How Do Developers Determine Class Balance?
It’s a genuine question that I’d love to hear the thoughts of developers and designers on (I’m assuming my blog is muchly discussed around the lunch table at Blizzard, SOE and other gaming establishments). As a long time MMOer, I’m very much aware of the pains and difficulties in getting classes properly balanced and all it takes are tiny little changes or additions to the game to throw everything out of kilter. It seems to me that there’s no exact science as to how to solve this age old mystery and I can’t help but wonder how the creators deal with it.
I know from my Everquest days (I was a proud champion of the Berserker underdog) that devs can (and do) use meters and metrics to collect and analyse data. For instance, no doubt they can set up controlled gaming environment and parse DPS charts until their hearts are content and thus determine if a class has “suitable” DPS or not. Obviously it’s a flawed system though as it doesn’t take into account real life factors like skill or teamwork and it must be very hard to deal with – if it not completely impossible – every permutation of item, weapon and Talent or Alternative Advancement ability. Plus, how does one even begin to measure something like a class’ ability to tank or their potency in PvP? I’m not sure a graph would help much with those scenarios.
Another technique that a lot of MMOs employ (SOE did this very well) is listen to player feedback via the forums and even appoint a community representative to help collect and compile issues and wish lists. This seems like it can be very effective at helping to balance classes but unfortunately it relies on having a willing community and sensible feedback. Regardless, it also usually ends up as a case of one side’s opinion versus the other’s when the community reckons something’s underpowered but the devs’ test metrics are saying it’s fine. I witnessed this a lot with the Berserker class in EQ and it took a long time for much needed improvements to creep into the game.
If there are other ways that devs determine class balance then I’d love to know. I’m particularly curious to find out if and how MMO designers and developers play their own classes and how they prevent bias towards them. Plus do they bother playing classes right from the beginning of the game over and over again? I only ask that because I’ve the found leveling experience varies radically depending on the class in WoW. Hunters and Warriors, for instance, are super easy whereas trying to get a Priest through the mid-teens and twenties is a painful process. The same goes for PvP and some classes are incredibly powerful at lower levels but weaker at higher ones which makes me wonder where all of that fits into the class balance life cycle.