Today, we kick off a new series of articles where we ask a number of different developers from a number of different companies to answer a question about MMORPG design. Today, we ask Age of Conan Game Director and Executive Producer Craig Morrison about balancing casting and ranged classes against melee classes.
MMO combat suffers from balancing casting vs. melee classes. What methods do you use to balance these two class types?
I think before you look at the challenges specific to MMO combat in terms of balance between any two sets of character types you have to define what we are usually trying to achieve in terms of balance.
You might think it was easiest to define it very straightforwardly as 'every time I fight I have a 50/50 chance of winning or losing based my skill and approach' but when you actually push players about what many feel about gameplay the reality is that they would feel balance was better when they have a chance of losing, but that they should win more than lose. Most seem to tend towards wanting something like a 75/25 mix of winning to losing...so they recognize the need for, and want, a chance of losing, but they generally feel that its more fun when they win more often than they lose, as long as it isn't too much.
So that is where the old 'rock, paper, scissors' approach comes in. Someone always has a chance to beat someone and lose to someone...but that isn't directly translatable into an MMO setting as you don't want to establish any situation where a player will lose every time. So we end up with systems where certain classes have advantages and disadvantages against others and thus can win more often that lose if they pick their targets correctly (and learn when to run away!), but with MMO titles often having up to a dozen classes that balance also has various pitfalls...is it fun to have classes you almost always have to avoid? Is that balance? That is not a fun scenario if the chances are absolute, you don't want any class to always win over another, so we as designers have to have a form of weighed chances. You might want Class A to have an advantage against Class B but you rarely if ever want it to be absolute, rather you want the various balances weighted in specific ways across the total number of classes you have.
In terms of controlling that there are three main elements that we as designers have to control. Maximum values, Availability and Mechanics.
This is probably the most important element of all. In any RPG system you need to have a firm control over the maximum values possible for any given statistic or element. The system designer must know what the maximum health value for a character is or the maximum DPS output they can achieve. This means having good systems and records, be they spreadsheets or databases that track and monitor the possible contributions available to any give character, be it from inherent values, bonuses, buffs, armor or whatever elements exist in your game. You absolutely have to enforce maximums on your budgets or you have already lost any real chance of maintaining balance...or at best make it incredibly difficult for yourself. So method number one is establishing and then controlling maximum budget caps for every element of a character.
Leading on from your budgets you then have to assess how available the bonuses and stats are to the players on average. A maximum budget can prevent you from breaking balance by having overpowered items, but it won't prevent a possible imbalance if there isn't a structured approach to how players get access to those stats.
So what do I mean exactly? Mostly it is about scaling and distribution. If for example your maximum value for DPS was 100 in your game, but 90 of that was contributed by a really rare item late in the game, then in effect your average player only have access to 10, which could become an issue if the mobs are balanced on a sliding scale. That is an extreme example of course, but it does illustrate the point. More likely what you run the risk of is an item being introduced that brings too much of a given stat into play too early, or it is available to one class and not another. Thus it is vital that the distribution and scale of how the stats are given out is vital. So method number two is tracking the distribution of where stats and bonuses are given out so that you can distribute them as evenly as possible, both across level ranges and across classes.