The Balancing Act: The Challenges of Class Balance in MMOGs

Updated Thu, Dec 17, 2009 by Ethec

Removed of their visual and aural splendor, video and computer games are nothing more than a set of complex, interlocking systems and 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.

Craig 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 Age of Conan; James Laird, PvP Designer for Champions Online; Brian Urbanek, Powers Designer for Champions Online; and Todd Harris, Executive Producer of 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 Agenda refers to these equipable items as “implants.”  Champions Online calls them “upgrades,” with a special subcategory of “power replacement upgrades” that potentially alter powers in addition to providing stats.  Champions Online has also formulated clickable devices, which powers designer Brian Urbanek says “were made, very intentionally, to be panic buttons.”

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 World of Warcraft’s “Martin Fury” 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 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 Agenda 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 Online. 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 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 Champions Online system is that creating an effective build in Champions Online is about exploiting synergies between powers. So the electricity powers add the negative ion debuff, and other electricity powers exploit that debuff.

“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 Online: 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.

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