With updates coming faster than ever in 2009, Andrew Wallace focuses in on the challenge of balance. The updates are coming out faster than ever in 2009. CCP appears to have slipped into a schedule of monthly patches since the Apocrypha expansion was released back in Marchand the 1.2 patch has just arrived, right in the middle of May. These smaller updates have made some rather significant changes already, and hopefully they’ll be able to keep up this pace in the future. While I’m on the subject, let’s look at balancing in EVE a bit more, particularly the recent changes to ECM ships. Buff and Nerf are two innocent looking words that are capable of provoking both celebration and rage from an MMO community. Buff is shorthand for something being changed for the better, just as nerf is used when something is made weaker somehow. If you buff something too much it becomes overpowered (OP) or imbalanced (imba). It’s the quickest way to communicate what has happened to a particular class or item, but it ignores the subtleties involved in balancing and it’s very easy to see your favorite class/ship as being “ruined”, rather than looking at the wider view and seeing whether it’s actually for the benefit of the game as a whole. Some kind of common sense is very useful for preventing the knee-jerk raging that is all too common on MMO forums, but that is usually shoved aside for a few reasons. MMOs are a massive investment and as well as dealing with the furious passion of the players that enjoy playing the game, there’s also the amount of time and money players put in that goes a long way to skewing their perspective on balancing (not to mention instilling a fear of change). Particularly in EVE, where training for a ship can take weeks, even months, the possibility of certain ships being “nerfed” usually results in the affected pilots coming out swinging. The only thing that really compensates for this is the fact that, as a player isn’t restricted to a set class; the average EVE player is still able to fly many other ships if one gets “ruined”. Balancing issues in EVE also vary wildly in importance, depending on what you do in the game. Take the recent improvements to the Naglfar Dreadnought (a ship that was more renowned for being VERTICAL than its fighting ability), for example; I don’t really care as I don’t fly Dreadnoughts, but for someone who has put in the quite substantial amount of money and training time into being able to use it, any kind of change is a big deal. As much as it’s very easier to just log on to the forums and vent about perceived imbalances, it’s worth considering the utterly staggering task of balancing any MMO. Especially in EVE, where it isn’t just a case of a balancing a dozen character classes, but the hundreds of different ships and modules. Changing, say, how missiles work affects not only the ships of the predominantly missile based Caldari race, but every ship in the game with a missile slot. Let’s take the recent Falcon “Nerf” as an example of the subtleties of balancing. The Falcon recon ship and the Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) modules that it employs have been a dominant force in EVE PVP for ages, so straight away the falcon issue is two problems in one, and that becomes three when you add in the relative uselessness of the other ECM ships in comparison with the Falcon. Now, what happened to the Falcon in Apocrypha 1.1? Well, they weren’t “nerfed” into the ground, and the two that decloaked on me the other day would suggest that they are far from useless, but they are certainly not as powerful as they once were. No other recon ship had the ability to put that many targets out of action simultaneously, especially from that range. In the grand scheme of things, the Falcon was made worse (or “Nerfed”), to a certain extent, to make the other ECM ships better; particularly its recon brother the Rook, which is now a missile spamming ECM boat. The chance based system unique to ECM (that gives you a percentage chance of jamming based on your ECM jammer strength and the sensor strength of your target) isn’t much of a counterweight for locking someone out of the fight for twenty seconds per cycle. Fights in EVE, generally, aren’t long enough for jamming to become irrelevant over time and it was easy to see that even if the Falcon was “balanced” by the chance based mechanic of ECM (which isn’t shared by the other forms of Electronic Warfare, such as sensor dampeners and energy vampires), it was unbalanced in relation to the other ECM ships. So, the ECM ships were balanced in Apocrypha 1.1, but mainly brought in line with each other, and although ECM is still as powerful as it was before, it’s no longer wrapped up in the hull of a cloaking cruiser that can use it at full effectiveness from a long distance. That’s two of the three issues out of the way, but it still leaves ECM. The Falcon changes were more about balancing the ECM ships than dealing with the problems with the ECM mechanic itself. A recent thread on the game development pointed towards ECM still being a problem in EVE, and that a reworking of the whole mechanics may (I said may) be on the cards. With the changes coming thick and fast these days, one phrase keeps coming into my mind: “We are living in interesting times”.