Hyperspace Beacon: SWTOR's James Ohlen shares the formula behind PvP nerfs

Hyperspace Beacon: SWTOR's James Ohlen shares the formula behind PvP nerfs
When Update 1.2 launched for Star Wars: The Old Republic, most players witnessed some major changes to their classes. In my opinion, these changes weren't game-breaking, but they did require that some players re-evaluate how they played. Some classes were changed so drastically in this patch players claimed they felt as if they were truly playing a completely different class.

Major changes like this do not happen without reason, and from my time spent with SWTOR developers, I know that they are passionately interested in making their game the best it can be. So I asked Game Director James Ohlen some questions about these mechanical changes. In true James Ohlen fashion, he was more than happy to answer in intricate detail, and I'm excited to bring you those answers here in the Hyperspace Beacon.

Hyperspace Beacon: Diminishing returns
Massively: A forum post states that the expertise stat is now a lot more valuable in PvP than it used to be. The slope on the diminishing returns appears to be less steep now, and PvPers definitely seem to like that concept a lot more than when they would mix other armor types together in order to level out their stats. Can you explain the reason behind the changes, and specifically, what that means to players stepping into PvP with a fresh level 50?

James Ohlen: One of the functions expertise serves is to divide our PvP gear and PvE gear. For example, we don't want a situation where you want to play the PvE operations endgame, but the best way to do that is to spend several weeks playing warzones in order to get a PvP gear set. Thus, a PvP set will have significantly lower raw stats than a PvE set of the same level and will receive a budget of expertise to compensate. The bonuses you get from that expertise in PvP should effectively reverse the situation, so a player in a PvE set will be at an equivalent disadvantage if he jumps into PvP without earning the lower-level PvP gear set first.

What we found prior to patch 1.2 is that because the PvP endgame was much more accessible than the PvE endgame, many PvE guilds were using warzones to get endgame gear instead of playing through the flashpoints and normal-mode operations. In addition, the original PvP gear only had expertise on the armoring, hilt, and barrel, which made the modifications and enhancements in that gear more effective than intended in PvE.

To address these issues in patch 1.2, we increased the gap between PvE and PvP on the new War Hero gear, sacrificing a greater percentage of stats and giving more expertise in return. We also extended this to the modification and enhancement item mods, introducing expertise there and further increasing the total expertise budget. In fact, the final expertise budget on War Hero was so high that we had to retroactively add some "bonus" expertise to the existing PvP gear in order to avoid creating too much of a gap between the top and bottom end PvP players.

Unfortunately, this also meant that players stepping into PvP with a fresh level 50 who has no expertise will be destroyed by players with expertise, leading to a very frustrating experience (and this experience was already pretty rough prior to patch 1.2). To address this, we introduced a relatively cheap "recruit" set of PvP gear designed to give them enough expertise to get into the PvP game and allow them to starting earning the good stuff. As PvP gear continues to advance in future seasons, new "recruit" sets will be introduced to ensure fresh 50s always start at a reasonable point.

Hyperspace Beacon: Formula change
Prior to 1.2, the stat bonuses to damage, damage reduction, and healing from expertise were fairly even across the board. Now we are seeing pretty significant differences between those three bonuses. I understand the expertise stat is designed so that changes like that can be made fairly easily without disrupting the PvE game. What were you seeing prior to 1.2 that prompted that type of significant change?

Expertise was designed so that the damage bonus and the damage reduction effectively cancel out for two players with the same amount of expertise, and this should remain true in patch 1.2 as well. However, the way the damage bonus and damage reduction are applied changed in patch 1.2, and this resulted in the two values no longer being the same on the character
sheet.

Prior to patch 1.2, these values were additive, like so: Damage * (1 + Attacker_Exp – Target_Exp)

This system was simple and worked for players with similar amounts of expertise but breaks down for large differences in expertise values. For example, consider player A with 50% expertise fighting player B with 0% Expertise. When A attacks B, he does 150% damage, and when B attacks A, he does 50% damage. This means Player A gets a 50% damage boost as intended, but that 50% DR boost means he gained 100% survivability (player B is doing 50% damage, so he now must deal twice as much damage to kill player A).

In patch 1.2, this formula was changed so that these values are now multiplicative, like so: Damage * (1 + Attacker_Exp) / (1 + Target_Exp)

So using our 50% expertise example again: When A attacks B, he still does 150% damage, but now when B attacks A, he does 1 / (1 + 0.5) ~= 67% damage. On player A's character sheet, this shows up as 50.00% damage boost and 33.33% damage reduction, which are inverses of each other (player A deals 50% more damage to player B, and player B must deal 50% more damage to order to kill player A). Note that they'll still cancel out for two people with the same Expertise value, just as they did pre-patch 1.2.

Healing is on a completely separate balance axis, where we use expertise vs. trauma to get the healing rate we want in PvP. We were pretty happy with the healing rates before patch 1.2, but the expertise budgets on the PvP items increased dramatically, and that in turn increased the healing bonus to unacceptable levels. We considered increasing trauma to compensate but didn't like how much this penalized healers without expertise, so instead we decided to reduce the percentage of healing boost per point of expertise. The goal was that a player in full Battlemaster should end up with approximately the same percentage of healing boost before and after patch 1.2, despite the increased amount of expertise on his gear.

Hyperspace Beacon: Sorcerer nerf?
Sorcerers and Sages were hit pretty hard in the update. Some players have said, "Good, they needed to be nerfed," because there have been instances of Operatives and Mercenaries being passed up for flashpoints and operations because Sorcerers could "do a better job." However -- and I'm sure you've heard it -- Sorcs and Sages are complaining that their viability in PvP has been greatly reduced because when they face, for instance, a Sentinel, he can literally prevent them from ever being able to drop their major heal. Did this change accomplish what you'd hoped, and why do you think players are having these reactions?

We've actually answered this question publicly several times, but it seems when players don't like the answer, they keep asking hoping it will change. The fact is, Sorcerer and Sage healers were in a position where they could completely bypass resource management, which is intended to be a large factor of successful healing gameplay. In PvE, they're right where we want them. In PvP, there are ways to counter the health hit you take in managing your resources, and short of telling players what to do and when to do it, we're comfortable with how things are playing right now. That's not to say that we're "done," and things won't change again. But healers are actually closer to target than they've ever been in the past.

In PvP specifically, I think it would be a fine argument to make that we've increased the minimum skill required to play a Sorcerer or Sage healer, but currently we're not buying that they are ineffective or have less potential than other healers. What I am concerned about and have my eyes on, specifically, is that this skill requirement is too high for comfort. The difficulty in addressing this issue comes from finding just the right way to improve ease of use and accessibility without affecting throughput and resource management. Again, we're never "done," and it's likely that future changes to Sorcerer and Sage healers will aim at addressing this specific issue, but it's extremely unlikely that we'll go "whoops, we went too far" and undo what we've already done. So don't keep asking if that's what you're hoping to hear.

Hyperspace Beacon: Future changes
The post says, "We will likely take some minor to moderate action about the overall DPS being higher in the near future by adjustments to the magnitude and duration of offensive relics." Can you elaborate on what some of those changes are going to be?

In PvP, we've found that the combination of relics, adrenals, and powerful, short-duration buff abilities have led to more burst damage and shorter kill times than we originally intended. However, we are happy with the amount of sustained damage the relics offer, and our PvE content has been balanced around those values. Our current plan is to reduce the magnitude of the relic buffs but increase the duration. So they'll contribute less burst damage to a short PvP fight, but their damage contribution to a flashpoint or operation boss fight will remain approximately the same. However, this plan has not been finalized yet, and we are looking at other ways to reduce burst damage as well. So this plan may differ significantly from what eventually goes live.

Also, the post mentioned an issue with stacking debuffs. Do we have an update for that yet?

We're actually in the midst of finalizing and verifying the code that prevents like debuffs from stacking with one another. If we like what we see, we'll have this fix live "soon."

I love the overall vision for PvP in general, and it's been said that SWTOR has some of the most balanced PvP in MMOs. Where do you feel you sit with that balance currently? And what provisions have you taken to help maintain that balance or improve on it?

Balance is hard to quantify on paper but relatively easy to qualify with first-hand play experience. That means that everyone has an opinion, but those opinions are very difficult to validate. Like I've said before, all of our math comes with a great big coefficient in front of it called "assumptions," and it has a massive effect on the end result of that math. Such a massive effect, in fact, that so far whenever we find an imbalance, it's our assumptions that change and our formulas that stay the same.

Currently, we're "happy" with where we sit balance-wise in a global aspect of the game, but all that really means is that we're not up all hours of the night pulling out our hair screaming, "How do we fix this?!" Instead, we're coming in to work each day calmly asking, "How do we fix this?" That's the job, after all.

Balance going forward just means keeping up our vigilance and staying aware of current issues and coming up with valid ways to address them. Everyone has an opinion on ways to address the various balance issues that surface, but the truth is we spend the vast majority of our time finding and addressing issues that we hope to never allow to surface. The rest of the job is figuring out which fix works for the game and doesn't mess anything else up. I'm not sure it's possible to install balancing provisions (at least not any players would welcome), but we are being as proactive as possible.

Thanks, James for speaking with us. We'll talk again soon!

The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to larry@massively.com. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!
This article was originally published on Massively.