Tag Archives: balance

The evil of homogenization

In most games, players generally expect all players to have an equal chance in winning from the point of view of game mechanics, the end result being mainly reliant on the skill of the players or sometimes simple luck.

This expectation is not easily justified in the world of roleplaying games, where winning alone is difficult to characterize. Some would go as far as arguing there are no winners or losers in RPGs.

Despite this, a lot of very competitive gamers play massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. They create pressure on the developers, pressure not only to make games more competitive, but to make what little competition there already is in these games more fair or balanced.

Balancing is always important, even if a game’s playerbase isn’t particularly competitive. As a developer, you want different options of gameplay to be at least viable, even if they aren’t optimal. If you implement different choices but they are never utilized, you are wasting development time (or alternatively, attempting to trick players with false choice).

Even in a non-competitive game, balancing can still be a fairly complex deed. Making characters and playstyles varied, not too similar to each other yet still viable, is a demanding task. It is easy to imagine then that balancing in a way that makes different options not only viable but also equal in terms of performance is very difficult.

Traditionally in RPG balancing, complete equality in terms of performance has not been a goal, because it hasn’t been needed or called for. The players don’t expect it. A lot of players don’t even want it. But again, the player base of the MMORPG is different from that of other RPGs. These players often have a history in competitive online gaming and expect completely different things.

So we can see that satisfying both, players’ demands of fairness and of variance are very challenging to simultaneously achieve. What can the developer do?

While going for the lowest common denominator isn’t usually the best recommendation, I think the safest answer to the question would be to aim for a middleground. A game doesn’t need complete balance, but options don’t have to be extremely far from each other either in terms of performance. If you are giving players the option to play a gnome warrior or an ogre warrior, it’s fine to let the ogre be more powerful in the job – as long as the gnome is still playable despite some possible difficulties. If the gnome tries hard enough, maybe they can reach almost similar levels of performance as the ogre. Or maybe the gnome has a special ability, like being able to move silently. This approach keeps some level of variance and choice in place yet doesn’t go overboard with homogenization.

Talking about homogenization, this is the big problem with balancing. When developers try too hard to make performance equal for all the possible options, homogenization tends to happens, and unfortunately it has the capability of diluting gameplay. We can see this in effect in a couple of games. Darkfall made all the races use the same model to unify their hitboxes. World of Warcraft’s developers got stuck on looking at damage-per-second numbers and little by little made most of the classes of the same role feel very same-y – things that were unique to some classes, such as rogues’ crowd control or paladins’ strong multimonster tanking capability, were either given to everyone or removed.

My strong opinion is that the latter is bad design. Yes, greater balance and fairness is achieved, but something is lost on the way, something that is very close to the heart of the RPG genre. Variance in gameplay, immersion (the gnome and the ogre shouldn’t have an equal Strength score), the feeling of playing the character you chose – you know, roleplaying.While loudmouths on your game’s forum will never seem satisfied, in the end my belief is that it is better for a game to keep true to the genre, at least to a reasonable extent. Overdoing balance and homogenizing things along the way has the problem that in time, even the majority of the more competitive sorts who have been asking for fairer gameplay will come to realize your game has become bland, lost some of the magic that originally drew them in. In the end, diversity is a very big part of the draw of RPGs.


Balancing randomization in MMORPG combat

Roleplaying games are pretty much built around the use of random number generators (RNG). The history of this derives from the tabletop world of course, but there’s a reason randomization has stayed a part of the genre throughout it’s years of moving to the digital world of computers: player skill isn’t what is considered important, but that of the character – hence the term roleplaying game. The player does not play themselves but a character with a distinct set of skills and abilities.

Another reason for the existence of randomization is that it’s an easy and cheap way to make gameplay more varied. In the tabletop world this point isn’t as crucial because no campaign will ever be exactly the same, even if run by a the same game master, but fighting for example the same monsters in a computer RPG would get boring much more quickly without RNG as every fight against a particular monster type would be exactly the same as the one before. Here we step on the main point of randomization: it spices up the gameplay.

While previously pretty much an unquestioned part of the genre, as competition has become a regular aspect of the multiplayer CRPG, especially the massively multiplayer online variety of it, random number generators have come to be a subject of debate. Especially in games that involve player versus player combat the subject is seen as one of great importance. It of course also affects another form of competition, the competition between raiding guilds to down encounters faster than others, but this is  to a lesser extent and hence I will not go into that in this post.

Its easy enough to understand why randomness is regarded as such an important subject in PVP-focused games – after all, continuously losing to another player due to bad rolls can with fair reason be called lame. It makes one question whether a game is suitable as a competitive platform to begin with.

With that in mind, it is surprising to me that, from my subjective experience at least, in games where losing in PVP can present a far greater penalty, RNG isn’t discussed nearly as often as in some games where losing to another player presents little to no penalty at all. I am talking about two distinct game types here: the open world, free-for-all, full loot games such as EVE, Darkfall or the bygone Shadowbane, where death can mean the loss of your entire property at worst, and games where just about all PVP is instanced and rather sterile, and where defeats represent nothing but a mere loss of time and rating – for example the Arena minigame in World of Warcraft.

At first glance it seems weird RNG is discussed as little as it is in open world PVP games in comparison to ones where competition happens in a far safer environment in terms of what one can lose. But what it maybe comes down to are two things.

First, because open world PVP is already not artificially limited by a set of rules that would, for example, limit the amount of participating players, there already exists such a great level of randomness that the addition of randomized damage ranges, hit tables and whatnot does not seem like such a big deal.

The second reason is social: the game types appeal to different kinds of people. From my personal experience, players in open world PVP games tend to have backgrounds in the RPG genre, where as people into instanced PVP often have at least some background in esport-type games – FPS, MOBAs and the like – and often little to no background in roleplaying.

While in instanced PVP randomness is especially frowned upon, just about no game that offers this feature has completely gotten rid of it. There’s has to be a reason for this. What that reason probably is is that developers realize having at least some randomness to combat is actually beneficial even in a competitive game. The question to ask is: what is a suitable amount of randomness to spice up the game without making it too random.

Once again it comes down to what a game’s playerbase expects from the game – what sort of player the game appeals to. The competitive arena player who watches esports streams on Twitch probably despises randomness and wants things to be decided based on player skill. That being said, while some would claim otherwise, having a level of randomness doesn’t completely eliminate player skill, not even close, and despite numbers sometimes being more in favor of another team, in the long run randomness always balances out. A reasonable amount of randomness in a game of this sort can make it slightly more interesting to watch and play without completely deciding matches – critical hits, damage ranges and the like. Pseudo-random systems are not bad either, and many MOBA games utilize them despite these games being very balanced.

Contrast to arena players and the like, players of open world PVP games tend to be more used to traditional RPG mechanics and expect them.This alone makes them more prone to be acceptable of randomization, but in addition to this, world PVP is already almost always unfair in one way or another. Of course a randomly generated streak of missed strikes causing a death and loss of property is annoying, but just about equally annoying is getting killed by a group of two players who happened to stumble upon you as you were adventuring alone. In such an unbalanced, unsterile environment RNG does not get to stand out in a negative way very often due to the huge amount of other factors that affect who actually wins a fight. This, I would conclude, is the reason RNG is so little discussed in open world PVP games.

Now, if we did want to completely remove randomization from combat, one could ask: what harm would that do? The problem is that as for PVE, random number generation is almost necessary, because encounters are normally tightly scripted. Without randomization, PVE would quickly become extremely dull, because the exact same strategy without the slightest bit of variation would work every single time against the same encounter.

Few games have a completely separate combat system for PVE and PVP, so the two must overlap – if randomization is part of PVE, it must also be part of PVP. That has to be accepted by the developer. But the amount of randomization should probably depend on the type of game they are making, and the type of playerbase they are aiming for – different types of players expect different things.

Combat: complete balance isn’t necessary

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.