Balance Friction in Multiplayer Games

Since (as you may or may not know), I’ve been playing competitive online video games for quite some time now – more than a decade, I have a MP theory I came up with while debating class homogenization on the SWToR forums. In reply to one of my posts, a community user posed a question:

My question to you Dvvx is:

Do you think in terms of balance, gameplay mechanics, loot tables and difficulty scaling, that it’s much easier to balance out an MMO with having classes that lean much more to a pure side rather than a hybrid side?

It’s important to understand what the poster means by both pure as well as hybrid, so I’ll do my best to give a Cliff Notes explanation.

Pure classes can be equated with the Trinty in this case. The Trinity, by definition is an RPS system: the rogue beats the cleric, the cleric beats the warrior, the warrior beats the rogue. Balance is inherently part of this system because by definition a cleric could never beat the rogue. Similarly, when playing Rock-Paper-Scissors, paper never beats scissors. As a real-life example, in RuneScape (a popular MMORPG) melee attacks are effective against ranged opponents, ranged attacks are effective against magic opponents and magic attacks are effective against melee opponents. RuneScape calls this the “Combat Triangle”. This system traditionally favors teamwork.

The hybrid system is what one may call Free-For-All. A game system where all players/units get the exact same set of abilities/skills/strengths/weaknesses. A perfect example is Chess. Both players start with the same 16 pieces that have exactly the same abilities. As far as online games go, Quake is a great example. A game where everyone has access to any gun, any power-up or any ability. This system traditionally favors individual skill.

But going back to the initial question, I think that both difficulty scaling as well as gameplay mechanics and loot tables all have balance as their common denominator. Essentially that’s what I decided to look at. What happens to balance as you go from a Rock-Paper-Scissors approach of the classes/units/players to a Free-For-All approach? The answer, I think, is a somewhat complicated one, but can be summarized by this graph:

Several relationships are instantly recongized: making a Chess-type of game, as well as an RPS-type of game is easy (from a balance perspective). As a matter of fact, most games are one or the other. Since PC games (and video games in general) are more advanced when compared to their deck-of-cards or board counterparts, they always tried to push theoretical boundaries.

Ergo, what we are left with is essentially an optimization curve (a parabola) that represents the difficulty of bringing balance to a game system (represented by the Y-axis), and the game type, where the negative values of the X-axis represent an RPS game and the positive extremes of the X-axis represent a fully homogenized game. The sweet spot is the apex where the two paradigms meet.

Imagine a game where all “classes” are viable against any other “class”, and yet every “class” feels unique and different and can fulfill a specific role. Starcraft(2), in my opinion, is one of these games that has almost perfected the art of bringing these two paradigms together. The races are different enough to feel very unique, but they are viable against one another. Although some remnants of the RPS system can be seen, most professional SC players would agree that RPS is not Starcraft’s paradigm. What do you think?