Balance is a design concept that sits upon the shifting sands of player perception and behavior.
In a recent conversation between Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander and Ubisoft Blue Byte’s Teut Weidmann, the games industry consultant warned away other designers from mimicking Riot’s monetization strategies for League of Legends. His point about the company’s monetization through reach is a valid one, albeit not one I want to discuss -- at least not yet. Rather, I want to focus on this particular quote:
They release a champion that is always, always overpowered. So the people who pay for the game buy the champion immediately… and then Riot will go in and slowly devalue the price of the previous champion they released.
See, Weidmann is wrong. Sort of. Not all new champions are overpowered (or OP), not mechanically any way. But each new additional character does create the behavior and appearance of a terribly unbalanced champion. The illusion of a huge advantage is real, even if the actual strength of a new champion is negligibly higher than traditionally played characters.
Take Yasuo as a good example. Released December of last year, this sword-swinging samurai was a disruptive force to League of Legends. His wind wall that blocks incoming projectiles, at the time, was devastating to players who relied on characters dishing out long-ranged poke. His Steel Tempest strike was difficult to predict and his ultimate, which does damage to a huge group of players while essentially disabling them during a fight, was devastating. Internet forums were full of the cry, "Yasuo OP!"
The Ultra Rapid Fire buff was definitely OP
Even so, as one Gamasutra commenter rightly points out, Yasuo was given improvements in the first patch following release. His strength and those of other champions similarly tweaked post-release does not seem to be an intentional design decision by Riot to rake in a profit. If so, we would expect to see consistent reduction of strength across the board for champions each patch after their addition to the game.
Of course, Yasuo has seen several changes in recent patches. Over time, the team at Riot reduced his damage output slightly and decreased his shield duration among other slight tweaks. Even so, none stand out as crippling attacks at his strength in game. So was Yasuo OP after all? Yes and no.
Yasuo’s appearance in the game was disruptive because his abilities were significant disruptive changes to the norm. The wind wall ability changed player expectations about how to initiate and follow up on attacks against the samurai. Many players were also unaware of which abilities actually constituted as projectiles, so they had to learn the hard way how to deal with this new defensive maneuver. Likewise, his ultimate ability triggers not just off his own attacks, but those of his teammates as well, meaning that players unaware of each champion’s ability specifics could unexpectedly get trapped in a deadly airborne attack.
The qualities that make interesting new champions, especially for long-time players, are the same qualities that create the illusion of an unfair advantage. His kit felt new and unique. It encouraged different play styles and rewarded experimentation. All of which gives it the illusion of power for those unfamiliar with the character.
Yasuo's Last Breath delivers a sudden flurry of blows.
Eventually, consistent League of Legend players learned to react. Keen mid-laners learned to sidestep Yasuo’s tempest, bait out a useless windwall, and avoid grouping together when vulnerable to knock-ups. It is not uncommon to see Yasuo largely shut down in games, which is especially devastating for teams who essentially build a composition around his particular kit. Those still struggling to learn the ropes against him when playing ranked simply ban him. The world has calmed down a bit and the balance outrage -- at least targeted towards Yasuo -- has calmed down significantly.
Now yes, I recognize that some champions, especially in certain metas, are certainly stronger than others. But when this is the case, the relative advantage provided to the vast majority of players is negligible. Bans aside, League of Legends is a reactive game. Those who can adapt on the fly tend to thrive and this includes adapting to strong foes in-game. For the largest swatch of players, those nowhere near skilled enough to play the game professionally, familiarity with a champion almost always trumps champion strength.
Even so, players around the world for any competitive game will continue to overblow the relative strength (and occasionally the relative weaknesses) of newly released characters, classes, and items. Ingenuous design creates the illusion of overpowered champions. Even if a brand new champion were perfectly balanced, that quality is essentially invisible. Players look to exploit the disruptive nature of new champions, not to win and lose to the extent that feels “just about right.”
We need to banish the idea of objective balance because (and this is true for all competitive games) the sensation of balance is as much defined by player perception as it is by design. I don’t mean this to undermine the value of skilled developers striving to achieve game balance goals. Aiming at that lofty perfection is admirable. Rather (and I think most designers would echo this thought), game balance is a process, not a location. It is a design concept that sits upon the shifting sands of player perception and behavior. In that way, balance inevitably becomes a conversation between designers and players. Thinking of it in any other way, especially as a monetization carrot, is a lie.
Gnar, a fuzzy, little rodent, joined League of Legends yesterday. He brings with him a fresh anger mechanic and an unpredictable tendency to transform himself and the battles around him. I think it’s safe to say, “Gnar OP!” Will he stay that way? Of course not. We learn, we move on, and we become better designers and players together.