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A Cycle of Change...

Tim Dale

Logging into Guild Wars for the weekly guild night this Tuesday saw a bit of an unwelcome surprise; the personal fallout of the latest in a very long line of skill balancing patches. As a Mesmer, I'd generally done quite well out of these in recent months; a somewhat less popular class than most, they had seen quite a bit of improvement over a number of months, but this latest patch saw 'Visions of Regret' and 'Cry of Pain', two very potent skills I use almost all the time, significantly reined in.

Of course the initial reaction was one of personal indignation, coupled with envy at the perceived winners of this round of adjustments. It isn't fair! A moment of reflection however and I began to consider more than just my own side of the thing, and perhaps for the improvement of the wider game, the changes to these specific skills might indeed have been warranted, and in any event, those imposing the changes were sure to have far more data at their disposal, and a view of a much larger picture than me.

Balance is something all MMOs seek for themselves and their players, and yet very few achieve a state of equilibrium, in which all players share equal potential, equal possibility and equal enjoyment. Can the cycle of buffs and nerfs ever please everyone, or is an continual procession of patches a sign of life and vibrancy that the single player off-line game lacks?

I'd always been fascinated with the idea of patches. Starting from early EverQuest and continuing through to today, the idea that a fixed and finished product, such as a computer game, could still remain malleable and in a state of continued growth and development was stunning. At regular intervals, we would all hold our breath and wait anxiously to discover what the patch notes would bring and our game would change in subtle ways.

Sometimes it would be fixes. This in itself went a long way toward justifying a monthly fee for me, a concept which was difficult to swallow in my early MMO gaming, and one which still deters potential players today. Naturally, the game should not be broken in the first place, but developers are human and mistakes occur. By the very medium on which we played, the Internet, updates and adjustments could be delivered too. An almost organic process, it did indeed seem as if the game itself was actually healing in some fashion, and as the months and years progressed, becoming more robust and more complete, which in comparison to the off-line games that came before, was an almost miraculous thing.

This ability to fix on-the-fly does have down sides though; where an off-line game of the pre-MMO era would get one chance to get it right, the modern MMO is often released to the public in a much more questionable state, with the understanding that any missing features or broken content can be fixed later on. Perhaps the convenience and easy availability of the patching mechanism relaxes standards somewhat?

Patches also provide new things. Extra additional content can be delivered to the customer in an almost incidental manner. The original Asheron's Call is an old MMO, but a consistently updated one, and has delivered 108 content updates, making the Dereth of today a markedly different place to the Dereth of 1999. Clearly, the use of patches to regularly increase an online world and its options goes a long way to justify monthly fees, and we increasingly see the concept applied beyond MMOs; most current console titles have some form of 'DLC' available these days.

"No-one likes being hit with the nerf stick."

But what of those aspects of a game which are not broken, but when played in earnest by real customers, turn out to run counter to design intentions? The exploit is a distressing fact of life in almost every new MMO, simply because not every possibility can be reasonably foreseen by an MMO designer. When a world turns out not to be used in the way the developers thought, the patch can come to the rescue once more. Here is it used not to fix or expand a game, but to steer its course and to adjust its intentions and expectations. This is usually a very contentious matter; no-one likes being hit with the nerf stick, and often the overall improvement of a game comes at the expense of specific features or play styles.

In games that have them at all, classes are a frequently adjusted thing, and many sets of patch notes have the familiar breakdowns. We all scramble to see what has been done to us, and what others are getting, as a continual process of balance is applied, seemingly without ever being reached. Did we win? Who got shafted this time?

Running on an assumption that all players should be equally potent and useful, but in fundamentally different ways, a given class can see all manner of tweaks and changes over their months of play, some good and some bad. It is possible that the very things that make one class different from another will mean that no functional balance between them can ever be achieved, leading to frustrating and repeated rounds of buff and nerf and general upheaval in the ranks as a result.

Perhaps it is not a balance of power that is sought, but a more even distribution of players among the classes on offer. Unpopular classes may be made more attractive with increases in power, or over-subscribed ones toned down a bit through specific patches, both measures which can be applied to create a more balanced pool of potential group members.

In games with no specific classes, these kinds of lever are more subtle, but still exist, typically revolving around the tools and equipment with which basic gameplay is conducted, and these things can be dynamically altered as the overall design demands.

"In general "They" aren't out to ruin our gaming."

A philosophical approach is helpful when it comes to patch day and in general "They" aren't out to ruin our gaming. These attempts at balancing often run in cycles, and patch day losers might well be winners next time. In a genre that many seek out specifically because the worlds and rules change so much, a certain mental flexibility and willingness to adapt are essential for long-term play; when the patch notes give you lemons, those who can shrug and craft Greater Elixirs of Zestiness are likely to have a better overall experience.

There are limits however, and even four years on, disgruntled ex-players of Star Wars: Galaxies mutter darkly about the Combat Upgrade and New Game Enhancement. In these cases, the combined effect of the two patches was so dramatic as to significantly alter the very nature of the game itself, something many players could no longer bear.

So a kind of balance of our own is sought, in response to the attempt at balance presented to us by an ongoing MMO. The MMO adapts to us, so we adapt to its adaptation. Truly game-redefining patches are generally rare, but it is up to us to decide which those actually are, and how to act on those changes. In most cases we can take them in our stride with no real upset. In some cases, a change in our play is the appropriate response; rolling a new alt, for example. In the most extreme cases, a re-evaluation of the game itself is in order; is this suddenly new game still worth sticking with, or not? In all cases, the accumulation of patches means that we are rarely playing the same game we initially signed up to.

I'll probably be okay with two changed skills in Guild Wars, but who knows what the future may bring? Have the patch notes ever pushed you too far? Or have they enticed you in for a second look?

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