There are few Everquest topics debated as heavily as class balance. Though the term itself is nearly meaningless; you cannot balance sixteen classes without them all looking exactly the same; the term just seems not to die. However, in these huge and emotional discussions on class balancing, two other factors are often ignored: equipment and encounter balance.
Much of the evidence used for this article comes from personal experience. No doubt hundreds of raid leaders and dozens of EQ developers will toss aside this moldering rag of an article with disgust and a heated "idiot" crossing their lips. Yet ignorance never stayed my hand before, and it shall not do so here. So let the ignorant broad statements begin:
Myth Breaker 1: Class differences mainly matter above level 65. Most class balance advocates only speak to the highest levels of their class. Below level 65, groups work well with any classes from within the class archetypes.
Class balance below level 65 isn't as difficult a topic for two reasons. One, there are few encounters below level 65 that cannot be defeated by leveling up. Two, appropriately powerful equipment is much more readily available below level 65 than above.
However, classes at every level certainly have class issues that should be addressed. These issues, however, have little to do with balance between classes and little to do with desirability for a group.
For the sake of discussion, let us break classes into the following archetypes:
Tank: Paladin, Warrior, Shadowknight
Healer: Cleric, Druid, Shaman
Damage: Wizard, Mage, Necromancer, Beastlord, Ranger, Monk, Rogue, Berserker
Control: Enchanter, Shaman, Bard, Beastlord
Above 65, clerics heal for more than druids and shaman. Warriors have more hitpoints, better agro control, and defensive disciplines. However, only the highest and most challenging content requires specific classes. Even in zones like the Muramite Proving Grounds, Wall of Slaughter, Ruined City of Dranik, and Riftseekers; groups without warriors or clerics or enchanters succeed in their hunts. How can they do this? Equipment.
Myth Breaker 2: Equipment matters as much or more than distinctions in classes. At higher levels, equipment determines where one can hunt, not level or class.
We can grossly oversimplify the benefits of higher power equipment with the following statement. Raid equipped groups have more hitpoints and do more damage than single-group equipped players.
A group can hunt in Riftseekers without a cleric if they have a high-end raid-equipped druid and shaman in the group. As equipment power goes up, encounter difficulty goes down. As encounter difficulty goes down, class dependence lessens.
However, where SOE had the problem of tuning encounters so that groups of mixed classes found them challenging but doable, now they have to make them challenging but doable to both single-group equipped players and raid-equipped players. How do they do this?
Myth Breaker 3: Encounter tuning matters more than equipment tuning or class balance. Many class balance issues end up being specific encounter issues.
Encounter tuning is where all of these things come together. Each single-group encounter assumes you have six characters of a similar level and equipment power. Each one often assumes a balanced archetype spread. However, above level 65, equipment power varies so greatly that no single encounter can scale well to both single-group equipped and raid-equipped players.
In Lost Dungeons of Norrath, SOE offered normal and hard difficulties for adventures. While single-group hunters found "hard" to be too hard, many raid-equipped players found them to be too easy. In Gates of Discord, designed as a very hard expansion, many of the single group encounters such as the Ikkinz single-group events, Tipt, Vxed, and the sewer trials were too hard for non-raid equipped players at the time.
Dragons of Norrath includes five sets of missions each scaling in difficulty from the less challenging Lavaspinners to the more difficult Nest. Mission rewards scale along with the difficulty of these challenges.
Tuning encounters for a mix of classes becomes very difficult at levels above 65. High level raids often require specific classes in order for raids to succeed. Many of the Gates raids, for example, require high numbers of clerics. SOE designed Gates raids to pose a challenge to even ideal raid configurations. If they designed them for raids with four clerics, it becomes trivial to do it with twelve.
Group encounters have the same problem. If encounter damage is tuned to allow success with druids and shaman healing, it becomes easier to accomplish it when one has a cleric. Since it becomes frustrating when encounters require specific classes, most encounters become easier and more reliable when one has an ideal class breakout.
Everquest is a game of challenging encounters. We want to fight in challenging battles, receive rewards for our victories, and travel forward to new challenging battles. From our first fire beetle to the Overlord Mata Muram, challenge and progression is what keeps the game entertaining.
Why does this matter? Frustration comes from hitting a wall in progress. If we cannot find appropriate challenges or we receive inadequate rewards, we become frustrated. If we face only the exact same sort of challenge, we become bored.
There are a few things SOE can do to help balance encounters at levels above 65.
SOE can equalize the primary abilities of the four archetypes across the 16 classes. They can reduce the difference in healing power between druids, shaman, and clerics so any of the three are capable of healing more effectively in high powered groups.
SOE can reduce equipment disparities between single-group and raid-equipped players. Single-group gear could offer 80% of the power of raid gear from that same level and expansion.
SOE could tune more high-end encounters around the four archetypes instead of specific classes. They can change the types of challenges we face to avoid simple damage vs. hitpoint vs. healing formulas. Dragons of Norrath shows us good examples of encounter variance and success states not dependent on damage, hitpoints, and healing power.
I covered a lot of topics with very broad strokes so let me spend a minute to summarize. What have we learned today?
1. Three factors really go into our characters when it comes to power: level, class, and equipment.
2. Individual class balance issues only become a problem above level 65.
3. As fun as it is to debate class issues, equipment issues and encounter balance often make a bigger difference.
4. While we like to dig into statistics and debate details, we really want challenging encounters and rewards for defeating those encounters.
5. It is very hard to balance encounters for the wide range of equipment power between raiders and non-raiders.
6. It is equally hard to design a challenging encounter that a mixed group can defeat that doesn't become trivial for an ideal group.
We play Everquest because it's fun. Class identity and equipment power are important factors, but most of all we want to face new and interesting challenges and we want to receive rewards when we succeed. When discussing class issues, always consider your level, your equipment power, and the encounters in which you fight. Most of all, remember that the whole purpose of all of this is fun.
3 March 2005