A while back Taugrim made a post on his blog here [taugrim.com] which pointed out the potential for population imbalance on PVP servers in SWTOR. In it, he makes this statement:
The three things that I have seen kill World PVP in other games have been:
- Crappy class balance, which causes individuals to quit (so far, not a significant issue in SWTOR, although the JK/SW’s should get their CCs earlier)
- Crappy world PVP implementation (can’t comment on this, haven’t experienced Ilum yet)
- Population imbalance, which causes different issues on both side: boredom for the zergy faction, frustration for the gets-zerged faction (there is significant risk here for SWTOR, given that it’s a 2-faction game)
His first point about crappy class balance got me thinking along a track that I’d been kicking around since before I quit Rift. Taugrim touches on this with his comment about “crappy class balance”, but I think the problem goes much deeper than simply killing world PVP.
Basically, one of the most destructive forces in modern MMOs is the class system itself, because the difficulty and foolishness in providing a perfectly balanced game combined with class communities simply rip the game’s community apart. That it isn’t because class systems are worse for actual game play than classless systems (because they generally aren’t), but rather because of the fact that they are Massively Multiplayer Online Games.
Its the human element that ruins it, and that’s important because the human element of community is what keeps people playing (and paying for) the game.
Lets first agree that a player creates an extension of themselves when creating a character in a MMO, and they often pour hundreds of hours of blood, sweat, and tears into their characters. While its not legally true, in a very real sense the character’s successes, failures, reputation, and even in game wealth belong to the player. All of this effort provides an attachment to their character – and thus to the game itself.
However, a class based MMO forces special restrictions on the character (and thus the player). For instance, class based systems frequently prevent a player from fully reacting to metagame shifts and game balance changes. The player is almost certain to resent negative changes, even if the changes are required for the good of the game. Rightly or wrongly, this resentment often makes people feel like they’re playing a losing hand.
In the worst cases (sometimes via self inflicted Fad Of The Month chasing), people re-roll alts to play while their main character is on ice. On the positive side, this behavior allows the player to “experience” (read: blitz) the intro parts of the game from a new perspective. However, much more importantly it deprives them of access to all of the advantages and prestige of their main character – from their level and equipment to their in game skill/muscle memory and even reputation.
This deprivation – caused because the class system forcibly prevents the player from adapting their character to the new environment – breaks the player’s attachment to their character and thus the game itself. The ability for players to adapt around broken and inefficient areas of the game means that players in a classless MMO can often slip around issues that become absolutely critical to a classed MMO’s long term health.
Class Imbalances Affect the Game – and Community
Its pretty obvious that class imbalances legitimately affect the game in a variety of ways – ranging from the way that the game is played to the way that the metagame is played. For instance, a class that’s perceived as not performing isn’t as likely to be accepted on raids – effectively providing a barrier to participating in group content (either PVE or PVP). This has several knock-on effects that tend to create feedback loops exacerbating game balance problems – whether large, small, or merely imagined:
- An underperforming class is played less often, if for no other reason than its less fun to play a game where you frequently lose “unfairly”. On the other hand, overperforming classes are frequently played because winning is fun.
- Class scarcity can make abilities which rely on a certain “critical mass” for optimal performance can become nearly impossible to pull off. But class overpopulation can make it trivially easy to execute certain mechanics that are impossible to counter for all intents and purposes.
- Classes which rely on or play off of the over or underperforming class’ abilities are similarly affected – and this propagates even further between other classes
- Under performing classes frequently lack the population “critical mass” to create active communities, and what community does exist tends to be bitter and angry. On the other hand, over performing classes often have vibrant, active, and helpful communities.
The interesting thing here is that a classless MMO simply sidesteps most of these problems. That’s not because there can’t be role imbalances, but by virtue of allowing any character to fulfill any role. The barrier to entry for participation in group content simply evaporates as the players adapt their characters to the new game environment.
Sub communities almost always spring up in a properly functioning MMO community of any size – and in class based games these communities tend to revolve around classes. The existence of these communities make tons of sense too, because people who like the same parts and roles within the game are likely to want to talk to each other about it. Invariably these communities will also spawn their own community leaders, because some people just have a lot of time to post and are just as good at communicating and teaching as they (hopefully) are at the game.
Two of the more obvious examples I can think of are Taugrim [taugrim.com] and Dissb [dissb.com]. Both of these guys are great guys, both sharp as a whip, and provide great value to their respective communities. Furthermore, they provide great value to their game community as a whole because they try so hard to learn the minutiae of every class.
However for every Taugrim and Dissb we see in a community, there are countless other people that cover spectrum in temperament and skill – each having wildly different expectations for what they are wanting to give to the community and get back out of it. Most want to be constructive by engaging in general dialogue and sharing experiences with people who share similar interests. Others want to be a pain in the rear and be generally disruptive… and really that’s to be expected in any online community.
However, the real problems with class communities don’t start until there’s a perceived game imbalance – and there will always be a perceived game imbalance. Sometimes, its because there’s a real imbalance, sometimes its because of a disadvantaged situation and a Rock / Paper / Scissors / Lizard / Spock [wikipedia] balancing approach. And sometimes its because the skill differential between your highly visible elite players and the average can be so high.
Class Balance Suggestions – and the Metagame
No matter how or why it starts, class communities are organized and prepared to wage bitter forum wars against every other class. When there’s a widely perceived class imbalance, these communities assault and flood every forum from general to the class specific to ensure the problem has high visibility. The quality of posting is highly variable – from objective comparisons and concrete examples of how and where the class balance is less than optimal to :raeg: poasting, ultimatums of unsubbing, and outright trolling. And, of course, there’s also going to be countless ideas for how to fix the perceived game imbalance.
Some of these ideas are going to be made by reasonably smart people with solid understandings of that part of the game. These ideas range from extremely insightful and balanced to subtly imbalanced – either because the author’s experience is too narrow and they’re “in the weeds” with the problem or because the author is out to meta game the dev staff into shifting the game imbalance to favor their class and play style. The result is extremely predictable regardless of whether the poster is operating in good faith: people from every side rush to defend their own positions. These forum fights are the ones that I’ve seen the most energy and anger poured into – hundreds and even thousands of player-hours poured into individual threads chock full of fanaticism and borderline hatred.
In the end, if there’s a real imbalance the company is going to have to fix it – either to fix the community or to keep their game afloat. Afterall, nobody likes playing a loser. Inevitably, the devs are going to be influenced by the community floated ideas and general community atmosphere. The situation frequently deteriorates to the point that by the time the devs have come up with a solution on the testing server that there’s active efforts on the player base’s part to sabotage and misrepresent beta testing results. In many ways this is the source of “knee-jerk” balancing and the creation of the FOTM cycle.
Its simply undeniable that these kinds of fights create animosity and divide the community. Furthermore, these forum brawls and dirty tactics are inevitable because of the high stakes being played for – losing an argument can result in your character or play style being buffed to godhood or nerfed into obsolescence. In a class based game this can mean months at a time of sacrificing the reputation, gear, and wealth that you’ve spent literally years building.
Really, it makes no sense to forcibly create these anger filled subdivisions within your community by introducing a class system.