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On the Head of a Pin

July 19, 2011

Dear Reader,

Recently, Typhoon Andrew wrote an excellent post about balance in relation to GC’s post on the same topic.  It got me thinking about balance in WoW and in life.  Balance is one of my key beliefs, in fact, and I strive to maintain a sense of balance in all aspects of my life.  I’m sure, like all of us, that I largely fail, but I think it’s the struggle that matters, at least in this one specific case.

In my own role playing games, I try to keep a strong sense of balance.  I keep character creation tightly reigned in so that no one finds game-breaking combinations that make his character “better” than others.

(Incidentally, I don’t know if I’ve bragged about this before (and bragged may not even be the right word), but check this out.  That question was posed by my good buddy, egged on by me, as a result of horribly imbalanced game situations.  You can have internet fame and be totally anonymous at the same time).

The major difference between my Pen and Paper games and WoW is, of course, the amount of class vs. class combat we see.  In WoW, one of the two major end-game features is PvP.  In my RPGs, it rarely happens.  So the entire idea of class balance is different between the two types of games.  In PvE or in a PnP RPG, the main problem with imbalance is players feeling like they’re not contributing or feeling jealous of other players who brag about their abilities but who may have not earned the right to brag.  In any dungeon where I see a feral druid at the top of the charts, I know that guy is a great player.  On the other hand, I see mages bragging about topping the charts on my shammy all the time.  Of course they are; they’re just spamming Arcane Blast over and over!

In any game with significant PvP, the need for balance is far greater.  Having imbalance can actually harm the credibility of the game system itself; look at how many people were upset about frost mages in the last arena season (until it became apparent that they could be beaten with a good strategy).  Some people lost a little faith in the system itself as a result.  That loss of faith translates to frustration, and that frustration leads to a more toxic community.  So when we talk about balance, then, we also need to consider what the goals of balance are: to reward people of equal skill with equal feelings of contribution or to keep the game system viable.  As I said before, I don’t know that balance is really a possible outcome, but that the struggle to attain it is what’s important.

I think that same idea works for WoW, too.  The game may be more balanced than it’s ever been, but I feel like that statement is analogous to the cheapest that diamonds have ever been.  It’s not really saying that much.  The game is not balanced.  There are classes that are consistently at the top of the dps charts.  There are others that are only infrequently there, and only due to the skills of the player.  That means that while every class may be able to do top damage, the difficulty to do so is varied, and, thus, imbalanced.

And that’s fine, really, and WoW should be up front about it.  There’s no reason that the character creation screen or the talent tree choice screen couldn’t include a difficulty information box.  “If you’re looking for a challenging rotation with some fun mechanics, then feral druids are for you!”  “If you want to face melt opponents with ease, arcane mage is for you!  On the other hand, if you want to do amazing dps but have a tough rotation with a lot of moving parts, consider fire mage!”  Honesty is the best policy, after all.  I know there’s plenty of players who would choose more difficult rotations as a badge of honor, and Blizz acknowledging the varying difficulties would also be a move towards getting away from a solely math-driven approach (a very small move, admittedly, but a move at least).

So not too sounds to goblinish, but when I see GC patting himself on the back about the game’s balance, I really see him trying to tell the vocal-minority, whining player base what he thinks they want to hear.  It seems more like a marketing move than a real analysis.  That’s not to say he hasn’t made a lot of good observations; as Rohan pointed out, there have been beneficial communications with the Devs, but the most recent crop (this GC comment included) really haven’t been among them.

So to sum up, balance is an important issue and deserves the attention of the players and the devs.  However, the game cannot and will not ever be fully and completely balanced unless they homogenize every class (a direction they’ve been moving, which explains GC’s feeling).  In their attempts to achieve balance, though, we can all have meaningful discussions of what we want from the game and the vision we have of the game’s future, which will benefit the entire community.  Balance isn’t an end, it’s a mean.


Stubborn (who has good balance, probably due to his low center of gravity)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2011 5:45 pm

    Glad you got something out of the post – flattery is wonderful.

    In pnp rpgs I’ve seen imbalance in classes used between players as a form of intimidation. eg. the Fighter in the group decides to go left, and the party follow as he is the meat shield and can slap them around at low levels. Kind of a default power position in a team, where the others follow what is safe.
    It was never really about the class though, as the same player would probably rule the game direction regardless of class. Bring the player not the class? Probably.

    • July 19, 2011 6:10 pm

      I’ve seen the same thing; players who dominate regardless of what they’re playing. In one of the horribly imbalanced games I played in, we had an epic level monk (level 22 by the end of the campaign) with a group of other characters ranging from 16-20. It was pointless to be there most of the time, and we followed him, as you say, because separating from him could lead to a quick demise if we ran into a challenge “balanced” for him.

      The same player chose to play bard in a campaign I was running. We had 5 players, so there was room for a support role, but he still frequently took the lead in things. He wasn’t a bad player at all, but he did make a lot of the decisions for the group.

  2. July 20, 2011 2:39 am

    Keeping my opinion short (for once!): I think balance is overrated and makes for boring games. too much unbalance is bad, but too much balance is too. WoW is a perfect example. players have wonderful skills to work around balance issues – maybe it makes for some rough edges in design, but rough edges add character to a game.

    Nils wrote about this not long ago, so I hope you dont mind me adding the ref url:
    I also very much second Tesh in the comment section.

    • July 20, 2011 1:48 pm

      I’m not sure it’s overrated, but I would say that it’s misunderstood. I certainly dislike how Blizzard manages balance, which frequently seems simply to be to homogenize more, a tendency I hate and think is partially ruining the game. I, too, like the rough edges that appear sometimes, but the act of correcting those rough edges I think is part of the evolutionary process of a game, which is why I say striving for balance is more important than achieving it. Thanks also for the link; you never need to apologize for linking something here, your blog or someone else’s. It’s always welcome.

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