One of the big points that people are making regarding class systems versus skill-based systems is that “skill-based systems are harder to balance.”
Balance is slightly stupid. As an overall concept when applied to co-op game systems, anyway.
If class systems are dependent on division of labor, then by definition, the classes must have different strengths. Even asking the question means that we want to compare apples and oranges. Thus, what we usually mean with “balance” is a very specific set of questions.
- at a given challenge level, do all the classes contribute approximately the same amount to success?
- at a given challenge level, can a single class perform the challenge as well any other given single class?
- in a head-to-head match-up, will one class beat another?
Consider the drummer versus the guitar player in a band. When they’re both playing “Voodoo Chile” they contribute measurably to success. When each tries to play it solo, the guitar player will do noticeably better. When they go head to head in competition, the choice of who does better very much depends on what they are asked to play. Ask for “In the Air Tonight” and the results may differ.
Usually, what is the actual issue is that the division of labor isn’t actually clean. In the case of class systems today, we have everyone aiming at doing damage. So each class has a different augmenter to this basic ability. Some can heal themselves (or others) and thus last longer. Some can apply damage multipliers of various sorts. Some just do higher damage per second.
This is very very different from the notion of “balance” in head-to-head matches in virtually all other sorts of games, and it’s a situation unique to co-op games, I think. Since what we really have is multiple people playing for the same objective, these become just elements of choice. What’s more, they are usually designed to be interdependent choices, so that they are “balanced” by the expedient of not having any of them actually able to accomplish it solo. In effect, the combined group becomes one multiclassed character, a puppet controlled by multiple hands. You then design the challenges to that multiheaded target.
A real class system might say “sorry, healers don’t really do damage at all.” Or deny all damage spells to wizards. Instead, what we really have is different kinds of fighter. In other words, the reason why balance comes up because the classes aren’t actually very different at all. They all have the same goal. If they had different goals, then they’d have fundamentally different games to play. The healer would play to heal, not to kill things. (This right here was one of the core, fundamental differences between SWG and other MMORPGs).
Class jealousy arises because everyone is a fighter underneath. We don’t generally talk about whether a crafter is balanced to a fighter for good reason. There’s the true apples to oranges comparison.
So why is balance stupid? Well, you have two choices if you’re making all these classes aimed at the same challenge, e.g. combat.
- Now that you have created sixteen flavors of damage-dealer with different extra features (damage mitigation, damage multipliers, distance attacks, increased defense, damage over time, healing, etc etc etc), you can basically tune them so that the overall ratio of (DPS/damage taken) for a given fight is the same. In groups, these folks will act as damage multipliers; individuals in the group may be off the ideal ratio, but they can pump up the ratio of a tank to heights that result in winning the fight.
This is what we mean when we say a game is soloable.
But then, every strategy is equally good when you’re alone. You have the classes solely for tactical differentiation during combat. You don’t have the equivalent of artillery that supports infantry and cavalry, and so on, where there are strengths and weaknesses that make a given challenge harder or easier for you. You can compensate for this by having opponents that do better against one set of tactics versus another, but then by definition, this opponent will be “balanced for artillery” so to speak and your game will not be “balanced” because someone will complain that dragons are best taken down by cannons and their class isn’t allowed to use the big guns.
- Or you can say that the classes are all in fact different, like artillery, light infantry, heavy infantry, cavalry, and so on. Some will be successful at the challenges, and some won’t, but all will experience a damage multiplier overall when in a group. But you can’t call them balanced. And in fact, the ratio of (DPS/damage taken) will be very different from class to class. Particularly if the challenges faced have different characteristics.
This one is what we mean by “balanced for groups.”
There’s endless math tricks you can pull to get around these fundamental assumptions, and they make up the art of RPG design.
Balancing becomes easier in general when you aren’t trying to have sixteen ways of solving the same problem. That’s where the immediate (and generally invidious) comparisons come in. You can do this with classes, but nobody does. You can do it with skill-based systems, and people tend to because in skill-based systems you usually have the assumption that there is more than one type of problem to solve in the game.