The Balancing Act: The Challenges of Class Balance in MMOGs

Balancing classes in MMOGs may be one of the most daunting challenges of the industry. Few games are immune, and no game has ever claimed complete perfect balance. So how does a developing company deal with the ever-impending demand to keep their games fair in both PvE and PvP environments? Ten Ton Hammer spoke with four industry professionals about the issue in an effort to glean some answers.
Sometimes nothing beats spending time in the game itself and actually seeing how the players have been using the skills and abilities you have provided for them. Players are nothing if not inventive and they never cease to surprise designers with their ingenuity, so it is vital that the designers are also watching and learning themselves.

Removed of their visual and aural splendor, video and computer games
are nothing more than a set of complex, interlocking systems and href="">algorithms.
Just how many of these are you experiencing on a regular
basis?  Several - it turns out.  For example,
there are programs to determine how much damage you cause with
a single hit, how far you can jump, how tough your enemy should be, and
how the animation plays out when you land at whatever point the program
determines you should land. And, MMORPGs are probably the most complex
programming framework among the games that are out there because so
much of the decision making is left in the hands of the player. The
game must have a set of algorithms that respond to, and factor in your
every move.

At the heart of every online game is the concept of balance. Balance
appeals to all of our notions of fairness and fun; it makes the boss
mob finally beatable or the ignoble defeat a teaching moment. Combined
with good information, it helps us decide what player or mob to attack
successfully, and which would be pure suicide. And yet, it’s
the most unstable of all game concepts, where changes to almost any
aspect of the game - changes in a single spell, item, even crafting and
the economy - can affect this balance in profound ways.

alt="" style="border: 0px solid ;" border="0">

Morrison, Funcom

The player’s perception of imbalance has been the fatal (or
nearly fatal) tipping point (haha--pun intended...) for more than a few
MMORPGs. We chose this feature topic in hopes that one MMOG that has
suffered from more than its share of balance concerns would come on and
clear the air, but sadly Mythic didn’t respond to our
repeated requests for a brief interview. Our selected panelists more
than made up for the shortfall, though, and we were more than pleased
to chat with Craig Morrison, Game Director for style="font-style: italic;">Age of Conan; James
Laird, PvP Designer for Champions
; Brian Urbanek, Powers Designer for style="font-style: italic;">Champions Online;
and Todd Harris, Executive Producer of style="font-style: italic;">Global Agenda.
These devs represent both traditional and emergent MMOG ideals, both
the heavily classed and the class-less character development concepts,
not to mention decades of design experience between them.

Growing Complexities

It wasn’t so long ago that MMORPGs followed a fairly
straightforward character advancement scheme based largely on their
pencil-and-paper precursors. Put simply, new levels simply meant new
items, new abilities, and more stats. This approach kept the math
fairly simple, and many MMO game designers honed their craft by
mastering the balancing intricacies involved in systems that seem
fairly basic by today’s standards.

A storm of complexity was on the horizon, however, and the first few
hesitating raindrops that fell were in the form of item proliferation.
While more than a few online games recognized the inherent coolness of
an ever-escalating progression of items and items sets that looked as
powerful as they were, it was EverQuest
that rendered these item sets with enough 3D graphical quality to show
the incredible motivational power of an item whose actual existence was
limited to bits and bytes. Armor sets with names like rubicite,
adamantine, lambent, and ivy-etched were the status symbols of Norrath
until they were replaced with other more epic and powerful (if not
necessarily more meaningful or more stylish) items.

No MMOG has failed to capitalize on the player community’s
consummate love affair with items since, but the familiar paradigm of
armor, weapons, and jewelry might be called different things in
different games. Global
refers to these equipable items as
“implants.”  style="font-style: italic;">Champions Online
calls them “upgrades,” with a special subcategory
of “power replacement upgrades” that potentially
alter powers in addition to providing stats.  style="font-style: italic;">Champions Online
has also formulated clickable devices, which powers designer Brian
Urbanek says “were made, very intentionally, to be panic

src="">No matter
their function, a carelessly spec'd item has the potential to imbalance
the game (for an extreme example, look no further than the style="font-style: italic;">World of Warcraft’s
“Martin Fury” href="">incident). 
To prevent a character from becoming overpowered, designers must weigh
the effect of the most powerful items available at a given level
alongside the inherent abilities of that character.

But items are just one level of complexity in today’s MMOGs.
Choice breeds complexity, and EverQuest’s
alternate advancement system - a point-buy system of further class
specialization available only to high level players - took mainstream
ideas about character advancement to a new level. The
“talent tree” that’s become something of
a staple in the MMORPGs that followed style="font-style: italic;">World of Warcraft,
is a direct descendant of EverQuest’s
concept of  "AAs."

Like Age of Conan,
Global Agenda
incorporates a fairly straightforward WoW-style talent tree where
players of each archetype - assault, recon, robotics, and medic - can
choose one of three advancement paths via the talent tree or mix their
skills from all three paths. “When we introduced talents,
that was another layer of potential exaggeration around how players
could min and max and optimize their build.” Todd explained.

If MMORPGs like WoW, Age
of Conan
, and Global
muddied the class balancing waters by adding a
substantial amount of player choice to the advancement mix with talent
trees, few MMOGs have allowed players such a huge degree of choice at
any given level as Champions
. In addition to the devices and upgrades described
above. every few levels, players are able to choose any power from the
total range of powers available in the game, meaning that style="font-style: italic;">Champions Online is
a class-less MMOG. At least on the surface.

I asked content designer James Laird how the Cryptic team is able to
even begin to mentally organize class and build options for balancing.
“I think the saving grace of the style="font-style: italic;">Champions Online
system is that creating an effective build in style="font-style: italic;">Champions Online is
about exploiting synergies between powers. So the electricity powers
add the negative ion debuff, and other electricity powers exploit that

“When you’re really looking at building a focused
character, it’s not like you have a completely wide open
smorgasbord, you have groups of powers that work well together. Of
course you’re free to mix and match those powers;
you’re free to take whatever powers you want, but in terms of
having an upper limit on how powerful your character’s going
to be for balance’s sake, we have an idea of the kinds of
synergies that are built in.”

Brian Urbanek continued the thought by pointing out another added
complexity of Champions
: roles, which work much like
“stances” in other games but also communicate your
intended role to other players. “What roles are are
simultaneous mechanics bonuses - if you go into defensive role, you
just have more hitpoints and heals are just slightly more effective for
you, but you generate energy just a little bit more slowly, your energy
decays a little more quickly, and your threat is a little bit
different, etc. What makes them interesting is that they are not just
things that are there by default. They are things that you unlock by
doing that thing. You unlock the defensive role by taking lots of
damage over time, you unlock offensive role by doing damage. Eventually
all players will unlock all 4 roles most likely, unless they play a
dedicated healer from level one to level cap and never actually solo.
We also have a mechanic where the roles auto-unlock for you once you
reach a certain level.

“[Roles] are important to us because in a game where any
player can take any power at any given time, it’s important
to be able to not only self-identify as ‘I am tank, I am DPS,
I am healer’ if you choose to, but also to be recognized by
the community that you have that skill.”

So in addition to the powers, spells, and abilities that come with
leveling, balancing a game must also take into account armor and
weapons choices, clickable items and consumables, talent choices, and
game-specific (or even class-specific) mechanics such as roles. How do
designers even begin to boil all these choices (or appearances of
choices) into decisions on how to bolster an underpowered class or nerf
an overpowered class? Let’s take a look at some of their

Tools of the Trade

While players might have legitimate feedback about what class might be
overpowered or underpowered, our experience of the game is
comparatively limited and tends to be highly subjective. Not
surprisingly, statistics and numbers play a huge role in class balance

“My tool is Microsoft Excel, 2003 version, because 2007
blows.” Champions
’s Brian Urbanek explained
with his usual candor. “The metric I use is time, because
ultimately time is the only non-arbitrary measurement.  For
how many seconds will these players survive? How many seconds does it
take for players to defeat an enemy of a given class? How many seconds
of that enemy’s class can a player sustain before they drop
over? Everything in respect to time, actually.”

Hi-Rez Studios,
makers of Global Agenda,
has a few stat tracking aces up their
collective sleeve.  “The first tool, as far as
outside of the game, is analytics and stat tracking. Really,
that’s just a big investment in capturing statistics, storing
those statistics in a data warehouse format, and then tools to report
on that data and slice and dice it in a variety of ways. This is
probably where we benefit from the fact that many of our engineers came
from enterprise software and enterprise reporting backgrounds in
addition to folks from MMO and game backgrounds, because a lot of that
is about storing huge amounts of data in a way that you can do fast
reporting on it and using OLAP tools to look at that data in a lot of
different ways.”

Craig Morrison explained that numbers play a key role in style="font-style: italic;">Age of Conan
class balancing, but was careful to note the human element too.
“It is part science and part intuition and experience I
think. We do, of course, have all the kind of
‘spreadsheet’ work in the back-end and development
tools that calculate as many of the possible parameters as possible. On
top of that, though, you then have the knowledge and skill of the
designers involved.

“Working with a system, you have the general overview of how
things interact and how players tend to behave in your game...
Sometimes nothing beats spending time in the game itself and actually
seeing how the players have been using the skills and abilities you
have provided for them. Players are nothing if not inventive and they
never cease to surprise designers with their ingenuity, so it is vital
that the designers are also watching and learning themselves.

src="">But what
numbers do designers look at specifically to judge the
effectiveness (or unacceptable überness) of a class? Our
panelists answers were guarded on this point, and we can’t
blame them for not being willing to give away their own recipe for the
secret sauce. Todd Harris did, however, offer us this peek behind
Global Agenda’s curtain. “The specific numbers we
look at now are the ones you’d expect: kill / death ratio and
total damage when we’re looking at classes, and when
we’re looking at items we look at the amount of time it was
used or in the player’s hand vs. the damage dealt. So one
weapon might be doing a tremendous amount of damage but it also might
be used a lot, so we can see how often it was equipped as

“Because we also have the aspect of the FPS mechanics, we
might also collect information not just on classes or devices but also
the maps or specific areas. So for any particular area, especially on
maps that are asymmetrical so there’s an attack / defend
mechanism, what’s the win / loss ratio for that map and where
are the hotspots in the map where players are dying often or making
most of their kills. And that’s important to us as

Brian noted that he’s partial to a fairly formulaic approach
to numbers when talking class balance. “I start with a
baseline value, the statistics that a player has. I then intend and
dictate for players to improve their total performance through items by
30%. Then I derive what 30% actually means. For example, it is possible
through statistics for a player to increase their total performance by
60%. Half of that 60% comes through items, because half of your total
stats comes from items.”

So, with Microsoft Excel (2003) loaded on your computer, a working
knowledge of statistics and analysis, and a hugely comprehensive data
set, you could be well on your way towards discovering how the pros
understand, analyze, and balance their games.

But as we all learned in middle school, unless we control the way in
which we limit our variables, any level of experimenting can often
result in skewed outcomes. How do developers control the variables in
the wide-open testing environment of the MMORPG, where focusing too
hard on a specific aspect of the testing environment might cut that
aspect off from a wide variety of other variables that affect it in a
fundamental way? The answer might surprise you, in the

Taking It to Extremes

Urbanek explained his first steps toward class balancing see him
pushing the functionality of the character to their natural limits.
“My personal approach tends to be to find the extremes and
make sure the extremes are balanced and fun. So to put together the
most offensively DPS character that we could possibly build, then to
put together the most healing-oriented character we could build, and
then the most intensely tanking player and the most useful utility
player we could build.

“We want to make sure that those four extremes are
equally valued, approximately equally fun options to play - the theory
being that once the limits of the system, the outer edges of the
system are in balance, everything else will fall inside that envelope
and, at the minimum, won’t break anything, will be fun to
and can be tweaked as we go along.”

Todd Harris’s Global
team has a similar top-down
approach. “At a high level we want each class to be
interesting and fulfill a different role, so that does mean that the
metrics may be different. Early on, we had a concept of contribution
points, and early on we made this visible to players as well, but now
it’s not. It basically was an attempt to equalize the
contribution towards winning a match regardless of class. Healing would
get points, assists would get points, defending an objective would get
points. It’s not something that players see now, they just
see the individual statistics.”

Reasonable Expectations and Accommodating Newbishness

Of course, not every or even most characters will get the best and most
of everything available before structural inadequacies and imbalances
rears their ugly heads. These might be planned inadequacies - such as
when a level 12 is facing off against a level 19 in a tier one PvP
instance or a level 27 is trying to solo a level 30 and up dungeon - or
they might be of the unintentional variety.

solve the easy one first. Most of today’s
MMOGs offer some sort of href="">mechanic
that allows newer players to pal
around with their older, wiser pals. Call it sidekicking or mentoring,
Brian calls it smart, and believes in getting players to participate
regardless of level,  especially in PvP. “Balancing
for differences in levels is the kind of thing you do with
meta-systems, not direct systems. What you do is you make sure that it
doesn’t turn into a death spiral where the people who win get
more rewards faster and just keep getting better. You make sure the
rewards you give just for participating are enough to keep players
coming back and eventually close the distance.”

However balanced a class might be, Craig noted that some perceived
imbalances between classes are due to inherent and desired differences
in skill level required. “In terms of accommodating a range
of player skills in a class based systems you usually do that by the
difficulty of the class mechanics themselves. Some classes are, often
by design, inherently easier to master and play because they use
simpler or more straightforward mechanics. This is not always a bad
thing as it does allow for there to be some classes that more novice or
newer players can pick up and contribute with. At a top level, of
that also means that those who see that as an
‘imbalance’ don’t always appreciate the
fact that a class can be ‘easier’ than another, but
within the framework of an RPG system, where some classes are harder to
master, it is also important to provide options that are a little more
forgiving, at least on a situational basis.”

Todd explained that for Global Agenda, it was an iterative process of
fun first, then came the math. “When we introduced the talent
tree, we actually did a normalization exercise across all the weapons
then so that from a math / formula based approach - things like how
much energy they were all using per unit of damage or healing - we were
starting from a firm math-based foundation. That was good and healthy
for us, because that’s not actually how we started. We
started more just designing things that were fun and had a really good
feel. Then we did a lot of hand tuning on the balance again.”

Achieving Balance

The next question up for debate was this: since balance is so elusive:
how do devs  know when they’ve done all that they
can possibly do with class balance? When is enough enough?

Craig noted that some imperfections in balance actually contribute to
balance when viewed through the lens of the entire game. “ I
think with any game that has an RPG system and, as mentioned above,
for different levels of knowledge and skill, you will always have some
kinds of inherent ‘imbalances’, or at least things
that are more or less forgiving depending on the situation. 
What you strive for is that all the classes have a meaningful role in
any given situation (be it PvP, Raiding or PvE) that provides the
player with motivation and rewards their success. You want to achieve a
situation where the players taking part feel that they are contributing
to the success or failure of their chosen endeavor.”

The PvE experience, we can assume, is much easier to keep in balance
because half of the experience is either scripted (in the case of raids
and dungeons), or formulaically adapted to the players (in open PvE).
That being the case, Craig and Todd were also quick to add that when
Age of Conan
and Global Agenda
devs talk balance, they’re
talking about balance across groups of players specifically in PvP.

From Craig: “For Age
of Conan,
for example, we don’t
specifically balance for all one versus one combination of classes
because our PvP content is built around group co-operation. So in a
straight up duel there might be classes that are more likely to win
much more often against a specific other class, but in an open PvP
situation where all the classes skills and abilities come into play,
all the classes should have a role and the ability to contribute to
their team.”

From Todd: "For us, really the balance equilibrium that
we’re working towards is effectiveness toward winning a team
mission, not one-on-ones. That does mean that there are a lot of cases
that are situational, where a class just got caught in the wrong spot
or at the wrong time or with the wrong off-hands on cool-down, that
sort of thing."

added that one of the fundaments for the PvP
team was to make sure that every single power had something impactful
to offer in PvP. “We put a strenuous amount of time into all
our powers, making sure that they are useful in PvP. A classic example
is “taunt.” Taunt is a power that in most MMOGs is
useless in PvP. Well, we didn’t want to do that. So taunt is
something you buy, it’s not a power in and of itself -
it’s an advantage you apply it to another existing power. We
tried to make it be similar in its effect. If you throw taunt on a PvE
enemy, it works as you expect - it forces him to attack you for a few
seconds. If you use it on a player, it has two effects. It breaks their
block if they’re using block (which everyone has natively and
is extremely effective), and it puts a debuff on them which causes them
to do reduced damage to anyone but you.

“When players do PvE - maybe because it’s best
practices, maybe it’s because it’s what
they’re used to - they tend to self-select into familiar
roles. When players do PvP, they tend to go for a very broad spectrum
of powers as opposed to really centralizing. Frankly, I don’t
mind. I want PvP environments to be as organic as possible.
I’m a firm believer that attempting to impose order on that
would be to defeat all the purpose in doing it.” The
balancing act in PvP is, therefore, something of a disappearing act.
“The active theory is that by making sure that the actual
contest stays as visibly skill based as possible, then winning is
bloody well its own reward.”

With any game offering players substantive control over the powers,
spells, and abilities they can equip, are you bound to have two
extremes: the gimped and the overpowered? Brian seemed to think so, so
I asked whether or not it was possible to create a totally gimped
character in Champions
. His answer?
“Absolutely.” He noted that if you stay within the
frameworks, you will have a more than viable character. If you think of
a bell curve, frameworks occupy the fattest part of the curve (more or
less useful depending on the situation - e.g. gadgeteering framework is
excellent at raid support and PvP roles while the high DPS martial arts
or fire framework is excellent at soloing), while custom user
frameworks have the potential to occupy the long tails on either side
of the bell curve, for good or ill.

That said, Brian noted that a gimped character, in actuality, would
probably be one that hasn’t spent all of his or her training
points, and if he or she really had, they’d have to make a
fairly concerted non-random effort to gimp themselves.

If all this talk of bell curves is giving you community college
flashbacks, Todd Harris explained that his team uses straight math to
know that the classes of Global
have achieved something like
perfect balance: “We’d know that we nailed team
balance if the team composition was two assault, two
medic, two robotic, two
recon and two 'other' - where agencies are choosing
those other two based on strategy. I think we’ll see a lot of
other variations besides that; we’ll hopefully see ten
robotics in one case or eight recons and an assault and a medic.
That’s where a lot of the fun is for us as designers and a
dev team. Because it’s such an emergent game, we do hope
to see some surprises there.

“As far as what we’re trying to get, though, since
we’re trying to have all these classes become viable and
contributing, the “by the book” answer is that
we’d like to see at least two of each class on every team of
ten at the point when players are choosing for themselves what gives
them the best chance of winning.”

As for a final, more chaotic word on achieving balance, I turned to
Brian, who isn’t afraid to use the n-word. “[PvP in
Champions Online]
is a great laboratory for me. If any combination [of
powers] becomes too prevalent, I immediately nerf the hell out of it. I
want to make other stuff be as appealing.” So a bit of
discord indicates that you’re approaching balance, then?
“If all the players come to agreement, then I have

Lessons Learned

Aside from analytics, formulas, spreadsheets, and all the numerical
methods and rules of thumb that designers use, the panelists also had
some helpful hints and lessons learned for dealing with the human side
of the equation. These might be geared more towards fellow designers,
but players will note how many successful MMOs follow most or all of
these precepts and how many unsuccessful ones don’t,
didn’t, or simply went through the motions without any real

- Communicate with (and challenge) the players

“I believe
that when players at least see progress and adjustments (even if they
don’t agree with each and every change) it does give them
confidence that the issues aren’t being ignored. We strive to
make sure that we are always working on things in that regard. Having
the test servers helps tremendously as players can also see what is
coming and try it out in order to give their feedback.” -
Craig Morrison

“So one of our
biggest challenges to our beta players that
call a class overpowered is that we’ll often challenge them
play that overpowered class themselves and come back to us. When
they’ve played it and they think it’s overpowered,
then that’s the kind of feedback we’ll listen to
and believe rather than someone losing to someone else.” -
Todd Harris

- Embrace the “Flavor of the Month,” then move
past it

“I think
you’re always going to have a 'flavor of the month,' but
it’s always
replaced by the flavor of the next month. I think that’s
natural and healthy. We post various power sets on our forums, and
every power set we post, there’s a few replies saying that
‘I need to change my mind and use this power set because this
is the most awesome power set we have.’ The next one comes
out and ‘No, this is the most awesome power set.’
We see that in-game too; it’s very gratifying.” -
James Laird

- Mix It UP

also taken some steps to
subvert perceived limitations. For example, for some demons, the best
tank in the game is, without question, a purely fire-aspected character
who is normally hopeless at tanking but really, really good at DPS. His
turning his body into fire makes him 90% immune to incoming fire
damage, which would normally burn through the damage resistance of a
might-type character. A might guy can handle it, but all the sudden, a
fire guy becomes your best tank at fighting fire demons.” -
Brian Urbanek

- You have to play to win

“I think the
most important
lesson I have learned from all the class balance discussions and work I
have been involved in is thus to always iterate as fast as you can. The
ideas and concepts will generally improve with each attempt.
Don’t over-think the first versions. If you have a good
concept, get a version out there for you to test and see what the
impact is... There will usually be something you didn’t
consider, or an element of the game someone else has greater experience
with than you that might affect your design. A good designer is always
open to taking feedback and allowing themselves to evolve any given
idea, even if it isn’t in the direction they personally
originally imagined it might end up in.” - Craig Morrison

“We do play a
lot, and even though you can’t cover
every permutation, when you play every day and you have a variety of
new players and inexperienced players playing every day, that certainly
does help a lot.” - Todd Harris

Fun First

“We wanted to
get the cool things in first,
worry about things being over-powered a little bit later
(we’re beyond that now) - but I think that’s led to
a broader number of weapons and weapons that are more fun. Fun comes
first, but we also gave ourselves a lot of tools to tweak balance later
and for all time.” - Todd Harris

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