When I as a kid growing up, there was a joke that went sort of like this:
How do you drive an idiot crazy? Put ’em in a round room and tell ’em to pee in the corner
I didn’t say it was a good joke.
Nonetheless, the concept of a seemingly accomplish-able task (peeing in the corner) made impossible by its context (the round room) serves as an interesting illustration of an issue that has seemed to vex our Turbinite developers since the very beginning of the game. Here, I’ll paraphrase:
How do you drive a Turbine developer crazy? Give them a bunch of character classes that are each designed to be distinctly different and order the developer to make all of them equally effective at killing the same monsters. While retaining the uniqueness of each class.
Yeah, that’ll happen.
And yet they are at it again. With a many-pages thread explaining how they are going to nerf/enhance/modify/buff a bunch of character attributes. Again. In the name of balance.
So we get a constantly swinging pendulum where today a specific class dominates, but tomorrow that awesome build must be shelved as a new dominant class emerges.
I am over-simplifying, DDO does not feature dominant classes so much as it does dominant builds, and builds tend to incorporate two or three classes. Plus specific enhancements and a selection of epic destiny abilities.
The whole thing is an endless chase where today we bump up one set of abilities, and maybe pull back on another set. As time passes and players figure out the most useful combinations, another class or build or set of abilities will rise to the top and the process is repeated. Over and over and over.
Why? Why do we do this?
There is a quick answer – if one build/ability/feature clearly dominates then that detracts from the fun of everything else. Yet I am skeptical.
Take for example the spell Cloudkill. When it was first introduced, it would remove enemy Constitution without doing any hit points of damage. The monsters were not coded to notice that they were losing stat points, and would sit there in the cloud and melt away without ever reacting. To make it even more effective, back then having a zero Constitution meant you died. So a caster could, with practice, learn how to sneak near enough to cast Cloudkill but remain far enough away to avoid drawing agro. The entire group of monsters would die, without ever having a chance to fight back. Slowly, sllloooooowwllly, one tick of Constitution loss at a time.
It was agonizing if you were not the Cloudkill caster. All you did was walk around the quest and wait. If you were in a group that was using that style, you would get yelled at for trying to do anything active. But that last sentence contains the solution to the problem: “if you were in a group that was using that style”.
That was the solution. Do not join groups that were going to Cloudkill everything. It was easy to do, even back when Cloudkill was at its very peak. Just don’t do it. Just avoid those who insist on it.
Boom. Problem solved.
And that was as big of a balance problem as DDO has ever faced. Except, no it wasn’t, not really, not for people who actually wanted a solution. I remain convinced that there is a faction of the populace that does not really want a solution; they want it to be their turn to be the Cloudkiller, and make everyone else wait while they win the day. And of course in every public forum there is a faction that really just wants the drama and doesn’t truly care about the problem at all, not so much as they do their ability to raise a fuss.
So, if even the most obviously out-of-balance and completely overpowered ability does not actually ruin the game, why do we continue to put so much effort into balance? Do you think that there will ever be a stable balance between the classes? Is this an attainable goal? Does anyone truly believe that this is possible?
I do not. I think it is a fools errand, and I think that the developers must know this too.
Which leaves what? Churn? Is that it? Is it good for the game if people have to modify their characters every so often to keep up? Is that an intentional design pattern? Make it so that no one can simply build a character and then use it like that forever?
We already have a gear churn, and always will, new gear will always be coming out and we are always going to want at least some of it. Always. The gear churn is in play forever.
Do we need a character build churn too? Are we being set on this treadmill on purpose? Is character build churn a design intent?
Could they even tell us if it was? Or does it have to be a secret by its very nature?
What do you think?