How simplicity and decision points lead to a more balanced game:

Balance. It’s a simple concept, but extremely difficult to attain. Regardless of the difficulty, I think most of us can agree that balance should be sought in most games, especially multiplayer games. When there are some options that are so much better than the rest, they effectively crowd out any other options because the advantage they give is just too great to be ignored. Likewise, when there are options that are like other things but strictly worse, ones that sound good but in practice are not, or ones that are just plain terrible, you narrow the system in the same ways. Nobody wants to suck. Guild Wars 1 was kind of a mess for balance. I’m not saying this to rag on ANet, it is still far more balanced (especially in PvP) than many other MMOs out there. They did a great job (IMO) balancing the system that they created, and that system had some good design decisions behind it that helped in some ways and hindered in others. Fortunately, ANet has a fresh slate to make their new game and they appear to have taken many of these lessons to heart.

“Wat?! ONLY 10 SKILLZ!??# NO WAI!”- Restricted skill bars

Trollface

Non-GW1 players often complain about the small skill bar compared to their MMO of choice. After all, when compared to WoW, only having 10 skills at a time seems rather limiting. What can you do with only 10 skills? People like getting a huge collection of skills as they level up. Guild Wars players can attest that the answer is “Quite a lot”. It is a systematic design decision that affects all of the skills created in the game and when you think about it, it can be quite helpful.

Limiting to only 10 skills (or 8 in GW1) alters the design of skills. No longer do you have to balance the fact that a new skill can interact with 40 other skills to potentially create something broken. There are no huge skill chains that can occur, the maximum possible is 9 other skills. Even better is the fact that those 9 other skills are also tightly regimented. Healing skills only need to be balanced against other healing skills because they take up the same design space. Elites have to be balanced against other elites. Sure, there has to be an overall system balance, but such a change would be more of a matter of tweaking all related skills in the same way rather than having to identify one problematic combo/skill.

Limiting active skills also adds in a different layer of complexity for players. Instead of trying to remember which skills are mapped to which slots and having a million choices all at once, players instead need to create their own synergies. Anyone who has ever played a CCG knows what I mean. Building a deck is just as important, or often more important than the playing. You have to account not only for what you have that works well together but also learn what your weaknesses are based on your choices. Do you want to be really good at one thing but have a glaring weakness, or do you want to sacrifice some focus to gain a “take all comers” style. When you have access to all skills without penalty, this effect and choice is vastly diminished. In a CCG, there is often a minimum deck size, and either a higher maximum size or no max at all. Good players will tell you however that there is a penalty associated with having larger decks even if they have a card for every situation: your odds of drawing what you need go down quickly the more cards you have just in case. It also makes synergy much weaker for the same reason. In MMOs however, that isn’t a drawback and so that element of strategy is gone.

A more subtle effect is that it also lessens the gap between the ultra-skilled and the noobs. I don’t mean to suggest that skill is bad, nor do I mean to suggest that we should be handicapping the good players. What I do mean however is that having a huge gap in power between someone who can use all of their skills perfectly vs someone who doesn’t or can’t leads to very tricky balance situations. It leads to situations where a skill might be overpowered when used perfectly, but not that big of a deal when used “normally”. How does one balance this? Making it weaker for the pro might well make it completely worthless to everyone else, or perhaps even to the pro. Killing a skill should never be the answer; it just limits the game further. Sometimes it is a necessary evil, but it isn’t a desirable one. You see this often in games where there is a supposed drawback to something that has the potential to be more powerful than another option, but the drawback can be overcome with skill. While that may sound good to someone who is awesome, the reality is that if you can get good enough that the drawback disappears, then that item has become overpowered. Nobody who is using the same setup except for that game element will be able to compete with you even if they are just as skilled because you have an element that is simply more powerful with no effective drawback. It is an easy pit to fall into. While this can still happen with limited skills, a smaller skill bar lessens the factor of one group being able to fully utilize their bar and another not being able to.

Further, the fact that each skill slot has a pre-set selection of skills available for it is a huge relief for balance. Simply knowing that every build will have 5 weapon skills, 1 healing skill, 1 elite, and 3 utility makes balance a world simpler. You don’t have to account for the Monk that takes all heals, no heals, half heals half prot, half smite half prot, or all healing plus shield stance or a shadow step. How do you balance monks so that all of those can work? Well… you can’t. And that’s the point isn’t it? Veterans of GW will simply be able to dismiss 90% of the builds upon looking at them and knowing they suck. How do they know? Thousands and thousands of hours of play time. Most people don’t have that luxury, and even if they did, is a 90% rejection rate desirable? Not really.

As I wrote about in the Excommunicating the Trinity post, forcing a healing slot is wonderful both for balance and for getting rid of the trinity. Shifting the responsibility of healing to each player means that it is much easier to balance how much damage a profession should be able to take, how much they can mitigate, how much they can avoid, and how much they can heal. Knowing that a Warrior’s prime source of healing is its own skills means that you can design them to soak lots of damage but heal slowly or infrequently instead of worrying about whether a Monk can or will heal it to full instantly on demand. It’s a big part of why some classes were not so good in GW1- if they die too quickly, a Warrior just outclasses them by default because Monk healing was so strong.

Some may still question whether they can feel active and interested with ‘only’ 10 skills. Pointing towards GW1 where you only have 8, I can tell you that you can. Pointing towards LoL where you only have 4 I can tell you that you can still have fast, active, frenzied battles even if all your skills have 10-200 second cooldowns. You just focus more on tactics and positioning, both of which are very intricate and require a lot of attention.

Weapon skills and sets

Weapon skills are really a simple idea when you think about it. Whatever you’re holding affects the options of what you can do. You don’t swing a sword the same way as you swing an axe or a hammer. Why does it make sense to take hammer skills when wielding a sword? It doesn’t- that’s why they are built into the weapons. Further, does a fencer use swords the same as a knight? A samurai or ninja? Not really. That’s why each weapon provides different skills for each class- because they reinforce the identity of that class.

Many people don’t like that the skills aren’t customizable for a given profession. There are really two different arguments against it, one of them I feel is somewhat valid (but a tough break) and the other I feel is less important. The less important one is that it takes away more choices in builds. “All swords for Warriors behave the same” is the argument. The first point is not actually true because of Traits, which I will talk about a bit further down the page. Aside from that though, were skills in GW1 really all that unique if they were for the same weapon? Hammer skills normally… did damage and knocked down and did a bit of something else. Many weapon skills just did varying levels of damage for varying levels of cost, and most of them were completely pointless. In fact, you could easily throw out many of the skills in the game and nobody would even care. If you are doing that, or you notice the fact that most builds with weapon X have the same 3-5 skills, you’ll notice that’s exactly what GW2 does while simultaneously getting rid of the excess pointless fat.

Further, it becomes more about what you want to do rather than what you can do with a weapon. For example, if you want to be about slow but hard-hitting attacks that control enemy movement and positioning, you just use a hammer. You don’t have to look at all the skills and all the weapons and try to make something work. It isn’t a question of “how do I optimize this weapon for my purpose?”, it’s: “Which weapon does what I want to do?”

That sort of leads into the other complaint about them, the one I sympathize with but don’t really have an answer for. That is that some people like the aesthetics of some weapons, but don’t want to be strong-armed into the playstyle. Honestly, there just isn’t much you can do about that. Even in GW1, there was some versatility within weapons, but overall they all had distinct feels to them, and if you tried to make them into something they weren’t it just didn’t work well. Basically, if it really bugs you, you’re kinda SOL. Sorry =(

The positive aspects of this system are pretty strong though. First, they make it easier to balance weapon damage and stats when they control 100% how they will be used. They allow a wide variety of archetypes and also allow the reinforcing of their roles of Support, Damage and Control via specific weapon strengths. Swords are often about mobility, axes tend to focus mostly on damage, maces focus on slow hard hits and conditions like daze, stun and immobilize, staffs are longer ranged and mostly AoE, etc. If you want to be in the Control side of the equation, staffs are going to be a good bet for casters. That’s where the beauty of weapon swapping comes in.

Having 2 sets of weapons allows you to choose your roles and effectively alternate on the fly. Both Traits and Attributes play into this heavily as well, but I’ll get to those later. Being able to swap weapons and thus your first 5 skills allows you to not only have twice the number of weapon skills, it also allows a deeper customization of your combat prowess and roles. If you want to be all melee focused, one set could have a shield for defense while the other might have mobility or damage oriented weapons. If you want a mixture, you can have one set of melee tools and another set of ranged. If you want to be able to switch between conditions and sustainability, Necromancers can quickly switch between a staff and daggers for life stealing goodness.

Traits

I see Traits as basically a way to cater to those players that want more layers of customization. Somewhat similar to Talents in WoW, they augment either generic features of a class or specific spells/attacks. Traits can add special effects to class abilities or weapon abilities that can really help to make your sword Warrior feel different from that other sword Warrior. Something I feel they did really well with was how they structured Traits.

Each weapon set gets its own Trait set. The Traits will only be active while their respective set is active/equipped. This really makes a great deal of sense and it also allows them to have Traits reinforce roles even more strongly. Traits can be tailored much better to the weapon set when you know that the Trait isn’t competing with Traits that affect other weapons. For example, one sword Trait makes Savage Leap recharge in 4 seconds instead of 8 while another Trait makes all sword attacks inflict a bleed stack. The former does wonders for your mobility, something swords are already good at while the latter makes swords more able to inflict damage and pressure. Both give more unique identities to your weapon sets and let you pick their overall focus to a much finer degree.

Aside from weapon Traits, there are also profession Traits that apply to either the unique mechanic or just all of your skills. As an example, Necromancers have 2 profession Trait lines: Soul Reaping and Blood Rituals. They have options like just flat out making the Necro more tough, making Death Shroud deal AoE damage when you enter it, making Death Shroud resistant to conditions, making life sacrifices take less health away and/or deal more damage, gaining Life Force faster, and many others. These are useful regardless of which weapon set you have equipped and they reinforce the identity of the base class. Traits allow for more depth in character customization while also having it be very structured and balance friendly. Also, since Traits aren’t in a tree-pattern like Talents are in WoW, you won’t be penalized for spreading your focus around by being unable to put points into the best top tier Talents; it just doesn’t work that way.

Eliminating secondary professions

To any not familiar with GW1, every character had two professions at any given time: a primary (which they always keep) and a secondary (which can be easily changed). There were really only 4 key differences between a primary and secondary profession.

  1. The primary profession decided how you looked- your hair styles, your face, skin color, height, etc. They also decided what your armor looked like.
  2. Primary professions also decided the stats of your armor. Warriors and Paragons both had 80 armor (the heaviest), though Warriors got an additional 20 armor vs physical. Armor also determined your energy and energy regen rate.
  3. You could only add runes/insignias specific to your primary profession or general runes/insignias. This made an effective secondary stat-cap at 12 instead of the normal 16 of the primary.
  4. Each profession got one unique stat that only a primary of that profession could add points to. Warriors had Strength, Rangers had Expertise, Necromancers had Soul Reaping, etc.

Other than that, you were able to invest attribute points into abilities for either your primary or secondary profession freely without any other restrictions. You could choose any skill from either profession, including having a skill bar that was 100% from your secondary profession (and some builds in fact did this). The main benefit of doing that was that you could have the armor values and primary stat of one profession and often that would combo well with other professions. A classic example of this is the Necro-Ritualist healer. Necromancers gain energy whenever something dies. Ritualists have pretty strong heals that are not affected in any way by their primary stat. Thus, a Necro can have a huge pool of potential energy to spam the strong Ritualist heals. More commonly people would just take one or two skills from their secondary profession to complement a build. Many Monks would take a warrior skill to have some anti-melee blocking or Assassin skills for mobility.

Therein lies the problem with balance in GW1. Secondary professions are pretty much the antithesis of an easily balanced skill system. Instead of balancing the Warrior’s high armor against the Assassin’s low armor, you have to balance those factors with the fact that any skill an Assassin can take a Warrior can take. Shadow Steps were a really interesting mobility mechanic to help the frail Assassin. Oh wait, now every Monk/Assassin can also teleport. How about teleport-spiking hammer warriors? Scythes have decent damage and can target multiple enemies. Oh wait, that sure would be awesome for the Assassin with their crit chance builds. Instead of balancing the 140 skils of a Warrior, you have to balance the 1300 skills a Warrior (or everyone else for that matter) has access to. Sounds difficult. It is.

Having multi-profession abilities is one of the most difficult things to balance in any game. It can be done, but the larger the number of non-unique items the more difficult it becomes. If anyone reading has played DnD much, you will probably know about the balancing difficulties of multiclassing. A feat that is interesting and powerful for one class can be absolutely devastating in the hands of another if it can be attained for relatively little cost (via multiclassing or any other means).

The answer of course is not to make everything boring. The answer is to make each profession have a feeling to it, a design goal and direction. Make abilities that are powerful and cool, and make sure that they can’t be abused by other classes. Taking out any kind of inter-class sharing of game mechanics allows each class to retain a unique, un-poach-able identity. I know this chafes at those who revel in system mastery; I’m one of those people myself. I always love trying to find elements that fit together to create a new design by taking apart all the vast array of options. I loved the profession system in GW1… except when I didn’t. Massive imbalances lead to complete nerfs of lots of things that made those elements pretty terrible for everyone, not just the exploiters. When certain gimmicks become the meta-game forever, its just boring. It’s kind of cool to think of the Assassin as the sly teleporting spiker. It isn’t cool to think of them as the light armored piece of paper that has abilities that everyone else does, and compared to a Warrior might as well not even be there because the Warrior can just poach the shadow steps. It’s great for the Warrior; it’s terrible for the Assassin and the game as a whole.

Wrapping up

Simplicity and structure do not imply lack of depth or breadth in a system. They do not imply a lack of decision points. What they do is make common balancing points so that the system can be much more fine-tuned for keeping things in check. Common does not mean identical. By giving more structure to the professions ANet has allowed balance to remain and at the same time has been able to have more creative freedom within each profession without having to worry about power-bleed into other professions. By keeping structure, it allows things like Traits to be able to add huge varieties of effects because their usage is narrow rather than potentially system-wide. None of this even addresses Attributes, but that’s for another post.

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3 Responses to How simplicity and decision points lead to a more balanced game:

  1. ArcherAvatar says:

    Removal of “trinity-based” class systems was definitely the first, and most important, step toward allowing for the possibility of a well balanced MMO. It doesn’t guarantee balance but, it does at least make it possible…

    I’ve been spending a couple of days “catching up” on the posts of this blog, and I have to say at this point how impressed I am with the tenor and feel of the site as a whole. This is simply another in a line of excellent, well thought out, and well written posts. This site has a prominent spot in my daily rotation of reading on the internet.

    • greibach says:

      Wow, thank you so much, it’s so nice to hear positive feedback, especially from someone like yourself! I’ll try to keep coming up with things to talk about that have already been released, but what I’m really looking forward to is having brand new content to get my opinions out on.

      • ArcherAvatar says:

        The next month (August) should prove to be a fountain of new information for everyone following the game. Can’t wait to see how the community reacts to the Sylvari week, and everything we will see from GamesCon and PAX Prime. It should give at least some grist for the wheel. 😉

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