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State of the Game—November 12, 2007

Talking Skill Balance with Izzy and Ensign

By Billiard

Special note: Each State of the Game presents the opinions and insights of one game observer. These observations are personal in nature and do not reflect the opinions of ArenaNet. While ArenaNet does review each State of the Game article to assure that it offers content that is respectful of all players, we intend to allow our reporters the freedom to inject some personal opinion into descriptions of the current atmosphere of competitive play in Guild Wars, and to express views based on their experience and observation.


The October Skill Balance Update generated considerable discussion both before and after it came out. As with many discussions on Guild Wars fansites, the community's point of view was amply represented, but not much was known about where ArenaNet stood on the topic. Looking at the current metagame, many players didn't like what they were seeing in terms of balance, and many questioned if ArenaNet wanted or knew how to handle the situation. To shed some light on the subject, I sat down with a couple of knowledgeable folks to discuss skill balance in more detail and see what the issues look like from both ArenaNet's and the community's perspectives.

Ensign, representing the Guild Wars community, was one of the founders and a core member of the Idiot Savants [iQ] championship teams that won the North American Championship of the Guild Wars World Championship (GWWC) and the Open Event at the Guild Wars Factions Championship (GWFC). They then placed third at the GWWC in Taipei and second at the GWFC in Leipzig. Ensign is also a senior moderator and part of the original staff at the popular GuildWarsGuru fansite, and engages in high level PvP as a member of Dark Alley [dR].

Izzy, representing ArenaNet, is the main Skill balancer for Guild Wars and plays in The Fianna [Fi] PvP guild. He originally started in the gaming industry years ago with Asheron's Call, and was involved in the development of Asheron's Call 2 and Mythica before joining ArenaNet.

Below is a synopsis of the discussion on skill balance with Izzy and Ensign.


Current Balance

Ensign: Currently, things are indeed balanced in the sense that everyone runs the same basic three or four builds with slight midline variations: two Warriors, two Monks, Ranger, Mesmer, Blinding Surge Elementalist, and a flag runner. Many matches thus end up being boring mirror matches, where the teams are pretty even, but not very interesting.

Izzy: The top level of PvP is stagnant, especially as compared to the past. This is a result of fixing past issues, in particular the power creep caused by Nightfall's release. Nightfall introduced many skills that added more physical damage, as well as improving the damage of all professions. This greatly increased the damage output of 8v8 team builds, which in turn led teams to look for ways to mitigate this higher level of damage. Now, teams basically try to bring enough defense to hold out until Victory or Death (VoD) where they will then be able to score some kills. Thus, teams attempt to make good tactical decisions on the way to VoD, and many interesting tactics are then employed at VoD.

Skills in the Spotlight
By Izzy
Shield of Regeneration
Shield of Regeneration
Shield of Regeneration Shield of Regeneration [Elite]
Monk - Protection Prayers - Enchantment Spell
Energy: 15
Activation: 0.25
Duration: 5..13
Recharge: 8
Enchantment Spell. For 5..13 seconds, target ally gains +3..10 Health regeneration and 40 armor.
Interestingly, just putting up a skill change calls attention to the existence of a skill, and possibly encourages people to run it. But this is an example of perception. It isn't actually balance. People seem to be shifting around their skill usage because certain skills are just spotlighted at the moment. Shield of Regeneration is an example: it was not the most optimal to start with, and after the nerf people found alternatives.

Ensign: A lot of teams run 8v8 GvG builds because Monks were considerably changed with Nightfall as well. Now teams need another Monk or defensive character for support. This leads to some interesting responses when an opposing team splits with three attackers. Responding to such splits can greatly weaken a dedicated 8v8 team build.

Izzy: Monks were weakened on purpose in order to break the stalemate caused by players not dying. The game is unbalanced if nobody dies, and fighting for 20 minutes without a death is boring. Death is a critical event in a GvG, so players bring many layers of defense in order to prevent deaths. With the resulting webs of defense, full of interdependent layers, one mistake and the team crumbles. The weakening of Monks made passive defenses such as Aegis and Wards (skills that are "fire and forget") much more important and powerful. [Referring to a forum post by Ensign] Ensign would like to increase healing capability for Monks, rather than buffing damage reduction, to make Monks more flexible and therefore propagate diversity among Monk builds. As it is now, the advent of Light of Deliverance has really cut down on build diversity, yet it does not synergize well with other skills because it requires less than 80% Health for activation.

Ensign: Light of Deliverance is the only real way to keep up with all of the damage that teams bring into matches, making it a single point of failure. Shutting down a team's Light of Deliverance Monk usually leads to defeat for that team.

Izzy: A Heal Party type of skill is integral to the backline of Guild Wars teams, and has been almost from the start. Because it's even more efficient than Heal Party, Light of Deliverance is harder to deal with. Using Light of Deliverance also pressures teams' ability to split because Monks' Skill Bars are now more tuned for 8v8 fighting. I would like to deal with the Light of Deliverance issue, but I want to continue examining passive defenses. It's dangerous making changes to Monks without extensive consideration. A small change to Monks can have far-reaching consequences for overall balance. Monks play a pivotal role throughout the game.

Ensign: Ward of Melee is still a problem after the recent skill changes. In the past it was not a major concern, but Light of Deliverance allows players to basically camp in the Ward and shrug off area-of-effect damage that previously had been used to force them out.

Izzy: I will look at Monks, but I want to avoid catastrophic failure and be very careful about messing with them. Even so, I still want to focus on passive defenses. They're scary because once people learn how to effectively use passive defenses, they basically stop taking damage. The power creep of Nightfall that led to this huge increase in passive defense by teams also led teams to bring fewer dedicated offensive characters. While in the past teams might have brought five purely offensive characters, the norm now is three. Paragons have contributed greatly to this situation because they are really good at combining both a lot of offense and a lot of defense on one character. To change things up, I plan to focus on passive defenses and Light of Deliverance.


Ideal Balance

Izzy: Balance should make the game enjoyable to play, with large variety in terms of the builds you can play and in-game tactics you can employ. Right now I see balance as being off because there are a limited number of strong skills you basically need to bring if you want to win. Also, in the game itself, 8v8 is much more viable than a split strategy, thereby making 8v8 the dominant choice by most teams. One reason for this is that many guilds around are no longer trying new things.

Ensign: Agreed with Izzy. The Guild Wars Factions Championship was the pinnacle of balance because you never knew what people would bring. Back then you could try bringing different things, and you weren't ever sure what your opponents would have on their Skill Bars. But now you can almost know for sure what the opponents will have.

Izzy: We recognized that as more skills were added, the more balance would be affected. New skills are introduced to fill gaps in what is already available and keep things interesting and varied, though this does tend to push out some old skills. This problem is inherent to adding new skills. If there are 15 ways to achieve Blind, there will likely be one optimal method. In addition, good utility skills such as Enraging Charge start to push away the variation in the game. Enraging Charge fills a niche role because it is flexible as either a speed boost for splits or an adrenaline builder. This is one of the reasons ArenaNet didn't introduce as many new skills in Eye of the North.


Balance Updates

Izzy: The method for balancing skills with the release of Factions and Nightfall were different, and thus required different sorts of balance updates. With Factions, we introduced a lot of weaker skills and then slowly worked to make them stronger after seeing how players used and responded to them. When Nightfall was implemented, we instead introduced skills that were very strong and then sought to scale them back later as needed. Thus Nightfall had a much more immediate impact on the metagame than Factions did. This also made it take much longer to balance after the release of Nightfall than it did after the release of Factions.

Izzy: It takes a lot of time to analyze skills and make certain what their effects are on the metagame. I aim to make a balance update every other month if things seem relatively balanced, or once a month if the metagame appears unbalanced. While this may seem like a long time, the longer time period allows for the meta to settle and for us to identify what changes are needed.

Ensign: There really is no problem with the schedule for updates. The problem is more that the depth of the changes is minor. It seems that there are only a few significant changes with each update.

Izzy: We don't like to change too much at once because wide, sweeping changes are harder to track, while smaller changes make it easier to see the effects. Too many changes at once don't provide adequate feedback. It is hard to pin down which changes had the most impact if all of them were huge shakeups. The effects of some changes are immediately apparent though, such as the effect that Keystone Signet had with Signet of Humility.


Balance Input

Izzy: Contemplated changes are often posted on my Wiki page so that people can comment on them. I read posts on various fansites as well as on my Wiki page concerning balance issues. Also, I talk to people in-game about contemplated changes, using a group of 30 or so experienced players as a sounding board. Ensign is usually privy to these changes ahead of time because he and I speak on a regular basis about the state of the game and balance. Ensign's feedback has helped find large issues with changes before they go live. I really like Ensign's critiques because they provide a more radical viewpoint, and it is useful to see those kinds of responses to balance attempts. The "testing weeks" recently employed are a more progressive approach, as opposed to closed door Alpha testing, and they provide a wider response and more feedback. ArenaNet is trying to streamline communication and get the message out to players better, but this still needs work. The volume of skills is high right now, so overall balance takes longer.

Shake it Up

Izzy: Players currently use mostly Core skills, followed by Nightfall skills and then skills from the original Guild Wars campaign (Prophecies). The metagame is quite stale at the moment and needs some shaking up. One example is changing how Light of Deliverance works in relation to other skills in the backline. The risk of this approach, though, is a chain reaction and a crumbling of the metagame.

Ensign: Things have been bad for a couple of months. Shake it up!


Billiard is a Senior Moderator at GuildWarsGuru.com and a former, long-time guild leader of Xen of Onslaught [XoO], one of the largest and most active PvP guilds in the world. Billiard can be reached in game as Billiard The Bold, or by private message at the [XoO] website.