Tobold's Blog
Monday, November 24, 2008
Class balance

In its most basic form, combat in a MMORPG is a simple comparison of damage versus health. If you do 500 dps (damage per second), and the monster you are fighting has 10,000 health, you will need 20 seconds to kill it. There is some random variation, but it is relatively small. So to find out whether you can kill a mob, you just need to figure out how many seconds it takes you to kill it, and reversely how many second it takes for the mob to kill you. The one killing the other first wins.

No imagine another character having half your dps, but twice your health. Any monster you can kill, he can kill too, only it takes him twice as long. This consideration was often the basis of class balance in MMORPGs when comparing for example Mages and Warriors. They could both kill the same mobs, but the warrior dealt less damage in exchange for surviving longer. Over the years the problem with this type of balancing became obvious: Yes, the damage dealing classes were exactly as able or unable to kill a specific mob as the tank classes. But as they killed each single mob in less time, they killed 1,000 mobs in much less time too, and advanced in level faster.

In it's latest incarnation, World of Warcraft changed to give the armored character classes more damage: Paladins, Warriors, and Death Knights now don't lag that much behind Mages, Hunters, or Warlocks in the time it takes them to kill 1,000 monsters. But while that balances leveling speed, automatically the survivability becomes less balanced. Thus my Warrior can solo mobs 7 levels higher than him, in non-epic gear, while my spellcasters have a lot more problems, in spite of their epics. So now Mages complain when they group with a Death Knight, that the Death Knight is dealing the same damage as they do *and* is harder to kill.

The matter gets even more complicated once we consider groups and healing. Even the simplest tank'n'spank instance boss will, during the time a group needs to kill him, deal more damage to the tank than the tank has health, often several times more. The reason the group still wins is that there is a healer, who constantly refills the health of the tank. For the boss to win, he not only has to remove all the health of the tank, but also all the points the healer can heal, which can be 10 times more. So if you consider points healed as additional health, in solo combat you could say that a healer has far, far more health than even the sturdiest warrior. The problem is that while the tank health and damage mitigation is passive, leaving the tank free to deal damage, the added health of healing is only achieved by active casting. In group combat a healer might deal no damage at all. In solo combat my priest can survive 100k of damage (if it comes in a slow enough stream), but only by constantly healing himself, thus dealing no damage at all, and thus ultimately losing the combat. For a healer to win a solo combat, he needs to balance healing with damage dealing, using part of his mana and time for either activity. If you made a healer deal as much dps as a mage, again the mage would justifiably complain that while the classes are balanced in how much time it takes to kill 1,000 mobs, they aren't balanced in survivability.

And I haven't even touched the even more tricky problem of PvP and crowd control. My priest recently got attacked by a retribution paladin in PvP, got stunned and died before being able to cast even a single instant spell. A tank with passive damage mitigation survives such an attack much better than a healer, who needs to be actively casting to heal himself.

So the fundamental underlying problem of class balance is that a MMORPG is not just one activity, but many. It is hard enough to balance classes for one activity, but downright impossible to balance them for all activities at once. By increasing the damage output of the classes previously specialized in tanking and healing, Blizzard is laying itself open to criticism from classes specialized in damage dealing. If everyone deals the same amount of damage, then why do some classes have damage mitigation or healing or both, and others don't?
And people wondered where the mage inferiority complex came from..
Survivability is a pita to balance around. Because in a lot of PvE situations (ie. when you have a tank taking the damage for you), it is completely irrelevant as long as the fragile classes are tough enough to solo.

So you could create a glass cannon mage that did twice the damage of the armoured classs and it would be totally overpowered in groups where it took no damage so it's limitation never came into effect.

We used to see this a lot with healers. There are 4 healing classes in WoW but some are more survivable than others (paladins!). The amount of healing they put out is roughly similar though. Back in TBC, priests felt that they were the glass cannon healers who should be balanced with better healing skills but what actually happened was that they got outhealed by paladins too. The 'balance' was restored by Blizzard putting in more encounters that specifically played to their strengths and giving them access to better survivability skills and gear, not by giving them the more powerful spells that players probably wanted.

I'd expect to see the same for pure dps. They'll be balanced by giving them more survivability, not more damage. (Although crowd control is part of the survivability thing.)
I totally agree with the philosophy on survivability, it's quite frustrating to play a glass cannon, when paladins end up being titanium cannons, who can in most circumstances stand in for the tank if they've pulled agro. Since WotLK one of the best tanks i've grouped with for an instance was a retri pally, who managed to hold agro purely because he was doing nearly twice the damage of anyone else in the party (at the time i was full epic geared +1250 spell power as a mage).

In my opinion, the best way for Blizzard to 'balance' these things are to give us talents or spells that help us survive, for a mage these are Frost nova, dragon's breath, blast wave, cone of cold and the slowing effects of the frost tree to some extent. These are the tools that we use to survive, but in most cases they are nothing like as effective as more armour / life or the ability to heal.
I play a Death Knight at 80 and I'm of the opinion that we need that extra survivability to be in the thick of things AEing like we do. I have to be in the midst of the mobs taking splash damage to do proper AE dps, while the Mage can safely Blizzard away from 36+ yards.

Speaking of which, in order to maintain DPS that is within the range or surpassing that of a Mage, I have to be completely on top of my game and flawless with my rotations. A DK is not going to out-do a Mage unless they are playing well. I see no problem with this and if the Mage is also playing their best they will likely pull ahead. This is precisely in line with what the Blizzard devs intended, where skill is more a factor in overall damage contribution than class.
I'd like to see future MMOs implement dual-effect abilities in an attempt to balance PvE and PvP. The tooltip could say something like:

"Against mobs: inflicts 100 points of damage
Against players: inflicts 50 points of damage"


"Against mobs: dazes for 30 seconds
Against players: dazes for 10 seconds"

Ok, those are simple examples, but such a system has the potential to mitigate many of the awkward PvP balancing issues that are seen in WoW, or even give a modicum of depth to WAR's PvE.
In my opinion the problem is the combination of pve and pvp in one game. In raids (or proper played instance groups) it doesn't matter that one DD is wearing plate and another is wearing cloth, because they will both take no hit from even a single trash mob. In such an environment they need to do equal damage, otherwise one would just take the clothie with more damage because the advantage of the platewearer doesn't count other than for a tank.
But if you balance it that way the platewearer becomes an unstoppable killingmachine in pvp where he does equal damage AND is more sturdy.

@Myrix: Splash Damage is not reduced by plate mail (with the exception of cleave, which you should never get hit from). That means basically you would be fine wearing cloth with a bit more stamina ;)
I'd like to look at this from another perspective.
If the mages and other ranged dps are complaining give them a heal ability. Doesn't have to be big but just enough for PvE, a bit like the ability herbalism gives. Of course that's what bandages and potions are for already so why would they feel the need for more?
Let's be blunt here and exaggerate a little bit: pure dps classes generally play a class that allows them to do a simple job. Move when told to, CC a target with your assigned mark and other than that just keep nuking using an optimal spellrotation that hardly ever varies. This doesn't take a lot of brains as evidenced by the jokes about hunters. Whining about how low their survivability is means little me. Roll a class that requires fast reactions and dedication in groups and we'll talk again.
@Unwise: I know that I read somewhere that Blizzard took great pains to avoid the scenario that you describe. To them it is of extreme importance that the numbers you see in both PVE and PVP are comparable and that it all feels like you are playing the same game. I know for me I like knowing approximately how my gear stacks up and what I am capable of before even beginning. Its a good reference point.

As far as class balance goes, I think Tobold is mostly right but needs to consider more factors. At the lease we should talk about utility, which could cover things like crowd control and escape mechanisms. Tanks and damage dealers often deal with these issues very differently.
One of the things you touched on lightly but actually plays a large factor is control. For example, being able to stop the ability of something to produce damage may be equal to absorbing that damage. So if a Rogue for instance can stun a mob for 5 sec, during which time that mob would have produced 2500dmg, then the Rogue effectively has absorbed 2500dmg - increasing their effective health by that amount. The situational uses are there and play a major factor in class balance. To ignore it and focus on straight mitigation and output doesn't paint an accurate picture.

I'm not saying that an adjustment isn't needed, because I don't know. However, the argument laid forth here is flawed.
''If the mages and other ranged dps are complaining give them a heal ability.''

Honestly that wouldn't surprise me. Blizzard has given all the classes CC abilities and now they have changed so that all specs of all classes can dps fairly well. Is it just me that feels like the classes are becoming more and more like each other ? Atleast I enjoy that my character has a special roll in some kind of way, and I don't want that to be taken away, if you give mages a heal all the classes apart from Rouges has a self heal I think.
I think more fun and strategy could be added to the game by giving different classes strengths and weaknesses to different types of damage. For example, a mage could naturally have higher resistances to certain types of magic where a plated melee-dps type would be even more vulnerable than if he/she were clad in a t-shirt. Rogues could be highly resistant to nature damage as another example.

In any case, I think as long as there are differences among classes, pick will pick and choose and find flaws and complain -- they see it from the perspective of a particular class/talent tree rather than the overarching view of the whole game of all classes in all situations. Wow was originally quite varied but over the years, complaining masses have gotten Blizzard to water every class down to basically the same.

Perhaps getting rid of talents and letting players choose play-styles based on gear only would be better -- or even talents only rather than gear. When presented with a simpler set of possibilities, people would be less inclined to pick out differences among classes.

I wonder, when classes are too similar, if people will start complaining that they should be more different again. We'll see!
"In my opinion, the best way for Blizzard to 'balance' these things are to give us talents or spells that help us survive, for a mage these are Frost nova, dragon's breath, blast wave, cone of cold and the slowing effects of the frost tree to some extent."

Try playing a resto/elemental shaman, you have zero change to survive without 400+ res. Even then you can't do s**t to them back. WoW is probably the least balanced pvp game when it comes to 1 on 1 or even 2 on 2 encounters.
I believe that Blizzard went with the old "rock-paper-scissors" balance system. And it's pretty easy to balance than other systems. Tanks > physical dps > clothie casters > tanks. The circle is closed:) And it seems to me they tried to balance pve around that system (which is more of a pvp-centered balance).

I am wondering if Blizz made it like that just to encourage casual players who don't pvp much, so the class such players are fond of could kill some other classes with lesser skill.
Example: frost mage vs. protection warrior. Or warrior/paladin vs. rogue.
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