Balanced For

A level of difficulty entails certain assumptions. Problems arise when those assumptions do not obtain. Most difficulty settings assume some level of experience, either in player skill or numerical balance.

Numerically, a new raid tier assumes a certain gearscore, probably that almost everyone on your team has a partial set from the last raid tier. You could shoot lower or have a DPS check that assumes full tier 12 before you have a reasonable chance at tier 13, but that will lead to easy/difficult raids. The new raid will also assume that you already know all your class abilities and how to use them to counter common situations. Hard mode for the new raid will assume that you have beaten normal mode and know all the mechanics.

Pixel click bosses assume that you already know everything the bosses can do. Well, no, they don’t assume that, but beating them is balanced around that. You are expected to research or fail the first few times until you know what that icon means. If you have the time and resources to spend on first-hand research, you can be a trailblazer. If not, the wiki and Youtube are there for you. If difficulty were tuned to give you a reasonable chance walking in blind, you would probably find the fights trivial when you did not need to spend two minutes reading abilities and thinking about how they interact. (LotRO’s “In Their Absence” update did many things very well, including hitting this balance of fair bosses.)

When I say that Guild wars expects you to have the wiki open, I mean that the difficulty of encounters is tuned around players’ already knowing what those encounters are. You can beat many/most of them going in blind, and the mastery reward almost certainly involves knowing the encounters once you are past the tutorial missions. Later missions are balanced around the assumption that you have capped your equipment and that you have taken time to farm elite skills. With the right skill setup, missions can go from a 5% chance of success to a 95% chance of mastery. Even the hardest missions are not balanced around the assumption of the perfect build, so the perfect build can make it trivial, but an all purpose build may not work for all purposes, and it certainly might not get you to the mission bonus needed for the titles.

Most of us come from a single-player game background, and the “gotcha” moments there are so common that it is actually shocking to have a one-phase final boss. Oh look, I needed to bring two entirely different weapons to the final fight, and I lost half my health for not leaping away from the boss the instant he died. Yawn. Okay, learn how phase two works, then re-load and re-do phase one. Let’s hope we didn’t waste too much time on phase one. Do I sound bored? I’m bored with it. It’s both obvious and nigh impossible to plan for, so the game is effectively taxing you X minutes by not having a save point between boss phases. You know it’s going to try to screw you over, just like you knew a big fight was coming when you found the stack of health and ammo.

That moment is far worse in multi-player games because it needs to be balanced around everyone knowing, so being the one guy who does not know means ruining it for everyone. That’s not fun design. You face lots of situations where there is a briefing before the fight and half the players are just following orders while trying to get some sense of what is going on here. That’s not a lot of fun as either the leader or the follower, and there is a narrow window for groups that already know each other to explore collectively without anyone feeling dragged along or held back … but you’ve already heard my rants about games that need you to bring all your own friends and fun to work (short version: so you might as well play anything because the game is not carrying its weight).

The numeric balancing is clearer. You can demonstrate that X DPS or Y gearscore is needed to reasonably beat a fight. The developers could even post that on the entry screen. Skill and knowledge balancing is much harder.

: Zubon

9 thoughts on “Balanced For”

  1. as a passionate guild wars and offline rpg player i feel dps and gear scores are far worse than knowledge based difficulty. the only other option is a reaction speed based difficulty and i personally enjoy a more relaxed approach. i liked the way dragon age 2 handled that. its difficult, but you can always choose to pause the combat and prepare your next moves, so it doesnt get to hectic while still beeing challenging. sadly, that really isn’t an option for mmo’s, so you can’t set up an action based combat system with real difficulty, since you would loose a large portion of the playerbase.

  2. Oddly I always thought everquest did it best, and WoW was much better at it to begin with.

    There was a time in MMO’s where the ability to think on your feet made a difference – and with a limited skill set (from a much larger skill pool) allowed you to change how your character was facing the enemy.

    I guess I like design that lets you be flexible – as in … oh we don’t have ‘x’ for this fight… but ‘z’ can fill in just not as well – that means ‘a’ ‘b’ and ‘c’ need to do things just a little different – not ‘call the raid’

    WoW fights are always so tightly tuned and the scripts so on rails that unless you vastly outgear them you have to play the fight the same way every time – and any mistake can wipe you.

    It’s odd but I always found the moments when 1/2 the raid died and we came out on top anyway more epic and fun than the ones where no one died because if even one dps went down we would loose to enrage… and that’s with the healers nuking as much as possible….

  3. I think lotro is a great examply of heavy raid penalties for (a) not knowing what to do, and (b) many phases in a boss fight. This makes learning a new raid boss more tedious than fun.

    Saruman T2 is good example — you will piss away many hours on this raid. And once you do learn it, yes you will piss away more time because it just takes one person in twelve to make a single mistake and party wipe, start over. My favorite is a ring bearer being punted over the tower edge in phase 4 — no amount of player skill can recover from that.

  4. All these problems highlight how far (MMO)RPG gameplay has strayed from “making a series of choices and watching the world react”, to where it now wanders on the border of bullet hell Shmup and tightly scripted console FPS cinematic experience.

    I like to imagine that in a “real” (MMO)RPG, a fight would be defined by the sum total of all the player choices – not rigidly scripted by the devs. Which tank did you bring (and what are its weaknesses)? Which healers have you got, and how can they fail or succeed? What gear did you choose to wear (as in, what bonuses and drawbacks does it have, not “is it high enough iLevel”)? “Did you choose to stealth kill the gate guard, bribe him, or sneak in the sewers?”

    Hell, maybe I’m just feeling cranky because no one makes the sort of game I want. I’m not saying modern MMORPGs can’t be good games, but they’re certainly not to my taste, and not what the genre promised us a decade ago. Nor do I think they live up to even a small fraction of their full potential as they are currently conceived.

  5. Tight scripts can be fun though, if you’re playing with people you know and who don’t get over-upset. That’s quite hard to engineer – one emo and the fun falls apart. But with the right people it’s like learning a dance and quite pleasant. That said, the most fun I ever had raiding were always those occasions when a lot went wrong and there was enough wiggle room to pull it together. Again, I think the personalities involved made the difference. Hmm hard to judge this – think I’d go for more wiggle room and less tuning.

  6. Yeah, I’m going to bring up GW2.

    [fanboy evangelism]
    According to the designers, the combat mechanics are built around making sure things “go wrong”, in the totally awesome fun way that Delurm and Avatarsofsteel mentioned above. Step 1 was getting rid of aggro mechanics. If the blog posts are to be believed, monsters attack whoever the juiciest target is, not necessarily the guy with the metal bucket on his head.
    [/fanboy evangelism]

  7. It’s why I prefer running the “Override Transfer Array” sites in Eve incursions (which are basically short raids). Those sites mix the order up a bit and things can go wrong. Four times in five you’re just going through the motions, but the fifth time the FC and logistics (healers) need to be on their toes to manage the situation.

  8. WordPress is giving me trouble posting comments at Spinksville, so I’ll just comment here: Ooh, or what about content balanced around cash shop consumables? LotRO was accused of doing so several updates ago, although I find myself less concerned about the F2P games where content is obviously so balanced. Insert $0.25 to continue.

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