Somewhere, on a lone computer in a lonely room, sits the archetype for a balanced MMO, one in which every set of abilities in a skill-based MMO is just as useful as every other set of abilities and every class in a class-based game is just as potent as every other class. There are no disparities in terms of power level, no massive gaps in gearing, and no issues with the specific fights. It is an entirely balanced machine.
And as long as we're creating a myth with no place in reality, let's assume that it's being guarded by unicorns. That's the problem with balance -- it's an idea that doesn't actually work in a real environment. We talk a lot about wanting games to have balanced systems, and there are players devoted to declaring with great fervor that classes aren't balanced against one another, but balance is such a hazy concept that no matter how much you want a balanced game, it doesn't really exist.
Part of the problem, of course, is that balance is a pretty nebulous construct -- or at least one that allows for a great deal of individual preference to seep into any given definition.
The circle of the definition debate was pretty clear in World of Warcraft. You start with someone claiming that "balanced" would be attained when every class does the same amount of damage in the same amount of time. Of course, someone would then counter that this was still unbalanced because it meant that hybrids such as Paladins were actually better than pure classes due to their better survivability and such. True balance required those classes to deal slightly less damage than the classes that could only deal damage. And then a third voice would crop up, saying that you should also be getting more damage from melee classes instead of ranged classes, since melee classes have to spend time to get into range and move around more during fights.
Each one has a point, but together they create three versions of balance that can't be reconciled. If you balance so everyone deals the same damage, melee classes and pure damage classes will claim that the system is unbalanced. If you balance so ranged damage is weaker, ranged classes call for better balancing along with people who think every class should be equal. There's no way to appeal to everyone's idea of what a balanced system should be.
Of course, this might not seem like such a big deal. Sure, this is something of an issue, but if the development team clearly states a definition of balance up front, you can at least assuage some of those complaints, right? But trouble with definitions is just the tip of the iceberg.
In every game that allows it, stealth is a mess. Whether it's something unique to certain classes in a class-based system or something that almost anyone can access, being able to sneak past enemies undetected causes problems. It's hard to deny that it's a valuable ability, of course... but should it be taken into account for balance reasons?
I'm not talking about doing more damage when attacking from stealth. I'm talking about just pure stealth, just sneaking past things without being detected. If it's a class ability, then it's usually one of the defining elements of your class. In a skill-based game, you presumably gave up another ability to pick it up. Obviously, both of those elements argue in favor of stealth being equivalent to any other ability, and thus it should be taken into account. Characters with stealth need to trade something for the ability to stealth.
But stealth also deals no damage on its own. Particularly in a freeform system, treasting stealth the same as an active power that deals damage is problematic because it's really just a utility thing. It makes navigating areas easier. Make it detrimental to your overall character abilities, and people will opt away from stealth, making it almost completely useless. Even in class-based games, no one wants to pick a stealth class only to find that she's less effective than non-stealth classes because of it, even if her character build barely uses stealth.
Stealth isn't the problem, though; it's a symptom. Ranged versus melee damage is a similarly intangible issue. In some games, the former is a clear advantage. In others, the former is really more of a flavorful distinction than anything. And in all games, there has to be some parity between the damage types, some way for players to feel like they aren't irreparably screwed because they would rather take part in ranged combat rather than melee combat or vice versa.
And keep in mind, all that we're talking about thus far is just plain damage, the most straightforward thing to balance for and understand. Tanking and healing are entirely different cans of worms, and that's assuming your game just follows the holy trinity model. Every added layer of complexity increases these issues exponentially.
The environment matters
Thus far, all of the problems of balance I've discussed exist in a vacuum. Unfortunately for creating a balanced system, games aren't played in a vacuum; they're played in the midst of certain kinds of content. And that again is going to cause huge issues based on what you might think are innocuous little details.
Case in point: In City of Heroes, a lot of powersets that deal Smashing or Lethal damage are considered a bit weaker than other powersets. It's not that the powers themselves are much weaker; it's the fact that enemies are a bit more likely to have some noteworthy defenses against those damage types, since they're fairly low-key and realistic. By contrast, Psionic damage winds up running roughshod over chunks of the game because several enemies have virtually no defense against it. Even though the set isn't dealing more damage in concept, it winds up more powerful in practice.
The devs could just tone down the abilities that wind up being more powerful, right? Except that the power is all tied into the environment. Drop Psionic damage by 10%, and the powers are more in line... until they wind up against enemies with some resistance, which do exist and will suddenly flatten the wielder. The only option is to completely rebalance the environment, and even that becomes ridiculous if you remove the whole appeal of certain powers over others in the name of balance.
Even if everything works fine in a controlled environment, stuff can become unbalanced based upon the environment. And unfortunately, the only real way to fix that is change the environment. Give every class a turn in the sun, and everyone gets mad whenever someone else has the turn. Give one class love in an environment and make the next one more neutral, and the people who've never been in the sun will be upset. And all of that is assuming you can even get the balance just right for a specific environment.
The unbalance is part of the game
All of those issues make for a lot of hurdles to jump just to get things into a state of perfect balance. And to be quite frank, I don't think they all can be jumped. I think that no matter what developers do, MMOs are always going to be tuned and balanced to the point that they're good enough, not to a mythical point of perfect balance that arguably doesn't exist.
Part of that, in fact, is because that environment wouldn't be nearly as fun.
One of the fun parts of MMOs is trying to make your characters as good as they can be. In a truly balanced environment, this may very well be impossible. No ability is any better than any other ability. To achieve total balance, you reduce the set of correct character choices down to a minuscule set of options, and that makes the overall gameplay a lot less fun.
No, it's better to keep things a bit more unbalanced, to let some classes or abilities be just a little bit better, and to embrace the idea that nothing is ever going to hit perfect equilibrium. If it falls too far out of equilibrium, it needs an adjustment, but the idea of perfect balance is a nice goal that just can't be hit.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!