In any case, it brings up some (more) thoughts about game balance and how different companies go about achieving and maintaining it.
The WoW (Blizzard) way - what I believe is the least fun way to balance your game by far. Did you enjoy investing 80 hours in grinding that character? Sweet, because that toon will suck in 4 months time and you'll have to do it again if you want to be competitive in PvP/not get benched in hardmode raids. Blizzard messes with abilities and stats scalings seemingly at random, sometimes fundamentally changing how a class or spec works, for no real reason other than to change things.
I guess it keeps the game fluid (when you aren't in the 1+ year lull between expansions) but it f*cking sucks to have it happen to you, and not all too fun to have it happen to friends you play with often then quit the game or get sidelined.
The DotA (Valve) way - the best way to balance your game IMO, since everyone feels powerful, and feeling powerful is good. As long as you can handle getting totally blown up when you make mistakes, of course. One of the things that was difficult for me to believe (coming from tabletop and card games) when I started following DotA is that there are very, very few "really bad" heroes (ie. the ones that only get picked once in 1000 pro games) - there are probably 2-3 out of ~105 at this stage.
Usually in DotA when something gets nerfed, they leave a hero's strengths and focus on accenting its weaknesses.
For example, Keeper of the Light (aka. Kotl) is a support hero whose is really good early on the in game due to a huge (non-scaling) damage nuke spell he has, and can give your team a big early momentum advantage by setting up ganks and pushing lanes. So much so that at some point, he became an extremely common pick in pro games.
How did Valve nerf him? They reduced his starting HP by a little bit as well as his HP gain.
Since he is easier to kill early on, it is riskier to expose yourself to cast your big light beam, so you are forced to play safer. Thus enemy heroes are less threatened and can level up relatively faster so are in less immediate danger. Boom, systematic balance - hero still feels strong and isn't such a kick in the dick to play against.
And, as the cartoon suggests, when a hero gets buffed, they just get to do what they do better and leave their weaknesses as they are.
For example, Night Stalker is a hero that sucks bad during the day but becomes a fast melee monster at night (day and night cycle every few minutes in the game, with a few abilities to manipulate them). Basically all of Night Stalker's buffs in recent memory have been on improving his strengths at night - giving him access to items that give him total map vision at night, improving his stuns and snares at night, etc. But he still does and always will suck balls during the daytime. That is what Night Stalker is about. He is not a very common pick at present but he does what he does very well and is respected for it.
The LoL (Riot) way - I haven't played LoL, but from what I have seen and heard, the game as a whole is a LOT more forgiving than WM and DotA. Riot's balancing usually focuses on taking what exactly a champion is too good at and reduce the numbers so they aren't as good at it anymore, and the reverse for buffs. Nobody really feels OP for too long, but it is balanced out because neither does your opponent, nobody gets totally stomped for slight mistakes (not by the game, anyway), your nerves are steadier, the learning curve is flatter, the bruises aren't as deep and you sleep better at night.
The PP way?
|The Privateer Press way - void.|
Basically, they don't do shit in terms of model balance adjustments.
To their credit, they are pretty quick to pump out an errata when there is an actual error that really obviously affects game balance in an extreme way (like the Kaelyssa theme force printed a few months ago that allowed an 18 focus Hydra to one-shot basically anything in the game on the table on Turn 2), or when there is a general rule that is written in a way that causes serious games system malfunction (like Raeks arm-locking Colossals), or when something is just written poorly (ie. Kara Sloan's feat, Explosivo, Witch Hound, Backswing).
Here is a list of actual model balance changes in Mk2 (straight buffs/nerfs), as far as I remember:
- Gaspy2 has been nerfed 2-3 times - all changes to his feat (changing the returned models from Incorporeal to Ghostly, and then from any models to grunts only). Legit nerf. Still one of the best casters in the game.
- Rhyas got reach. Legit buff.
- Taryn di la Rovissi's Shadow Fire ability was changed out of nowhere so that all models ignore the affected model for LoS purposes. Legit buff, but apparently in response to a systematic issue that we haven't seen yet.
- Armored Shell on the two Khador shell jacks allowing them to stay closed after a trample or slam. Legit buff.
- Entropic Aura on the Blood Hag was nerfed pre model release because forum rage decreed that denying Hordes warlocks transfers just by having a model standing within 8" was OP as all hell. Legit nerf, because that was indeed total BS.
- You could argue the change to Side Step (triggering only off enemy models) was a nerf largely aimed at Molik Karn. Not a strong argument, but it has some merit. Likewise the Blackhide Wrastler's animus was 'friendly models' before people found out you could do the Flying Pegasus trick on Molik Karn and the 18pts you spent to do so made it a pretty good deal since Molik was really stupid with Makeda2 before the Side Step change (now just plain stupid).
So over the last 4+ years of MkII, we have had SIX instances of targeted model balancing (some of which are arguably to avoid janky rules interpretations rather than actual power shifts).
So why this apprehension to changing models on PP's parts?
It's the GW effect: back in the day, when Warhammer and 40k were taken seriously as a competitive tabletop wargames (1), many people bought GW models on account of their rules above anything else. Then a new edition would come out, and their favourite model/unit/monster/vehicle was very likely to have been nerfed into the ground or even removed entirely from the game (!!!!). Yes, GW practiced the Blizzard way of doing things, except with a much bigger price tag attached and a lot more heartache. Needless to say, if you were one of those people who played WHFB/40k primarily for the game rather than the story or sweet models, you got really pissed off that these game pieces were now invalid and you had to spend another large wad of cash, time and effort to paint new models up. Not much fun, if you didn't like that side of things (2).
Some of the people who were pissed off ended up making a game called Warmachine, and made the solemn promise that they would never do such a thing to their players. To their credit, every Warmachine model is still tournament legal, and I respect them greatly for sticking to that. In my opinion however, there should be a middle ground between the GW Effect and game balance. We should not be afraid to change things for the better. There is a lot of design space between 'making models obsolete' and 'balance tweaking' (see: the entire MkII process as an example of the latter).
The CounterargumentThe strongest argument commonly presented in PP's defense is that they balance the game with new releases - they balance list blocks rather than models within those lists. For example, a new model might allow a new type of list which would be counter to a current power list or opening up an entirely new playstyle within a given faction - take for example the Sacral Vault being a pretty hard counter to Cryx infantry spam (thereby weakening Cryx in the greater scheme of things) or eMorvahna introducing a highly effective attrition, infantry-based playstyle to Circle (making that faction stronger in multi-list tournament play).
This is the most common perception on balancing in the game and changing the meta, and to be honest I think it can be a valid way of doing thing - if you don't mind having models you paid a decent chunk of money for and spend time assembling and painting sitting on the shelf, gathering dust on account of being underpowered or unfavored in the current meta (3).... and if you don't mind waiting a pretty damn long time for those new things to come out in the first place!
It's been working OK for PP so far, since people keep playing, and sometimes you get 'that' release that solves a problem or advances a strength and you can now make really sweet lists and that keeps you going for a few months.
Good examples of this are Butcher3, who basically just Khadors harder (and more reliably) than the other Butchers, giving Khador a strongly thematic and powerful list, or something like the Gator Battle Engine, which IMO seriously ups the Gator game against a lot of the current Cryx BS out there and is available to all Gator, Legion or Circle lists (not that the latter two needed help vs Cryx).
The biggest problem with this approach however is model bloat, and consequentially each faction maintaining its identity and uniqueness within the greater game. Every model released makes it that much harder for the next release to not invalidate something else, and is also an opportunity for something else to sit on the shelf and do nothing. Another downside is that if the new releases fail to stimulate the meta (often they do), "subpar" models remain unused and things remain stale.
Imperfect BalanceIdeally, the most balanced PvP system is the mirror match like Chess, where every player has exactly the same options available to them, and the only difference is really who gets first turn.
Failing that, the best system is a 100% open model pool, where anyone can use anything and has relatively easy access to everything (like the more popular MOBAs, or arguably Fantasy Flight's Living Card Game model). This results in what is currently referred to as 'imperfect balance'.
However, given the army/faction system deeply embedded in the game system of Warmachine, that is not and likely will never be a possibility in Warmahordes, so you have a "packaged" version of imperfect balance instead, where the "best" things at any given time are a group of models (lists) rather than single things - except one where you don't have the benefit of regular patches (ala. PC games) or cycles (ala. Magic the Gathering) to switch the balance around when the meta start solidifying. As a result, you have more or less the same approximate lists on top year in, year out, with boredom and the occasional new super-powered piece as the primary meta shift engine.
The next best thing for Warmahordes is thus to have multiple balanced model pools ("factions"), which are not only balanced against each other for competitive reasons but balanced within themselves for "metagaming" reasons (ie. having fun with building interesting lists).This is hard, and requires A LOT of playtesting over a long period of time to get right, which means it requires a lot of small changes and tweaks over the same period of time. I think this is where PP's "no changes - ever (with a few exceptions)" approach to model balance hurts the metagame.
I've been of the opinion that annual/semiannual "balance" patches MOBA-style would do wonders for the game and meta. The current release cycle is a new book per game every ~16 months or so (4). So having one balance patch in between each release would be huge to keep things fresh. Each patch could have ~2 or so changes per faction and/or some larger systematic changes, together with a set of NQ/War Room cards with the changes to model. It would stimulate the meta and sales quite a bit, and would be a good justification for smaller number of releases by adding new viability to models that either were underpowered during playtesting, or have been excluded from the meta for a long time. They already release errata at this rate, so the timing can't be better!
Some arguments against this -
1) I believe the game is perfectly balanced as is! Yay butterflies and unicorns! (which I would argue is incorrect since perfect balance is never possible in an imperfect balance asymmetrical system. That's kinda the point, and imperfect balance systems are kept balanced and alive in the long term through continuous subtle balance changes which trigger meta opinion shifts).
2) Changes are confusing, the cards I have will be inaccurate. (we are far past this point in MK2 already with all the existing errata. Implementation is not difficult. With War Room and the internet, they have the infrastructure to do it easily so that shouldn't be any bigger a deal than 2 erratas a year.)
3) I believe that PP will mess up the game, I'd rather the devil I know. (even I don't believe they would screw it up given the huge amount of playtest data currently available these days. Lich2 nerfs have been very reasonable so far, for example. And besides, if they destroy the game, you can always just go play something else, or make your own tournament system like Hacksaw did before he started officially contracting for PP!)
The only reason I can think why it is not happening is that PP is terrified of the backlash from changing things people have already "paid for". Nerds get overly defensive about stuff like that. As far as I am concerned, as long as they do not delete models from the game GW-style, they aren't breaking any promises.
TL;DR: In an imperfect balance system, regular small changes must take place in order to maintain interest and actively rotate the meta. New releases are one way to do this, but each game only gets an expansion once every 18 months. In between, PP should make non-release changes in the form of errata/rules changes/balance changes and continuously strive for that unachievable perfection. The journey matters more than the destination.
P.S. - Jaga-Jaga article coming up in a week or so. I've played a bunch of games with her, just waiting for my model to arrive and get painted.
(1) Mostly out of lack of alternatives, and because they had the largest player base of any board game outside the most competitive, strategically-intensive and balanced tabletop wargame of all time: chess.
(2) Much like a lot of people these days don't like spending hours painting models but are pushed to do so by 'fully-painted only' events! But that's another topic for another rant I will probably not write.
(3) Keeping in mind that the 'meta' in Warmachine changes really damn slow, like 8-18months type slow.
(4) Gargantuans came out March 2013, Exigence October 2014.