Unique or Cookie-Cutter? How to Solve the MMO Class Balance Problem
There have long been many debates that have raged within the mmorpg games we love to play. Players have endlessly argued about the merits, or lack thereof, of crafting, player housing, open world PvP, and much more. One facet of online games that always gets more than its fair share of scrutiny is the question of class balance. It's a given whenever a new online game is being developed that players will continually ask how mmo class balance will be achieved. Over the years, a number of classes in mmo games have been labeled as overpowered (the Iron Breakers in Warhammer Online come to mind) and others too weak. Will this debate over mmo class balance ever end, and how should developers look at this issue? We put on our thinking cap and ruminate on how to solve the mmo class balance problem.
The whole notion of there being an mmo class balance problem didn't come around for a few years after the first crop of online games appeared. The reason for this was simple: the first major mmo games like EverQuest and Ultima Online were heavily influenced by pen-and-paper role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. These tabletop rpgs brought the whole notion of distinct classes to life, and they were not balanced at all. Each class had unique abilities, such as thieves being able to disarm traps and pick locks while only clerics could cast healing magic. As such, a party was composed of a number of gamers, each of which were more than likely playing a different class. It was how these classes worked with and supported each other that led to success. Such was the case in older mmo games that required the trinity of DPS/healer/tank to succeed. Probably the one genre of online games that really showcase this interlocking network of abilities now is the moba, as exemplified by League of Legends, where specific champions work in conjunction with some champions more so than they do with others.
The ongoing debate of the mmo class balance problem really began with the rise of structured PvP. The first gamers were quite used to classes being unequal as they came from a tabletop rpg background, but later gamers were raised on the online rpg experience and not pen-and-paper games, so they began to expect that classes would have equal survivability against other classes on the virtual battlefield. So how should developers respond to the whole mmo class balance problem?
The first option is to ensure that all classes are equal, which requires a great deal of tinkering. No one class should be a marked bit stronger or weaker than other classes in the game. This is how a lot of gamers view the solution of mmo class balance should be. However, I think that they're wrong, and I have a different take on the entire mmo class balance problem.
My solution to addressing mmo class balance is to ignore it entirely. Yes, you read that right. I've been gaming since 1981 when I first started playing pen-and-paper role-playing games, and I eventually moved into online games, diving into titles like World of Warcraft and City of Heroes. Personally, I find the entire idea of enforcing mmo class balance to be laughable, which probably comes from my dice-slinging background. When I first started playing AD&D, I would play a thief if I wanted to be sneaky and get past traps and locked doors. I did not play a thief to be a master of inflicting damage (even though getting the lucky backstab in could work wonders). The same was true for playing a fighter. I expected my fighter to hit hard and be able to take a lot of punishment, but I knew I wouldn't be casting spells and my saves versus certain magic types were not the best. Wizards were always incredibly squishy, but they could unleash tremendous spells if prepared. The point is that each class played totally different from one another, something that is lost in today's mmorpg.
When you artificially enforce mmo class balance, you strip away the ability for each class to be unique. I played a rogue in Dungeons and Dragons Online and Neverwinter because I wanted to disarm traps and pick locks, yet I found that most games treat rogues as just shadowy assassins. Only a tiny fraction of games, such as Elder Scrolls Online, allow rogues to be actual rogues and steal stuff. Just look at various vocations in the real world. A Navy Seal is a much more fierce combatant than that of a neurosurgeon or computer hacker, but the latter vocations have skills that the Navy Seal does not have. Why would an online version of a doctor, hacker, or musician have somewhat similar abilities in battle than someone who exclusively trains in being the best in killing people?
My overall point in how to fix the mmo class balance problem is that developers and players alike should embrace the differences between classes. I would love to play a bard that could jam out to many different musical instruments and play a wide variety of songs both in and out of combat. I wouldn't care if such a bard got their butt kicked by a pure fighter or assassin; in fact, I would expect it. I would enjoy the fact that those classes could not play a lute or bagpipes like my bard could. The same goes for every type of class: rogues, fighters, wizards, rangers, clerics, assassins, and so on. They should each have unique opportunities within a game to do something that every other class could not do. The problem with this approach is that it takes a lot of effort to pull off, and many developers don't feel that the effort is worth it as players will continually whine about mmo class balance. One of the great joys of Star Wars Galaxies was that gamers could play the mmo in the manner that they wished. There were quite a few players who spent their time playing entertainers, hanging out in cantinas as musicians and dancers, working for tips from other players. For a game to succeed in ignoring mmo class balance, it has to feature multiple ways of interacting with the game and leveling. The sad reality is that such an approach is rather rare today as gamers only acquire power by killing things and finishing quests.
The whole debate of the mmo class balance problem will continue to rage. The turning away of gamers from true sandbox-style games to theme park titles means that classes will continue to be rather generic and somewhat similar to one another in order to achieve that mythological mmo class balance. Personally, I would love to see an end to this approach and have developers create truly unique classes that don't share the same survivability rate. However, I foresee that most players will continue to harp and whine about classes being balanced, no matter the effect that such an approach has on limiting class originality and distinctiveness.