Mad Prophecies #1: Skill Balance - Diabloii.Net

Mad Prophecies #1: Skill Balance


We’re debuting a new column today. It’s written by mod-maker, gadfly, and former columnist Brother Laz, and it’s called Mad Prophecies. In this column Laz will be discussing game balance, player discontent, and other such consequential topics. Laz is almost uniquely positioned to make these arguments based on his long experience developing the popular Median D2:LoD mod, which does quite a bit to totally remake the familiar game of Diablo 2 into his own creation. Can balance be obtained? What do players really want (rather than what do we say we want)? Here’s a quote:

If you are new to Median, the first thing you’ll probably ask is some variation of “wut build is the best?” or “wut skill does the most dmg?”. And everyone will tell you to make an assassin or poison sorc, but certainly not an unholy paladin because they cannot farm ubers and that Laz should replace Ice Elementals because they suck.

Doh.

What went wrong and what external force can I blame this on? Let’s deconstruct:

Click through to read the full column.

Mad Prophecies #1

Have any of you read the Diii.net forums lately? Every other thread is about how Blizzard is totally getting it all wrong. A lot of you are certain you can do better if Blizzard just gave you the keys to the kingdom.

The dream

So did I, and I did.  I currently run an LoD mod called Median, which so far seems to be quite successful thanks to my policy of aggressively appealing to the inbred orang-utans that make up most of the LoD playerbase. My apologies to any chimpanzees among you.

Median features a lot of stuff like new items, uberquests, challenges and more relevant for this column, 210 new skills. The perfect opportunity to do Blizzard’s job properly! During development I envisioned a world where every skill would be both situational and equally useful and all builds would dance together in perfect harmony; After all, aren’t they all children of the nephalem, born equal?

Dream, meet world  

Currently, if you are new to Median, the first thing you’ll probably ask is some variation of “wut build is the best?” or “wut skill does the most dmg?”. And everyone will tell you to make an assassin or poison sorc, but certainly not an unholy paladin because they cannot farm ubers and that Laz should replace Ice Elementals because they suck.

Doh.

What went wrong and what external force can I blame this on? Let’s deconstruct:

The Madcap Venice Dash

It is actually impossible to balance builds at more than one thing. The endgame in Median is uberquests, 28 of them, ranging from massive monster packs to single strong bosses with totems you are not allowed to kill with AoE. Skill balance, fine, but at what exactly?

It would be easy to balance x number of builds in a single given situation. I could just sit here with my Breitling Mullliner, run the characters through said situation and keep time. But change the situation from a level with a lot of enemies to a single target boss battle, and the skills will now be imbalanced and there”s nothing you can do about it.

In terms the average D2 player will understand: you can always find a boat that will get you from a given point A to point B through Venice at exactly the same speed as your moped, but when you move A and B, the chance that both will again arrive at the same time is minute.

And the more environmental variety you have in the endgame, the more impossible it gets.

Gruk Dodge

Ranged skills offer more room for player tactics and therefore scale better against very hard monsters than melee. And because there is no real way to control minions, they are mostly a stat check (their life vs. monster damage) and therefore scale poorly.

So if the builds are balanced in the regular game and you increase (or reduce) the difficulty, they become imbalanced.

Only the best is good enough

Players are not satisfied with a good build, they want the best build, if the many threads in the Median newbie forum (“what is the best aoe farm char?”) are any indication. Minor balance differences tend to be amplified a hundredfold because every newbie will pick the “best build” to avoid getting stuck with an inferior build, causing the “slightly less good build” to have a playerbase of zero + a few antisocial losers who are playing this game for the “challenge”.

And then the few players of the “worse” build (and a lot of people who haven’t ever used it but heard that it is bad) will wallow in their misery and demand that I give them tactical nuclear capability to compete with the “viable” builds.

This popular opinion of build quality is not necessarily related to the actual game. I won’t bore you with the details any more than I already do, but I’ve remarked a few times that the best way to improve an underused build is to have someone write a guide about it.

The Sky is the Baseline

Another cause of small balance differences escalating out of proportion is pwnage creep. Diablo 2 classic was meant to be “impossible solo”. But some builds turned out to steamrollcopter 8 player games, making this the baseline. Nowadays if your build can’t follow in their shining footsteps, it is considered worthless.

Anyone ever used Glacial Spike? It’s kind of decent in 1 player games or in actual teams, but LOLOL nobody does those because a ‘nigmadin can kill Baal two thousand times per second solo.

This can lead to…

The Tactical Event Horizon

Kill speed is all that matters because survival is considered a given. If another Build X can easily kill the monsters by just spamming its most powerful AoE at them, and your build cannot kill as fast, your build is weak no matter if it is indestructible and immortal.

There is no way Blaze can ever keep up in kill speed with maximum range Fireball spam even if it did enough damage to instakill every monster, due to the way it works. On the defensive side, Terror and Frozen Armor are quite cool actually but you can kill the monsters without using them, so why not put those points into getting a few more DMGZ instead?

“Aha!”, you say, “Make the monsters hard so you die if you don’t have defensive skills!”. Good plan, now every build must include those skills or die. Goodbye build variety, goodbye newbie friendliness.

In a future column I’ll yammer about the reasons why the balance will inexorably shift towards glass cannon builds anyway.

What have we learned today?

That skill balance isn’t nearly as easy as every backseat pilot on the forum thinks. All you can realistically do is try and create a lot of viable builds, and some will be considered better anyway and everyone will go for those builds and we’ll see 90% builds with the same skills and people will cry that Blizzard failed again. I do not envy them. (Except when it comes to playing games for a living. And for the plasma monitors. And the Reventon.)


Mad Prophecies are written by Brother Laz. Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily Diii.net.

Tagged As: | Categories: Diabloii.Net Columns

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  1. Sorry to hear that. You should check out the news often the day prior to May 30, to find out if there is a time announced.  I got it as a flash news straight from Nethaera around 7pm EST / 3pm PDT, and posted it right away.

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