"I don't believe in one-on-one balance between all classes," ArtCraft Entertainment Co-Founder and Creative Director J. Todd Coleman said in a recent Q&A video released last week. Coleman was answering a fan question regarding balance between the archetypes, and I believe that his answer really covers an angle of game design that hasn't been explored enough in this genre.
"The idea of a perfectly balanced game, like Rock, Paper, Scissors -- those games aren't actually fun," he continued. Coleman's point is that you want to have fun when you play a game, and this unachieveable goal of class balance that has been tried for too many years just hinders that fun.
On one hand, I do understand the need for balance, at least from an approachability (i.e sales) standpoint. You want players to come into your game, pick the class combination that appeals to them on whatever level, and just have fun with that character. It wouldn't be "fair" to later find out that the warrior you've spent 100 hours on turned out to be weak in the endgame and can't solo the last boss. Right? Well, no. And that's Coleman's and Design Lead Thomas Blair's main point here. It's not about making one character that can do everything in all corners of the game; it's about making a character that fills a role in a group. It's about group balance rather than individual balance.
"Your goal then, as an individual player, is to seek out situations in the game where you are going to be strong, and try to avoid those situations where you're going to be weak," Coleman says. "If you come into the game and immediately seek a bunch of situations out that you're gonna be weak, and then get killed over and over and over again, that doesn't mean the game is unbalanced. It means that you're a bad player."
The illusion of balance
Balance is a funny concept, both in games and all over real life. Nothing is really ever fair and true balance is not only impossible, but it's also boring. And in the past, even when game companies worked so diligently to balance every class against the others, there was still an illusion of imbalance.
How many times have you heard that Rogues are best in PvP, or Mages are overpowered, or Mages are underpowered. It's all (mostly) in the eye of the beholder. So, as a game designer, why even enter that fight? Why not just make classes that fill a role and aren't trying to be everything to everyone?
As Thomas Blair said during the video, "We don't want to make classes that feel like each other."
If everything is OP, nothing is OP
Many moons ago, I had a job dealing with a sales department that had to satisfy clients and a shipping department that had to deal with those sales people. So, according to the sales department, everything must leave the warehouse as a high priority rush. But if everything's a rush, then nothing's a rush, right?
The same holds true with class balance. If classes and builds are continuously being tweaked to add this unobtainable balance concept, then eventually, everything will be so over- (or under-) powered that the fun has been watered down.
Balance works for some games, but I don't think it should be the default for all games -- especially multiplayer PvP. Think back at the best times you've had in an MMO, and it most-likely involved a time when you and your friends worked together to bring down a boss or obtain some goal that was a challenge. Those are the experiences that stick with us the most because it's just how we're wired as humans. We learn from difficulty, and a constant attempt at balance feels unnatural.