Balance is a word that most MMO players know quite well and talk about quite often. We seek the Holy Grail of balance in all MMO's we play, and often head to a game publishers forums to discuss the issue, troll with it, flame over it or leave it as a reason that we are leaving a MMO. I feel that most players have forgotten the core idea of balance and with it most developers embark on a never ending series of buffs and nerfs trying to obtain it. No class based MMO has ever been balanced. Yes some have come closer than others but ironically the most imbalanced games have become the most balanced.
My gamming career started with Ultima Online (I did play Subspace before it which I do consider a MMO but not one in the classic sense of MMORPG). Ultima Online's pvp was balanced in that:
1) Every skill was available to every player and you could drop/relearn skills when wanted. 2) Every serious player at the time I played was a 7x Swords mage, which meant you had 7 skills maxed to 100 just like every other pvper, or you had them in the progress of maxing to 100.
Some may remember tamers, thieves, etc but from my perspective the vast majority of fights were people with the same kills fighting each other. This was balance. When I fought another swords mage it would not come down to a random choice they made at the beginning of the game concerning class, it came down to basically everything other than the class. Things like connection speed, order of casts, reactionary responses and eventually Roger Wilco target calling would tip the fight for one side or another. Not things like "I picked a rogue, he picked a warrior therefore he wins unless I greatly out gear or skill him".
This system that on the outside may seem unbalanced was actually one of the first and last games to get it right. Maybe it was not intended this way, but here we do have an example of what balance can be and a lot of reason people like myself wax poetic about this era in MMO history.
Maybe I should say this now, if you do not want to pvp... ever... then balance need not concern you. Balance when fighting monsters/npc's in a MMO is easy enough to balance. Where the majority of complaints and headaches come from concerning this topic are pvp encounters. Maybe I am jaded... but when it comes to PvE encounters I have been there done that mentality. I have played every major US MMO since Ultima's release and killing a dragon or killing ten boars in the forest has become a means to a end for me. The gear, levels I obtain, stats I earn are to be competitive at end game pvp. I think deep down most players feel this way, even the ones who claim to hate pvp. I think even the most avid non pvper when given a glaring advantage of gear etc will capitalize on a situation in which killing another player can give them reward at very little risk.
But back to balancing. The first step to this task is accepting rule #1:
1) CLASS BASED MMO's CAN NEVER BE BALANCED. (one vs one) For a class based MMO to be balanced you would be able to pick any class, and any tree or skill point allocation in that class and be able to beat any other skill or class combination. This may sound absurd, but it is balance at its core. Take chess for example. We all have the same pieces at the start, the same rules.. the same board and the game is balanced. Player skill, knowing your opponent, etc lead to the outcome of victory, not a situation where a person starts with 4 queens and I start with 4 rooks.
Imagine you are a baseball player and there are 50 choices of bat. Some are good for hitting long balls, others are better for bunting, but upon starting your career you must choose one bat and stick with it, or lose all of your stats as a player when switching to another bat. This would seem idiotic to most fans. If a certain bat is better for bunting and your team needs a bunt to win, then by all means I want my player using that bat... not being handicapped by a decision they made at the beginning of their career. This is what we do with class based MMO's. We force a player to pick a class usually knowing very little of what that class will really be like until a major time investment is made in it. After putting the player through the task of doing chores to level up/ gear up we then nerf/buff classes along the way making it impossible for a player to understand what they are getting into at the beginning.
Now a skill based MMO seems to be the answer, and yes one where skills can be min/maxed and left in the dust at any time is a good answer. I have read articles on this very site saying this will lead to massive IMBALANCING because of fotm, or cookie cutter templates. But I would much rather drop and re-level some skills to stay with the nerf/buff cycle than have to start a new character from scratch. Alts are going the way of the dodo with the invention of reputation grinds, vet rewards, and all the grind treadmills. Unfortunately major publishers see the success of WoW and seem to avoid skill based games, sure you run into a sand box skill based MMO being released every so often, but usually the publishers do not get it right or release a buggy platform due to lack of funding etc. Trust me, I love wow's polish and engine. If something comes from Blizzard, I know it is going to shine in terms of its lack of bugs/ polish and as a gamer I crave paying for finished products that will last and have a strong player base, otherwise I would just play single player games.
How a class based system can work: One game that everyone hates with a passion is Star Wars Galaxies. I was there for the NGE and remember how hurt/upset people were with that company, but I unlike many others kept playing. While they did introduce a class system as opposed to a skill based one they ALLOWED PLAYERS TO SWITCH THEIR CLASSES WITHOUT HAVING TO RE-GRIND A NEW CHARACTER. This lead to me playing the game a lot longer than I normally would/should have. When commando was OP i could switch to it for a chapter and when Jedi was tearing it up I could go Jedi. This lead to me collecting gear for every class and eventually switching among them as it suited my playstyle. Why force players to be punished for picking a class that is underpowered at end game or made weak by a nerf bat before they even get there? This allows players to enjoy the part of the game that vet players flock towards.. the end game. Sure your first go around of a game you may love the grind, even your third or fourth time, but honestly how many of you look forward to it and haven't thought, "Yay I'm level 'xx' now I can finally play the game!" Forcing players to re-roll to keep up with dev changes is the quickest way to get me to stop playing your game and move onto another.
Now we come to how a class based game can work: metagame. When I say metagame I am talking about group composistion. You get friends together and they compete against other groups. Now let players switch to your different classes for a small fee and you really got something. Your healer can’t play one night? Your tank is offline? Your DPS guy can’t come? Allow people to switch to these roles. Allow them to explore all the content of them game by having to aquire gear for these roles and I think you’re going to find players playing games a lot longer than they normally would... and developers isn't that what you want? The longer we sub the more you make. By allowing us to change classes easily the game can achieve balance through the metagame, where a party needs for example single target heals, group heals, aoe dps/single target dps, buffer, tank to succeed and any group with the same classes x6 is not going to win vs a well rounded team. You allow people to have their roles and do not pigeon hole them if the roles needed for the "best" spec group change.
(devs email me at email@example.com for more thoughts/ideas I have in crafting a great MMO)