Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The fallacy of class balance

I read this article on Rob Pardo’s presentation on Blizzard’s approach to MMOs. Of course, any such presentation is immediately subject to critique by the masses and I’m no different.

One of the prevalent themes throughout the whole presentation is this idea of “balance.” I heartily agree that a game that is unbalanced is flawed and steps should be taken to address balance issues. In particular, class and itemization balance are critical to long-term success.

However, he also points out that: “Perception of fairness. Your game may be completely balanced on a spreadsheet, but if the players perceive it differently that doesn't matter. You need to be aware of these perceptions when you make changes -- you can't argue with a million people on your forums and player opinions are going to spread.”

And therein lies one of my biggest pet peeves. Blizzard clearly kow-tows to the most vocal objectors. It’s not important that they are in the majority, simply that they are very vocal about it. Blizzard doesn’t get the opinion of a “million people” they get the opinion of the couple of thousand that make complaining on the forums a life goal. Part of the fallacy here is that there will ALWAYS be objections about balance. As he himself points out: ”For players, change is almost always bad.”

They may not look to the forums for the SOLUTION, but they clearly look to it for guidance on PERCEPTION. The point here is that perception has nothing to do with balance and if you consistently kow-tow to perception, then you will never achieve balance.

In my day job, much of what I do is about maintaining the correct perceptions with our clients. My role in MANAGING the perceptions is to correctly set and manage expectations. If the client misinterprets something and perceives something other than as it exists, then I failed in my role of MANAGING those expectations.

Ironically, part of the solution is in the idea that ”for players, change is almost always bad.” In other words, if you were to make sweeping class balances changes less frequently, then people would simply adapt to the current environment. As they became accustomed to that environment, the need to complain would lessen.

Nearly every single patch has had something in it that addresses balance. I would rather they work on refreshing old world content to make it more relevant or added net new content (like new gear models) than continuously throw monkey wrenches into balance issues. Instead, pick a few marquee moments of the year where you will do a sweeping “class review” in order to a) keep talents/skills fresh and b) provide resolution to the ACTUAL balance issues. Clearly, the exception would be hot-fix type things that are blatantly unbalanced (even to your “spreadsheet”).

When you DO execute class balance changes, you do it infrequently and make it a big deal. Gather up input, put that input into internal tests, take the top options that make sense to you and ask for community feedback on those types of changes. Provide a couple of solutions of your choosing and explain the logic and reasoning for why they work. In other words, allow people to have that voice by opening up a dialogue with them about it. Set aside a timeline that people can follow: Taking input in May for internal discussion, class review polling in June, testing in July, release in the Fall.

In my mind, the fault here is in how Blizzard communicates to the community. They completely bungle perception and expectation over and over. I know one of the things that inflames people is that CMs will often post in meaningless threads and leave the hot topics alone. One simple way to solve that problem is to make it clear that CMs are empowered with NOTHING and are little more than moderators for the forums.

Instead of “Blue” text, they post in “Orange” text and the little Blizzard icon tagging the thread is something else. Save the “blues” and the “blizzard tags” for a handful of top level people who are empowered to actually impact the game. These are your people with some inkling of public relations and are empowered to make “promises” that will be kept in the community. If you have a really hawt issue going, have one of these types post a “these are good ideas to toss around on internal test.” These are also the people who made the decisions and can adequately defend them. So if someone starts hating an idea, then “We ran that idea around in internal test and found it wasn’t feasible because…”

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