Thoughts on Game Balance

These days, it can be difficult to escape discussion of balance in online spaces dedicated to multiplayer games, and the subject dominates my thinking on them, often unbidden. Over the course of the past decade or so, balance has become ever more central both to games and the people who play them, but the way we talk about balance—and the way games are designed to achieve it—has changed in that time, too. Increasingly, balance is seen in narrow terms by players, usually with a focus on the numerical: why doesn’t this character class do the same damage as this different one? why does this card offer the same total stats as another card for less mana? why does this talent choice exist when it’s “always” less powerful than this other one? and so on. Games are balanced accordingly, with close numerical parity between player options being a common design goal. But this view of balance often leads to narrower games, as a broader range of gameplay elements makes achieving that kind of parity more difficult.

Though it’s ultimately silly to pin this overall shift to one point in time, it will always feel to me like it began with the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which was designed in response to several perceived problems with the 3rd Edition. The one that matters most when it comes to game balance is the system’s potential for character optimization, popularized on the “CharOp” forums of the Wizards of the Coast community site and elsewhere online. Especially by the end of its run as the current edition of D&D, 3rd Edition was an incomprehensible behemoth of character options, varied power levels, and potential experiences, culminating most famously in the Pun-Pun thought experiment, which ultimately discovered various ways for kobold characters to achieve omniscience and omnipotence, arguably as early as 4th level. Pun-Pun, of course, was never meant for actual play, but his existence is emblematic of 3rd Edition CharOp and the ways that a vast array of source materials and untested interactions could create problems for the game’s balance in ways both large and small.

A competent CharOp player could easily outshine the other players at the table, game master included, if not everyone was onboard with the same style of play. So, the developers of 4th Edition sought to rein in the potential for this sort of imbalance between players at the same table with a greater focus on designing toward game balance. The resulting game was narrower in focus than 3rd Edition, with every class designed to function largely as a damage dealer in controlled, carefully crafted combat scenarios. Character actions and powers were designed inside strict guidelines on the amount of damage they could deal and how much non-damaging effects (such as restraining an enemy) were worth in terms of damage dice. “Martial” characters like fighters and rogues saw their number of combat options balloon compared to previous editions, while spellcasters like wizards saw their vast array of spells and magical utility pared down to fit this overall design paradigm. 4th Edition ended up more tightly balanced in a numerical sense than its predecessor (though the system’s math did begin to break down at higher levels of play in its own ways), but this balance came at a cost: compared to 3rd Edition, 4th Edition felt less like a tabletop roleplaying game and more like a combat miniatures game to many.

Similar shifts happened in other types of games, too. Just months after 4th Edition launched in 2008, Blizzard Entertainment released World of Warcraft’s second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, for the successful MMORPG. Though WoW dramatically changed the MMO landscape when it launched in 2004, ushering in the “second generation” of the genre, it was still very much influenced both by first-generation MMOs like Everquest and tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. Rogues could disarm traps and pick locks much as they could in D&D, with the game’s dungeon designs sometimes hiding things like shortcuts behind locked doors or lacing rooms with dangerous traps, giving rogue characters special utility in groups. Mages could open portals to other cities for themselves or others, and Warlocks could do the opposite, summoning other players to them, making them indispensable for group outings. Other classes, like Warriors, had less utility outside of combat, but they had more flexibility in their character builds, able to specialize in either tanking or damage dealing (with Priests having similar choices to make between damage and healing). Elemental resistances even played a part in end-game encounters, making specializations focused on one elemental damage type stronger or weaker in different environments. While classes were often not strictly balanced in a vacuum, their unique capabilities served to create a type of balance in the scope of the broader game itself, where different tools and specializations had different ways to shine.

Over time, many of these specialties were de-emphasized, with the game working towards a more universal experience—utility like portals and summonings became available to everyone through travel hubs filled with stationary portals and permanent summoning stones. With Wrath of the Lich King, the game’s dungeon design began to focus on more straightforward objectives, cutting things like the shortcuts mentioned before and requiring less in the way of crowd control abilities, the best of which were limited to certain classes. Many of these changes came at the behest of the playerbase, who (understandably!) wanted to be able to play their favorite class or specialization without worrying so much about things like optimal group composition, but they were also driven by the addition of the game’s Dungeon Finder, which served as a matchmaking system for a wide range of the game’s content, including roulette options that gave extra rewards. With the hassle of traveling to dungeons and forming groups now largely gone, the way players approached the game changed, and the game had to change with it to suit this new common approach. Dungeons had many of their idiosyncrasies filed off over time, so that the roulette experience would be relatively similar regardless of the dungeon selected and the party formed by the matchmaking system.

Attempts to re-introduce dungeons like those from before Wrath of the Lich King in the next expansion, Cataclysm—mostly through encouraging the use of powerful crowd control abilities once more—went poorly, with the older style of play clashing famously with the new one driven by random matchmaking and content selection. Cataclysm’s dungeons would be adjusted to more resemble those from Wrath of the Lich King. In the same expansion, now vestigial features, like the Detect Traps ability of the rogue class, were excised, and talent selections were streamlined for the sake of simplicity and in pursuit of greater parity between characters, with a goal of all classes and specializations having similar capabilities—something far more possible for the developers to achieve with content now designed in a more formulaic way. The World of Warcraft of today offers a far more streamlined and player friendly experience as a result of these trends that began so many years ago now. Though there have been precious few successful MMOs in the wake of its success, the most successful of them, Final Fantasy XIV, takes much of its design direction from World of Warcraft, focusing on tightly balanced encounters and dungeons alongside some of the most-carefully balanced class design in the genre.

These sorts of finely tuned experiences permeate multiplayer games today, from first-person shooters to digital card games like Hearthstone (which tends to balance cards around a “vanilla curve” for mana costs and minion stats that feels at times almost sacrosanct to deviate from to a number of the game’s players). Both tabletop and video games are more popular than ever before, able to reach much broader audiences with polished gameplay and consistency of systems that were less the norm ten or twenty years ago. But overall, games are often narrower today than they used to be, and there are some interesting trends as of late suggesting that, for at least some players, a broader experience—even if a less polished and less balanced one—can have value.

In the field of tabletop games, D&D’s 5th Edition moved away from the tightly controlled balance of 4th Edition and toward a more traditional view of balance seen in the game’s earlier editions. Though it took time for 5th Edition to regain its footing, it’s now steadily gaining in popularity, bolstered by the growing influence of livestreamed campaigns like Critical Role and potentially having now overtaken its nearest competitor, Pathfinder (itself a variant of the 3rd Edition) in terms of market share. 5th Edition is still more focused on the numerical in terms of its balance than older editions, but its developers realized that something had been lost with the intensity of that focus in the game’s 4th Edition, and designed the next version with the aim of recapturing some of what had been lost. Given the new edition’s success, they seem to have succeeded.

For MMOs, the ever-present fervor for “vanilla” World of Warcraft servers have finally prompted Blizzard to release World of Warcraft Classic, which is currently in its Beta stage, and Final Fantasy XI, itself perhaps the last of the “first-generation” MMOs is actually gaining subscribers, with the small remaining team of developers looking optimistically ahead to some sort of major event or release timed to coincide with the game’s 20th anniversary in 2022. The game has also seen some of its third-party private servers, which aim to recapture the game as it was in the early 2000s (to varying degrees) rise in popularity, with the most popular of them having gotten a major boost from Ninja, one of the most largest video game streamers on Twitch, showcasing the game. On top of that, though it increasingly looks like it might end up as vaporware, a mobile version of FFXI has been in development for years now, complete with updated graphics more suitable for modern mobile devices than the game’s original Playstation 2-limited visuals.

Perhaps the most fascinating instance of the old becoming new again, however, must be the recent resurgence of Magic: The Gathering. The game is over 25 years old now, and while it had made forays into the digital realm in the past, with its aging Magic: The Gathering Online platform, it had never taken off with a wider audience in the way of its rival Hearthstone. That’s changing, though, with Magic: The Gathering Arena. The new version of the game offers a streamlined play experience, all without touching a single facet of the game’s rules or “dumbing down” card design to mirror other digital card games, which are much simpler in scope in keeping with modern design trends. Arena has allowed the comparatively ancient game to grow larger than ever before, dwarfing other card games even in the digital space (except for Hearthstone, which still sits at #1—for now). While still in its infancy, focusing primarily on the Standard format, Arena does offer other formats from time to time such as Pauper or Singleton, and it’s not unreasonable to think that one day it might offer more of MTG’s myriad other formats, from the casual Commander to the venerated Legacy or the ever-popular Modern.

It’s unlikely that any of these older properties overtake their successors (except perhaps in the case of D&D 5th Edition, which looks to be in a good place to fend off a new challenge from the upcoming 2nd Edition of Pathfinder), but their unexpected success as of late shows that finely-tuned balance isn’t always necessary for success. A broader sort of balance, suited to a broader game in which character types and player options have strengths and weaknesses in varied types of gameplay, can create a much deeper experience, albeit at the cost of the minutiae not always being so finely tuned. Games can aim for this sort of balance and still find an audience, even if that audience might not reach the height World of Warcraft’s(though it’s not irrelevant that WoW achieved much of its original success when it was at times an imbalanced mess).

As someone who has always valued the broader experiences offered by older games, I’ve come to feel out of place in the world of modern gaming. I find myself squarely in the middle, splitting my time between both modern-designed games like Final Fantasy XIV or Hearthstone and ones from the past, like Final Fantasy XI and Magic: The Gathering. To scratch my itch for tabletop RPGs, I’m currently playing Starfinder, which tries to bridge the gap somewhat between old and new (with middling success, admittedly).For all their polished gameplay and modern graphics, the games of today don’t always offer the fullness of experience I came to expect growing up with the games that I did. With the resurgence of the sorts of games I love most as of late, I’m hopeful for the future, though. If games like WoW Classic prove successful, perhaps paving the way for the return of older styles of balance, maybe I won’t feel so much like I’m old and yelling at clouds in the future.

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