Behind the Mask: What does unbalanced even mean?

One of the major criticisms of Champions Online is a lack of game balance. People claim that the phrase "your own hero, your own story" doesn't cover the fact that your hero might be a gimp compared to someone else's. Although archetypes have their own balance issues (even among themselves), this complaint most commonly leveled at the freeform game where there are millions of possible characters.

However, I think that most armchair game theorists have a terrible understanding of what "balance" even means. Decades of competitive gaming (yeah, I'm that old) have given me a comprehensive understanding of what the term means, and I think it's worth looking at how CO stacks up.

What balance doesn't mean

The first incorrect definition of balance is "all options must be equal." At best, it's boring, while at worst, it's impossible. The only way to really make this work is to give players only one option; for instance, removing all races in StarCraft other than Terran. People like choices, and even with just one choice, certain tools will still be more useful than others. If your character has a fast jab, a spinning roundhouse kick, and a fireball spell, you can be absolutely sure that one of those tools is more useful than the others. It's just the nature of options: More options means less balance. CO has definitely gone in the other direction by giving players hundreds of different powers. We want this level of options, so our definition of what balance is has to change.

The next incorrect definition of balance is "there can't be FOTMs or top-tier options." I shouldn't really have to go into this one; if you have a number of asymmetric choices, there will be choices that are better than others. The more choices you have, the more likely that there will be a top tier of abilities that form the core of the game. In an ideal game, the top tier of character choices should be very large so that players have many viable choices.

Another one I hear a lot is "all options must be viable." Unfortunately, this isn't a standard of balance. It's unfortunate that there are abilities that are poor choices in any game. It is a designer's responsibility to minimize this as much as possible because otherwise the game punishes players who make poor choices. However, if the top tier of options is large enough, the state of the bottom tier options doesn't actually matter. Players learn not to select those options, and the ones who do are easily identified as bad or inexperienced. The top-tier balance is much more important; if there are a lot of playable high-end options, people will naturally gravitate toward those.

I need to emphasize this more. Not all options need to be viable, particularly in a game like CO where there are hundreds of options. There will always be a subset of powers that perform worse than the top-end comparable powers. I don't really think it's possible for a game like CO to have that kind of balance. I do think that, as a whole, the developers could do a better job. There are a good number of "junk" powers that are generally avoided by expert players. These weak powers could be buffed, but there are still plenty of options that are available in high-level play.

Balance starts at the top

The first key element of a balanced game is a lack of dominating options. This doesn't mean there can't be a top tier of power picks or classes. What it means is that there can't be a small subset of options that invalidate large amounts of the game. In other games, these dominating options might come in the form of perma-CC or insane burst damage. In CO, perma-CC is difficult to maintain on someone, and insane burst is only threatening to squishies.

The first major suspect of this in Champions is Dragon's Wrath. DW is a single-target melee attack that deals very high damage and ignores half of the target's normal and bonus damage resistance (or defense and block resist). Because DW is buffed by Focus and fuels Rush, it's practically a Swiss army knife that destroys the enemy regardless of defense and fills your energy bar while it works. However, DW has its weaknesses. It's a single-target melee attack, making it exclusively used for PvE bosses or PvP. In PvP, DW is easy to kite without mobility debuffs, and unless the DW user is squishy (sacrificing defense for offense), it's hard to land kills against a skilled enemy. There are quite a few counters to DW, and because one of them is skill, it's hard to call it a game-breaker. It can be troublesome to new players in PvP, and thus it's commonly considered unbalanced. As one learns to kite and deal with melee, DW becomes less of a win button although it is still a serious threat.

Although DW is one of the more popular targets, I personally think that utility powers -- namely IDF, Bionic Shielding, and Support Drones -- are a much bigger problem.

The second major element of a balanced game is sort of a consequence of the first: There must be a large number of viable options and strategies. While it seems like the best PvP builds are DW spammers at a glance, that's really just the lowest common denominator of PvP. Most experts use a variety of builds.

The top tier of Champions PvP is fairly broad and encompasses everything from glass cannon nukers and brawlers to nigh-invulnerable tanks. The polar opposites aren't the only viable builds, either; tanky-DPS such as Defilance- and Ruin-tanks have been popular since their core powers were first introduced. If we include all PvP modes, healers become godly in gametypes like UTC, King of the Hill, and Stronghold. PvE also is a totally different beast; while many PvP tools also work in PvE, there are many options that are excellent in PvE exclusively.

This leads to a truly massive pool of viable powers. I would wager that over two thirds of the powers in CO are truly useful -- meaning unique and not obsoleted by another similar power -- which more than qualifies the top tier as balanced. Even PvP, which is generally lauded as being unbalanced, is actually quite balanced once you understand what the top tier is.

One of the many criticisms of high-level builds in CO is that they are all cookie-cutter, but this could not be further from the truth. There is a large proliferation of powerful popular builds such as Pesti-Defile spam, DW brawlers, or Invul/dodge tanks, but these are popular more because people are uncreative and less because they're the best options. In particular, Pesti-Defile builds are popular right now due to the Infernal changes. While people are claiming that Infernal builds are unbalanced, most high-level players understand that they simply fill a new niche that bad players haven't learned to deal with.

Is Champions Online balanced?

It all comes back to whether or not CO is a balanced game, though. I personally think that it is too complicated a game to know for sure. There are a few problems that I see as serious issues, but the game has sort of evolved around those issues' existence. For instance, I feel that players are required to have Acro/TP as their travel powers in PvP, and all other choices are awful. Most people have just evolved around dealing with Acro/TP and the occasional flier (we call them "free lunch"), but I think that requiring players to use the same two travel powers to be competitive is a serious design problem.

I also have a lot of issues with the three core utility powers (BS/Drones/IDF) as they are too powerful relative to their competitors. Support Drones allows players to ignore health management, and Bionic Shielding is simply too powerful compared to other self-heals such as Conviction or Resurgence. IDF is just power without gameplay and should be removed in favor of a more active ability.

Enrage and Focus are obviously a balance issue and I'm sure the devs know. I'd like to see more emphasis put on it, but they both require pretty big overhauls of core gameplay systems. I'll be upset to see the current Enrage removed entirely unless a comparable equivalent is added for ranged characters (ideally with more drawbacks).

Overall, I think CO is playably balanced, in PvE or PvP. I do think there are some problems, but they aren't game breaking, except in duels. I'm not sure how to reconcile that.

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.

This article was originally published on Massively.