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Thinking Virtually

#46: The Balance Bother

by Shannon Appelcline
March 4, 2002

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Problem #4: The Balance Bother

Another problem that has plagued all sorts of RPGs for ages is that of game balance. The basic question is: how do you balance different players in a fair way?

In MCRPGs you have to balance different character types or classes, just like you do in tabletop role-playing games, but you also have to try and figure out how to balance entirely different styles of gameplay. How do you make fighters and bakers equally happy? The question of "nerfing" also comes up in MCRPG game balance discussions.

From Thinking Virtually #32, Five Things I Hate About You: Engineering Problems

For a few months now I've been talking about engineering problems in the multiplayer computer roleplaying game (MCRPG) genre--those issues that you run into when you try and put hand to computer and convert ideas into code. This time around I'm starting the conversation on the fourth of my big five topics: balance.

TRPGs v. MCRPGs: The Balance Battle

Balance is an issue in the tabletop RPG (TRPG) market. In general if you're designing a game which allows for a multitude of character types, you don't want any type to be too much more powerful than the others. Still, in ye olden days of AD&Dv1 most of us agreed that if you were playing a cleric you were getting the short end of the stick. But there was always someone willing to play that class, usually without too much whining or bitching.

Why? Generally TRPGs have a few things going for them that downgrade the importance of balance:

  1. The goal of TRPGs tends to be roleplaying, not advancement. Sure, you can always find some people who are playing a RPG solely to get their eeps or ex-pees or checks. But, I think and hope, the vast majority of TRPGers are there to put themselves into alternative personas and have fun.
  2. TRPGs tend to be more cooperative than competitive. Again, I could find exceptions. Paranoia, for example, is a highly competitive game. And, in my much younger days, I remember playing death-match AD&D games which were a total kick. However for the most part TRPGs are about working together toward common goals, and because of that it's a little less important if your character does better than the other.
  3. Some TRPGs short-circuit the individual-experience-for-individual-skill paradigm. I've played games of AD&Dv1 where, other than a few individual awards, most of the experience was divided evenly between all the players. Likewise, there have been games like WEG's Star Wars where experience was based on good roleplaying and good ideas, not on skill success

I'm certain there are other factors, but the bottom line is that many TRPGs tend to deemphasize individual reward and deemphasize individual success, and by doing so make balance less of an issue. It's OK if that crazy Wookie is a considerably better combat machine than your negotiator if both of you have an equal chance of coming out of the game with similar amounts of gain.

MCRPGs are an entirely different kettle of fish.

Although people can enjoy good roleplaying in MCRPGs, and there are games that try to encourage this, from Ultima Online to Skotos' own Castle Marrach, it just doesn't tend to have the same emphasis. Instead you get emphasis on competition and achievement, and those things tend to require a more balanced world. The issue of dynamism, which I'm going to talk about in April, is also intertwined.

Consider, for example, what you get to do in the two different mediums. In a TRPG you're constantly going out and visiting new places and meeting new people, bounded only by your gamemaster's imagination. In a MCRPG world, on the other hand, there's a limited supply of precreated locales. And, typically, access to these locales is restricted by how good you are--by whether your character can survive the locale. So, in order to go and visit new and exciting places, you have to achieve--to get better. It's just one of many reasons that a player in MCRPGs is tempted to always increase their experience as fast as possible.

Unfortunately some of the TRPG methods used to downplay achievement just don't work in MCRPGs. In particular:

  • Group experience is difficult to divide. Many games do allow players to "band" together and thus share experience when a particular monster is killed, but this is always a short-term thing. Player logins, and thus groupings, are so fluid that there's no way to constantly divide experience up between players, short of developing communism--where everyone logged into a game gets a share of the experience being generated ... and that would cause problems all its own.
  • Non-achievement-based experience is hard to arbitrate. As with TRPGs, the balance problem in MCRPGs could be largely alleviated if you instead gave experience for roleplaying or other things not directly related to power. But, gamemaster to player ratios are necessarily high in MCRPGs, and thus you really can't have players be dependent on the scant gamemasters for their rewards.

You put all this together and you end up with some really annoying trends in MCRPGs. Some people will always play each character class that you offer, because there are many people who want to roleplay or enjoy different perspectives. But, you'll end up with a much larger number of people who instead will turn to whichever class they think is the most powerful. In fact, games like EverQuest have seen weird migrations from one character class to another as power level subtly shifted.

As a result game balance, which is a pretty decent idea in TRPGs, is absolutely critical in MCRPGs as they tend to exist currently.

What to Balance in MCRPGs

Balance is something that you're going to need to think about in almost every single stage of engineering work for an MCRPG. Innately, your magic system and physical combat system don't have to be balanced. But, if you're going to have some characters (fighters) who have access to the physical combat system and others (magicians) with access to the magic system, they at least have to be in the same ballpark. (The rest of the balance will be taken care of by determining each class' access to their system, including restrictions and costs.)

When you're working on balance, the main thing to balance is that ability that each character class has to achieve--to gain the tokens which are valuable within your game. I've seen some designers who think that just means balancing how good different classes are in combat. That's a pretty simplistic view, but sadly one that's not totally inappropriate for many of the MCRPGs out there. Combat tends to be at the heart of most of those games' level/level/level rat races. But, there are lots of other value tokens out there, and if you have a fully rounded game, different classes can be good at different categories, including:

  • The ability to beat up monsters.
  • The ability to make money.
  • The ability to create new things.
  • The ability to gain recognition and renown.
  • The ability to influence the direction of the game.

As a game designer you also have the ability to throw intangibles into the balance equation. If a certain class is really fun to play and if it has abilities which are really cool and interesting that in itself will provide balance against some of the more direct attainment of value tokens.

Of course having all of these variables makes balance a lot harder. You can no longer stick character classes into a statistical QA test-to-destruction to see if they all achieve the exact same percentage of combat victories ... because a bunch of different tangibles and intangibles are all part of your equation.

Ultimately in the MCRPG world there's only one real way to determine if classes are balanced: see how many players are playing each of them.

That last statement, I hope, makes it somewhat obvious that to a certain extent balance is a myth. Different classes (or styles of play) don't actually have to have the same achievement potential. Rather they need to have the same fun potential.

The Uniqueness Loophole

While I'm claiming that balance isn't entirely required, I'd like to point out one other area where it becomes irrelevant. If two different character classes have totally different abilities and can do totally different things (and they're both fun), you don't actually have to balance them.

Different people being valuable because they have different skills ... it's almost like real life.

The Problems with Nerfing

Before I totally close up this week I want to touch upon the idea of "nerfing". The name, of course, comes from those harmless toys that can be used to shoot, bonk, and otherwise zap your friends and family.

In MCRPGs it's what happens when a too-powerful ability/class/race/whatever is toned down. In other words it's the act of game balancing, live in an existing gameworld. I don't really have too much to say about nerfing other than:

  • It will happen.
  • It's OK that it happens, because you can't make many game design decisions until you see players really playing.
  • But you should also try and minimize it.
  • because nerfing will tend to piss players off.

And that's it ...

Alternative Views

This time I've got three different articles lined up discussing different elements of The Balance Bother:

  • The Digital Ceiling. by Sam Witt. If you accept my hypothesis that the big problem with balance is the requirement for leveling and achievement in games, then the obvious solution is to get rid of those entirely. Sam offers some suggestions on how to do so.
  • The Myth of Balance. by Sam Witt. And Sam also has some more general ideas about why balance shouldn't be an issue at all.
  • Dirty Words: Balance. by Travis Casey. Finally Travis has his own ideas about what balance is and what should be done with it.

And, after that all, we'll have the big tee-vee 5-0 falling on the big 4-slash-1. Hopefully you'll be amused by the results ... TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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