Following a discussion on mmorpg.com regarding character hitboxes in games with aim based combat, I came to think a little more about balance. The following questions popped into my mind: what exactly is the function of balance and why is it needed? And what would players consider balanced enough?
To start with the first question: combat balancing is done, of course, in the name of fairness, but also to encourage character diversity. It’s job is to ensure that players feel like they can participate in combat in a meaningful way no matter their choice of race, gender or archetype.
I mentioned in my last post regarding action combat that RPGs by their nature are not competitive games. This isn’t entirely true for the massively online subgenre of them, because there are abstract and sometimes even direct forms of competition in these games. Whether it’s fighting over getting a raid slot or a piece of gear, defeating an opponent in PVP, or maybe beating another person in damage-per-second numbers, its all a form of competition between players.
Sometimes homogenization is necessary…
Despite the fact competition exists, the acronym MMORPG still has those three letters at the end of it standing for roleplaying game. And because of this I would still argue that the goal of MMORPGs is never to solely act as competitive platforms, but rather to provide an online medium for players to take on various character roles in a virtual world.
This weird mixture of competitive and anti-competitive features makes balance in the genre a delicate topic. On the one hand a developer wants to make archetypes, races and whatnot distinct from each other, but on the other the developer also wants them to perform roughly equally or at least stand a chance against each other to not force any choices down the players’ throats.
The easiest way to achieve balance between classes is to make them function very similarly to each other but change the visuals. The problem here is that doing so makes gameplay feel less varied and bland. In a tabletop game, a wizard is a wizard. With a massive fireball, if available to them during a specific encounter, they can be the most destructive thing you’ve ever seen – yet in a fight where they don’t have that fireball available to them, it might be the wizard can suddenly be considered a nearly useless character. For comparison, an archer can provide a good amount of well sustained damage all the time, but is incapable of delivering similar amounts of massive destruction to the fireball-weaving wizard in their prime.
Now compare the tabletop versions of the wizard and archer to similar archetypes in just about any modern MMORPG. Both the wizard and the archer are ranged classes, they both use a limited resource such as mana or stamina or focus, and their abilities, while having different visuals, do roughly the same things: grant sustained damage, slow targets, and so on. Frankly, they are differently skinned versions of each other – there may be some small differentiating features such as reagent usage or amount of AoE damage in addition to the visuals being different, but nevertheless the archetypes remain very similar in fuction.
In the specific case of the wizard versus archer we can justify the homogenization with the fact that playing a traditional tabletop wizard in a 3D, massively multiplayer online setting could not be made to work very easily. Their downtime would make them boring to play most of the time, and when they would be able to use their spells, other players would probably deem them overpowered. So while unfortunate, it makes sense to make wizards more similar to archers in the case of MMORPGs.
…but sometimes, homogenization just ruins the game
While the former is a case of balancing where homogenization is almost inevitable, often there are other ways to work around balancing a feature.
Take character hitboxes in aim based games from which this discussion started. In a typical fantasy setting you have races of various sizes: humans, dwarves, ogres, elves… This creates a problem: smaller races are inevitably going to be more difficult to aim at. How would you solve the problem?
If you were a company called Aventurine working on a title called Darkfall: Unholy Wars, you would take the easiest and cheapest route: take out all the small races. See, in the original Darkfall game the competitive PVP folk used to be upset about certain races having smaller hitboxes than others. Some of them felt it was mandatory to play those races to remain competitive.
Aventurine decided it was a good idea to change this for their re-branding of the game so that all races would use the same 3D model but a different texture. This required some lore changes, such as having dwarves go practically extinct by crossbreeding with humans. The end result was that all the game’s races ended up looking like humans. For a game classifying itself as an MMORPG, I would say this is horrible design.
Aventurine’s way of solving the issue is by no means the only way to achieve balance. They did it because it was easy and cheap, although to be fair it probably didn’t affect their playerbase much as the game had already become a sort of a giant battle arena instead of an Ultima Online-esque sandbox by this point – a topic for another time.
There’s a couple of other ways to solve the issue of hitboxes, actually. Imagine yourself being a game developer. If your ogres have giant hitboxes making them easy to hit and everybody rolls a gnome with the smallest hitbox as a result, what can you do? One of the following, for example:
1. Treat hitboxes as just another stat. If your ogres are easy to hit, give them other statistical bonuses such as higher strength or longer reach.
2. Restrict classes, archetypes or skills based on race. This requires that all the classes are useful and wanted.
3. Normalize hitboxes but not the visible character models.
Out of the three, the third one is in my opinion on about the same level as normalizing character models – a lazy and bad solution. It isn’t as big a negative for the roleplaying aspects of a game, but it is going to create confusion when an arrow passes a gnome a meter over their head and they still take damage. Additionally, if collision detection exists as well, this becomes even more confusing.
My favourite solution would be the combination of options one and two. Including reach and hitbox size as statistics and adding some race restrictions to skills or classes gives the developer a good amount of parameters to play around with when it comes to balancing a character’s other traits in relation to the advantages or disadvantages gained through various hitbox sizes. This model would, as far as I can see, include all the positives of the RPG part of the genre, yet would also suit the needs of the more competition-driven player.
Balance doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect
There are difficult and easy, good and bad ways to balance an MMORPG when it comes to combat. Despite this, it is important to keep in mind one fact: this is a subgenre of the RPG, and as such balance needn’t be perfect. There’s no reason to spend too many resources in finding the perfect balance in a genre that wasn’t intended to be competitive in the first place – as long as classes and races are varied and they have at least some job to do, there’s a good chance most of your players are going to be pretty happy.