Levi and I had a wonderful conversation today about MOBA Balance. I wanted to capture the essence of the conversation in this post and start a discussion about character design between games.
“Abathur could not exist in DotA 2”
This is the comment that started a fire. The conversation started with Levi bringing up a comment on Reddit where someone stated a character like Abathur, from Heroes of the Storm, could not exist in DotA 2. There were implications this was due to complexity and that he would be too powerful. We both disagreed with the comment and agreed that Abathur would need several buffs to even exist in DotA 2. Abathur would immediately die from screen lengths away from Invoker and Mirana, two very popular picks in the metagame. Even if there was a character like Abathur in DotA 2, I doubt he would have a more threatening global presence than Tinker or Nature’s Prophet.
As shocked as we were about how uninformed the community seemed, the conversation began to shift to character design. There are fundamental differences in how DotA 2, League of Legends, SMITE, and Heroes of the Storm are balanced (sorry Paragon, you’re too new to join the conversation, but we really like what the Dev’s are doing).
The League of Gap-Closers
I brought up this post from the Heroes of the Storm balance team in regards to health sustain in-game as the next topic of discussion. We didn’t stay on topic long, but we did start talking about how the HotS team seems to make changes. Everything seems a bit knee-jerk and decisions don’t seem to place all characters in a viable spot at the end of the day. There are huge gaps between power levels of characters in Heroes of the Storm. Just look at the recent changes to Warriors. Anub’arak, Chen, and Arthas were all recently re-worked and buffed. They outclass Warriors like Tyrael in all regards and push him out of the metagame. There is no reason to pick Tyrael when there are strictly better options. You never want to hear the words “strictly better” in a MOBA.
League of Legends has always struggled with this problem. As new characters are released and others re-worked, older characters become out-dated and out-classed. Players joked about the “League of Gap-Closers” a few years ago, as all the new characters were given abilities that would allow them to dash in and out of combat where the older ones were forced to run around like peasants. There was a long time when Garen was relegated to a noob character that was strictly worse than other top laners. Both HotS and LoL follow a very similar balance philosophy that causes characters to go in an out of favor every month or so. Sucks to be the player that spent time, in-game currency, or money on a character that has become outclassed.
Balancing Based on your Checkbook
Why would a game choose to balance this way? Why would you fix only the most immediate problem?Just like a Jenga game, they keep pulling this and stacking that, but it cant go on forever.
One explanation for the balance system is monetary. By making a character new and flashy again, a company can squeeze a few more sales on purchases and skins. It’s awful to think about, but there is a kernel of truth in the statement. Levi made a great point when he said, “I get that as a business it helps them get more purchases, but it’s like knowing there is free gourmet food down the road while people are paying for McDonalds and wondering why the food is bad.”
The free gourmet food referenced is DotA 2. SMITE does something similar, by offered all characters and all future characters at a low fat rate cost of $29.99. DotA 2 and SMITE are doing something great. They are producing a quality product at an extremely low-cost, and balancing the game in fantastic ways. Rarely is there ever a time where you feel like one of your free 111 characters are outclassed by another one. Even the game’s troll-pick Riki was picked in the Manila Major tournament to support Lifestealer!
DotA 2 and SMITE foster and environment where all characters feel valuable by prioritizing balance on items and not characters. By balancing resources available to all characters, you can make sure they are unique and feel powerful. No one falls so far behind because they can always build the same items. Heroes of the Storm can focus on improving skills like Cleanse, Regeneration Master variant talents, Bolt of the Storm, and Stoneskin to make sure that characters stay powerful and feel unique. There is definitely a lesson to learn here; a certain level of homogenization is okay.
Salt is the Flavor of the Month
There are many complaints that the Heroes of the Storm matchmaking system is broken. Dustin Browder has to defend himself weekly on the topic of matchmaking. I agree with Dustin when he claims that matchmaking is fine in HotS. Matchmaking most likely places players of equal skill level together. However, matchmaking does not care about metagame and what character is practical. When players feel that matchmaking is poor, they are most likely complaining about what characters they are forced to play with.
Let’s use an anecdote to explain. There are times when John wants to play Nova and matchmaking gives him a game where he’s facing other like ranked players. John spent a lot of time and money on Nova, even getting her master skin. John is fine because he knows he’s playing Nova. He is expecting a difficult game playing a less powerful hero. His teammates are aggravated at him for picking Nova and not Zeratul, Li-Ming, or Chromie who are strictly better. The players are of equal skill and it should feel like a good game, but it’s not. The players on John’s team complain about matchmaking and how this is a bad game. What they should be complaining about is the state of Nova.
By balancing a game where certain characters are strictly better than others, developers are causing tension between players. It’s neither John’s fault or his team’s fault that they are mad in that game, it is Blizzard’s fault for allowing Nova to exist in the state that she is. By pulling yourself away from the game and the players in the game, you realize that “toxicity” is not always the player’s fault but equally the developers. I always thought the environment in League of Legends became “toxic” due to an influx of less mature players, but I’ve realized it’s due to the way they balance the game. It’s not John’s fault he wants to play Nova. John has all the right to play the character he’s devoted so much time and money into. His anger and sub-par experience is due to game balance.