“Equality” is just one of those words. It’s all over the news. It’s all over people’s rear bumpers. People with different ethnicities, genders, religions, sexual orientations, levels of income, favorite ice cream flavors and middle school crushes are all vying for it. What is it? Why do people care about it? And what does any of this have to do with game design? Well, “equality” implies that two or more things are “evenly proportioned or balanced”, according to the dictionary that you probably didn’t need me to consult. All the hubbub might be related to this little document called the Declaration of Independence, which boldly and foolishly claims that “all men are created equal”. Another source, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, sagely appends “…but some are more equal than others”. What’s relevant here is that there’s a universal compulsion to have the same privileges and rights as everybody else. And this applies to game worlds as well as the one we live in, hence today’s post.
Equality in games is less about social justice, and more about players wanting to feel like every choice is a valid one. It’s one thing to be born into the world with no control over the conditions of your birth; it’s another entirely to be able to choose the circumstances of your character’s creation, and find yourself faced with options which simply aren’t optimal ones to make. In this sense, equality between various character classes and skill branches is a game design concern; there’s no point in introducing content that is simply inferior to other content, as players will never bother with it. To this end, balancing a game is an important aspect of not only allowing for variety in play without disrupting the flow of the game mechanics, but of introducing content that players are willing to experience in the first place.
Balancing a game brings with it some difficult questions, with answers that aren’t as obvious as one might like. For instance, what does it mean for a physical tank and a mage to be “equal”? Their roles are entirely different from one another. To balance a game implies that you have some metric for a character’s general worth, and that the tank’s ability to resist physical damage and mitigate damage to the rest of the party is thus tweaked until its contribution to any given team — its “worth”, in these terms — is on par with the contribution offered by the mage’s magical attack damage and effects. Establishing equality is non-trivial, in that it requires you to come up with a measurement for the “usefulness” of specific traits compared to others.
Things can naturally get even more complicated when you throw in specialty builds, such as a character designed to be a front-line damage dealer even when their class would normally dictate that they should be a tank. We discussed an appropriate response to this before, eventually concluding that it’s possible to design the game such that these builds are still viable, but suffer from disadvantages that should prevent them from becoming overpowered in the long run. Should is a very iffy word, and the world rarely operates the way it seems it ought, so alternate character builds are just another component adding complexity to a game’s overall balance issues, then.
To further make a mess of things, not only do characters need to be balanced at the end of the game, it’s also necessary for them to be balanced every step along the way. Certainly, it’s not entirely essential that characters are perfectly synced in terms of power, and trying to account for every possible method of skill and stat progression would be little more than an exercise in futility, but players come to an MMO with certain expectations regarding the manner in which they will be interacting with other players, and if any perceived imbalances — injustices, the way some might perceive them — can ruin the game’s atmosphere even momentarily, then there’s a solid motivation to resolve such issues.
The heart of the discussion here is that while there’s a lot of work that goes into simply making a game, there’s arguably even more work in taking that content and tweaking it until players’ complaints reach a minimum (I won’t pretend it’s possible to avoid them altogether). Balancing a game can be gut-wrenchingly tedious, it can lead to the removal of ideas that initially seemed really interesting, but by the same token, creative methods of balancing a game’s content can add even more depth and complexity to a well-designed foundation.