Uplink Analysis: Balancing an MMO

Written by David "Scooter" Bass on November 29, 2012

WildStar Uplink is a bi-weekly conversation we hold with our fans about MMO design, philosophy, and news. The main goal of these conversations is to gauge how important certain issues are to the WildStar community. More than just a simple conversation, we ask questions about topics that are important, and we share your responses with the development team directly. Want to participate? Follow @Team_WildStar on Twitter for the weekly question, participate using #WSuplink, and keep an eye on the community team (CRB_Atreid, CRB_Aether, and CRB_Scooter) to interact with us throughout the discussions.

Last week, we wanted to talk game balance. Specifically:

What are your biggest frustrations with game balance in an MMO?

The first (and most common) complaint was in regards to balancing PvP vs. PvE content:

afterlifelegion: class balance itself can influence how you enjoy the game and getting it right is so so tricky
Hoigwai: the issues that come from balancing pvp and how it affects pve and vice versa.
Spiritunicorn: Probably the thing I dislike the most is when PvE abilities get nerfed to fix issues with PvP balance.
AgentNardz: Stuns are not a way to balance pvp...
grzegorzelek: balacing pve casue of pvp and vice versa. Same skill might work different in pvp/pve and it's a good thing.
qn2Quid: I dont like when fun and innovative ways of gameplay get nerfed and/or removed due to being too cheesy in pvp
StevenWooden88: Class balance is a problem for both PvP and PvE in numerous MMORPGs. PvP: Skill-based, not Gear-based. PvE: Balanced choices.

You guys also brought up very interesting concerns about attempting to "overbalance" a game:

hotshot25120: When the Dev give up trying to balance and instead simplify the talent tree or customization of the game.
Spiritunicorn: @hotshot25120 Have to agree with this one, dumbing down character customization to make balancing the game easier hurts everyone. Jaednor: When balancing takes precedence over fun.
mmo_pinion: This may sound crazy, but here goes. My biggest pet peeve about MMO game balance? There's too much of it! Let classes have flavor. It's ok if one dominates another. Balance around the idea that classes play together as a unit!
squared002: Over adjustments to a classes mechanics that essentially ruin the class and then are never brought back in-line.
AgentNardz: You don't have to rewrite an entire talent tree to balance classes. It just ticks us off who got used to the way it was for years.
Sunicro: When balancing results in all classes essentially being the same with just different names to thier abilities.
worldissquare: That players feel like every class, race and build has to be perfectly balanced. A little randomness is fun sometimes!
sanspants: The shunning that comes with playing a fun-but-not-optimized build.

And finally, here are some other very valid concerns you brought up about the process of balancing an MMO:

Gazimoff: Glass cannons that are all glass and no cannon. If I'm playing a spellcaster, give me a Yamoto Cannon, not a Pea Shooter.
sirchatters: When the developers give up unique classes and just make everything fair/even. I prefer a few paths be bad than all the same.
qn2Quid: I get annoyed when special abilities are removed to create class balance, classes should be different and feel unique
jleithart: When I don't understand why things are nerfed. patch notes should give an explanation for the reason I'm nerfed.
jkkennedytv: many players confuse 1v1 for game balance. Biggest frustration is for devs having to filter misinformation.
Gazimoff: Also: Buff Spellslingers.

We handed off this very important topic to Chris Lynch, Lead Combat Systems Designer, Hugh Shelton, Senior Systems Designer, and Marc Matzenbacher, Systems designer, to get their thoughts on MMO game balance:

Hey everyone!

We just finished reading everyone's feedback on the balance of MMO's and we're here to discuss how we are approaching this difficult task.

#1 - Balancing for PVE versus PVP
This was probably the hottest topic throughout all the feedback, so we'll start with it first! On Wildstar, we have created a creature that we refer to internally as "Bob". This isn't an acronym for anything, so don't waste time trying to figure out if it stands for anything, we just like the name Bob!

The reason Bob is important is because he is literally the foundation for all of our behind-the-scenes number balance in the game. When we are setting his values, we are creating the equivalent of a player, so all of his values mirror the values we expect an average player to have with gear, specializing, etc. at each level in the game. This means that if a player were to fight Bob, it'd be a 50/50 chance for the player to win. We then use Bob as the baseline for all creature balance in the game. This does not mean that all creatures have Bob's values or abilities; instead they are tweaked appropriately to provide a diverse range of difficulties throughout the game.

The reason this type of balance is nice is that since we are balancing the player against Bob, we are essentially balancing the player against another player. Essentially, when we balance for PVE, we are already balancing for most aspects of PVP! While this won't give us perfect PvP balance, it does give us a solid starting point that we will refine through the addition of other PvP only stats and playtesting.

#2 - Fun versus Numbers
Another key point we'd like to make is that on Wildstar we balance for fun first. This might sound silly but it is an important element that many games ignore. If an ability does not feel impactful, there is usually no satisfaction to using that ability. We always balance for fun first because we want to make sure you enjoy using that ability. We will not put an ability in the game just because it has perfect numbers.

#3 - Crowd Control
Crowd Control can be a huge part of both PVE and PVP balance, and most MMO players know how frustrating it can be to get stun-locked or chain-feared. Rather than strictly limiting the amount of CC abilities and the impact they have, our unique approach is a system we've created that gives CC'd players different gameplay mechanics to remove what's affecting them early.

Take disarm for example, instead of having your weapon removed and being able to do nothing about it but run away, we actually have the player's weapon knocked out into the world where they can then move and pick it up. When you consider WildStar's telegraphs and our high mobility approach, this mechanic leads to some very interesting situations where you're dodging to avoid telegraphs and at the same time reequipping your weapon to dish out payback. This is just one example and there are many more CC mechanics that we look forward to showing you in the future!

#4 - Interrupt Armor
We also felt that it is frustrating to have cool abilities that you can use on over world creatures but can never use on bosses. To allow players the ability to use those abilities on bosses, but not render boss encounters trivial, we have created the Interrupt Armor system. This allows bosses to have a limited amount of protection against abilities that interrupt or stun them but it can be chipped away by players at which point the boss is now vulnerable to those abilities.

A boss's Interrupt Armor also recharges, so players really have to manage their CC properly if they want to pierce the creature's Interrupt Armor at the right time. Thanks to this "balance lever," we don't remove tools from the player and instead we create an interesting gameplay dynamic during boss encounters which require teamwork.

These are only four major points of how we are tackling the balance of combat in Wildstar, but as you can see we are definitely approaching this in ways that we believe will make a fun, yet balanced play experience!

Thanks again for all of your feedback; it really helps us make the best game possible!

What do you think about how these systems will help balance WildStar? Let us know on Twitter at @Team_WildStar and keep an eye on the #WSuplink hashtag for a heads up when we begin a new topic on Monday. Thanks to everyone who participated in this week's discussion, and have a great weekend!

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