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Tamriel Infinium: Hybrid penalty, Elder Scrolls Online?

Larry Everett , @Shaddoe
The Elder Scrolls Online intends to do some shaking up of the traditional MMO combat system. Other MMOs have done this same thing in the past with varying degrees of success. Class balance, however, seems to be the ever-present issue with any game that has to deal with cooperative or conflictive multiplayer gameplay, even more so if the game attempts to do both like most MMORPGs.

With the fast-action, limited ability, skill-based combat system ESO intends to produce, how do the developers at ZeniMax best prevent one of the most dreaded by-products: the hybrid penalty?

Tamriel Infinium Hybrid penalty, Elder Scrolls Online
This discussion should start with defining what exactly a hybrid penalty is, but before we get to that, perhaps I should define what I mean by hybrid. Broadly, hybrids cross any of the traditional MMO roles with each other. For instance, if you have a DPS that can also heal or a healer that can tank, then you have a hybrid. But the definition can be stretched to include classes that perform abilities beyond their primary roles. Maybe your mage climbed the DPS skill tree to the top, but because mages have a healing tree, as well, your mage happens to have healing abilities. I would also consider this -- at least when discussing the hybrid penalty -- a hybrid as well because those options are available to you even if you never use them in combat.

The hybrid penalty as I have seen it usually applies to DPS classes, although I have seen it work the other way as well. Let's study my fictitious mage example. In PvP, hybrids can be fun and interesting. The individual fights are short and incorporate the use of a wide variety of abilities. In PvP, it might be possible for our mage to line-of-sight a potential enemy and heal himself, if not to full bar then at least significantly, then jump right back into the fray. In PvE, because many fights are DPS races, it would be rarer to see our mage use his healing ability because any time he is healing cuts into the amount of time he could be DPSing, unless the heal doesn't respect the global cooldown. For the sake of this discussion, let's say it does respect the cooldown.

Tamriel Infinium Hybrid penalty, Elder Scrolls Online
Many MMOs tend to balance based on PvP, causing many unfortunate changes to PvE. For instance, our imaginary mage would likely output less DPS because PvE and PvP base combat calculations on two different items. Time-to-kill tends to be the de facto measure for PvP, and boss enrage timers tend to be the measuring stick for PvE. Because of the additional healing abilities of our mage, the time-to-kill factor would weigh heavily in the mage's favor if he faced off against a pure DPS with no healing abilities, assuming the overall DPS was the same. So to counteract the imbalance in PvP, many developers will lower the overall DPS output for our mage so that the time-to-kill factor is roughly equal. However, I'm sure you can see how that could put a damper on the PvE side when the goal is to beat an enrage timer. Now our fellow mages are raging because the archer is the preferred class for raids. But archers are happy because now they can beat mages in PvP and obviously they get called to do more raids.

In the Elder Scrolls Online, this balance of power becomes an even greater challenge because builds have multiple trees to factor in. As I mentioned last week, each class has three possible combat trees, but armoring also has its trees, as does weaponry, and to a lesser extent, so does race. It's possible that there will be more, but those are the ones I'm sure of at this point. Because a player will be able to mix and match all these skills and active abilities, it makes it possible to have a class like the Nightblade (rogue), which is traditionally a DPS-only class, tank or maybe even heal. Not only that, but according to the commentary from the livestream in August, a player may be able to switch roles in the middle of a fight simply by switching weapons. That, even by the the strictest definition, is a hybrid.

Honestly, I cannot wait to see this type of hybridization work in PvP. Each battle, whether one-on-one or in a large group, should be extremely fun and interesting. However, how is this balanced in PvE? Some games, like RIFT, are held up as the pinnacle of hybrid combat and class balancing. And although my personal experience in RIFT is limited, the tales I've heard from experts suggest that RIFT did it right. Unfortunately for ESO, RIFT plays more like a traditional MMO. Guild Wars 2 probably relates more closely to the combat style that we will see in ESO. For instance, an Elementalist in GW2 can switch from DPS to heals by simply swapping stances, or a Guardian can hop from survival (tank) to support (healing/buffs) by switching weapons. Because of the lack of solid trinity roles and because of the extreme flexibility in each of the classes, GW2 dungeons have often been criticized for either being over-tuned or a zergfest.

Tamriel Infinium Hybrid penalty, Elder Scrolls Online
At the same time, GW2 does not have a clear distinction between PvP and PvE abilities, which leads us to the question I posed last week: "It's a given at this point that not every skill tree will fit nicely into both PvE and PvP, but how do you think that should be handled?" So I thank David14 for his not-so verbose answer in the comments to a question that I defined as a "kind of a deep one that has to do with class separation."

"Just keep PvP and PvE separate," he said.

Although that's a great idea on the surface, it is extremely broad in scope and really doesn't offer any specific solutions to the issue at hand. Did he mean that there should be separate zones for PvP and PvE? If so, it's done and in game already. It's more likely that he was talking about abilities, which would be fine, but how do you distinguish PvP and PvE abilities? Do you create separate trees and give players equal points for both types of trees? Or would giving abilities different results in PvP versus PvE be enough? Woolydub appears to lean toward the latter example when he says:

I'm all for skill splits between PvE and PvP. That way PvE isn't getting buffs or nerfs based on PvP meta and vice versa. It makes combat more interesting overall in the long run too, as classes may have different ways to play in the same tree when the tree is different in PvE than it is in PvP.
Thank you, Woolydub for answering my question again this week. For all the readers here, I want to pose a similar question: Based on the examples and explanation above, how would you go about balancing roles to prevent a hybrid penalty? If you have any other comments or questions, post them in them below as well. I will do my best to answer them, or maybe I will feature one in next week's article.

Tamriel Infinium Stepping into the world of The Elder Scrolls OnlineEach week, traverse the treacherous terrain of Tamriel with Larry Everett as he records his journey through The Elder Scrolls Online, an MMORPG from ZeniMax. Comments are welcome below, or send a message to He promises to keep the arrow-to-the-knee jokes to a minimum.