Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Balance Versus Investment

The latest episode of DDOCast ended up spending an entire hour discussing a proposed change to DDO's two-weapon fighting system. There's an interesting philosophical question here on how to balance the need to fix server issues and game imbalances against respecting player investments in the way that the system has been run for years.

The change... and the other target
Apparently, someone implementing the combat system back when the launch level cap was 10 decided that it would be a cool idea to have the server run a second "physics check" 0.15 seconds after your mainhand attack to determine whether the enemy had wandered out of range before you swung your offhand weapon. Because of the comparatively low level cap, players were only able to get so many offhand attacks to begin with, so no one noticed.

As time went on, however, the cap moved up to level 20, and Turbine added additional classes (Monk) and prestige enhancements (Ranger Tempest line) that added many more offhand attacks. Moreover, the way the math works out (in part due to the pen and paper rules), the full two weapon fighting line turned out to be hands down superior DPS to the alternatives (primarily two-handed weapons). Suddenly, everyone was swinging two weapons and getting tons of extra attacks. This meant lots of extra and largely unnecessary calculations for the server to process, and apparently has gotten so prevalent that it actually causes lag in raids.

To reduce server load, Turbine is proposing to remove the second physics check, and revamp the two-weapon fighting system into something more closely resembling a crit or a double attack percentage. The reason for the controversy is that this change will apparently - and INTENTIONALLY - decrease the DPS of two-weapon fighting.

Is the right call wrong?
Personally, I won't shed a tear for two weapon fighting. The stats requirements for the feat line require some unpleasant building choices. Dexterity is not a useful stat for many classes, but failure to spend those points means permanently and significantly reduced DPS potential. Two-handed weapons should be a viable alternative for characters who are not going to pursue the full two-weapon fighting line, for whatever reason. The fact that this type of change also fixes a poorly-coded mechanic that was causing server issues makes this a no-brainer.

However, I also recognize a sticky situation here because the current state of two weapon fighting is not some new tweak from the most recent patch. The game has been balanced in favor of this combat style for a long time, and many players (even myself, in the mere two months I've been playing the game) have made the decision to pursue the style based on that reality.

How many characters with months or years of investment have been built around a combat style that they might not have chosen if they knew that the long-term goal was for parity? Is it fair to players - some of whom have paid real money for Dexterity enhancing tomes to meet the stat requirements - to turn around now and say that they should simply rebuild their characters (lesser resurrection tokens also available for real money in the DDO store, or via more time-consuming in-game means)?

In the end, this is the correct business decision - it solves a technical issue and a quirk of the character builder that was, frankly, a bit irritating to this particular new player. Very few players will actually quit playing the game over this change, and some may even spend additional money on respeccing or re-rolling the new flavor of the month when the dust settles. This makes the question of whether this type of change is sufficiently large that it should not be made to a post-launch game (see also, Champions Online's notorious launch rebalancing efforts) somewhat unfortunately moot.


Klepsacovic said...

I would reset stat allocations, so people can move away from the less useful dex stat. The dex purchases might be handled with removing the gain and giving generic stat 'books' of sorts, but then what about people who went for other stats which also turn out to be sub-optimal?

Pangoria Fallstar said...

Funny you mentioned Champions Online, they swung so far back on launch, and now they've been slowly fixing their course.

No, you're nowhere near as powerful as at launch, but the game is much easier than at launch. When they do rebalance though, they give free full respecs to people who had invested in it. As right as they are doing it, people keep blogging about it as it was at launch.

Something like this can leave such a huge impact on people, that its almost as if it always is that way, even when it is fixed, or no longer an issue.

Interesting article, and something we've seen from other games as well (WOW is also infamous for the nerfing).

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I always think it's a bit dodgy to change a system like this after it working that way for years. I'm not sure this is necessarily the "right" decision to make, but it's probably the easiest to implement.

This is one problem with the frankenstein system DDO half build on paper D&D. The proper answer here is to increase damage for other weapons, but that could be hard to do without borking other aspects of the game. Rock and hard place.

Brad said...

As a newer player whose highest level toon is 8th, I obviously don't know the system as well as many of the players who are vocal about this. Nor have I invested the time and effort into my toons.

However, from what I have read in the threads, this change would not make maxed out TWF toons gimp; their DPS will simply be more in line with the alternatives. Perhaps they would have chosen to allocate their ability points and/or feats differently, but they are still viable toons that will produce among the top DPS.

The changes may be a bigger hit on rogues, bards, monk, etc. I'm not as familiar with them, but again, my understanding is that TWF would still be a viable build. Many of these builds would still want high dexterities. It's not like dexterity has no other use in hte game.

It may require some balancing of mob HP, feat costs, etc, but I think that the proposed system makes a lot of sense if you ignore the issue of existing toons. Therefore, makes sense for the long run.

It will probably lead to more variety in builds. But the min/maxers will need to find out what the ideal build is again, so IMO DDO needs to determine how to (or if they want to - and I hope they do) pacify the veterans.

Yeebo said...

Long term I think it will be good or the health of the game. Forcing anyone that is serious about DPS to go for TWF is at the heart of a lot of the issues that I found off-putting as a new player. Being forced to dump a ton of points into dex makes the early game a lot more painful than it should be for many characters, especially plate wearers.

Borror0 said...

@Green Armadillo
That's a decent coverage, but let me elaborate on the details a bit;.

The problem arose back in early 2008 with Module 6.Before then, TWF DPS sucked terribly, Haste was the only source of alacrity bonus, and raid bosses didn't require DPS (and back before Module 5, raids were ran by groups of six or less players).

In one update, several changes were made:
1. Rangers were given a +10 bonus alacrity bonus
2. GTWF suddenly granted an additional swing, making TWF much better.
3. Green Steel weapons made TWF even better.
4. The new raid, The Shroud, had several instances were the optimal strategy was to stand still and DPS to your heat's content.

The end result is what is known as "DPS lag." It's a form of lag that only arises when there is a significant amount of players beating on the same monster.

Then, the addition of monks and more alacrity bonuses made this worse.

Psychochild said:
"The proper answer here is to increase damage for other weapons, but that could be hard to do without borking other aspects of the game."

The solution is not all that simple. The way TWF was previously designed, it gained about +50% of most bonuses to DPS than THF would. A few were neutral bonuses (like Str and alacrity) but most gave the advantage to TWF.

It would have not have been as simple as buffing other weapons. It would have meant altering the game's rules to somehow make up for that 50% gap.

Stripes said...

I think this raises a general principal.

Games have a lot of choices that are hard to recover from. Things where you have to redo a quest, or pay real money to buy item X rather then the same amount to buy item Y. Talent tree changes where you have to pay (in game or out of game) to respec. Or even places where you can't do a quest again, so you forever have the "wrong reward".

If you alter game rules and invalidate prior choices part of the resistance to the change will be proportional to how hard it is for people to go back and remake the choices.

You can reduce the change resistance by making the choices simpler to go back and remake. Either in general (provide a way to redo a quest and trade-in the reward), or specifically for a given change ("free respec to all druids when the next patch goes in!").

So something to think about when designing is not just which choices should you make easy to remake, but how you can track the "permanent" changes, and how you could make it easy to remake those after specific patches.