Some notes on balance - part 1.

I was asked in this thread to comment on our balance decisions and how we approach balance in Path of Exile. I started writing up a reply, which turned out quite long before I even covered my first point, so I will make my comment in a multi-part post.

This first part covers the general balance philosophies of the game. In the next part I will talk about the passive tree. After that, I’d be keen to talk about progression, and balance for specific playstyles. Later on, I’d like to get into the specific numbers, and balance of specific game stats.

The free to play games that have been successful (like League of Legends or MapleStory, for example) and the games with online persistent economies (for example Eve Online or World of Warcraft), have been ones that have evolved over time. They have regular updates, additional content, and an evolving metagame. These changes keeps players involved in the game.

This is the kind of success we are interested in, so we do intend to add more content, more skills, and more keystones. We also expect the balance to change, with different elements of the game waxing and waning in strength over time.

We want decisions about your character build to really matter. Part of this stems from the game being, to a very strong extent, about items. For them to be important, the items your character wears need to matter. We don't want items to be strictly tiered and transitive in nature. In many games, you want the gear for your class, and then you want to keep upgrading the tier of those items, until you get the maximum tier item for your character. While this does work for those very character-centred games, in Path of Exile we want the items to take more of the limelight. Items are not just supporting pieces to a class progression you walk through.

We want items to have intransitive relationships, as well as transitive ones. Intransitive means that the items are not comparable by strictly looking for bigger numbers. Rock-paper-scissors is a game with intransitive relationships between the moves, as opposed to a game where a bigger number always wins. So, for intransitive relationships between gear, sometimes we will want an item with smaller numbers for specific purposes. The answer I most like to see to the question “Which of these two items should I wear?” is “It depends.”

If the gear your character uses matters, then how you build your character matters. We also want character build decisions to matter, because it fits the style of game we like to play.

This leads to few things that impact how we handle balance:

(1) Decisions matter. You can make your character better by making better decisions about its build. As this is possible, you make your character worse by the decisions you make. So, in this case, balance isn't about making everything equal. Having decisions matter means that randomly built characters tend to be much weaker than ones that are well thought out. (Although, it should be noted that we want to make it easy for people to see what they need for their character, and have early paths of strength obvious).

(2) Synergistic options. These create a great deal of potential for making a good character by choice. The game system has to allow for different things to work together in positive ways. This makes balance more difficult, as things cannot be balanced in a vacuum.

(3) Build versatility and emergence. We want players to have lots of tools available to them, and we want them to be able to be combined in different ways. A player has access to gear stats, skills, supports, keystones and flasks, all with interacting elements. This gives a lot of flexibility, and leads to players being able to discover emergent things that had not been considered. We design to make this possible. We try to make things in a way that allows for interesting things to happen. Things would be much easier to balance if we restricted players’ options.

As the game has this kind of emergence, many of our balance decisions have to be reactive. We have to react to balance problems that crop up due to how the game is played. This is not the only way we balance, but it has to be a factor. If something becomes too dominant, it has to be addressed.

An example of an emergent thing we didn’t expect making the game better would something like Ruby Flasks being used as a moderator for Righteous Fire characters. An example of something that needed to be balanced after being introduced would be the first versions of multistrike (and multicast), that dominated the game immediately after being added.

On the flipside of this, we sometimes balance things based on their perceived weakness, even though we know they are actually much stronger. We have to be careful with this, though, as it can come back to hurt us (and lead to reactive nerfs as the power gets discovered).

An example of us not buffing something "known to be weak" is Eldritch Battery. We had players demanding this be strengthened for a long time, but we did not change it, as we had seen it being used well. In the last few months, the community view of the power of this Keystone has basically reversed with no change to it. Burn damage also fits this; we were told for a long time that it was the worst status ailment, and that it needed to be buffed. We knew it was strong, and did not change it. Over time, it has gone from being considered very weak to very strong without us changing it. All that changed was the discovery of its usefulness.

(4) Build-based characters, not class-based. The synergistic options and versatility and decisions mattering are things we value. They don't make things that easy. The freedom players have in making their characters makes it very easy for players to converge on imbalances in the game. Very slight imbalances between options can result in characters gravitating to very similar builds very quickly. We work to avoid that, but our players are very canny. We are sometimes told that there are only a very few builds that work in high-level play, but when we look at high-level characters, there are more builds represented here than in many similar games. However, when players do converge on similar options, we need to make changes that can be less than popular.

Our players usually start our game thinking in terms of the class they choose first, and then work out what builds they can do. After playing for a while, they start to think in terms of build, and then work out which class best supports the build they want to make. Because of these two styles of play, it changes how we approach balance changes to the passive tree.

I’ll talk more about passive tree balance and development in a followup post.

Last edited by Qarl on Jul 18, 2013 1:35:45 AM
yay qarl. Few responses after reading it in depth

Decisions mattering: This has always been a gripe. People complain that everything isn't viable. But thats not a decisino which matters. Things MUST be unviable for others to be viable. I think you explained this very well

Regarding balancing things reactively, I feel that this is a challenging strategy to follow, but mainly the idea this brings up is: Do you have other goals regarding balance beyond reactive changes, ie, do you have the goal of "We want the effective dps to be around this area on average, this area at max" or "We want peoples tanking potential to be enough to survive this sort of a swarm, but to have to run away/not perma tank this sort?

So of course theres individual balance (FB build is tooo powerful CB BOTW rings a bell), but is there also overall sort of 'goals' in terms of rough enemy damage, tank, character dps, etc?

Also the idea of buffing things that are weak, I remember people complaining about searing touch being a weak item, now its considered too hot to touch with how powerful it is, same with traps being 'useless', so I fully support the idea that you leave things open because they are more powerful. That being said, there are situations of relative balance (ie Evasion vs Armour for its effective use), where both are being used at high level effectively, but one is perhaps in general worse than its alternative.

Finally yes, why do people always say theres only 'so many' builds. Theres only a few cookie cutter builds, GS, LS, FP, EK, LA, RoA, Sporker and Summoner, but then theres so many what are called "niche" builds that aren't really niche, just different, that all work amazingly well. I am always disappointed by people who say they have to play that way, because they don't, its entirely them.

Final statement: Balancing a game is hard, balancing a game with this many variables/options is harder. I personally think you are doing a pretty damn good job, certain areas I feel need more work, but at the same time I don't look at other areas that were correct to be worked on so keep it up!
Last edited by Real_Wolf on Jul 18, 2013 1:47:15 AM
as long as it stays hardcore. i'll be happy.

don't need another QQ to win game.
Last edited by Dudebag on Jul 18, 2013 1:37:56 AM
I'm surprised so many people thought EB is bad. While it's not something all builds can make use of it certainly is a good passive. Placement is a little trolly though.

With fire, my personal thing is lightning and fire skills seem backwards. Besides a few, which have popular builds around them, it seems there are too many slow/high damage (relative) lightning skills and too many low damage/fast fire skills. Lightning seems it is meant to build damage up and shock stacks wouldn't be so abused if lightning came from smaller sources meant to capitalize on the short duration of the stacks (similar to how a spork build uses shock stacks). While fire I felt should pack a punch (nothing too insane) then let its burn damage finish mobs off.

I think people who have complained about burning damage are looking at stuff like flame totem and firestorm rather than fire trap and fireball.
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Last edited by Moosifer on Jul 18, 2013 2:01:22 AM
Good post.

I think a lot of people confuse "viable" with "unbeatable". I think many many builds work fine in PoE, and many that people say "require X unique(s)" are actually workable without them, but they require careful play, as you say important gear choices, and arent as fast at conquering battlefields as if you had those build-specific uniques. To me, this is an important role for unique items to play: something to strive for to turn your build from "successful with effort" into perfection...too many people want to race to the end of that progression, skipping the effort part.
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Three things (since I agree with pretty much the rest).

Burn damage also fits this; we were told for a long time that it was the worst status ailment, and that it needed to be buffed. We knew it was strong, and did not change it. Over time, it has gone from being considered very weak to very strong without us changing it. All that changed was the discovery of its usefulness.

1) Let's first start by stating the obvious. Recently, discharge has become a VERY popular skill. Specifically with Searing Touch and end charges. People have been trying to think of a way to keep discharge strong, but without nerfing the entire skill for just one aspect (valid endeavor). This skill recently received a LARGE buff.

2) Fire penetration gem. While not recent, still adds a LOT of dmg to fire supported skills, as well as their burn. Despite the heavy handed rise in enemy resists since OB.

. This also greatly increased the burning damage taken by enemies.

So while you may not have changed the % burn directly, you have increased it with 2 gems, (which increase it A LOT), as well as the current discharge build. Since base fire dmg is so high->high burn dmg.

EDIT: As a personal note, the reason people viewed it as weak in CB (since I'm assuming this is what you're talking about, is because why wait for something to burn, when other skills make the enemies melt like butter instantly :P

People knew the dmg was strong, it was just the time that it took to get the job done was too slow compared to other builds. Since the introduction of insane enemy resists in maps, hell even in Merci, the time to kill is less. Therefore burning dmg is automatically more "viable" (hate that word), in comparison. Since that was the main thing literally making people not use it.

EDIT 2x: To get back to point: Saying you have done nothing is rather incorrect. :)
Last edited by SL4Y3R on Jul 18, 2013 2:22:08 AM
This is beautiful, just wanted to say this before I start reading.
Completed 1 ChallengeQarl wrote:
An example of something that needed to be balanced after being introduced would be the first versions of multistrike (and multicast), that dominated the game immediately after being added.

Wait, what?
I tend to be pretty dismissive when people bring up "cookie cutter," since a lot of stuff makes it onto the scene of the meta with no obvious reasons why. The case of discharge's recent popularity is pretty clear, but something like RoA became cookie cutter recently with no changes to game mechanics. Ranger hadn't been changed at all, nothing changed about bow itemization, ChinSol and Glare had existed forever, and all the weapon elemental damage and area passives were in the same places. It just took some people demonstrating its effectiveness for it to take off.

At the same time, I think it's somewhat dangerous and misleading to apologize for balance issues with that kind of wave of the hand. If GGG is aware of potential synergies that the community hasn't discovered, then perhaps a bit more transparency is in order. I understand that GGG wants the game to be a process of discovery, but at the same time having a large playerbase to test whether the supposed balance works in practice as it does in theory can only be beneficial.

Let's take the case of burn as an example. I think that both GGG and the playerbase, as depicted in Qarl's example, are correct. This is because they're speaking somewhat at cross purposes. Burn has incredible damage capability due to burn damage scaling effectively acting as a further "more" multiplier on top of things like crit. This is why the numbers work out. The problem lies not in the status effect, but in the number of fire skills/supports that can muster enough single-hit fire damage to do anything with the status effect. Counterintuitively, many fire skills are some of the highest attack/cast speed and lowest damage-per-hit skills in the game, like Firestorm, Flame Totem, and Incinerate. This facet of the skill design, I'd imagine, is the source of player frustration with the burn ailment.

Hopefully this and other posts are the beginning of a sort of dialogue that prevents this kind of cross-talk in regards to whether and how game mechanics are balanced.

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