Friday, August 7, 2009

Game Synergy

English is an amazingly rich, deep, superficial, fun, annoying, simplistic, complex, confusing, easy to understand boring language. There is a theory that language reveals what is truly important to a people, as in the fact that the Inuit (Eskimos) have 13 words for different types of snow. If this theory is true then perhaps what is important to English speakers from the list above is confusion, for one of the most notable features of this language is the fact that the same word can have myriad meanings. Cool doesn't always mean a state on the continuum of coldness; "take the Mickey" does not mean cutting into a film and stealing a cartoon character. In Australia a barbie means a grill but in America it's a doll. Confusion rather than order is the order of the day.

All of this means that when I hear non-native speakers of the language make mistakes I typically overlook it in the interest of getting laid by hot Scandinavian blonds. But sometimes this confusion really does create a pickle when people fly off the handle and make a beeline for the computer where they mash out their angst on the official Warcraft forums. A great number of pixels have been spilled over the topic of class representation and class balance and I think most of it stems from a simple misunderstanding by speakers of Engrish.

In the balance

To all the forum posters and bloggers on the topic of class balance let me quote Senor Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Be careful, the word 'balance' is one of those tricky words that has more than one meaning and those meanings are opposite of each other.

One defination of the word balance is the expression of a binomial condition. This is the way it is meant when we use it in sentences such as "The jury is in deliberations and his life hangs in the balance." While technically it is possible for even an all female jury to return hung, the phrase "in the balance" always refers to an either/or condition; in this case either guilty or innocent. This meaning of the word balance is derived directly from the old term for a traditional scale. Think about balance as teeter totter (seesaw); when one person goes down the other person must go up. In economics this concept is called a 'zero sum game'; for every winner there must be a loser. Ideal class balance is always a state of equipoise and the goal of class balancing is to get as close to this state of equilibrium as possible.

On Balance

The other defination of balance in English is that of a relation of parts to whole. This is the way we mean balance in the sentence, "After interviewing all the candidates John decided that on balance Ms. Jones was best." This defination of balance refers to a multivariate distribution, not a binomial one. This is the defination of balance, for example, that is used every day in the winery business. Here is the defination I pulled off of a wine site, "wine balance is the synergy of all the components that formulate an enjoyable tasting experience." In this vision of balance the relationship among the various elements of wine is not a zero sum game, for every winner there is not a loser; the simple question is which combination of elements cooperates to produce the best tasting experience. This does not mean, of course, that there are never any trade-off in the binomial sense; but it does mean that those trade-off are not the focus of the decision making process. From a wine makers' perspective which is the better wine: the wine where there is a strict balance between sweetness and acidity yet makes most people gag or a wine that is more sweet than acidic but flies off the shelf and wins many tasting competitions.


Ghostcrawler has repeated numerous times that he defines balance in this second meaning of of the word. For example, he wrote in this Warlock thread, "
That may be sufficient for you. That may be sufficient for a lot of players. But I don't think it would be sufficient overall." I honestly don't know how he could be more clear. It isn't a question of Warlock vs Mages, or PvP vs PvE; it's a question of what's best for the game as a whole. I honestly think the situation borders on pathos. A poster writes, "Alas when they put out too many changes, players complain about the game changing too fast. When they don't put out enough changes, the game moves too slow." Notice how the poster collapses the entire game development process into a single binomial. Ghostcrawler won't buy it. If there is any sweetness and light in this world it is contained in his response, "Of course, that still doesn't mean that the right solution is to give up either." The biggest problem with looking at life binomially is that it doesn't allow any room for growth or improvement of the whole. In a multivariate analysis, even if one is worse off compared to his neighbor they may be better off compared to where they were before because the overall quality of the game has improved.

The problem for Ghostcrawler then is how to balance the game using his multivariate understanding of balance when many players are responding to developer decisions based upon a binomial understanding of balance. What I wonder is how much of this player response is conditioned upon a misunderstanding of the meaning of balance. The dual meaning of balance in English is confusing, especially for non-native speakers of the language who almost certainly interpret it in the first sense of the word. It has gotten so bad that every time developers say "balance" players think "Who got nerfed?" My own opinion is that everyone could have a more fruitful discussion if we just abandoned the whole phrase 'class balance' entirely.

The discussion I think Ghostcrawler wants to have in regards to class representation and class balance would be better described as "game synergy". This is also where he's headed in his comment about making classes "distinct but equal". How does a designer make the the DPS talent trees function equally in the game without turning them all into a homogeneous mass of goo. I don't think there's a simple answer to that question because, given the thousands of variables in a game like Warcraft, it's a complex problem and we should resist the temptation to simplify complex problems by reducing them to a single binomial condition. The only thing that will do is tempt us to give up. There is no system or set of systems for making the perfect game in the same way that there is no magic formula for making the perfect wine. Like wine, game development is more art than science despite the fact that there is an enormous amount of science behind it. By using the term game synergy we change the focus of the discussion from how the various game elements (such as class representation and class power) compete with one another to how they cooperate with each other to produce the best gaming experience for all. On balance, I think this is a better method when the life of the game hangs in the balance


MLW said...

There may not be one game-breaking binomial condition, but there are certainly many independent binomial conditions that can be handled separately. Ghostcrawler is often reluctant to admit this, and frequently tries to "big picture" himself out of many smaller debates.

Anonymous said...

@jormundgrad. I agree that there are indeed many independent binomial conditions. I don't think they can be handled in isolation from each other or from the big picture as a whole. What you see as a dodge is in fact just a fundamentally different way of looking at game design.

MomentEye said...

"There are two types of people in the world..."

Those who believe in fuzzy logic and those who don't.

The other big problem with breaking things down into binomials is that they don't allow for the situation where it would be better to have more/less of both ends of the see-saw.

Or allow for the possibility that we should go on the round-about instead.

Unknown said...

Great post. So many people turn every issue in life into an independent (stand alone) binary decision.

e.g. Would you like to pay less tax?

pjharvey said...

the fact that the Inuit (Eskimos) have 13 words for different types of snow

It's not a 'fact', it's a much-propagated urban legend.

It really doesn't help with the veracity of a post to begin with a myth that can be verified or debunked so easily.

Anonymous said...

@pjharvey. And sometimes the whole point of a post goes right over someone's head.

Shwitz44 said...


Plaidman said...

I enjoyed the puns very much. Nice article.

Tesh said...

I, for one, am quite happy with imbalances. It riles those obsessed with DPS or other assorted ego boosters, but as long as what I'm playing is still *fun to play*, I don't particularly care that my particular race/class combination or even talent spec isn't at the top of the charts.

(Since that's another "definition" of balance; that everyone gets a turn at being "the best" at some point. It's not exactly binary, since people who always come in second might still be better off than someone who is best one month and then worst for seven, but neither is it really synergistic.)

Nice article! This language is definitely built around obfuscation. Lawyers and politicians love that. Even poets find it useful. It's a mess, but I prefer it to something more... sterile.

Bristal said...

An excellent and well-written post. I'm going to show it to my wife, who often walks by my computer room, scowls and says, "I bet you're the only one playing a video game with a 25 dollar bottle of Merlot".

We should all strive for balance in our lives, and it certainly is not a binary condition. I think it rocks that Blizzard continues to tinker with this game. It definitely has kept my interest.

candy said...

Nine times out of ten when I hear anyone say "class balance" I brace myself for a QQ about how their class is gimped in way X and really needs to have addition y for them to keep up with dps/healing/tanking with class x. And I want to smack them.

Tomas said...

This is by far way more reasoning then I think 99.9% of people ever experience.

Of course, thats 99.9499999% rounding down to the nearest tenth.