Balancing for Awesome

Some good news on the EQ2 front; I noticed this tidbit: mentoring bonus increased for the summer. This is great news! So what does this mean for us EQ2 players? It means that for the summer,

“Mentors do receive viable amounts of experience and advance toward their actual level while mentoring, though at a slightly reduced rate.”

Woohoo! Viable amounts of XP! Yes, you can read between the lines too: mentoring normally returns unviable amounts of XP. I am honestly excited about this, because I like EQ2 and this gives me some more opportunities to group up. But really now… this is just another example of outdated balance methods.

We systems designers need to start balancing for awesome. Traditionally, we balanced for perfection. Older games like EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot show this most clearly: they have tightly-controlled classes with an extremely limited range of effective verbs. Most classes have a “right” way to build the character and myriad “wrong” ways to do it. The systems designer makes sure that the classes’ “right” ways are all reasonably in sync, at least at max-level. Everything else can go to hell, and does, but hey, these particular best-case builds are balanced!

This is dumb. I can say this with hard-earned experience, because I did this very thing in my first year as a system designer for Asheron’s Call 2. I did real damage to the funness of that game by balancing it. Those were rookie mistakes which I deeply regret. But I learned my lesson. AC2’s expansion pack balance was a whole lot more fun than my earlier balancings. It took a lot of beatings for me to get it through my head, but I got it. And I’m here to tell you to stop making the same mistake I did.

There are little lies we tell ourselves, we system designers. “Making the game perfectly balanced is key tothe long-term sustainability of the game.” “Without extremely tight balance, PvP will not be any fun.” “Only a handful of forum whiners will even notice this nerf.” That’s all rationalization. Truth is, we’re just being anal.

It grates on you, those imperfections. It looms so large that it seems like it’s ruining the game. “This class is 10% too powerful [in the right builds, with the right equipment]. 10%! I have to fix this now before this class becomes Flavor of the Month and everything I’ve strived for disintegrates before my eyes. We have to hotfix this nerf NOW.” I’ve been there. And I guarantee that EQ2 suffers from the same thing. Their game systems designer(s) are too close to the game, too anal-retentive, and too controlling. They need to get with the times, or move to a more old-school game than EQ2 wants to be.

Why would mentoring need a boost just to become “viable”? And why on earth is this a temporary bonus, something just being done for a while lest it ruin the entire game? There are answers, and I’m sure they are plausible ones. Let’s see, how about, “mentoring already has valuable benefits like alternate-advancement points, and mentored players are more powerful than regular characters of that level, so we don’t want people to mentor all the time.” So what’s the fix? Make mentoring utterly useless… except this summer, when it’s sort of usable. Mentoring doesn’t need to be controlled this tightly. And even if it did, the answer is not to make it useless for 9 months out of the year. That’s the easy way out.

Another example: about a year ago, my low-level Templar character got all of his meager crowd control powers nerfed. These were not awesome powers — they were cute emergency powers. His mez ability used to last 9 seconds, usable every 5 minutes. Then it got nerfed so that it lasted only 3 seconds. I had to take all of those nerfed powers off my power bar — they were rendered useless. (They are slightly useful again now that I’ve leveled the Templar to 65… but still not really worth using anymore.)

Why did those mildly useful powers become useless? Because some Templar build at max-level was too powerful… at least on paper. So they nerfed all Templars down the line. Cheap, lazy, and very detrimental to the game. If you’re going to nerf, you owe it to your players to find the very least amount of nerfing necessary to achieve your goals. Yes, that means you need to play-test characters at multiple levels, and you even need to playtest characters without optimal gear (*gasp*) because not everybody has optimal gear. Really! I know, nobody on the forums is wearing crap armor, and the ultra-hardcore people in your guild are wearing awesome stuff, so it sure seems like everybody is wearing awesome stuff. That’s another rookie mistake. Use your data analysis tools! As a systems designer, they should be something you refer to every single day. Don’t guess. Check.

It’s also critical to get a perspective from some distance away from the problem. This is incredibly hard to do on a live team, but it’s the only way to do your job well. All the end-of-the-world scenarios we tend to imagine are crap. For instance, suppose an overpowered class really does end up a flavor-of-the-month class as thousands of people reroll. Oh no, you have flavor-of-the-month classes. What ever will you do?! Huh, would you look at that? It doesn’t reduce your populations at all, and it even encourages players to reroll alts. It’s not a particularly bad problem. You don’t need to hot-fix for it. But it feels soooo wrong. It feels like failure to a game systems designer. And what will the board trolls say? They’ll start talking about how stupid you are! You’ve just got. to. fix. it. NOW. Even if it makes more of a mess than you started with.

But what’s important is that your game is fun, and you need to make that the primary goal of everything you do. If you have to nerf something, nerf the particular scenario, not the underlying system. Over-nerfing is the easy road, but not the road to fun. Having a cool mentoring system and then making it give only pitiful amounts of XP is a cop out. Maybe some games can only afford to balance the cheesy way, because they have a live team of six people. But games like EQ2 have plenty of time and money to do it right.

Anything else in my little rant here? Let’s see… oh yeah, as a whole, can we systems designers agree to stop copping out on verb breadth? I know it’s a whole lot easier to balance a class when they have only a tiny range of options. But that isn’t very fun. It’s a lot more fun for every class to have a lot of different things they can do. That probably means the game will never be truly balanced, but that’s okay. Better fun than balanced. It’s okay for a Templar to have a couple crowd-control powers. It’s fine for a Guardian to have a neat DoT ability. Do what it takes to make them fun, and don’t get hung up on whether or not you’ll be able to perfectly balance it. Because you won’t.

This is my rule of thumb for game balance: if all the classes feel really fun, then I’m doing a good job.

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13 Responses to Balancing for Awesome

  1. When mentoring a level 25+ apprentice, the mentoring system actually rewards 50% XP to the mentor, thus making it theoretically better to mentor someone than to solo at your actual level. I didn’t know this until today, and my perception was that you got about 10% XP while mentoring anyone (it is lower prior to 25). Shows what I know.

  2. Mavis says:

    Of course – introducing a temporary change is an excellent way to actually check balance.

    If it works – grand you can leave it in. If not you can remove it but complaints are more limited because you told them it could once go away. Seems a sensible step to me…..

  3. Eric says:

    Mavis – true enough, though you can’t do that too often, it is a nice tactic to try for certain things, including this one.

  4. Brimoonfang says:

    David Sirlin has a lot to say about this in his book _Playing to Win_
    and on his Web site. Specifically, he cites the fighting game Guilty Gear XX
    as an example where each character has some technique that is “so good it’s broken”.

    But when every class is ‘overpowered’, are they balanced?

    I would say yes — and also, that this sounds like a lot of fun to me.

    Blizzard states in their Diablo 3 gameplay video “there is no such thing as too much power!”
    Granted, this is easier to implement in a single-player game than an MMO, but….

  5. Bart Stewart says:

    For a rant, that’s a good presentation of the problems of balancing a game.

    In particular I agre with Eric’s concluding advice to MMORPG developers. Instead of trying and failing to achieve perfect balance (by increasingly constraining player action), design your gameworld so that it doesn’t need as much active tinkering for balance.

    But while the essay stated the problems well, it didn’t get into the “how?” of the question of gameplay balance. What are some design possibilities for making a MMORPG that doesn’t require as much rule-tweaking?

    My suggestion would be to design game systems that are more self-balancing, where a player community is treated like a ecological system.

    Any “systems designer” worthy of that title knows that a self-balancing system works better and costs less than one that requires constant maintenance by some human(s). By spending more on the front end defining and testing feedback models, you save over the long run because your programmers can work on value-adding feature enhancements instead of on balance fixes.

    Anyone else think this might be a more fruitful approach for achieving ongoing play balance in a MMORPG than constant developer tweakage?

    Finally, this is lovely for a game still in development, but what can be done to minimize maintenance balancing in an existing game? Probably the biggest “balance redesign” in MMORPG history was the New Game Experience for Star Wars Galaxies… and we all saw how well that went.

    So what are the practical options for changing an existing gameworld to meaningfully reduce the need for constant balance tweaks? Are there any, really?

  6. Hey, Eric. Fantastic point, but bad example.

    The bulletpoints at the bottom of the link describing the mentoring system in general are a description of how the mentoring system has always worked.

    They’re copied from the original system description that I wrote in 2005, which is mirrored here:

    The mentoring system was designed to provide viable/fun advancement experience from the get-go. :)

    – Scott

  7. Anyone else think this might be a more fruitful approach for achieving ongoing play balance in a MMORPG than constant developer tweakage?


    +7 Systems has been trying to sell balance middleware for several years. I don’t think they’ve made any deals.

    Their system is based on spell usage frequency data, if I remember correctly, and automating changes based on that is patently ridiculous — it’s so reliant on context. Put in a bunch of new mobs that are resistant to fire damage and everybody starts using frost instead? Clearly, frost is overpowered!!1! and the system will fix it for you. etc. etc.

    They do have super awesome-looking dashboards and such.

  8. Bart Stewart says:

    Thanks for the link to +7 Systems, Sara. They do indeed seem to be describing the kind of dynamic balancing I had in mind.

    (Actually it’s sort of creepy that their stuff sounds so close to what I’m thinking, to the point where I feel like I need to point out that I don’t work for them.)

    I think the principle is basically sound that self-leveling systems, while not a panacea, are more resistant to breaking than systems that depend on human monitoring and tweaking. It’s harder to get self-leveling systems working, and of course nothing entirely frees up humans from monitoring, but once you’ve got such a system working it does free up attention for more productive tasks. That’s got pretty broad support throughout a lot of branches of systems design…

    …so why does it seem so blindingly obvious to you that it clearly doesn’t work for the particular application of game design? What’s so different about balancing character capabilities at the same rated power level across multiple classes that normal system design principles don’t apply? Is there some practical evidence that hand-tweaking must always be a clear winner over dynamic balancing?

    If so, does that mean game designers are eternally doomed to be stuck with the “balancing for perfection” groveling over stats that Eric described? If dynamic balancing isn’t a way toward “balancing for awesome,” what is?

  9. Django says:

    “If dynamic balancing isn’t a way toward “balancing for awesome,” what is?”

    “Balancing for awesome” to me is more about giving players noticeable changes that advance their characters across time. Dynamic balancing will be slight changes across lifespan and if it’s done right will never really feel “awesome” it’ll just feel right.

    FotM has always seemed like to dirty word to me too but it’s often been the FotM that drives the life into the early game (though it may not be the best life as the power leveling/zerging form it comes in) where it would otherwise be devoid of experienced players if there were no reason to reroll (well outside us alt-aholics who simply play different characters because we had a name/backstory/skill/class/whatnot we wanted to try).

    I’d say that SWG’s original profession system would have been amazing for this type of “balancing for awesome” with the ability of anyone to work into certain roles without having to make a new character and the ability to keep the things you like from other “professions” at the same time. However, sadly, that character advancement system is gone (most likely forever) from the game.

    Really when it comes down to it one of the things players (and I) want out of playing a game is to feel awesome. “Awesome” is made of of looking awesome (animations/appearance) as well as being awesome (being able to complete superhuman tasks).

    As referenced above “You can never have too much power.”

  10. Babs says:

    I’m of the opinion that achieving game balance is as honorable an undertaking as unilateral nuclear disarmament and about as equally ineffective, in spite of the fact that the brightest minds in both industries have been working towards these goals for decades.

    The answer is in the loot, says I =)

  11. Eric says:

    Scott — oops! Good to know. Though I have to say that most people in game are of the opinion that the XP obtained from mentoring is not at all viable, so I think the basic premise still stands. (It may be that there’s a bug in it, because it doesn’t seem like even 50% earned XP normally.)

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