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 But really now… this is just another example of outdated balance methods.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.