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Behind the Mask: The Melee Conspiracy

Patrick Mackey

The controversy never seems to end in Champions Online. The big changes to the Might, Martial Arts, and Supernatural frameworks went live last weekend, and people just can't stop talking about them. There's also been some general changes to melee outside of those frameworks as well.

As one might imagine just by a cursory glance at those threads, the forums are quite abuzz with opinions on these changes. There is quite a bit of positive things to be said about the changes, but the overwhelming feeling one gets from reading the forums is that the changes are horrible. Everyone has something they don't like about them, myself included. Still, we can't help but wonder: is it a step in the right direction? Is the doomsaying as bad as people make it out to be?

Hit the jump, and we'll look at things from a different avenue.

One thing I'm not going to do here is hit every change in grand detail. There are dozens of changes, and there's a few consolidated threads that cover the main issues, and they do so with a lot of detail. The other reason why I'm not talking about the specifics is that they are extremely likely to change over a time span as short as the next few days.

One of my personal opinions on patching is that one should start with things that are too good and slowly dial them down. If something is too good, people will latch onto it, exploit it, and generally explore it as much as they can. They'll have a lot of fun using really powerful stuff, and it lets you get a lot of good test data because people love playing with stuff that makes them feel strong.

Unfortunately, Cryptic is taking the opposite approach here. Most of the changes are too extreme and make powers feel too weak or too hard to use. It lowers the likelihood of people wanting to test the changes and leads to gigantic forum threads full of rage.

Quite possibly my largest problem with the patch is the emphasis on "spreadsheet balancing." Balancing using a spreadsheet involves setting up a list of rules and formulas for how an ability in a video game (usually an MMO) should behave. This is almost universally a bad idea.

Spreadsheets don't cover for gaming nuance -- if math could be used to balance games, we wouldn't need MMO developers to make balancing passes in the first place. Balancing competitive games requires deep inner knowledge of the game flow, and how individual tactics are implemented and countered. On its own, math doesn't do the job. Each power in the game has to be looked at, both by itself and in concert with other powers. Math can be meaningfully applied to balance, but it can't take the place of practical trials and testing.

As an example, I'm going to point out the new version of Sword Cyclone. It's the Tier 3 power of Dual Blades, which is supposed to be the ultimate expression of the set's strengths. It hits everything around a character in a whirling tornado of sword slashes.

The version on Live works in concert with the Dragon's Wrath attack, which puts you in a Momentum state. After going into Momentum, the cost of your powers is reduced, and you gain a little bit of energy with each hit. When you use Sword Cyclone, you hit a lot of guys very rapidly, and when it costs less and gains energy back, you become a mini tornado of death for as long as you keep hitting enemies. This combo creates a certain level of harmony and synergy between the different elements of Dual Blades. This harmony is fun and rewarding, creating a positive feedback loop for the player.

The version on test is an absolute mess. Sword Cyclone's damage was increased, but at a huge cost. Momentum was removed for all Martial Arts powers, and the cost of Sword Cyclone was raised dramatically. It costs nearly 60 energy to run Sword Cyclone for one second and the average martial artist character probably has less than enough energy to run it for two, especially when the inflated start-up cost is factored in. If one compares the old version to the current, the old version feels like a whirling tornado of ownage. The new version feels like a lawnmower that just won't start.

This might be alright if we were talking about a patch designed to fix an obvious imbalance. If the devs came up and said, "Hey, Sword Cyclone is too good, let's nerf it" I would completely understand this change. I might not agree with the change, but at least I'd say that it was what the devs intended.

The current change was not, according to the developers, a change aimed at nerfing Sword Cyclone. It was a change meant to bring Martial Arts and other melee powers up to par. Unfortunately, Dual Blades' dependence on Momentum wasn't something covered in the dev's spreadsheets, so when it was removed, the set just fell apart. Also, the spreadsheets required that when Sword Cyclone's damage went up, so did its cost. The result is a power which just fails to work.

Most of Martial Arts and Might were "rebalanced" in a similar manner. Nearly every buff has a tradeoff, and most of the tradeoffs are worse than the original issues with the powers.

I will absolutely admit that not all of the changes in the first pass are bad. Havoc Stomp's knockback that scattered mobs to the four winds was changed to a knock up, keeping enemies tightly clustered around a hero while retaining the crowd control powers the stomp already had. The damage was also increased. This raised the energy cost (due to spreadsheet balancing), but this is less of a problem for a Might character than it is for Dual Blades.

Other good changes include the nerfs to Laser Sword and Gauntlet Chainsaw, the removal of recharges on most melee powers, and the overall tone of the new Bestial Supernatural set. I'm personally a little sore about the nerfs to Laser Sword, but on the whole it's a change for the better.

The best change, the one that I think truly had some inspiration behind it, was something totally new. The Howl power, a brand new addition to Bestial Supernatural, has a lot of wonderful interactions. If I had to use only a few words to describe it, they would be "satisfyingly overpowered."

I use the words "overpowered," but that's a compliment. There's some debate about whether certain elements of Howl are too good. This, in my mind, is where a power needs to be.

Howl is a PBAoE fear, along with a party Enrage buff. These two things seem simple, but they work in a lot of different ways. First, Howl lets you maintain Enrage more easily, especially when out of battle, and gives a slight damage buff to teammates in range. The PBAoE fear lowers incoming damage by a small amount, but it also gives good synergy with other powers that work based on fears, making every Howl a blast. It has a long cooldown, but not too long. Everything in this power has a very handcrafted feel. It's obvious that thought and effort went into the construction of this power.

There are plenty of ways to make melee fun and effective, and I'm definitely not suggesting that I know all of them. In fact, I'd suggest that as a general rule, players cannot balance games. Players spend a lot of time with the game and figure out lots of neat and cool things, but players can't be trusted to make unbiased arguments. The act of balancing powers rests firmly in the hands of the developers, but they need to do a responsible job.

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