Lost Pages of Taborea: Balancing vs. viable vs. fun

Thoughts of class-balancing, class-viability and triple-class combinations have been swimming in my head lately. In the wake of RIFT's open beta, Frogster announced that Runes of Magic will be moving to a triple-class system in early April. Along with a lot of speculation on how this will change RoM, there's talk of how badly three-class combos will upset class-balancing where some already feel classes are skewed.

Viable and balanced are pretty subjective terms in the MMO genre that make it hard for any two players to be on the same page. I find it even more confusing when some make it sound like there's a mass exodus to RIFT because of -- in part -- the idea that RoM's classes are more out of tune than yours truly trying to sing Zombie. These ideas are highly speculative. I'd like to throw my own opinions in about what makes a class in RoM viable, what not to look for when trying to find balance, and why we may not want to squeeze every possible class combination into the holy trinity of healer, DPS and tank.

Viability

Saying something lacks viability is the equivalent of saying something is broken or just won't work. If the gas tank isn't big enough to hold the gas it takes to drive across the country without a fill-up, it's not viable to drive that distance on one tank of gas. Whether a class is viable in RoM or not can be determined by whether it can do any content at all or by considering how it stacks up against other classes. Much of how any one class is viewed is usually held up to how the other classes are doing. What is usually taken for granted is how hard it is to make and balance an MMO. Usually many factors are never considered. To this day, I haven't tried piecing together all the unseen factors that need to be taken into consideration when balancing an MMO.

The two biggest issues right now are that Wardens are underpowered and Scouts are overpowered. While I'm not going to argue those points here, they're still highly debatable for some. There is no unanimous decision on the players' parts. Scouts are viewed as pumping out the most DPS, and Wardens aren't keeping up with their counterparts, Knights. But that's a far cry from not being viable. All classes are still being played -- just possibly some more than others.

Class-balancing

So how do you balance the classes? Well, I don't know. If I can hit anything home with this article it's that class-balancing is a subtle dance that game developers play, and only they know all the steps. Actually, sometimes they may not always know all the steps. I've yet to wholeheartedly agree with anyone who's ever speculated on how to balance classes in any MMO I've played. It's that kind of theory-crafting that ends up sounding too vague and one-sided to me. And being a hardcore player or endgamer doesn't make you any better at it than the next player.

Class-balancing doesn't count only a class' effectiveness at running dungeons. Dungeons are an important part of the equation, but so is every other part of an MMO. Endgamers could have more experience with how a class fares in a dungeon or at high-level, but it's not a given. Players are also prone to tunnel-vision. I'm not just picking on one subset of players here -- dungeon-runners are merely one good example of how expertise in one area does not equal expertise in another. We as players can get entrenched in a specific mode of gameplay, and before we know it, all our thoughts, ideas, desires and actions are being biased toward the way we play. And half the time we don't even know it. We can't see the forest for the cloud of acrid smoke -- from the trees we set on fire. We lose perspective, we get very passionate about what we want in the game, and then we lose even more perspective.

In my online travels, I came across the idea that classes were not viable because groups couldn't finish a dungeon in the same amount of time as another. I'm assuming this suggestion includes mixed groups, but ones that have the same ratio of Healer, DPS and Tank. While I commend thinking outside the box, there are always way too many reasons to balance a class than just this one. It's also based on a specific presumption of fairness -- another word that instantly sends my fingers to convulsing, but that's for another article.

I don't know where it was ever written or shown that a good game is a game where all the classes can finish content within the same time-frame. If I ever found that game, I wouldn't play it because it would be too lifeless, overly simplistic and bland for an MMO. Class-balancing and balancing other areas of an MMO doesn't need to be fair; it needs to be fun. Whenever we reason by the fairness route, we always wind up stripping away player choice and freedom for an illusion of equality. It would turn Magic: The Gathering into Go Fish.

Class combinations

What is a Druid/Scout? A healer? What is a Priest/Warrior? What is a Priest/Rogue when I've modded him in the same fashion as a Mage and pumped all my TP into party support buffs? Am I DPS, just really bad DPS? Does that make me not viable? All I have to do is break a few concrete hurdles to get into a dungeon. Priest/Rogues are formidable characters that can hold up in PvP and PvE. A Warden is basically the Elves' Knight. It's a really fun class to play. It's a tank. What is a Warden/Scout? What's a Warden Mage? Are they tanks or DPS? Are they bad tanks and bad DPS? Does it make them less fun to play? I'm sure some don't prefer to play a Warden, but I've never heard the ones speaking up say anything except they were really fun to play.

It's going to be really interesting to see what happens in RIFT when players start reaching level-cap. RoM already has a wild balancing act with its dual-class system, but RIFT offers a mountain of combinations. One thing can be certain: No matter how many players say they want equality, they want to min/max the absolute best even more. It's one of those common contradictions in the genre. There are probably already a handful of specific classes and talent specs that are being used more than any of the rest, and that has little to do with perceived balance. I'm not trying to tell you not to play RIFT, but if you're set on giving up on RoM because you don't like the balance between classes, you may be in for a rude awakening. You'll likely be looking at RIFT through the same tinted glasses with which you view RoM.

Conclusion

MMOs are changing. Maybe we're in that interval between generations when the older ones stay stuck on the way they played in Olden Times and can't come to terms with new MMOs stirring the pot of gameplay standards. RoM's class system is different than other MMOs' class systems, and so is RIFT's. My advice is this: Don't get so caught up in the things you want to see in your dream game that you forget to actually enjoy the game that exists. If you can't have fun until all the classes are balanced the way you think they should be balanced, the loot that you think is appropriate is placed in the game, or everything is fair, then you will likely never be happy.

Each Monday, Jeremy Stratton delivers Lost Pages of Taborea, a column filled with guides, news, and opinions for Runes of Magic. Whether it's a community roundup for new players or an in-depth look at the Rogue/Priest combo, you'll find it all here. Send your questions to jeremy@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.