Monday, November 3, 2008

No such thing as balance?

After trying for a full weekend to score a kill on a shadow of doom, failing miserably and wasting 80+ shards on the whole thing because some asshat always tags my kills before I can I decided to curse the whole thing to hell and start reading some random bloggage...

and I don't think I ever saw the words 'nerf' and 'balance' used to such an extreme extend as in the last period (ok so I wasn't here when TBC was introduced).

So let's talk a bit about this thing we refer to as 'balance'. By definition balance indicates that the sum-total of all the variables on side A needs to be equal to the sum-total of all variables on side B. Simple enough...

So if Player A is capable of killing player B in 10 seconds flat then player B should equally be able to kill player A in 10 seconds flat. Of course in games the function becomes more complicated by introducing more variables such as hitpoints, healing abilities and extra damage ability.

This doesn't necessarily change things... player A should still be able to kill player B in 10 seconds flat and vice versa. But it does get more complicated when player B has half the health pool, double the damage but can also toss in a heal for half his health over 5 seconds.

Balance is when the net result is 0, when two classes that are 'perfectly' played in the end either never manage to kill each other or kill each other simultaneously.

You can see how things get complicated really quick when you add in things like global cooldowns, internal cooldowns, cast times and various talents that affect both survivability as well as offensive power over different classes that have different playstyles. The thing becomes even more complicated as attribute values climb to higher numbers when all of a sudden 5% of something can be a significant amount more than it was an expansion ago.

Spreadsheet math can be applied to as many variables as you like and as a result it's very simple to say that if both class A and B can output x amount of damage / healer over a set period time they are indeed intrinsically balanced.

And this is the point where theory and practice shake hands and say goodbye to each other.
If player A has to click a button 7 times in 10 seconds to do the same damage as player B who happens to have a spell that simply takes 10 seconds to cast but does all the damage he needs this is still technically considered balanced.

After all player A can still kill player B in 10 seconds flat and vice versa. The math says things are balanced but the players say they are not.

In fact both players will say that they are at a disadvantage. Player A is complaining that he has to push buttons 7 times where player B only has to push one once and player B will say that he needs to stand around for 10 seconds to fire off his spell whereas player A can skip and dance around.

Again, the theory clearly states that this is 'balanced' in terms of DPS but what this balancing methodology doesn't take into account is a) enviromental factors such as standing in a large AoE that would probably grill you if you didn't move out of it and b) player skill and perception in which the balancing theory has to assume that both player A and player B are completely perfect people that couldn't push the wrong button if they tried and know each other to the tee.

You can't take things like that into account in theory because it complicates your math or invalidates the result (or makes it otherwise inapplicable: This spec is ideally suited for players of the ages 10-16 with an extensive background in quake arena and a preference for rocket launchers).

Add to this a thing called player perception which is significantly biased towards their own class and you get community feedback that simply doesn't accurately represent the truth.

If I as a warlock see a retribution paladin bubble up removing all my dots and then come in and kill me because he's immune to all my counters then I as a warlock could consider this OP. On the other hand if I as a pally have my bubble on cooldown and are slowed by a curse of exhaustion while the dots are eating all my HP without me being able to close in to the warlock then I'd cry 'nerf warlock'.

This scenario has nothing to do with 'balance' and everything to do with perception.
If you as a player have an innate affinity with casting a lot of instant cast spells while staying on the move you will do great with class A and not so well with class B. This does not mean that class A is better than class B it merely means that in your perception class A is better.

It is these perceptions that determine the posts on the forums and it is exactly here where developers who are more interested in the 'technical balance' don't see eye to eye with people who have practical experience but base their opinions around percieved balances.

The irony here is that neither side is wrong. If your warlock DPS is in line with all the other DPS classes then the developers will happily say it's balanced but the players who actually have to maintain an idiotic 7 button rotation to get to that DPS will call you a damned fool for thinking it is 'balanced'.

So with this in mind can we assume that there is no such thing as balance? That individual perception will always dictate the current balance and that blizzard will always be nerfing and buffing around a 'percieved' median?

And beyond that: do we really want balance? What would wow be if it were more like chess? Where everyone has the exact same options and resources available... would it be a better game?

I am inclined to think that Blizzard should focus on the playability side of things and make sure that each class has a set of unique abilities and is inherently fun to play and plays as advertised.

If nothing else a balancing act should never be a knee-jerk reaction. Are we really sure the new ret paladins were overpowered? Or was it simply the new flavor of the month that resulted in a huge increase of paladins everywhere and an unfamiliarity on how to deal with this new 'threat'? Did the Flavor of the month players move on after a month? We'll never know now... Ret is going up, down, up and down again every couple of days and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle or is it?.

Giving a change time to settle in is always a good idea. If you don't then you're really just addressing the concerns of those who cry the loudest and that my friend is no way to balance anything.


Hagu said...

My definition of balance is different; I think of your definition as more "equal time to kill." My more difficult to measure, operational definition is that two classes are balanced if two equally skilled/geared player would each win about half of the time. Because, regardless of the math, if the hunter can kill the pally 80% of the time, few would consider them balanced.

My "modest proposal" is just to eliminate PvP and then they won't have to keep changing my toons because of "balance." jk - not going to happen.

Captain The First said...

Your definition applies and pretty much has the same result as my approach except it's nearly impossible to quantify. The problem with it is that you will hardly ever find two equally geared and equally skilled players duking it out over an extended period of time and then reporting it on the forums and also know what they're talking about.

Eliminating PVP would make things easier but the problem remains the same.

Balancing is a function of time. If you don't put in enough time to let things settle then you're modifying the situation based on a current high or low in the curve which in the end will result in even more 'wild' deviations.

So in the end I suppose the only real criticism of a class is a person that learns and criticises their own class exclusively without comparing it to others.

I wonder how much forum bias contributes to incorrect balancing... maybe the game would be better if developers didn't listen to players at all :P

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Hagu said...

re " wonder how much forum bias contributes to incorrect balancing... maybe the game would be better if developers didn't listen to players at all :P"

I do not know about quality, but I strongly feel that Blizzard would be more profitable if they did not listen to the forums. I.e. all the focus on movement, more complicated shot rotations are what the developers like and appeal to the bloggeratti. My opinion is that millions of subscribers do not want that; I certainly don't.

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