the drawbacks of homogenization. But the devs have repeatedly said not to use DPS meters are player skill level benchmarks, and not to say "see Paragon is sitting fury warriors so they suck!" when a well-played fury warrior can still do competitive DPS, even if it's not on the level of the absolute best guild in the world. Ghostcrawler's most frequent response to anyone saying, "why would they bring my class to this raid?" is, "because you have a reputation for being a good player who knows what he is doing."

There's a very tough line to cross between "all classes have the tools needed to get the job done together" vs "all classes have the same exact tools." Have the devs decided to lean closer towards the latter? Yes. Do I prefer this over the BC world of buffs and stacking rendering at least a third of specs ineffective or limited in PvE? Yes.

Klepsacovic said...

@Nils: This is probably an arbitrary distrinction, but I can understand the need to spread out buffs such as mana regen (replenishment) or health buffs (fort), but the plain damage buffs (crit auras, AP buffs, etc) should be considered separately and left as unique or close to. This will result in some variation in raid damage depending on makeup, but is that any different than the variation that occurs from imperfectly balanced classes?

@Tesh: Is ping skill?

Tesh said...

True, you'd have to restrict ping. Graphics cards and other internal hardware, too. Keyboards, mice, maybe even monitors. Definitely addons and plugins. Maybe even UI settings. Camera settings, too.

I'm sure there's more, but I haven't read 1984 recently for ideas.

Klepsacovic said...

@Justin: You're right, I mixed up the debuffs, which would be raid-wide, and buffs, which somehow I forgot where party-limited. So in response, I'd say that the raid-wide buff model is definitely better for encouraging excessive stacking of tht sort.

The devs are being naive if they think they can possibly pry us away from DPS meters. Unless there are requirements for non-damage ability, such as CC or kiting, meters will be the way to measure players. I am assuming that people who never move out of fires have been long disqualified.

In response to your last paragraph, I want to remind you something that I wish I could tell the entire world: We do not have to pick between absolutes. We can avoid stacking and we can avoid homogenization. Raid-wide buffs help reduce the benefit of stacking, while similtaneously increasing the benefit of the first of a class/buff.

@Tesh: We might need to run eye screening to ensure that all monitors are perfectly calibrated.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the mentality of "bring the player, not the class" but one of the downsides to that is that classes no longer offer anything particularly unique or exciting. Although that brings a lot more balance to the game, the roleplayer in me sheds a tear.

Justisraiser said...

I intentionally used "tough line" and "lean" to indicate that it wasn't a binary, black-and-white issue.

It seems your point is, "More uniqueness between classes is better for the game because the success/failure of those encounters depends on that uniqueness is more interesting. Without that uniqueness, success is measured by more boring common denominators, such as DPS done or healing throughput." Shintar had a post the other day about raiding in BC, and even though she was really undergeared, her group wanted a shadow priest for shackling.

But I suppose my stance is this: you said good players don't need numbers to know they're awesome, and that's largely still true. Who are the company you're keeping?

I was a raid leader for my guild in WotLK and I knew which hunters I could count on misdirect raging spirits to the tank and keep an eye on the frost spheres in the LK fight, and which had no prayer of doing so. I've always felt that raiding is more art than science anyway. Teamwork. Camaraderie. Attitude. Preparation. And this is why I love it.

You're right, with homogenization, Blizz is minimizing the science part. In BC, you needed a minimum amount of "science," (stacking warlocks and shamans) before you could apply the "art." WotLK reduced the requirements of that science. Idiot Recount e-peen strokers have replaced that science with DPS meters, sure. But IMO, raiding success was always more about art anyway.

Klepsacovic said...

@Gordon: Serves you right for even thinking of RP in WoW.

@Justin: The "unique is more interesting than numbers" is part of it. I am more interested in the balance aspect. To me one measure of balance, and possibly the best measure, is the ratio of classes we're bringing to raids. I don't mean one specific raid and raid group, but on average, how many slots are hunters, mages, priests, etc? A mix of classes, to me, indicates a greater balance, or at least replicates the player flexibility which is one of the goals of balance. Unique buffs help with that mix by adding desire for a mix of classes, even if the side by side healing or DPS numbers don't work out quite perfectly.

The company I keep are a small group of close friends who I've argued and played with for about five years now. But I think that's irrelevant, because there aren't enough of us to fill a raid, so we need other people. I'd prefer that the pool of desirable other people be as big as possible. Part of the problem with the "DPS meters are for idiots" argument (which I have used) is that it's not quite true: when we all do basically the same thing, the meter is all that is left, beside social cohesion.

The 'art' is a huge aspect, possibly even the majority. Let's say it accounts for 90% of success. Would you ignore that last 10% or would you try to make that last 10% as good as possible? It's a bit like colleges and standardized tests; they don't account for a very large percentage of predicted student outcome, but schools care about them anyway because it is something they can use to at least tilt the odds a little bit.

Justisraiser said...

>>Unique buffs help with that mix by adding desire for a mix of classes, even if the side by side healing or DPS numbers don't work out quite perfectly.<<

Oh, I think I see what you're saying, that heterogeneity encourages diversity among classes. I guess I just think it's one of those "ideal world" design goals, that's ultimately a pretty brutal task for developers. Encounters need to ride the fine line between having enough features to take advantage of said heterogeneity without actually favoring one flavor of it. In my opinion they basically just failed at this in BC. BC had heterogeneous class/spec features, but raid encounters that favored only a handful of those features, and so those were the classes/specs that got to raid. Throw in trying to balance PvP (which, in my opinion, is really the reason why class balance is such an issue, although that's a separate issue entirely) on top of that and I think that's why the devs basically said, "screw it, let's just blur the lines for class features," in WotLK and again in Cataclysm.

Yet while I disagree with your solution, I do agree with the problem. We used to have clear ways to evaluate and differentiate skill and they had nothing to do with DPS meters. Now it's not as clear, so the player base has found inferior substitutes, which is why you get stupid things like Recount spam and Gearscore snobs. And even if I say, "well just find players that don't use it," that's not really a solution, just like, "if you don't like LFD just travel to the dungeon yourself," isn't a solution either.

I think the next challenge for Blizzard is figuring out ways to evaluate and differentiate composition and skill, now that class selection, talent specs, and encounter design can't do it. If they did something like that, do you think that would help?

P.S. Glad you understood my point about 'science' and 'art.'

P.P.S. It's JustiSraiser.

Klepsacovic said...

@Justis: This might be repetition, but to be sure we're on the same page: I agree that it's risky to have any given buff or debuff become mandatory, including CC. Molten Core had a few fights where specific CCs were excessively important, causing stacking of mages and warlocks of certain fights. That's the sort of thing which in a way works against diversity by saying "the raid must have this class or it will fail."

That is why I have settled on the buff method: it can cover up balance issues without being a fight-by-fight decision like CC, interrupts, or tanking style were in BC.

Frankly I think trying to balance PvP and PvE at the same time is impossible. The mechanics are too different for one rule set, or even the very minor variations that WoW uses, such as diminishing returns on CCs and shorter durations.

P.S. And I'm glad you seem to have understood my points in turn. It makes for a much better conversation!

P.P.S. Oops.

Nat said...

I just want a 'like' button for this post to be honest. But since I must say something to give acknowledgment to a good point well made; I liked feeling like a special flower for PW:S everyone before Arthas tried to make our faces grow mould and fall off right at the start of that encounter. For quite a long time before, and since then, I struggle to think of another time I've felt class-specifically useful.

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