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Tradeoffs

July 7, 2008

Imagine you’re a MMORPG developer. C’mon, everyone does it who plays these games, right? We all think we could design a great game, if given half the chance. Now imagine you’re staring at a blank writeboard with 24 classes on it. Your mission? Create about 20 key skills for each class to use.

24 x 20 = 480 skills.

What’s more is that these skills have to be — wait for the important word — balanced. Sure, players wouldn’t mind an insta-kill, instant cast, 0 mana skill, but that wouldn’t just unbalance the game, it’d break it. And a broken game is no fun for anyone, even the person with the broken skill (trust me: how long do you play single player games after turning on the God Mode? A day or two?).

Skill balancing is fascinating to me, because whenever I try to imagine how I’d design a game, a lot of the variety would come down to how many underlying systems would be in place to allow me to make a wide variety of tradeoffs, thus resulting in a wide variety of skills. Tradeoffs are the name of the skill game, and every MMO player is familiar with them. Good skills are going to cost you more, somehow. Cheap skills will have cheap results. The best skills will have a drawback severe enough to make you blink hard when you read it.

Ideally, every skill in a game I’d play would be quick, cheap and useful. But that’s not variety and it really wouldn’t be fun. You see tradeoff balancing in loads of non-MMO games, such as Magic The Gathering (which is all about tradeoffs) and even FPS (do I use the big, slow gun with lots of damage or the light, quick one with piddly little dps?). So what do we tend to see when it comes to MMO skills, especially as we prepare to absorb all the skills in WAR? Here’s a rough list of tradeoffs I’ve noticed:

Time: Time is a unique resource in an online game, because the clock is always running, and time is often short. One of the simplest ways to balance a more powerful vs. less powerful skill is in tweaking how long its cooldown or recharge period will be. Awesome skills might be a good hour or so before you can reuse them; cheap ones are up and ready the second the global cooldown is finished.

Difficulty: Not all skills are equally handed to all players — some take effort and difficulty to attain. If you pay the cost of the skill in the blood, sweat and time it takes you to finally get it, it might justify how useful it is. WoW makes some skills more “difficult” to attain by plopping them way up on their talent trees, and other MMOs have you do epic quests to get the skill you want. Some skills might be quite rare to attain indeed, requiring a low-chance random drop or a once-in-a-lifetime mob kill.

Resources: Resources are one of the main balancing pivots of skills — what resource of mine do I have to trade to get the result I desire? Maybe it’s health, mana, pricey reagents, or a slow leak of resources over the next few minutes.

Speed: How fast you can get a skill to go off after pressing the 2 button is always a key concern, especially to PvP players. Instant cast skills — which are uninterruptable to boot — are valued more than the players’ own children. Yet many of the best skills require obscene amounts of casting time in a deadly battlefield. Choices, choices.

Penalties: A skill can be balanced by simply hurting you in return for using it. A debuff might be slapped on you for a period of time, or you might find other skills or abilities lessened or blocked altogether.

Interrupt/Pushback: One of the more frustrating skills for me to use is the dreaded “channeling” spells — this is where you activate a skill, and while it starts working right away, you have to stay put as the spell channels for a certain number of seconds. Unfortunately, the cost here — other than immobility — is that these channeled spells are prone to getting interrupted by enemy players. Long cast skills, on the other hand, often incorporate casting “pushback”, where, when you are hit, the casting bar pushes back a bit, adding more time to your cast.

Range: Skills that require a much closer distance to your target might be a great way to compensate for the skill’s strength. Tossing a deathbomb 100 yards is a little overbalanced in terms of damage and potential safety for your character.

Niche: Not every skill is for every situation, and niche skills can allow devs to create a more powerful skill that they’re not afraid of being overused, because the situation in which it’d be most useful will only come up once in a great while. Sometimes skills are only useful at all when paired with another skill, requiring a certain combination to be effective.

Group Use: Probably falling under “niche” here, but some skills are simply only useful if you’re in a group of other players (or the skills stop being very under-par and become wickedly awesome the more people you’re teamed with). Buff skills, for example, are much more highly valued in a group situation than a solo one.

Mechanic: This is kind of the “catch all” of the tradeoffs — unique mechanics that are created for that skill or set of skills, often in order to slow down their use. You see these mechanics when special resources are used (Mork and Gork, for instance), or when there’s a separate timer than the rest of your skillset.

So there we go — just scratching the surface of how complex and varied skill-making is in these games. With WAR’s enormous array of skills, no doubt that some will be quite unbalanced at launch, requiring many more tweaks as the months go by.

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7 comments

  1. I definitely don’t envy the developers the task of creating 240 skills that are balanced across 24 classes — I think the 20 skills per class may end up being a bit low, depending on how many skills they make available through the mastery system. On the other hand, surely some of the skills for mirrored classes will differ only in name and animation. But regardless of the exact number, creating a large number of balanced skills is a daunting task.

    In my opinion, the goal of the game designer should be to make every button-click an interesting decision for the player. (That is, the player should always be thinking “do I use X next, or do I go with Y”.) Now obviously, no game is ever going to completely succeed by this metric, but some come closer than others. I remember playing EQ2 where every fight against a single mob would be begin with the keypres sequence 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 … or Warcraft raid-boss fights where I pressed no keys other than 2 (flash heal) or 3 (renew).

    In any case, from the small amount of information available on Warhammer skills (e.g. the WHA Shaman Review), it looks like Mythic is off to a great start.


  2. You’re looking at it the wrong way, and incidentally 24 classes is guaranteed to either be redundant (have classes essentially identical) or have balance issues to the point where some classes are useless.

    First you figure out what “roles” you want classes to fill. Example: Tank, Heal, crowd control, ranged dps, melee dps, etc.

    Next you choose classes to fill each role, you can reasonably balance 2-4 per role and most likely should account for some overlap. Any more than that and you simply cannot balance the game.

    You can very easily see two things. One, you cannot possibly balance 20 classes, 10 is a much better start. Two, the game that creates new roles is a game that will have far better success at class balance.


  3. “Awesome skills might be a good hour or so before you can reuse them” I am not a fan of those type of skills, especially in a PvP game. They are very “unfun” for anyone of the receiving end of perceived “I win” buttons, which those skills usually are. I’d rather have another skill I can use all the time then some hour cool down ability.


  4. chuck norris isn’t a good example of balance.


  5. In my game, there is a class called “Matt” and he’s basically God mode. :p


  6. Just wanted to add one mechanic, that is also used in warhammer online.

    cast-chains. so not all spells/skills are always useable. you have to cast other spells first, e.g. the swordmaster’s bladedances (correct term?..i want to play shaman.so i have no idea if it’s right ;))


  7. Zerikin’s got it right on the money, it’s better to make the skill weaker and usable more often, then strong and on long CDs. These skills are just plain uninteresting.



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