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Balance - A wonderful Knife Edge
Posted on Tuesday, May 7 2013 @ 15:35:10 PST

EDIT: As of 10th of May, 2013, CCP have begun patching Dust 514. While the severe lack of communication over the past few days leading up to the hotfix had no developer comment at all, Dust 514 is now back on the road to being fixed.

So, for my first blog I thought I'd tackle something that I've been dealing with in more than a few of my favourite games lately - Balance Issues.
It seems simple enough, doesn't it? You're playing a First Person Shooter, this gun does more damage and has better accuracy than anything else. That makes it over-powered, right? So you tone it down a little, give it more kick, reduce the damage. There. Now it's fine. Or, that's the simple version of it at least, you'd think.

Balance is, and always will be, a very complex issues. It's easy enough to understand that. There's a thousand different variables you have to take into account when you take one number, from one object in the game. "What range are they fighting at? Is there cover? What kind of armour are they wearing?"
Unless you're making everything in the game the same (which is no fun), then you won't achieve true balance. Giving everyone the same gun, the same armour, and the same equipment just makes games dull. Variety is the spice of life, and that alone can make balancing a game a nightmare. Something that I've seen this in is Planetside 2, and Dust 514.

Is Planetside 2, the balance issues are more pronounced when you're engaged in certain fights. Now, I understand that each Empire in Planetside 2 (the Terran Republic, the New Conglomerate and the Vanu Sovereignty) are supposed to have their unique traits - something that gives each empire it's own personality and flavour, instead of just being the other two empire's with a different colour scheme - and that is one reason I love Planetside 2 so much. The variety, the choice, and the feeling of actually being in a unique, living faction. 
Now the main issue, and probably one of the easiest to see, is one of the tools that the New Conglomerate have at their disposal. Each Empire has a MAX - a powered Exo-suit that soldiers can wear, losing their ability to do anything except use really big guns and have tons and armour - and each MAX has special weapons relating to their faction. Each MAX weapon is actually quite well balanced, and has it's uses, but the NC's Scattercannon weapons are a different story. What you have is arm mounted, multi-barrel shotguns, on a walking, infantry sized tank. Each MAX can carry two of these. On it's own, that isn't too bad, shotguns are terrible at range, right? Well, yes, but the problem you get is that a lot of the Capture Points for outposts and bases are indoors, in tight corridors and very small areas. The kind of areas a shotgun would be superior in. See where I'm going with this? 
Now, honestly, the Scattercannons, and their variants (the Hacksaw, which is a fully auto version, the Grinder, which has a bigger clip, and the Mattock, which has a longer range but less damage) aren't as bad as some of the issues that Planetside 1 had, but when an NC MAX can tear through two to three MAXes of the TR or VS, and a number of soldiers? Then you have an issue. The NC MAX's Scattercannon and it's variants are better than using the MAXes anti-vehicle weapons when trying to kill enemy MAXes. The TR and VS MAXes can be countered through numbers, or clever play. If you're pinned down in a small room, you just sprint out and away. You might get injured, you might get killed, but you might get away. Against an NC MAX, you're dead. 
Now yes, I'll give it to the NC, that their infantry Special Weapon, the Jackhammer, isn't very good. The Jackhammer is a shotgun, with high damage, and a high rate of fire. But it's just... crap. Slow reload, short range (even for a shotgun), and a large pellet spread. 

Now, there's a hundred other balance issues in Planetside 2, but the good thing? The devs see them. The devs reply to issues about them. The devs have these issues on their "List o' Stuffs(tm)". But it's a big List - after all, Planetside 2 is Free to Play, so the developers need to keep pushing updates, and things for people to spend their money on, or the game dies. But they're working on it.

And now onto the flip side of that - going from a game that isn't quite balanced, but they're working on it, to a game that was so very nearly balanced and now it's just all over the place. Dust 514.
Dust 514 is being developed by the same fine folks behind EVE Online, and it's set in the same universe. There's shared lore, and interactions, but that's not what this is about. 
Dust 514 has officially 'launched' now, after being in Open Beta for a good long while now, and was in closed beta before Planetside 2's closed beta started! 
Now, in Dust 514 you have 3 kinds of currency. You have ISK, the in-game currency that you can spend on 90% of stuff in the game. You earn this by playing matches. You have Aurum, the realworld currency, which you can spend to buy items that you shouldn't be able to use yet (but they aren't /better/, you just get early access to them). And then you have Skill Points. Now, Skill Points are spend on, surprise surprise, skills. You earn 1 Skill Point, passively, every 4 - 5 seconds. You also earn Skill Points after a battle, depending on how well you did. You could earn anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 after a match.
Now, in Dust 514, you use your ISK to buy equipment and Skill Books, which teach you Skills to use your Skill Points on. Levelling these skills (from level 1 to 5) unlocks new skills, grants your characters buffs, and unlocks new equipment. And just like EVE Online, if you want to be the best at something, you pick a Skill Tree and you go deep.

Now, I've tried to be as unbiased as possible, as yes, balance "issues" are as much point-of-view and bias as much as actual balance issues, but CCP, the guys who make EVE and Dust 514, did screw up. Big time. Through-out the beta, there'd been QQ, and whining, and from time to time, actual constructive criticism of items and weapons. The community had been aware of changes coming, and the re-balancing of certain weapons. There was an excitement in the air, as from everything we'd seen, and read, the weapons and dropsuits in Dust 514 were going to be damn near perfectly balanced. Instead, what we got was COD 514. There was literally, and still is, no point currently to use anything except an Assault Rifle. And it's a shame, because Dust 514 has a huge range of weapons, equipment, skills and dropsuits, along with vehicles.
But now? Well, before the official launch of Dust 514, I personally did two roles. My main role was that of a Heavy Dropsuit - slow, heavily armoured, and able to carry the big guns. A Heavy Machine Gun, or a Forge Gun (an anti-vehicle railgun). Going head-on against a Heavy Dropsuit with a Heavy Machine Gun, even if you WERE a Heavy Dropsuit with a HMG, was stupid. You had to use tactics, teamwork, flanking, or just plain outplay your opponent. But they weren't invincible, and to play as a Heavy Dropsuit it cost a LOT. You could make between 100,000 ISK and 300,000 ISK per match. Every time you die as a Heavy Dropsuit user, you're costing yourself between 70,000 and 300-400,000 ISK. No, those aren't joke numbers. So you can see why Heavy Dropsuits were powerful, and rare(ish), because they were expensive, and they cost a lot to Skill into as well. 
But after the launch, the Heavy Dropsuit and the HMG were nerfed. Which, honestly, I'm ok with. The weapon needed a nerf, I'll say that much. The dropsuit? Not so much. What is incredibly odd and massively disturbing is the LEVEL to which they, and virtually everything else except Assault Rifles, were nerfed. Now you'd think that someone that is basically a walking tank, who has more armour than any other play has armour AND shielding, that carries a 450 round weapon that can empty itself in around 7 seconds, would be able to take more than their fair share of punishment and keep shooting back. You'd think that the weapon would be able to take down more than a few people before having to reload. But now the Heavy Dropsuit is the slowest (which is fine), and also made of cardboard. You can't strafe as fast as anyone else, so you can't dodge enemy fire. That would be fine if you didn't die in 2 seconds to a standard Assault Rifle.
And the HMG? It fires what feels like cardboard bullets. No, seriously. With how slow the weapon is to aim, you can't keep your shots on target, and the bullets themselves do so little damage that in a one-on-one, against someone in a Scout Suit (the fastest, but weakest), in a head-on fight... the Heavy loses. Everytime.
Now this wouldn't be so bad if you could just go "Oh well, I'll just pick up a new suit and new weapons". That's a problem. To get to that point, I, personally, spent over 5 million Skill Points (A lot), into skilling into the advanced Heavy Dropsuits, and unlocking the highest Tier of Heavy Machine Guns, along with the modules and skills to make sure I had maximum survivability. 

And there's no-way to get those Skill Points back. So any player that has skilled into using a Heavy Dropsuit, and Heavy Weapons, which costs more than any other dropsuit and weapon type in both Skill Points and ISK, is screwed, because CCP seems to be catering the balance towards Assault Rifle users. 
There are dozens of topics on the forums, from people that play all different kinds of classes and weapon types, saying the exact same thing. "You broke the game". And while normally I would just shrug off such accusations, and continue playing a game I love... they're not wrong.

While Planetside 2 is unbalanced in certain regards, the developers maintain a constant dialogue, or try to, with the playerbase, and let us know what their plans are.
Dust 514 was so very close to being balanced, and was so very, very unique. But now it just feels like yet another COD wannabe, with a Sci-Fi paintjob. 

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