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The eternal lie of perfect class balance in a multiclass-system and how to solve it

September 12, 2012

 

In my last post I wrote a bit about the topic of why it is important to have distinctively different classes with set advantages and disadvantages. To summarize my main point from that post, my argument was that it entailed a “graspable consequence” for the player and furthered respect between the players due to everyone having some tools no one else had. In this post I am going to write about the problems that arise, with a game having very distinctively different classes and how to potentially solve those problems. As this mainly as the title of the post suggests is a post about class balance I will be dividing the post into three parts: Problems that arise in PVP, Problems that arise in PVE and the proposed solution and its effects on both PVP and PVE. I will start with the Problems that arise in PVP.

 

Problems that arise in PVP

If anyone has ever visited a forum dedicated to PVP, how serious or not it may be, a big recurring topic is class balance and how class X has an, or  several abilities that are unfair against class Y. Most of the time the developers of said game do not do much about the problem expect maybe a nerf or two followed up by buffs and so on and so forth. With the coming of expansion more often than not something more decisive is planned as a solution through new talents and abilities.

 

So the problem we have at hand is the fact, which many PVP-players grudgingly accept, that perfect class balance (by perfect class balance I mean the occurrence that every class has the necessary tool set to defeat any class and only player skill is the deciding factor) in a game that features several distinctively different classes is inherently, due to its system of classes being different from each other, always unbalanced. And the developers seem to have two solutions to this. One: buff and nerf classes in order to do some “fine-tuning” in the balance. Two: do broad changes through new abilities and talents. Number one means that the game is permanently in rollercoaster of so-called “flavour of the month classes” in the throes of buffs and nerfs and class balance shifts every month or so in wait for number two in the form of an expansion. Number two seems to consist of distributing abilities between classes, which comes in the form of for instance Rogues getting a self-heal, Hunters getting stealth, Druids getting a teleport (MoP talent) etc. This leads to the classes all feeling the same, something that is supported by the different healing classes. They all follow the same premise of healing; where you primarily and simplified have a slow big heal, a slow small heal, a fast big heal, an AoE heal and something you want to keep on the target all the time for mana regeneration purposes. This makes the game essentially boring because once you have learned one healing class, you have learned them all. At least that was how it was for me as I have healed on a Discipline Priest, a Paladin and a Druid. I left the Shaman at level 35 due to it feeling just like the rest of them. So what we get from this is that perfect class balance with multiple different classes is impossible, because the imbalance caused by the difference is fixed by either constantly redistributing the imbalance or by removing it and with it the differences of the classes. Something we wanted to keep because it makes the game more fun. So the problem in PVP is that many different classes make the game fun but unbalanced, and the fix to it makes it boring but balanced.

 

Problems that arise in PVE

Balance is not something as straightforward as “class X has unfair abilities that make him defeat class Y too easily” like it is n PVP. Still it follows the same feeling of “unfairness” that the differentiation between classes brings to light. Rogues for instance never used to have a real AoE only a “Blade Flurry” that hits 2 enemies with your strikes for 15 seconds and has a 2 minute cool-down. Nor did Hunters or Rogues have heals, or Warlocks anything besides really “Shadowbolt” to deal direct damage, or Mage’s Heroism.

 

Part of the reason this is so is the same reason why buffs got streamlined. Blizzard made the active decision to support their smaller sized raid content of 10 player groups, but in order to keep it as challenging as the bigger sized groups of 25 players, had to redistribute tactical cool-downs and buffs to other classes as well or streamline them. Another part of the problem surely also was player envy at not having certain abilities. I know I envied all AoE classes and was ecstatic when I got my Fan of Knives. Until I realized the problem it entailed.

 

Because the problem was that once I had received my AoE ability a huge part of what made my TBC raiding time fun vanished. I used to love the challenge of staying on top of the “Total Damage done list”, which meant that I had to push myself on trash mobs so that the inevitable loss of damage compared to say Mages or Hunters, that had a few forms of AoE, was not too big and then push myself on bosses in order to make up for the loss of damage and still keep the lead. The distributing of tactical abilities also meant that the roles the classes could assume in their role of DPS, Tank or Healer vanished as everyone could do everything. Gone were the days when Shadow-Priests acted as mana-batteries (which albeit being boring to some, was enjoyed by others as they had a unique role to fill), or Rogues had nothing to look for in those packs of mobs that had to be AoE’d down. In essence after getting my AoE ability I lost what made my class feel special with all its advantages and disadvantages, I felt just like another DPS easily replaced by someone else and the only thing keeping me in the group was a number dictating my performance in relation to others. I understand that this was a big part of Blizzards “bring the player not the class”-policy, but its consequence was devastating as it removed most of the things that made classes unique. Because at the end of the day I think player interactivity can always solve the problem if your class is not needed for a raid. In my guild for instance we switched classes that would raid, made separate raid teams or levelled a group of alts to make sure everyone could raid with the character they wanted, which often was not the main thing anyway everyone just wanted to raid with some fun people they enjoyed playing with, the character they chose to do that on was secondary and this was still in TBC.

 

So the problem in the spectrum of PVE is that the differentiation caused the will to balance classes in terms of their tools and what they could perform, which in turn made them stream lined and boring just like in the PVP spectrum of things.

 

Solution

 

So as I, hopefully with some modicum of success, tried to explain before, the problem that I see the multi-class system having, the aspect of it being unbalanced, is overshadowed by the consequence of its nowadays accepted solution of streamlining as it makes the game less fun, because everyone is the same. And therefore we need to realize that perfect balance in a multiclass- system is a lie, a fancy that is never going to happen and we need to detach ourselves from that thought of it being desirable.

 

My solution therefore is to create a completely different balancing system. Using the base of “rock-paper-scissors” found in most RTS games today, we would embrace the imbalance in the multi-class- system and make it balanced in a mathematical sense. Let us do the simplified form of such a system first. We have four classes: Warrior, Rogue, Mage and Priest. Every class has one class that its toolbox is strong against, meaning the other part has to be more skilled in order to defeat it and a class against which its toolbox is weak, as well as two classes it has no real advantage or disadvantage against.

 

The way this system would work if is the following, I will use the signs of >, < and = to indicate strengths, weaknesses and no real strengths or weaknesses against the class after the sign:

Warrior:

>Rogue, = Warrior, = Mage, < Priest

 

Rogue:

>Mage, = Rogue, = Priest, < Warrior

 

Mage:

>Priest, = Mage, = Warrior, < Rogue

 

Priest:

>Warrior, = Priest, = Rogue, < Mage

 

At first sight this system is no different from the imbalanced system trying to be balanced. The difference though is that, if you work from the beginning with this system, you can craft the individual strengths and weaknesses of the classes with this system in min and won’t have to justify as much why a certain imbalance exists as it is intentionally part of the system. You can also easily transport this system into specializing classes into being more AoE, Single target, burst or steady damage focussed. I opted to show you the PVP system as it is easier to grasp. And of course the system maybe expanded upon by adding more classes. A Paladin might be a Priest-Soldier in the system inheriting its strengths and weaknesses for instance.

 

The advantages of this system are, out over the already mentioned once, its focus on encouraging world PVP through its advantage/disadvantage system and thus making the world feel more dangerous, encouraging player interdependence, adding a strategic layer to group PVP and PVE activities and thus challenging its players, but most of all it empowers the players choice of class by making it a defining choice and thus making the player feel needed by virtue of him having a unique class. The world PVP is encouraged by the fact that if you see an enemy class, which you know you are having an advantage against, the incentive to attack him beyond mere competitiveness in enhanced and I believe few players would resist. Thereby the world will feel more dangerous and realistic with the potential chance of dying to some chance encounter with a Warrior as a Rogue. It also provides the competitive PVP scene with the incentive of beating the classes they are weak against thus furthering effort. Or if you are not at all interested in PVP and fear for your life to go outside because maybe there is a Rogue in the bushes looking to ambush your Mage, the incentive to band together and socialize is given by the challenge presented by the system and needed to be overcome by the players. The strategic layer in group activities is also there as fights emphasize on team-play by synchronizing your group’s strengths and countering the opponent’s. In PVP this could mean having a Warrior escort a Mage to which the Rogue seeking to kill the Mage has to respond in some manner. This kind of system focusing heavily on player interdependence would in my opinion be perfect for an MMO, which main selling point is to be played and experienced by players in a world together with other players.

 

Of course like every system there are disadvantages to this one. For instance it relies more on the class than the player, but gives the player and avenue upon which to improve, which in my opinion is more important. The system would also require some tweaking and a definition of which kind of advantage/ disadvantage is fair and which not. Pick up groups or randomized groups in PVP might suffer if they have a too big focus on one class. But all of these problems also provide the players with a challenge they should be able to overcome through teamwork and that is once again the systems greatest strength, it promotes and sometimes forces players to play with each other and not alone or against each other, something modern MMOs seem to have forgotten.

 

I would be delighted by any comments or views and of course critique you have to offer on this system of balancing classes in an MMO!

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2012 5:29 pm

    We will never stop being children. We want it all. We want to be the class we desire, by its looks, by ideology or because there are/were not blood elf warriors and we had to acquiesce; and then we want the abilities of *that* other class. And since the developers are not responsible enough to distribute their love equally, and to acknowledge that the game was not designed for a one-on-one balance, we get current WoW and its blinking warlocks, homogeneous factory healers, and hunters picking their noses while shooting an ammo-less gun.

    Your post made me contemplate the idea: was WoW originally a multiclass rock-paper-scissor type of game? PvE-wise, it must have been the case, since each class filled a specific albeit sometimes unexciting role (Paladin buffing, Shaman totemming – yay invented words). From a PvP perspective, since there had been no arenas at the time, there was zero concerns about the balance of skirmishes. In the wake of the arena system, one such thing as rock-paper-scissor balancing would have stripped the autonomy away from the players, since their success would have been too dependent on chance.

    By this I mean that there still has to be a way for rogues to pummel warriors. Handicapped one-on-one, but allowing for 2-people combinations to naturally produce that desired balance. But this is much easier said than done. Even the almighty developers cannot fathom some of the ways in which a character’s skills and items can be used ‘creatively’. Our warrior tank in TBC was using these fire power herbs on every cooldown to boost his aggro!

    There would be a lot of tuning of a multiclass system, but it would still be easier and more respectful of the uniqueness of the classes.

    • September 13, 2012 5:49 pm

      Thank your comment on the topic (once again as number 1!).
      Of course there has to be a way for a rogue to kill a warrior, I merely wanted to illustrate the warrior having the upper hand and forcing player skill from the rogue so he will win. Kind of like it is possible for Marines (basic unit that has a ranged attack) in Starcraft II to win against Banelings (sucide unit that does AoE damage), you simply split the marines and sacrifice the smaller group while the bigger group shoots down the Banelings (or you could just kite), both strategies where the product of players thinking how to solve a situation, something I call skill.
      And even in Vanilla there was a concern PVP wise on class balance, just listen to Myndflames “Learn 2 play” song or the ever famous “It’s the World of Warcraft that we play” plenty of complaints on twink rogues and Aimed shot. While these are satirical songs they still portrait an aspect of a real problem. But you are absolutely correct on that the balance and definition of “advantage/ disadvantage” are hard to nail down. I merely presented the system in hypothetical sphere as at the moment I have not the means nor the detail neccessary to do number crunching in a PVP environment.
      And yes in my opinion WoW could be called a rock paper-scissor-type of game in its early days (PVE wise). Of course my full idea was also to include things like Mob types that resist/ are vulnerable to certain types of damage (excluding bosses), to make it more evident how PVE is also rock-paper-scissor. But that requires a lot of detail work to which point I have not gotten yet and us such did not want to present other than in a finished form (in a future post propably).

      Nevertheless I think it’s mportant for us as gamers to have at least a hypothetical system as a gudeline for what we want our games to look like, so that we know what we want in more defininte terms, than just something that is “new but not too revolutionary and actually only a carbon copy of the old system I was unhappy with before”.

      Once again it was very nice to hear your thought on the matter and I am very happy for your replies and contribution to the blogg!

  2. September 14, 2012 5:07 am

    “And since the developers are not responsible enough to distribute their love equally, and to acknowledge that the game was not designed for a one-on-one balance, we get current WoW and its blinking warlocks, homogeneous factory healers, and hunters picking their noses while shooting an ammo-less gun.”

    Blizzard has repeatedly said PvP isn’t balanced around 1v1. What does hunter ammo (or lack thereof) have to do with this question of balance?

    “Of course my full idea was also to include things like Mob types that resist/ are vulnerable to certain types of damage (excluding bosses), to make it more evident how PVE is also rock-paper-scissor.”

    If you think it’s worth including on mobs, why do you think it should be excluded from bosses? Or perhaps the reverse is better: if you think it should be excluded from bosses, why include it on mobs?

    Aren’t you training people the wrong way in that situation?

    • September 14, 2012 11:25 am

      I dont think ammo-less hunters haveso much to do owith PVP balance but “quality of life balance” as it could be and was by some viewed as an annoying mechanic. I for one loved it and it makes no sense immersion-wise for it to be gone.

      I was not going to include resistances/vulnerabilities oon bosses, because that is where people measure their characters (in PVE). Those are the fights that really matter to most players. Including resistances on mobs has a far wider effect though, as let’s face it mostly we kill mobs or so called trash in the world and not bosses, so one effect is it spices up leveling forcing you to use different abilities, that you usually might not end up using.
      And by separating bosses with htt distinction you also give them an inherent “epicness” (numberwise) as it is clearly not like your run of themill goblin you are going to kill.

      I hope that clarified some of my thought process thank you for your comment!

  3. September 15, 2012 1:06 am

    “Including resistances on mobs has a far wider effect though, as let’s face it mostly we kill mobs or so called trash in the world and not bosses, so one effect is it spices up leveling forcing you to use different abilities, that you usually might not end up using.”

    Like a Fire mage with talents that all increase fire damage casting Frost Bolt?

    Or a Shadow Priest trying to cast Smite?

    While it might force them to use different abilities and fight at incredibly reduced effectiveness…why is that a benefit?

    • September 15, 2012 12:12 pm

      Yes it forces them to fight wth other abilities than their own but due to the vulnerability or resistance mechanic of the mob it’s not going to be unefficent. For instance if you tried killing a Frost Yeti in as a frost mage and it resist your attacks or you only do miniscule damage, then your talents wont even help you and it’s better to switch to other spells. One of the benefits for instance that you are actually required to do some thinknig in the form of Mob X is type Y therefore he propably resists element Z. Instead of just blindly whacking at him and be done with it. By doing this you gain a more full understanding ofyour class and it gives the leveling experience a bit more colour than Sinister strike x5 into Eviscerate rince and repeat. This allows for your brain as it is doing the same acticity (leveling) in a different way (usng other abilitites, whicih have their unique animations) “to stay awake” longer without going into autopilot mode. I dont know if you ever leeld a mage and did BRD? I was on an arcane mage but as soon as I noticed the fire golems taking huge damage of frost spells I switched to frost and for the times I rann that dungeon it felt like I was playng a new class (although strictly speaking I was not) aas I got rid of the old arcane rotation. Real life anecdote would be if you have ever worked in a storage facility before then it works the same way there.If you spend 9 to 5 stacking boxes in vertical colummns the job becomes tedious quckly but if you switch over to stackng them in horizontal rows after you feel bored of colums the task does not seem as “boring” as to your brain you are doing something new (without actually doing it). But yes of course in a game that provides these kinds of encounters I would not be against thecompromise of havinig an erray of let’s say 3 zones for each leveling bracket, so 3 paths to level to max level, so that those who only want to cast fire spells as fire mages will avoid the brunt of the mobs they would need frost spells on.

      • September 15, 2012 6:28 pm

        “One of the benefits for instance that you are actually required to do some thinknig in the form of Mob X is type Y therefore he propably resists element Z. Instead of just blindly whacking at him and be done with it.”

        So, on “easy” content you have to think like this, but then you throw it away on “hard” content? Isn’t that poor training for end-game? Which apparently is a current huge concern? Is it a good idea for people to get into bad habits like this?

        I mean, Fire Mage who is used to casting Frostbolts are like 30% of his typical DPS goes into Firelands. He thinks “Damnit, I have to use those stupid Frostbolts here” and starts casting. Then the raid yells at him and calls him an idiot. Or at least thinks he’s stupid, because he learned the lessons from leveling.

        Re: the monotony…wouldn’t it be better to simply make the mobs more interesting? Create mini-boss fights or difficult stuff?

        “By doing this you gain a more full understanding ofyour class and it gives the leveling experience a bit more colour than Sinister strike x5 into Eviscerate rince and repeat”

        Interesting example. How would you do this for physical damage dealers?

        • September 15, 2012 7:05 pm

          For the Firelands Trash I would still make it like the mobs out n the world but not for the bosses and you can have the bosses have a buff displayed on them that explains that casting frostbolt wont give benefits. Of course giving mobs more abilities makes it interesting as well and I would do that but I remember that mobs had interesting ablities in TBC as well and it did not work as a big enough incentive for people to try to deviate into doing anything different. for physical damage dealers you could make undead mobs immune to bleeds or let mobs have more armour meaning you have to make sure to stun them etc, or make them immuune too nature dmg which would affect poisons, the possibilities really are quite endless, even for melee

  4. September 15, 2012 12:30 pm

    Thanks to Doone on T. R. redskies ( http://www.trredskies.com/ ) for linkiing this episode that beautifully explains why I think one needs to have imbalances in games.
    http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/perfect-imbalance

    If you find any of the topics here intresting toally check out both Doone and the episode!

  5. September 15, 2012 10:52 pm

    “For the Firelands Trash I would still make it like the mobs out n the world but not for the bosses and you can have the bosses have a buff displayed on them that explains that casting frostbolt wont give benefits.”

    What about boss fights with adds? Like Beth’tilac, which features Drones/Spinners/Spiderlings which are part of the trash?

    “Of course giving mobs more abilities makes it interesting as well and I would do that but I remember that mobs had interesting ablities in TBC as well and it did not work as a big enough incentive for people to try to deviate into doing anything different.”

    You played on the MoP beta at all? I wandered across an elite rare mob with like 10 times the normal amount of HP and some cool abilities to avoid. Took a minute or two to beat and was really fun. Got a special achievement for it too.

    “for physical damage dealers you could make undead mobs immune to bleeds or let mobs have more armour meaning you have to make sure to stun them etc, or make them immuune too nature dmg which would affect poisons, the possibilities really are quite endless, even for melee”

    But none of those options would make you avoid SSx5/Evisx1. Or imagine you’re a fury warrior where you don’t have bleeds, poisons, or as much utility cooldowns/abilities as a rogue.

    • September 16, 2012 12:19 pm

      Those you could make like any of the normal trash mobs out in the world (at least that is my first thought, I’ve not got the numbers or even abilities for half of the classes I am looking at hypothetically which means I have not even begun to hands down write any sheets for mobs), as it would make certain players feel valuable in the boss fight. But as Ii said thats my first thought on the question and so a spontaneous answer.
      For the problem with the melee the answer is “more armor”. How much more? enough to think about using stuns hamstring kiting and such, it’s hard to use WoW as a concrete example as there are only a few similarities between my classes that have abilitites and WoW, so if the answers are not as specific that’s due to that. And the rogue rotation could merely by a mob with lots of armour be made to incorporate abilities that bypass armor (Envenom), that stun or you might want to hit faster in order to chip out more damage, as the fight is longer due to you doing less damage (Slice and Dice), or you could use Cooldowns like Dismantle to avoid damage, gouge + bandage could also be an option. But as I said without a mob sheet it’s hard to discuss. The aim though is to make sure that if you have a weakness against one mob there is always a route around it. Once I get the time I can put together a Mob sheet and we can have a closer look at it.

  6. September 16, 2012 10:12 pm

    “Those you could make like any of the normal trash mobs out in the world (at least that is my first thought, I’ve not got the numbers or even abilities for half of the classes I am looking at hypothetically which means I have not even begun to hands down write any sheets for mobs), as it would make certain players feel valuable in the boss fight.”

    Well, the only classes which would be affected are theoretically fire mages and warlocks (more Destruction/Demonology). Which also does bring up the question of “If it’ll only affect 2-3 specs out of 30, what’s the point?” I’m also wondering why you think it would make certain players feel valuable…likely only 10-20% of the raid would be affected, it’s not like a particular class or spec gets to shine (which also can cause stacking issues).

    Also, what if you have nature immune enemies? Elemental Shaman are all about lightning…are you saying they’d simply have to play a different spec with gear gear and/or a different role entirely?

    I’m not just being obstinate here, I’ve just never understood the desire for elemental rock paper scissors in a game where you control one character. In Pokemon you had to have a well balanced team and you controlled all of them. Ditto in something like Starcraft II. But when you are attached to a particular character/spec and cannot simply “switch production” or something, why punish them?

    Hell, in the NWN stuff I’ve made I eliminated it entirely.

    “The aim though is to make sure that if you have a weakness against one mob there is always a route around it. Once I get the time I can put together a Mob sheet and we can have a closer look at it”

    That would be interesting. I’m thinking of Fury Warriors, for example, who pretty much revolve around “Get in there and smash stuff up.” If they’re kitting they do no damage. They can’t stun (well, besides Charge).

    More armor just seems to make the fight last longer, it doesn’t force people to use a different toolbox unless you have something specific like certain abilities that bypass armor. But then I just wonder if you’re adding complexity without depth.

    Normal armor: use abilities A, B, and C.

    High armor: use abilities D, E, and F.

    That just seems to be more keybinds and busywork for no actual gain. That’s what I don’t get.

    • September 17, 2012 6:00 pm

      I thnk where the problem lies for you is trying to apply this system to WoW which was never build around such a system. I am not proposing and would not recommend it for WoW as overhauling the system into the one I am proposing is going to be too much work. INstead the system is proposed as something a new MMO could use and thus design their classes around accordingly. As WoW’s classes were not using this system they were not designed around it which makes it obvious that there would be flaws in the system if you copy paste WoW’s classes into it.
      Your Pokemon example pretty much answered the question as well why I thinkn we need a system like this and why it is good. Because it would bring teamwork back into raiding and make MMOs social gmes again.

  7. September 18, 2012 5:55 am

    “Your Pokemon example pretty much answered the question as well why I thinkn we need a system like this and why it is good. Because it would bring teamwork back into raiding and make MMOs social gmes again.”

    How do you figure that? My whole point was that the Pokemon system was terrible for an MMO, that it removed social aspects.

    In Pokemon, your goal is to bring the best team of six Pokemon to a fight. Which means that if you go to the Water gym…you don’t bring your Fire, Ground, or Rock Pokemon. You stash them and ignore them.

    If a Pokemon you like isn’t able to do well in a fight, you just swap it for another one.

    Let’s translate this into an MMO.

    If your goal is to beat the Glowing Bubble Boss of Watery Doom, you don’t bring Fire Mages or Warlocks. You sit them and say that because of their class, you can’t bring them to the raid fight. It doesn’t matter if they’re good players or if you like them as people, you swap them for someone else.

    Or they have to play a second spec with different gearing requirements and playstyle that they may hate. Or they have to level up another character and gear it back up (that’s probably 150+ hours invested). Neither are usually good options.

    In other words, I don’t think it’s a good idea to treat people like Pokemon, to be eager to discard them based upon a desire for elemental rock/paper/scissors. Pokemon don’t complain or get upset or leave the guild for getting sat. People do.

    The system works in Pokemon precisely because the whole point is for YOU, as one person, to gather the perfect team. The members of the team aren’t people. In WoW, they are. Being replaced and/or sat because of the class/spec you picked isn’t fun.

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