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Why do games often take so long to balance? Is it all technical limitations, or is deliberate design at work?

One question I often thought about, but haven't seen answered thoroughly, is "why games take so long to balance". In particular, multiplayer games where making sure some classes/characters/heroes aren't bad or overpowered is very important to some players. I'm not talking about complicated cases of balance, but simple things where X character/build is doing 10% less or more damage than all the others without compensating downsides.

 

Strangely, no matter the multiplayer game or the type of it, this seems to be very common. Be it co-op or versus games, fighting games, MOBAs, or ARPGs, there are examples of patches where it's blatantly obvious that X character or Y build is overpowered, yet it's allowed to linger for months. Usually, after the player-base has been fed up for some time, a "big" patch drops that fixes the major issues while introducing new ones.

 

Often, people talk about development cycles and the difficulty of changing things too fast as reasons for this phenomenon. But, I'm pretty sure that's not a full enough explanation. When balance is really bad, like one hero having 80%+ winrate in a competitive game, there's often an emergency patch fast on the way.

 

Plus, lots of fixes end up being just damage nerfs (lowering ability damage by X%) which, from a programming perspective, ultimately boils down to changing numbers somewhere. Yes, there's testing and rollouts, but the actual changes can be simple, and it's clear from history that the changes can be expedited if need be.

 

So, it's clear devs have an idea of what kind of power disparities are acceptable to let linger for months, and which aren't.

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Another reason I know it's not all technical reasons is that some developers have admitted as much. The team for the ARPG "Path of Exile" said, more or less, that they let some overpowered things stay to encourage people to try something new.

 

So, encouraging players to try new things, and keep the game fresh, is one reason. But, I feel as though there have to be others.

 

Is there some sort of psychological factor to only doing balance changes in one big burst? It's so common across so many games that I think that has to be some component, especially when so many changes are easy to make (I'll show one simple example later).

 

I think if balance changes happened too frequently, players would feel confused or overwhelmed, and perhaps some would stop playing. At the same time, I wonder how many people stop playing because their favorite class/hero/build is non-competitive for months. I think game developers have numbers on how many quit in the former case versus the latter, and prefer slower balance adjustments for that reason, but I admit that's just conjecture.

 

I also think that any game will naturally become boring to people who play it a bunch, especially when so many other games try to steal their attention (and thus, money). By having HUGE balance patches with some other content sprinkled in, you can maybe revitalize games during a slump period.

 

As a simple example, in the game "World of Warcraft" players play "specs" of "classes" which determine what they can do. One tanking spec "Blood Death Knight" is known for having damage that's a bit low and makes them less competitive in group content. This was known by the community for many months now, which was the duration of patches 9.0 and 9.05 thus far.

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In the coming 9.1 patch beta, they are testing a very simple damage increase to all their spells and abilities by 6%.

 

https://us.forums.blizzard.com/en/wow/t/chains-of-domination-ptr-notes-%E2%80%93-april-29-updates/951389

 

They also have a bunch of internal data on tank performance I'm sure, so there's some number to increase damage by to make Blood Death Knights "better" without actually upsetting tank hierarchies as a whole–that is, they can buff it without making it better or worse than other tanking options. It's a solvable problem if that's what they want to do, as the game director said he doesn't like swapping hierarchies too much. Is that what the 6% number is supposed to do or not? Unknown, but also irrelevant to the point.

 

Yet, it takes months for simple changes like this.

 

Keep in mind, I'm not saying devs should have balance done right out of the gate. I'm not discussing the challenges of balancing overall, but more why it takes so long to make changes when they are simple to implement and, at least to the player-base, very obviously needed. I'm also not talking about content patches, which obviously can take way more time since content needs to be made (e.g. Warcraft is behind in content patches due to COVID which is understandable). I am a little curious, though, why balance and content patches are lumped together so often when they can be separated.

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Overall, what do you think are the reasons, primary and secondary, for letting balance issues linger? Given that it's not all technical, what are the motivations? Do you agree with some of the motivations I thought of? Disagree? Do you think there are more reasons why balance is done slow when, in the end, it can be simple as damage increases/decreases?

EDIT: Formatting

EDIT 2: Small addition to the WoW example.

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