How Do Developers Determine Class Balance?

Class balance in Everquest was easy. Ogre > all.

Class balance in Everquest was easy. Ogre > all.

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.

-Gordon

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18 Comments

  1. Klepsacovic says:

    It’s really quite simple. Buff every class until it has the same DPS output. Then look at the population. Whichever class is highest is clearly the most fun. Nerf that class until the population is even. This also helps players because then they can see that anyone playing that class is in it ‘for the fun’ rather than to be a useful part of the group and can avoid them with ease. It’s like a flytrap for noobs. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from history, it’s that the ideal way to ensure a sense of balance and fairness is to give everyone else someone to oppress.

  2. Well, I don’t know if I can add much to this, but I agree class balance must be really hard to deal with. I would think the best way to do this is to analyze numbers in a controlled environment and limit the variables to make comparisons, but like you’ve mentioned already there are huge problems with this, one of them being that a “controlled environment” never reflects the true nature of the game world. I also think listening to player feedback via forums also becomes a lost cause once you get to a point…like when it’s no longer worth it to sift through hundreds and hundreds of QQ posts to get to the handful that actually offer constructive feedback.

  3. Longasc says:

    It is a mix of a dice roll, massive whining on forums and their own perception.

    • Longasc says:

      On a more serious note, ArenaNet logs skill usage in pvp and their skill balancers play and watch recorded pvp matches. They are also very close to some of their alpha testers and their feedback.

      So they are logging stuff to find possible culprits. But the balancing itself is the hard part. This is very up to the style of the person in charge. Early on they tended to overnerf to the point of destroying certain builds. Later on skills were rather totally revamped than buffed or nerfed in pure power.

  4. Change things until everyone whines equally.

    (I’m assuming my blog is muchly discussed around the lunch table at Blizzard, SOE and other gaming establishments)

    …what am I? Chopped liver? :(

    *runs away crying*

  5. Borror0 says:

    The steps must look as follows:
    1. Create classes with target demographics.
    2. Balance classes’ based on trade offs seen by the eyes of the class’ targeted demographic.
    3. Iterate.
    4. Iterate.
    5. Iterate more.
    6. Release.
    7. Adjust classes based on forum whining.

  6. Mojeaux says:

    Class balancing has always been a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Personally, I’ve always been of a mind that if you want “realism” in your MMO, class balance is not the way to do it. By that, I mean that trying to make everyone equal is…. well, boring. Each class should excel at something and have a role. If you want to be the king of PvP, then pick a class that excels at PvP. Don’t pick the “pink bunny class” and then bitch and whine when you can’t compete against “Bear” or “Wolf classes”.

    • Gordon says:

      The problem is that without trying to achieve balance, what’s the point of having any at all? Why not just make every class uber and not care? The idea of equality amongst classes is to give every player the right to experience the same enjoyment. I mean, I do agree somewhat that it’s never going to be perfect but the developers at least owe it to the player base to try :)

      • Mojeaux says:

        Well, I do think some balance is obviously necessary in order for the game to work. However, I don’t think that every class has to be equal in order for the players to experience the same enjoyment. People are different, and therefore derive pleasure from different things.

        For instance, I played an enchanter in EQ. For me the thrill was playing my class well and receiving positive feedback as a result. For my buddy the tank, raiding and gear accumulation was the ticket. Different strokes for different folks. I think we both got about the same amount of satisfaction from playing the game.

        The enchanter wasn’t built for PvP. You didn’t see any of them winning any tournaments. And that was ok with me. When I chose the class, I wasn’t expecting a PvP juggernaut and subsequently didn’t bitch when, just as expected, he wasn’t.

        • Gordon says:

          I agree that all classes don’t need to be equal in every sense. Tanks should just be compared to tanks and healers to other healers. When you’re trying to balance every class across every criteria then it becomes a lot harder.

          Unfortunately though that’s the situation we face in most modern MMOs. Classes have to be able to perform in a variety of roles, such as tanking and DPS or healing and DPS, and also perform well in both PvE and PvP. That’s a tough thing to achieve and yet players expect it. No one assumed the Enc, for instance, would be good in PvP in Everquest but if you play WoW then you expect your class to be just as valuable and good in PvP as you do in PvE.

  7. Ferrel says:

    In my experience the games that go through the most balance periods have a clear direction. EQ1 balance really took a turn for the better when they finally sat down and drew hierarchy charges of where they wanted everyone in damage, survivability, healing, etc. Most modern MMOs don’t seem to do this publicly. My guess is because players seem incapable of handling that class A does something better than class B. Too many (for my taste) prefer a homogenized system where everyone is the same but the names are different.

    You also have personal bias as well. We talk about the players end of it with forum whining but we rarely look at developer bias. Everyone will say, “oh yeah, so and so plays an X, that is why they’re so good.” That might be an exaggeration but it is also true. An honest person who knows they have to negatively impact themselves will probably not do so as harshly as someone else. So if Shadow Knights need a 100% reduction and you play a shadow knight you might just do 60%. Consciously or not.

    Like I said though. Most games just need to do one of two things:

    1. Set up a clear direction and make it public, accepting that not all classes are going to be equal and playing to that. Class interdependency is not a bad word.

    2. Accept that class interdependency is a bad word and reduce their class pool to tank, healer, melee dps, magic dps, utility and non-magic ranged dps. Then just throw the ability on them to customize for flavor through talents or what not.

    • Gordon says:

      Totally agree, Ferrel. I think there’s much pushing for classes to be able to do everything now and it’s making balance almost impossible to achieve. When a tank was just a tank it was a lot easier to balance them because they only needed to be compared against other tanks. Now when a tank has a DPS spec as well, suddenly it’s a lot harder to achieve balance in every area.

  8. Asbjorg says:

    I’m actually working on balancing an upcoming game, it does start with a lot of metrics, even before it goes into the alpha testing. In the alphas though we look at how well a class performs at the task it is designed to do this is in a PvE setting.

    So a tank class is not compared to a DPS class, its only compared to the other tank classes, given that each tank type class is designed to play differently, some are pure meat shields, others can tank due to crowd control skills, and others based on their block or evasion rates. So if you have 3 classes that can tank each one does so in his or her own way

    The meat shields tend to be the easiest to understand so they are often the most common types of tanks. People dont often think “hmmm, I want to be a tank, lets pick a ranger, who has relatively low hp” Even though that ranger has a much higher evasion rate and may be just as good or even better at “tanking” than the meat shield type of tank.

    DPS is a little different but really pretty similar, a couple other questions here though, ranged dps, or melee dps, magic or physical damage, nukes or high speed. They are all essentially DPS classes, its a question of preference, often times the nukes will have the lowest hp, making them better in PvP, and struggling a little in PvE.

    So how much damage can a DPS deal before it exhausts its hp? thats the first question we ask in trying to balance DPS classes. So each DPS class hits at a different rate, and for a different amount, we figure crit rates and damage into those metrics. a class that has a lower combined score, gets more hp, than one with a higher combines score. So a ranged DPS usually have lower hp than melee DPS.

    Healers and buffers are calculated with their buffs active so unbuffed they are often much weaker than other classes, They should mostly make up for that with their healing. The ideal role for those classes isnt usually a combat role but a support role. So a class that has the ability to heal or buff itself should also have less hp or a lower damage score than other classes who cant.

    The more hybrid types of classes (more DPS than the tanks, better tanking ability than the DPS) tend to struggle in PvP a little but are much easier in PvE situations, which is often most of the game.

    We dont really test much PvP before it goes to the initial Beta testing, and that is where we get feedback from testers about the balance and playability of the game. Some classes are more difficult to play than others usually those ones will be better endgame, but struggle early on. The ones that are amazing early are easier to use but wont be as strong in comparison to the others in endgame.

    Then if we see metrics that show us that one class is overpowered or underpowered significantly we can still adjust after the game has been released. Though we then have other factors to consider too. What affect will it have on the players? Every change helps some people and hurts others. so will the changes being considered overall be beneficial or will they be detrimental to the gameplay environment as a whole?

    Though some people think to achieve balance everyone has to be equal, but really balance and equality are two very different things. Balance makes an interesting and fun environment, equality is just boring.

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