Roadblocks to BalanceMr Hyde113
Several months ago I wrote an article on Balance Update Frequency in which I discussed my belief that EVE needs more frequent balance passes, and examined how CCP might go about addressing the issue. In the time since that article, I have written proposals on numerous balance concerns as well as discussed them in person with CCP at the first CSM XI Summit, which took place in September.
Although the Summit was extremely productive, and I think relations between the CSM and CCP are better than ever before, I remain frustrated in my efforts to promote balance, as an area of development focus, and have it taken as seriously as I think it should be. I say this not to point blame at CCP, any particular Devs, or the CSM, but rather to communicate to the playerbase that if we want to see movement on this topic, we as a community are going to need to let CCP know that balance is a priority. As a first-time CSM member who was elected with a primary mandate to lend my knowledge and experience to balance efforts, I want to discuss what I consider to be the biggest roadblocks to achieving progress on this topic, and how we might overcome them.
Concern about an infinite cycle of buffing, otherwise known as power creep, is one of the strongest counterpoints to any argument for balance change. When you consider how many community balance suggestions involve something like “buff XYZ because it sucks”, the concern about power creep from CCP’s perspective seems fairly legitimate. In an ideally balanced game, power creep would be a non-issue, since Devs could just as easily nerf one thing as buff another to achieve the desired result. However, in a game like EVE, where there is a player-driven economy to consider and where players invest months of training time in order to fly a certain ship, nerfs are often an extremely bitter prospect, especially if CCP as a business wants to keep as many customers happy as possible.
This isn’t to say that nerfs aren’t implemented, as we saw recently with some of the T3D changes, but rather that they come at a much higher cost when compared to buffs, which is why it is much more tempting to do the latter. In order to try to mitigate power creep as much as possible, certain buffs to otherwise deserving or underused ships, modules, and mechanics, are approached with caution, and often never implemented despite sound reasoning and vocal support.
So how can we still implement balance changes without power creep? The community needs to accept that for the most part, buffs are going to need to be accompanied alongside nerfs in order to preserve the general power level, and that we need to not to start World War III on the forums every time something one of us likes gets its power reduced (see the fighter application/NSA nerfs over the summer). A good example of how this is the constant cries for Assault Frigate buffs, which always seem to end up with people gravitating towards some ridiculous role bonus such as scram immunity or an AB bonus (neither of which will happen so long as I still draw breath). If we take a more reasonable idea such as a slight speed increase, what will pay for that buff with an accompanying nerf? A power creep neutral solution might be, for example, swapping the speed profiles of T1 frigates and Assault Frigates, so that the the former is nerfed and the latter is buffed, and therefore the system experiences a net change of essentially zero.
Proposing balance suggestions in this manner helps make the changes more palatable to CCP and more likely to be considered for implementation. Another place where we can fight power creep is in the creation of new ships, where we oftentimes cast balance considerations to the wind in return for a nice shiney toy. Much of the reason that we have seen a steady climb in stats like cargohold, speed, and lock range, is because we have allowed new ships to be introduced with progressively higher stats without questioning why they deserve them.
Considering All Playstyles
The next big roadblock to consider is that there are a diverse variety of EVE players out there, all of who use ships and modules differently in their respective playstyles. For many of us PVP-focused players, the idea of giving a triangle-language-speaking hi-sec-mission-running publord a say in ship balance is about as appealing as watching a closeup of Suitonia’s forehead stream flying frigates all day (<3), but CCP has to consider their perspective as well.
Sadly, we have a silent majority of players who are largely uninvolved in community balance discussions and only really ever get involved when they read the patchnotes and ragequit over something that was generally accepted by the more enlightened vocal minority. In many cases, to account for this, we leave alone a ship that seems underused in PVP, and therefore seems like a prime candidate for a rework, because it could have adequate or even minor use in PVE, and thus is left alone for that purpose.
In a similar vein, a ship that is fairly effective in a relatively niche PVP role, like, say, a solo Hyperion, may not ever need to be efficient in a fleet role, and vice-versa for something like the Navy Apocalypse. All this is to say that usage statistics are not the be-all and end-all of evaluating whether something needs help, and balance does need to be approached from a holistic point of view.
So how can we deal with the wide variety of playstyles and niches in EVE that all place different demands and needs on the balance team? This is one of the harder things to consider and really just means we as a community need to look for larger trends in why a ship or module class seems to be underperforming rather than specific ships, if those ships seem to at least be viable in some situations. It also means that we need to get more players, especially new alphas, involved in PVP so they are not so far removed from the playstyle for which we are making balance suggestions.
Priorities & Limited Resources
CCP has a limited number of developers and an endless list of tasks, fixes, and feature projects to assign to them. As I mentioned in my previous article on this subject, balance in EVE has never really had a dedicated team assigned to it, and has always been a ‘side project’ of sorts that fits in around the edges of whatever other projects the balance devs are working on. On top of that, there are really only a handful of devs that have the in-depth gameplay experience needed to work on balance, meaning that it really takes heavy justification in order for them to devote time to balance issues.
Furthermore, game balance is one of those projects that doesn’t necessarily have a huge return on investment for CCP as a business, especially when you consider that even the most necessary of balance changes still end up pissing off a fair number of their customers. This means that many times, prioritizing balance means putting something else on the back burner – something else that could potentially recruit new customers or create new features – and CCP has to make the difficult judgment call of deciding when it is and isn’t worth it to intervene.
Lastly, there are technical considerations that make certain mechanics and balance changes extremely difficult to implement, especially those that involve much more than what I think of as simply changing values in the database. A great example of this is how if we were to hypothetically nerf cargoholds for certain ships, a major issue would be players being stuck in space which would create a potential nightmare for the support team.
This is probably one of the areas where player advocacy has its biggest impact and where we can really let CCP know what we want and why it’s important. The CSM does its part in this regard but I think that the community could help our efforts by making clear that this is a priority just as much as new features and bugfixes. This also means improving the quality of player balance suggestions, which can often have a huge impact on the design direction of the game, so long as they are well thought out and provide proper logical justification for their proposals. A well-written article or document is infinitely more useful in effectuating change than a whiney ‘CCPlease buff my X’ post or shitty meme video.
The Laissez-Faire Presumption
The roadblocks above are all general concerns that must be considered in order to make progress on balance issues. However, the idea that the meta needs to be left in the hands of the players is a very strong presumption in EVE, and a powerful counterargument to any balance suggestion. One can imagine how difficult making progress on an issue can be if there is fundamental disagreement over whether there is even an issue in the first place. All the usage statistics, metrics, and player outrage in the world is meaningless if the underlying approach to balance is predicated on the meta always figuring itself out like the almighty free market in economics.
Although I generally agree with CCP keeping their hands off the player-driven narrative, economy, and content, I think balance is one of those areas where we do have to tone back this presumption. EVE players are min-maxers by nature, and a guiding hand to keep the playing field level, within reason, is a much better prospect than letting the meta settle and getting entrenched without shakeups. Part of the problem in this area is that the playerbase is extremely fickle, and it often seems more graceful and efficient to try and let us deal with issues ourselves than for CCP to keep up with our ‘cancer of the month’ candidate. As is often the case with intrepid theory-crafters, players discover counters to prevalent doctrines after taking risks and experimenting; an aspect of the game we don’t necessarily want to stifle.
This is why it is important to really understand what the difference is between something being powerful or mediocre, and something being overpowered or underpowered. Every ship cannot be the best at everything, and balance is a moving target which we always can strive for but never really achieve. The best we can do is identify what is really causing the biggest problems and decide whether it merits a rework, or is just in need of some incremental changes to nudge along the player meta.
Addressing balance in EVE is a complex task with many different roadblocks to overcome before a change can be made. I want the player base to be aware of all the different factors that go into making game balance decisions and approach the topic armed with the right attitude and knowledge so the whole process is less frustrating for everyone involved.
We have so many passionate players that pour dozens or hundreds of hours of their free time into trying to improve EVE, and I hope that by considering some of the issues I mentioned here we can better translate that work into results and finally focus on the real issue of defeating the frigate menace.