Game balance, how does it work?

So today, for my first post in months, I’m going to talk about something very ‘meta game’. I’m going to talk about balance in general, over all DPS classes/specs, then I’m going to try and tie it back to warlocks, and to some degree all classes, and why some things need to change.

What is balance?
Game balance is a very tricky thing, and is no longer as black and white as it used to be. There was a time when someone could simply line up all 23 DPS specs, ensure they were within 1% of each other on a patchwerk type fight, call it balanced, and people would be happy. Ignoring the fact that this never happened (although at various stages, you could line up all 10 classes with the right specs and it would be almost there), this is what people used to call balance. However these days encounters are far more complex, with situational fights becoming the norm, instead of the exception, almost every encounter has some twist to it, be it strong AE required (4? 5? encounters, thats a third of all current encounters), or sustained multiple target DPS opportunities (5? 6? encounters, thats almost half) and so on.

How do you balance each spec, as to have its own strengths and weakness’s without making those strengths over powered? If we start to remove and erode these strengths and weakness’s are we feeding the monster that is homogenization? A lot of people have complained over buff homogenization, that merging buffs like kings and mark of the wild has made classes feel to similar, while I disagree with this, I do believe that removing classes strengths and weakness’s, how they play, will bring us a huge step towards homogenization. So that leads us to, how far is to far?

An example may be arcane mages. Based on simulations its not a superstar spec by any measure, but its not horrible. however, real world data suggests other wise. Arcane has a very serious issue, its a spec that lacks mobility, and in a raiding world that encourages a lot of movement, just doing a lot of DPS while standing still may not cut it. Based on PTR simulations, arcane is doing the most DPS out of any spec in game by a country mile, however as I mentioned, its a spec with horrible mobility, will this raw DPS buff be enough to bring arcane in line in real world data? Or will we simply see mages run with 2 specs, one for the more “tank+spank” encounters, and one for the high mobility fights?

Are we players simply over reacting?
The game is far more balanced that it has ever been before, should we just let it lie instead of quiveling over small DPS gaps? But what about the encounters where that small DPS gap isn’t quiet as small? Encounters like halfus with fire mages and combat rogues, or maloriak with demonology warlocks. These encounters have a habit of skewing balance to a large degree. When all the stars align, should a classes strengths be able to create a lead that huge? I think allowing a class to have a few strengths and weakness’s is a good thing, and in fact is needed to keep some sense of balance. As long as the strengths/weakness’s don’t create a huge disparity. I think its healthy to be able to look at various encounters and see that no one spec always comes out on top, and that no spec is terribly far behind. Although this is a fine line to walk, if a classes advantage is to large on some of the hardest encounters, then we will quickly see class stacking come back in to a huge degree.

Class balance dictated to some degree by encounters?
Another point I want to touch on is how class balance can be dictated by the encounters of the current tier. For example, a hypothetical tier, what would happen if all of the encounters in firelands involved 2 targets? Any spec that had high 2 target DPS would push ahead in terms of balance compared to specs that couldn’t keep up with double target damage.

I believe that class balance is actually a major contributor to the large, and very complicated (often exponentially more so than other encounters) end boss fights, as well as the large variety of mechanics/encounters that we see today. The end boss fights are designed to be very hard, and its typically on very hard encounters that class stacking becomes necessary, perhaps I’m reading far to much into this, but for prosteritys sake, lets break down cho’gall somewhat.

Phase 1, destructions higher single target damage will win
Phase 2, destructions mobility will help, while the AE clearly leans towards demo
Phase 3, Afflictions execute wins

Each phase leans towards a different spec, and as such, its hard to pin down just which spec will be best. What does your raid need? Of course this only holds true if each phase is of relative difficulty (I’m looking at you yogg saron +0 keepers).

Do players, and our perceived views of specs effect balance?
This is going to be very short, but I just want to communicate a very simple idea to players. Lets assume players than do their research, do more DPS than those who don’t. What if all players who do their research, respec to spec A because it does 1% more DPS than spec B. Thus leaving spec B played by mostly “novice” players (for lack of a better word). Would this not make spec B look worse than it is in real world data? And thus “encourage” more players to play spec A, and increase the disparity in real world data even more?

Does gear effect balance at all?
Here I don’t want to comment on how a spec may gain more DPS from 2% haste over another spec, but rather how as a raids gear increases, it warps data to some degree. The easiest way to explain this is to provide an example.

http://worldoflogs.com/rankings/players/Baradin_Hold/dps/

Arcane mages are currently agreed to be a fairly low DPS spec, and yet here, they are doing some fairly insane damage. How and why? To answer than we have to delve a bit deeper.  The top encounter was about a minute 30 seconds long and arcane is a spec that can provide almost unparalleled burst, providing they don’t run OOM. If a arcane mage can get away with just using arcane blast, then their DPS goes up exponentially, as we see here. This is where we start to run into gear effecting balance. When a raid effectively out gears a raid, we see balance warped through various means. In short, as an arcane mage acquires more gear, and the encounter gets shorter, their DPS goes up exponentially.

Okay okay, thats all very thought provoking, but this is a WARLOCK blog. WHAT ABOUT WARLOCKS?! HOW DOES THIS EFFECT US
I’m getting there! Atm each warlock has its own strength, I touched on this briefly before, both in this post, and before. But I’ll go over them now anyway.Destruction == jack of all trades, other specs are far to niche in their strengths.

Destruction has high mobility and havoc
Affliction has its high execute and high multiple target damage
Demo has its high AE and slightly higher execute

The problem, as I see it, is that while both affliction and demo have their strengths, neither is truly ’ok’ outside of those areas, meanwhile destruction is a ‘jack of all trades’ spec, in that it does fairly well at everything, but doesn’t particularly excel anywhere in terms of DPS. When outside their niches both demo and affliction look subpar, meanwhile destruction continues on at its  same old pace. I guess you can equate it to the hare and the tortoise, demo and affliction both sprint ahead in their elements, but outside of there destruction manages to catch up and continue on its merry way.

Perhaps I’m wrong, heroic 25′s data from raidbots seems to contradict me, meanwhile stateofdps backs me up. Yay conflicting data! What does that mean? Most likely that every things ok (maybe). I still think the datas a bit of by people starting to be able to out gear encounters to a degree that they can do them “wrong” and still get by, resulting in some specs looking better of than they are. My simple (educated) guess/conclusion is that affliction and demo are harder to play at ‘lover skill levels’ (which is something I’m sure I’ll write about later) which sadly isn’t a easy fix, or suffer from weird scaling with gear (ala arcane mages). All a blind buff would do, is make affliction/demo OP at high levels (which in turn would push people at the lower levels to play affliction/demo, which would make the gap seem bigger than it is etc).

I think this is a conclusion?
So I probably should put some form of conclusion here. I think after all this there are a few core questions that we need to really ask.

  1. Can we have specs doing better on some encounters over other specs and still call it balance?
  2. If not, how much disparity can we have?
  3. Are encounters where all the stars align and a spec pulls ahead by a country mile ok?

Which all boils down, is balance where each spec is “roughly” even, and then given its own set of strengths and weakness’s ok? And are we there yet?