Is Class Customization Going the Way of the Dinosaur?

In MMOs, on opposite ends of the spectrum you have two models for class design:

  1. Each class supports very high customization, where the player can invest in particular skill trees / talents / abilities to support their preferred playstyle and capabilities. E.g. WoW, RIFT, SWTOR, WildStar
  2. Each class allows zero functional customization, any customization is strictly cosmetic (skins, etc.). E.g. Overwatch

For years, the high customization model was the industry norm, starting with WoW and later reaching its zenith with RIFT in 2011. In RIFT each of the 4 classes – cleric, mage, rogue, warrior – had 9 (yes, nine!) talent trees, and you could mix-and-match any 3 trees and decide how to spend your talent points in your chosen 3 trees. I loved the RIFT’s class design – there were so many different combinations and I had a field day trying to create different viable specs and builds, including my M*A*S*H Melee Healer Cleric spec for PVP.

One obvious issue with the high customization model is balancing trees and classes, both within a class and across classes. This was very true in PVE for classes that could play the same role, e.g. tank or healer or DPS.

Exacerbating objectively real balance issue are two factors:

  1. The ability or inability of players to understand class mechanics and make sensible builds
  2. The popular misconceptions on class balance. There were times when the community incorrectly believed that specs were non-functional/underpowered or overpowered, when in reality players simply hadn’t sorted out yet how to play them correctly or counter them.

A good example of a misconception of balance was Prot Pally in early Cataclysm. When the Cataclysm class changes were announced, many WoTLK veteran paladins wrote off Prot as a viable PVP spec. I was able to sort out how to make Prot work based on the new mechanics and abilities, even though I had no prior endgame PVP experience with Prot Pally. Sometimes you just gotta think through the mechanics and experiment yourself.

However, there were definitely cases where particular classes and builds were stupidly OP, as was the case with DPS Spellslingers and DPS Warriors in WildStar. The balance was so pitiful that Spellslingers and Warriors were selling carries to 1800 rating in 2v2 Arena for 50 platinum, and it screwed up the economy and created a context of have-and-have-nots, not based on player skill primarily but rather heavily influenced by selection of character class and willingness to spend RL money. I managed to reach 1800 Arena rating with a non-FOTM spec, my “Melee Mage” Esper, but it was frustrating having to face players with faceroll specs, especially when they had already acquired a full set of faceroll Arena gear (gear scaling is a story for another day).

I believe that striving for 100% balance is a theoretical goal and not a practical one. In reality, if the 10% overpowered specs/classes and 10% underpowered specs/classes at any point in time are gradually tuned, a game can have reasonable class balance. In many cases it’s fairly obvious to highly-rated players which trees and abilities are problematic from a balance standpoint. And of course with telemetry and analytics, a developer can do the number-crunching to identify outliers in terms of measurable performance and which classes/specs are prevalent at higher ratings.

In recent years, especially with the mass popularity of MOBAs, we’re seeing more minimal-or-no customization games, where a given hero/class has predefined capabilities. Some MOBAs have the in-match customization where you spend points on things as you level up (which I’ve never liked, I find it tedious). Overwatch has taken no customization extreme – each class is 100% fixed in terms of abilities.

On the one hand, fixed classes makes it much easier for players to understand how a given class should be played, since they have zero control over how the class is designed – the issue then becomes playing it correctly. Whereas with the high customization model there are two hurdles: player understanding of what is a functional spec and playing it correctly.

I believe these two hurdles are less of an issue in our current world, now that many highly-skilled players stream high-rated PVP on Twitch/YouTube, talk about how to play classes, and discuss what balance issues exist. These players are the experts.

I would so love to see games with RIFT’s rich class customization. I love dialing in how a spec works, kind of like making cookies with the ingredients you like, versus having a fixed menu of cookies to choose from.

Which model of class customization do you prefer and why?

Posted in Game Design, PVP, RIFT, SWTOR, WildStar, World of Warcraft

Where the Heck I’ve Been

It occurred to me when looking at my recent (well, not really recent) blog posts that I pretty much disappeared from the face of the earth for the 2nd half of 2016 and didn’t address it here.

We had some major issues come up IRL related to heath and housing and had to move several times during that time. It was super stressful and exhausting, and for many months we were too busy sorting through personal concerns while I kept up with my product management day job for me to play online games, let alone blog or YouTube about them in my free time. Those 6 months were by far the worst period in our lives.

Thankfully, things have been getting better. We moved into a new place in late December, and while there are a couple issues we’re still working through, we’re settling in and life is returning to a semblance of normalcy.

In terms of gaming, some folks have asked which MMORPGs I’m going to play. To be honest, I haven’t had the time to keep up with MMORPG space, aside from dropping by every few weeks. I know Camelot Unchained and Crowfall are coming, and I’ve heard good things about both, but I haven’t yet checked out either meaningfully. To some extent I’m also burned out of early Betas as we have seen so many games flop after launch – just tell me when the game is launching or moving to “Open” Beta and I’ll play it, and if it’s a good game hopefully enough people will stick with it so that there’s critical mass.

In the meanwhile, I’m continuing to play World of Tanks, which for a variety of reasons (it’s fun, it has a high skill cap, and it has a large active population) has been one of the only games that has managed to sustain my interest over several years (the others being World of Warcraft and to a lesser extent Guild Wars 2). I can add Armored Warfare to the list of online games that I stubbornly continued to play even when it was clear that the population was struggling and not likely to recover meaningfully.

At any rate, I wanted to drop y’all a line and let you know where I’ve been. I hope RL is going well for you!

Posted in Armored Warfare, Blog Musings, Camelot Unchained, Game Design, World of Tanks

RIP Armored Warfare, Road to Unicum is Back

As you may have heard, game publisher Mail.Ru is pulling the plug on Armored Warfare (AW) game developer Obsidian Entertainment (OEI) and taking the development effort in-house.

This is rather unfortunate, as I had a positive impression of OEI and thought they were heading in the right direction with Balance 2.0, which was a major rework of many mechanics, including normalizing damage based on gun caliber and normalizing HP based on size/weight to prevent power creep across tiers, plus positive changes to create better balance among classes.

Mail.Ru doesn’t seem to understand the Western market (EU/NA), so I have no confidence Mail.Ru will meaningfully improve AW.

Beyond that, switching development teams always creates massive churn, partly because the new team doesn’t know the existing code base and architecture intimately, and partly because people always want to change something to fit their particular vision.

I wanted to share two things with you:

  1. My AW clan leader Gatortribe posting an in-depth writeup on what happened with AW. It’s a fascinating read
  2. I went back to World of Tanks (WoT) several weeks ago

The move back to WoT wasn’t based on prescience on my part – I was simply tired of waiting for Balance 2.0 to launch and the PVP and Global Operations queues were not popping in AW due to the pitiful NA population. I went back to WoT to see whether I’d enjoy it.

The short answer is that I’ve found WoT very enjoyable even after playing AW. I think WoT is rife with pay-for-advantage mechanics, but that’s not going to change, and I’ve grown to realize that the vast majority of the community doesn’t care either.

I’m adding to my WoT “Road to Unicum” series, here’s the latest episode:

Posted in Armored Warfare, Game Design, PVP, World of Tanks

Interview with Senior Producer Josh Morris on Armored Warfare at GDC 2016

I sat down with Josh Morris at Game Developers Conference 2016 for an hour to discuss all things Armored Warfare (AW).

Josh is the Senior Producer at and previously worked at Wargaming for three years as NA Producer for World of Tanks (WoT).

We covered a wide range of topics, including tank balance, PVP and PVE evolution, determining how modern tanks should work in-game, and matchmaking. Warning, very long wall-of-text incoming :)

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Posted in Armored Warfare, Business Analysis, Game Design, Interview, PVE, PVP

“The Art of Warfare” Guides & Tank Reviews for Armored Warfare

Last updated: 2016 November 8, Patch 0.18.

Following in the footsteps of my “Road to Unicum” series for World of Tanks (WoT), I’ve started a video series called “The Art of Warfare” for the tank shooter Armored Warfare (AW).

In “The Art of Warfare” videos, I discuss the mechanics of various tanks, how I’m reading each PVP battle as it unfolds, and key decisions and mistakes. My hope is that these videos meaningfully help players improve their gameplay.

Taugrim's PVP Stats in Armored Warfare

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Posted in Armored Warfare, Guide, PVP, Video, World of Tanks
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