Saturday, November 20, 2010

A History of Balance

When I started to play World of Warcraft, balance was something I did not know; at least not in a computer game. I first encountered it when people talked about rogues being “better” than mages, due to higher dps. I played a mage at that time, but it really did not concern me. Quite obviously, there was almost no combat in WoW that allowed players to “optimize” dps. It would have been silly, too. In the case of my class, raiding consisted of spamming fireball or frostbolt. Of course, I tried to have little downtime between casts, but I also knew that lag would dominate anyway. War, battle, combat would have to be chaotic to be credible and enjoyable.

Not that a theoretical mathematical concept, like dps, was important, anyway: There were no enrage timers in early WoW. If an encounter took long enough for healers to run oom, more healers would be needed and they would rotate. That is, have mana regeneration phases during which they did not do anything, but regenerated mana outside of the “five seconds rule”.

I raided rarely. The equip was highly interesting, but not central to my character. The focus of my play sessions were exploration, the community I belonged to and PvP. In the beginning, even open PvP. What a great fun! Hellishly unbalanced; I did not care. I did not even think about it. I wasn’t fighting other people. My fantasy character was fighting other people’s fantasy characters. It was expected that some would be stronger and some would be weaker.

Sure, you could be good and bad at PvP. There might even have been an optimal reaction to any action of the opponent. But that hardly mattered, because everything was dominated by the ridiculously unbalancing fact that other characters could help you or your opponent. I considered that the way it was supposed to be; even the way it should be.

At the end of classic WoW I had visited every dungeon tens of times. I had really good equipment compared to the average player. But some people had especially good equip. They were raiders. There were few raiders and even fewer who raided so often that they were almost completely ‘epic’.
In battlegrounds such characters were heroes to me; or villains. At no point did I consider it unfair. To me, it was a fight character vs. character and group vs. group.

That all started to change with The Burning Crusade. TBC brought us the arena. I loved the concept. But it started to bug me that some players had an advantage due to better equipped characters. This thought sneaked into my brain and I did neither realize it nor resist. Nobody did. When players defeated me in PvP I would now try to figure out whether it was due to equip or lucky crits. Or maybe even skill (can’t be!).

At the same time I started to organize raids with my guild and our undead partner guild (we did not want no undead in our guild!). I started to mercilessly min/max: Group composition, skill rotations, tactics, strategies. I was good, I knew it and everybody else, too. That, I also knew. We were mildly successful, mainly because we had some people in our midst who hadn’t made the transition to the new WoW. As a friendly guild we would not kick them and they would still raid with us. But in the middle of TBC I would leave my raid (not my guild). Among other reasons, there was this other feral druid who refused to use “shred” in his rotation. I considered it a social crime to hinder our progress; which it had certainly done.

With TBC Blizzard had also introduced the concept of “resilience”. The idea was to segregate PvE and PvP gear. I had heard about the idea of PvEers and PvPers before, but had not understood it. I liked both. And I deeply hated the new system. I still hate it today. I loved to gain gear in PvE to do PvP and I loved to gain gear in PvP to do PvE. In my opinion, a well rounded character would engage in all activities. He would defend the Horde against the evil allies (especially Night Elf hunters!!) and he would try to defend against the evil from black rock mountain and the countless dungeons. During classic it had never appeared to me that there would be a fundamental difference between PvP and PvE.

Sure, I lamented the fact that you would only use such a limited set of your ability-toolbox in PvE. But I also understood why 40 people chain-stunning one boss mob would be a gameplay problem. I loved Razorgore, first boss of Black Wing Lair. During this encounter you would need to fight and control many other mobs. It felt like a battle, not like a “boss fight”, because you could use all your tools to fight these other mobs. Differences in PvE / PvP were a gameplay-induced necessity that hurt immersion and I was certain Blizzard would fight and eventually remove it. How wrong I turned out to be!

After a while I came to hate arena: Predominantly due to imbalance. My feral druid did not stand a chance. The reason was resilience. It did no only reduce my damage, but also my crit chance. Unfortunately, my crits not only did more damage, but also gave double combo points. The combo points were important and thus I was hellishly OP against low-resilience targets, and a sorry cat against high-resilience targets. It took Blizzard two entire expansions to finally agree!

But what is more important is the fact that it did not occur to me that I had changed my approach to WoW! I had started to look at my character as a part of me, not as a part of a fantasy world. Any defeat of my character was now a personal insult, not a part of that character in the virtual world! I got to be known to be swearing loudly during arena games and eventually turned off my microphone and asked other people to organize the fight. I joked that every arena fight reduced my life expectancy by 1 day.

In addition to the inherent unfair design of resilience, I disliked and still dislike resilience for the fact that it segregates the community. Open PvP does not make any sense when some players are victims due to PvE equip. Not that it mattered. The introduction of flying mounts had reduced open PvP by nearly 100%.

During The Burning Crusade Blizzard would try fanatically to “balance” the game. All classes and all their speccs would have to have the same dps and hps in raids and also be similarly useful in arena PvP in any combination. Blizzard was known for its incredible skill of balancing games. They started carefully, but became more and more desperate. Unfortunately, the game itself was created in a way that did not allow balancing the way it was needed. It was not a matter of numbers, but of the entire architecture of World of Warcraft!

With WotLK they decided to attack the problem at this deeper, architectural level. All classes would be changed drastically. They would be homogenized when necessary. “Bring the player not the class”. The focus was the player, not the character. The line between character and player was blurred and eventually removed. What had started slowly with TBC was about to be completed.

But they were too cautious, still. In combination with a wild-running character power progression the balance problems became not better, but worse. Arena PvP lost much of its former glory due to these imbalances. Battlegrounds became deserted. Wintergrasp, which had been a relative success, was drastically imbalanced on most servers.

10-man raids, which had been introduced with WotLK, struggled. The number of class buffs was too high and the buffs were too powerful to be ignored. You cannot make challenging content when you cannot know the capabilities of the group of players that is challenged. And the capabilities, as homogenized they had become, were still too diverse. Blizzard had failed at balance; again.

With Cataclysm Blizzard has learnt that good balance requires drastic measures at a fundamental architectural level. The talent trees were remade. They are now better to balance. The difference between classes has been drastically reduced, again. “Bring the player, not the class” in a game with 30 speccs and 10-man raids requires that the classes differ only in flavor, not in capability. The focus of balance is on endgame level - alone.

When, today, Blizzard does not allow some healers to heal without mana constrains and others with mana constrains; when, today, Blizzard does not use tank niches; when, today, Blizzard makes all your spells have 40 yards range, then because of fundamental architectural balance considerations.

It should be hoped that Blizzard achieves what they had set out to do with The Burning Crusade: Balance at an individual player level. I hope they do. They fought hard and sacrificed … much.

But I will never forget the time when balance was of no concern; the time when character power depended on what a character had seen in the world, not the skill of the player. The time when I would venture into the molten core, spamming hundreds and thousands of frostbolts not thinking about my skill or me being balanced, but about us, Ragnaros and the story of the world. I will never forget the time when I considered items nice, and not central to my individual success as a player.

I will not stop to believe that it was not naivety alone that shaped my first year playing a MMORPG. The game I played and the people I played it with made it possible; the former of which can be re-created.


  1. The current state of this could summarized as "quite sad".

  2. What was the point you were trying to make? Was there one?

    Balance is bad?
    Blizzard balanced the fun out of the game?

    I had much the same experence with every good MMO out there. When the game is new exploring the world and trying out everything is a blast. Then when you start understanding things on a deeper level (Raid planning / Theorycrafting) the shine wears off after the acomplishments start to become easy.

    Familiarity breeds contempt.

  3. The point is that balance at an individual player level is often bad and you can, indeed, balance the fun out of a game.

    With Cataclysm Blizzard actually acknowledged that: Tol Barad.

    Tol Barad is not fair on an individual player level: Attackers always take one point eventually.

    Tol Barad is also not fair on an individual-battle level: The Defenders have a significant advantage.

    Tol Barad is only fair in the long term.

    Thus it matters. It means something to defend it or conquer it.

  4. Wonderfully compelling remarks here, Nils. You have successfully described aspects of the game that changed that many of us have been at a loss to do. It is amazing to think that I was just like you in classic; "balance wut?". It was all about *us* as you so aptly put it, and the world at large and the immensity of tasks ...but always about *us*, the community.

    How WoW has fallen. I have vowed that I will be the first in line when they finally institute Classic and BC servers. I would pay a lifetime fee for such a thing.