Today, we continue 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 Cryptic Studios' Bill Roper 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?
Balancing melee and ranged combat is an old a dilemma as, well, just about anything in terms of design. Every gamer feels that ranged attacks are far superior over those in the hand-to-hand school, even when you can show them numbers to the contrary. To balance melee and ranged, it comes down to more than damage production. The areas to focus on are perception, presentation, proper use of secondary effects, and defenses.
Melee attackers feel weaker because, unlike that pesky caster, they have to close the distance to their target. The common complaint against melee classes is that they’ll never be as good as the ranged guy who can just sit back and plink away. This initial deficit can be handled in many ways, from giving the melee character a ranged attack to pull mobs in PvE, to providing some kind of rush or leap style attack to get them to their initial target quickly, if not instantly. The second is more popular in PvP scenarios since the ranged attack provided to most melee characters isn’t going to do much damage compared to their other abilities, or certainly stacked up against a real ranged attacker. Creating a way for the melee specialist to close gaps quickly is vital, and this is where secondary effects can first come into play.
Adding basic crowd control abilities in conjunction with melee attacks is fundamental to making them operate on a balanced scale with their ranged counterparts. The best of these include those that stun or slow opponents as they’re useful in both PvE and PvP scenarios. Allowing a hand-to-hand fighter to control the pace of the fight is essential, especially in the slower-paced combat you usually see in MMOs. More action oriented games gain better benefit from slowing rather than stunning as it still gives the opponent the feeling of being able to fight, albeit at a much lesser ability. When you’re in a faster-paced combat, stuns feel about 1.5 times as long as they really are because you’re seeing your opponent get off many more attacks. When you can still fight back to some degree, it feels less dramatic. Whether slowing or stunning, the basic ability for the melee character to tactically reduce his opponent's ability to fight – or more importantly flee and gain range again – is essential.
How melee attacks are presented definitely affects the perception of their usefulness. Having them feel “bigger” than other attacks is commonplace. This means increasing attack and hit react animations, associated effects, and pumping up the sound effects. If you’re going to have to go to all the trouble of getting in an enemies face to pummel him, it better feel epic! Also, when you really “feel” that impact of a punch or kick, it makes the attack that much more satisfying and, it then doesn’t feel as “weak” compared to a ranged attack. It’s also very common to actually have melee attacks do more straight up damage than their ranged counterparts to balance out the need to be within a short range of your target. But again, even when you can show this to be fact, unless the melee attack feels awesome, it can easily be perceived as weaker.
There are some presentations that can be counter-productive unless you take care with the end results. Knockback is a great example of this. It’s a common secondary effect for a big, superhero punch, and it certainly delivers huge on the presentation scale. However, you’re doing something that’s counter-intuitive for a melee fighter since you’re sending your target away from your position. That means to make it an effective attack you need to compensate for putting the target back at range. You can accomplish this by greatly increasing the damage this type of attack does, or by putting an increased chance to stun on it. Another idea is to have the enemy that is affected by knockback take increased or additional falling damage. This allows the knockback effect to be used tactically with surrounding terrain.
Defenses are also a huge part of balancing these two schools of combat. You have to make the melee fighter tougher in all ways because they’re going to be spending more time moving to targets that can pelt them with damage from afar. They should not only have more ability to absorb or ablate damage, but they should also be more resistant across the board to special types of damage, such as magic or elemental damage. Poison is a toss-up as it is one of the advantages you can give a melee character that also relies on stealth. In any case, the basic concept it to make the melee class harder to damage so they can grab and hold the attention of mobs in PvE and stand up to the ranged assault of enemies in PvP.
Delving a little deeper into defenses, its important to look at all of the types of damage your combat system uses for both melee and ranged. An easy way to make sure your in-close fighters can stand toe-to-toe against each other is to give them a type of armor or defense unique to their class(es) that is highly effective against the type of damage they deal. For example, if in a fantasy game, only a fighter can wear plate which is highly effective against crushing and slashing damage, and fighters are also the ones who predominantly deal those damage types, they’ll be more balanced against each other from the start. Perhaps plate isn’t as good against piercing damage, so that means a thief can get in a poisoned shot which is how they stack up against the big bruiser – but because they crafty devils can only wear leather, the fighter can deal a lot of damage back with their bigger weapons.
Moving this into the realm of ranged versus melee, you start to look at things like elemental damage or magical damage. Perhaps fighters have a natural resistance to magic at the expense of magical spells also being less beneficial to them (buffs and heals). This can be balanced through non-magical means (healing potions or salves or bandages) which provides a means to have specific defenses and also provides deeper and more interesting play mechanics. Ranged classes also tend to be “glass cannons” meaning that if you can get to them, you can take them down quickly because their defenses are low against melee damage. It becomes a ballet of sorts – the melee fighter working to get close and deal their best damage while the ranged attacker does their best to stay at the outskirts of a fight.
When looking to balance ranged and melee attacks, I usually start at a 1.5 to 1 damage ratio in favor of the melee character and start playing against identical mobs or PvP. So much of what we do with balance is fine tuning to how the game “feels” that starting numbers are just a jumping off point. Different control schemes, pace of play, combat mechanics, and even controller type can move the balance one way or other. This is where iteration amongst the combat systems team and, later on, your beta testers is vital. The trick is to know when the numbers are matching up with the feel, and don’t always fall prey to the unfounded, “Melee sucks compared to ranged!” arguments. They may be right, but get in there and play it for your self to be sure! There is no substitute for real-world experience with any combat system, and iteration is the real key to success.