A Brief Discussion of Class Balance in MMO

When it comes to ‘balance’ in a game, everyone is an arm-chair developer.  Reading forums, you’d think that creating class balance was the easiest thing in the world, and it would be so obvious when class balance is off.  That rogue who can stock lock you for 4.5 seconds once every 10 minutes is clearly overpowered!  Healers shouldn’t be able to heal themselves in PvP because it’s unbalanced and they can’t be killed.  There are a thousand examples that anyone with keyboard and a tenuous grasp on the English language will give you, often whether you want them or not.

Class balance isn’t easy. But one thing is obvious–everyone has a different idea of what “balance” in a game means.  If you ask someone to define game balance or class balance, you’ll get different answers from everyone you ask.  We don’t have a common understanding of what balance actually means.  So, I created a very rough framework to help us talk about class balance using the same understanding.

Class Balance whaaaa

The best place to start to define the concept of balance.  I personally like this definition that I took from techopedia.com:

Game balance is a video game design concept where the strengths of a character or a particular strategy are offset by a proportional drawback in another area to prevent domination of one character or gaming approach.

I think this definition encapsulates the gist of balance, but I also think its leaves out an important factor — scope. I added two concepts the address the scope of balance – internal balance and external balance.

Internal balance is having a player class that is balanced around itself.  While there are ‘flavor’ differences, the highs and lows of a specific class are smoothed out, allowing for a character that can respond relatively the same in almost all situations.  The focus is on creating a class that is balanced and can be effective in nearly every situation.

External balance is having a player-class model that is balanced.  This results in classes that have flavors, but also more pronounced highs and lows.  With external balance, the focus specializing in one or two specific areas, but with corresponding deficiencies in other areas.  The external focus is that each class is intentionally, internally unbalanced to create a better balance between different classes.

These exist in every game.  But there’s a constant tension there.  If you have too much internal balance within a class, it never needs to interact with other classes.  If you have two much external balance, classes are overly reliant on each to accomplish anything in the game.  Both extremes are bad gameplay design.  Let’s check out two examples of internal and external balance.

Internal Balance

WoW started with more of an external balance philosophy, where there were checks and balances throughout the entire class balance model.  But as they pushed their “bring the player, not the class” agenda, they began to skew towards classes that were internally balanced and could perform in almost all situations.  Classes began to lose distinction as they were overhauled to be able to meet the new design goal of being desirable in all situations (really, not less desirable than any other class).  Inter-player reliance diminished as damage playstyles became more viable for healers, and damage / tanks were given self-heals to make them less reliant on healers.

The result was that WoW largely homogenized their classes to a holy quadrangle – Tank, Healer, Melee DPS, and Ranged DPS.  Distinctions beyond those 4 archetypes are pointless in the WoW class paradigm.  There is no benefit to a rogue over a warrior, a mage over a hunter, a shaman over a druid.  Classes have different flavors and play slightly differently, but are interchangeable within their archetype.

External Balance

On the other side of the spectrum, in Anarchy Online one of the classes was a Bureaucrat, which was very weak in combat, but provided great bonuses as part of a group (usually through XP bonuses).  So, while a ‘crat got destroyed in 1-on-1 combat, it was still one of the most desired classes to have in your group because of the bonuses it provided.  Internally, the class was ‘unbalanced’, but externally it fit to a larger scope of balance. There were some situations where playing a Bureaucrat put you  at a huge disadvantage while other situations the ‘crat was a rockstar and highly desirable.

In Anarchy, this focus on external balance resulted in a class model where no one class was considered to be the best, and so demand for certain classes increased because of their situational expertise.  The archetypes that we see in modern game design isn’t as prevalent because it’s not as easy to fit classes into restrictive archetypes. The unintended result is that certain classes are harder to play than others depending on the spread of their highs & lows within a class.  Those who are weaker in combat, like the Bureaucrat, are generally harder to play because it requires more strategic play from the character and less bruteforce game play.

The Rub

In the post-WoW world, the continuum of balance has skewed very far into the internal balance state — each class being roughly equivalent in all situations.  This results in an external balance, but there’s less identity and distinctiveness between classes as the paradigm shifts from unique classes to fitting all classes into one of the larger archetypes in the holy triangle or quadrangle, depending on how you group.  Many games have adopted this skew to internal balance following in WoW’s footsteps, which results in meta-balance: classes between games become largely indistinguishable from each other.  A priest in one game plays almost exactly the same as a priest in another game. Sometimes, this is good.  A player can come into a new game, and have a set of expectations about a given class based on their experience in other games.

But it also stifles creativity as distinctive classes, without a point-of-reference, are passed over for known archetypes.


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