The Challenge With Balance in MechWarrior Online

The Challenge With Balanace in MechWarrior Online

via nerdgoblin.com

There’s a problem with MechWarrior Online. Actually, there’s probably over a dozen problems with MechWarrior Online, depending on who you ask, but the one we’re going to talk about today is one that is universal for any game, online or no, and that’s balance.

The subject of balance is something that has recently captured the attention of Russ Bullock, President of PGI, after an explosive video was posted by part-time playwright and full-time competitive MechWarrior critic Dane “Jarl” Crowton. The video brings a no-holds-barred message to the guy in charge of MWO in an impassioned plea to return something that has been sorely lacking in the game, and that’s game balance between various ‘Mechs, weapon systems, and even between the Inner Sphere and Clans themselves.

The Need For Balance

Now, before we even begin, we all know here at Sarna that the Clans were never supposed to be balanced. They were supposed to be vastly superior to the Inner Sphere in every measurable way, thus making for some interesting plot development. But MechWarrior Online is by design a competitive game, and when two sides square off in glorious battle neither side wants the other to have an unfair advantage as it’d take all the fun out of honorable combat. Like Clan MechWarriors or even Kurita pilots, honor is everything in MechWarrior Online.

But, as The Dane points out in his video, balance has been something that MechWarrior Online has struggled with and continues to struggle with today. And for good reason: it is vastly more complicated balancing a computer game than a tabletop one.

Spider

The Spider, a victim of of the infamous re-scale of MWO’s ‘Mechs.

For those of you who are non-MechWarrior Online players, a brief explanation. Let’s take the humble Medium Laser, a staple of both tabletop BattleTech and MechWarrior Online Inner Sphere BattleMechs. In BattleTech the tabletop game, a one ton, one critical slot weapon that deals five damage a pop is fine for several reasons having to do with the tabletop rules: fire rate is fixed at once per turn (as with many weapons), and since where you strike the enemy ‘Mech is (usually) decided at random boating up on an arsenal of 10 or 12 lasers isn’t as terrifying as even a third as many AC/20s.

Now let’s take MechWarrior Online. It’s the same one ton, one crit, five damage weapon, but the problem is the pilot can aim a bunch of them all at the same spot, making 10 or 12 of these weapons capable of coring all but the heaviest of ‘Mechs. Sure, the heat you generate will cause a shutdown, but who cares if your opponent is already dead? The incentive to boat is massive, which causes a problem when you want to encourage the equal use of the over 100 weapons systems found in MechWarrior Online.

medium laser Hunchback

The medium laser in action. Courtesy of mmobomb.com

To try and make the weapon remotely fair, PGI attempted all sorts of solutions: they increased the beam delay, requiring the pilot to hold their crosshairs longer on the target (and thus also increase the likelihood of either missing or getting shot in return). They tweaked range and damage fall-off numbers, penalized players with extra heat (called “ghost heat”) when fired in large groups, and reduced their cooldown so they couldn’t be fired as fast as either their larger or smaller brethren. And while all these adjustments certainly changed the Medium Laser’s performance, it remains open to debate whether or not they brought the weapon back in line.

Today the Medium Laser remains ubiquitous simply due to its efficiency – one ton, one crit, five damage is simply hard to beat when you have the available hardpoints for one.

A Tangled Web Of New ‘Mechs

No other game in existence has a larger challenge with balance than MechWarrior Online.

That’s just one weapon system that challenges PGI with balance. With the recent surge of Jihad-era tech, there are now over a hundred different weapons systems in MechWarrior Online, and each of them requires the same kind of tweaking to remain fair in an online, competitive game. It’s a monumental task for a small, independent developer like PGI.

A task that PGI makes even more monumental with each passing month. For some time now, PGI has released a new ‘Mech nearly every month in MechWarrior Online, and while few players would argue against adding additional content to the game, it makes the task of balancing every chassis nigh impossible. With hundreds of different ‘Mechs to consider (if you include each unique variant of a given chassis) ensuring that each new entry to MWO’s roster is fair in comparison to already existent ‘Mechs is a task for an adaptively intelligent supercomputer and not a small team with a few spreadsheets. No other game in existence has a larger challenge with balance than MechWarrior Online.

Clan Mechs

The Introduction of the Clans was the first major bombshell in MWO balance. Courtesy of mwomercs.com

Unfortunately for PGI, balance is a necessary component of any competitive game. If MechWarrior Online were primarily a PvE game, such as Warframe, overperforming weapons or ‘Mechs can be explained as simply being rewards for players who have unlocked enough of the game’s content to achieve them. But MechWarrior is a PvP game, requiring every weapon, every chassis, and every scrap of technology to be balanced for veterans and newcomers alike. No new player will be drawn to a fundamentally unfair game, and certainly not one as obtuse as MechWarrior Online.

Unfortunately for PGI, balance is a necessary component of any competitive game.

So how does a game with hundreds of thousands–perhaps even millions–of points of interaction achieve even a semblance of balance? I hate to use the word “unfortunately” twice in the same article, but the truth is there’s no easy way to program a computer to consider the player experience on top of all the hard math required in balancing a game. It takes years, a dedicated player base, and developers willing to listen to player feedback to achieve balance.

As small as MechWarrior Online is, there are still plenty of players willing to offer their two-cents when it comes to all aspects of the game. PGI has a public test server that allows certain players to test out larger changes, but that server hasn’t seen much use since the previous skill tree update, while there have been multiple changes to weapons and ‘Mechs in the eight months since then.

An expanded system which takes player feedback and turns it into useful data is certainly going to require a larger investment of resources from PGI than they’ve currently made, but it’s a necessary one for the continued ongoing health of the best–and the only–ride in town.

Well, at least until they release MechWarrior 5. Then it’s back to PvE madness and we can throw balance out the window.

And as always, MechWarriors: Stay Syrupy.

stay syrupy

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About Sean

Hooked on BattleTech at an early age, Sean honestly can't remember whether it was the cartoon, the serial novels or the short-lived TCG that did him in. Whatever it was, his passion for giant shooty robots never died, so now he writes about the latest and greatest in 'Mech related news.

17 thoughts on “The Challenge With Balance in MechWarrior Online

  1. Helsbane

    The saddest part about this entire article is when it stated what it took to get Russ Bullock’s attention. As leader of the merry little band over at PGI, SHOULDN’T MWO ALREADY HAVE HIS ATTENTION!?!?! FFS…

    Reply
  2. Bird_Thing

    A system wherein the developers actively listen to their players’ feedback and actually do update the gameplay balance accordingly has been around in MWLL for *ages*. The developers have always interacted closely with the community, perhaps now even more than they did back in the days of WSS.
    The balance in MWLL is generally quite well-done, and this is partly so due to the exclusion of a mechlab. Instead of the mechlab, the devs have complete control of what assets get what weapons and equipment, and thus have absolute control of the balance. However, the *community* there gives the devs input on what they think can be adjusted and why.

    Reply
      1. Brill

        Which is 90% of the reason MWO’s balance is fucked. The lack of a mechlab in mwll is a design decision, and one for the better of the game.

        Every single MW game’s mp has been at the mercy of the mechlab meta and it’s been to the detriment of every single one. To put it simply you cannot rely on a community not to be cunts with it.

        Reply
  3. David

    Bird_Thing hit the nail on the head…here it is, re-stated. Most ‘mechs have specific weapon load-outs. The Mechlab allows you to customize, with little regard to said load-outs. Here’s your solution – limit weapon bays on all but Omnimechs to specific types and sizes of weapons. A large laser mount can be standard, ER, pulse, etc…but it cannot be replaced with 7 medium lasers. Missile bays cannot be replaced with non-missile weapons. Same with autocannons.
    As for Clans – they’re supposed to be OP. They also almost always field less units, due to their system of ‘honor haggling’ – the one who promises a victory with the least units gets the honor of first assault. IS vs. Clans should be 3-2 or 3-1 ratio, and there’s your Clan balance.

    Reply
    1. Laurel

      In MechWarrior Online, you can’t replace a large laser with 7 mediums, or replace missiles with non-missile weapons. All mechs have hardpoints, incuding OmniMechs, which dictate what type of weapons can be placed within. Hardpoints can be ballistic, missile, energy, ECM, or AMS. OmniMechs are distinct because they can change their hardpoint configurations, but only using hardpoints available to other variants of the same OmniMech.

      Often, mechs have hardpoints inflated beyond their canon loadouts, but few mechs have the capacity to take 7+ medium lasers. For example, the AS7-S that only has one LRM20 and one SRM6 has 4 missile hardpoints even though only two launchers are present in canon; this mech only has 4 energy hardpoints and therefore can only take 4 medium lasers. The most medium lasers an IS mech can carry is 9 and the most medium lasers a clan mech can carry is somewhere around 16, although carrying more than 6 Clan medium lasers of any type is generally unsustainable for heat reasons.

      Whilst carrying 16 energy weapons is technically possible for Clans, it is only sustianable for small lasers, and only on a single chassis, the Gargoyle. The runner up is the Executioner with a maximum of 14 energy hardpoints (correct me if I miscounted), but the Executioner lacks sufficient critical space to carry heat sinks if all those hardpoints were to be utilized. The Nova can use as many as 15 hardpoints but lacks the tonnage to equip them all, unless micro lasers are used, which isn’t currently a legitimate build. Most mechs that actually boat energy such as the SuperNova use a combination of two large lasers and a number of supplementary medium lasers. I don’t believe any SuperNova can carry more than 9 energy weapons. In other words whilst boating is a major issue for MWO balance, it isn’t quite what the article or this comment section has made it out to be. Boating doesn’t usually mean stacking dozens of one weapon, but instead stacking several complementary weapons, like SRMs and LB20x autocannons, or heavy large lasers and ER medium lasers.

      Hope this helps clarify everyone’s understanding of hardpoint balance and boating in MechWarrior Online, in case you haven’t played before/haven’t played energy builds. No shame if you haven’t but this really is an MWO-specific discussion.

      Reply
  4. Sadlerbw

    In reality PGI doesn’t actually need to balance all weapons and mechs. It is OK if some chassis or weapons suck, as long as they don’t suck forever. As long as they make changes wich drive different mechs and load outs to the top of the power curve on a semi-regular basis that is generally good enough. Honestly WoW has been doing it for years. MWO isn’t the only game with a “Meta” after all. In fact having a meta that shifts a couple times a year helps to keep the game interesting!

    Now, it does create some terrible problems in quick play games when trying to assess the raw potential of a mech, but I still believe the we, the derpy players, are a bigger variable. I mean, I’m tier 2 at the moment and I am still fully capable of getting myself killed in under a minute with less than 100 damage to show for it! No match make is capable of figuring out if I’m going to be an utter bonehead from one match to the next.

    Reply
  5. CF

    One notes the Boardgame does not have this problem. And yet, the Computer Games *INSIST* on ignoring a solution which has worked for almost forty years….

    Reply
    1. SayuriUliana

      While I’ve never played the Tabletop game, I’ve heard enough from my friends that have to know that no, tabletop game probably isn’t as well balanced as you think it is.

      Reply
  6. VoodooLou Kerensky

    To be honest if PGI were to just make the weapons values the same for both sides the only detractors would be ‘Canon Only’ crowd. My CAC20 firing 5 rounds to do that 20 damage doesnt balance that the IS version is heavier takes 1 more critical slot and doesnt fire as far. The IS weapon puts all 20 points of damage in one spot not 4 points of damage to 5 different spots.
    And you can really tell when someone hasnt bothered to play the game or the table top that inspired it. The paper doll let you put what you wanted where ever as long as critical slot and weight requirements are kept. As to why MS went to the hard point style of mech configuration it was to battle boating from MW3, that existed in TT as well. But what they didnt do was ask any Military person about it because the glaring ‘WTF!’ is how does your AC20 get fed its ammo when its on the opposite side of the mech in the leg while the AC20 itself is in the arm. That is the most awesomest weapons feed in existence and it never jams. That and military grade lasers arent colored. Lasers and such got colored because it provides the viewing audience a visual reference because stuff blowing up for no apparent reason in a movie is confusing.
    And PGI has already thumbed its nose at Canon by bringing in the Piranha. Its role is singular in nature. Kill Soft Targets, specifically Infantry. As there is no infantry in MWO to legitimize the existence of MG’s in MWO was to give them crit bonuses. Just so you have a reference point, the GAU-8 (the main gun of an A-10 Warthog) is a MG in BattleTech and has as much of an effect on Mech armour as a hand held laser pointer does to a wall. So matching weapons value across the board would solve PGI’s problem of weapons balance and the clans would have the slight edge of less weighty and mass (slot size) heatsinks and XL engine’s requiring 3 hits but only take 2 critical slots in side torsos vs IS 3 in side torso making it more vulnerable to critical hits. That alone will have the hardcore IS players screaming Clans r OP , while clan mechs rarely can fit 1 double heat sink in each leg, almost every IS mech can fit 2 single heatsinks in each leg to take advantage of standing in water to double the amount of heat each HS dissipates but thats not OP. And even if values were the same for all equipment across the board the majority of players wouldnt care. As long as we have the Clan Chassis to use we’d be happy.

    Reply
    1. TKG

      “And PGI has already thumbed its nose at Canon by bringing in the Piranha. Its role is singular in nature. Kill Soft Targets, specifically Infantry. As there is no infantry in MWO to legitimize the existence of MG’s in MWO was to give them crit bonuses. ”

      This would be true if you had not actually read the TRO entry from the 3058 technical read out page 156.

      ” Such a large array of machine guns can be deadly to units twice the Piranha’s size especially if the small ‘Mech can run behind the enemy. At short range, a Piranha can chew through any opponents back armor almost instantly.”

      These two sentences in the capabilities section are the ones that pretty much imply the design has usage beyond an anti-personnel role. A lot of players forget about this and assume rather blindly that this mech has one use when in fact it’s no different than any other non-omni clan mech in that it has a specialization but it’s range of ability goes beyond the specialization.

      I should also note that given that PGI has had a actual piranha as a mascot (they named it Bruce btw); are you even surprised they’d add a mech of the same name? Let’s be honest, MWO is nothing but a giant Beta test for MW5 which may just have infantry which is why it is actually here most likely.

      Reply
  7. James McCrea

    I am a Legendary Founder, played back in Beta. Played off and on for years and probably pumped 500-600 bucks in the game to support it.

    I came back after the new skill tree, took a look around the 50 or so mechs I own (of which I use 6?) and that skill tree and it’s pathetically small boosts for what looked like hundreds of nodes like some Final Fantasy game make me log out. It was just too much, and I didn’t feel like taking the time to screw with all that when I just wanted to hop in and slag a few mechs.

    Reply
    1. SayuriUliana

      The skill tree as you noted doesn’t really give very big boosts, though they can be useful. Honestly though, you can play the game perfectly fine without diving into the skill tree all that much, since the boosts are small enough that they can be compensated for by skillful play.

      And the skill tree only really looks intimidating due to how many nodes there are. I felt that way the first time I looked at it too, until I sunk a few points into it and I realized just how easy the entire thing actually is, since you’re only really acquiring a couple dozen skills or so, and the only things all the individual nodes does is increase the stats of those skills.

      Reply
  8. Patrick M. Rich

    This is one of the reasons I’ve been an advocate of cone of fire systems, particularly one affected by both you movement, and your heat scale. 12 med lasers aren’t as OP when your heat is so high that they can’t focus on what you’re aiming at. The Table top game had penalties for heat buildup and actuator damage. In MWO, crits to components like actuators are completely ignored, and Heat does absolutely nothing as long as the scale is under 100%. (Even in previous Mechwarrior games, your mech slowed down and became sluggish after a certain threshold.) Their solution to clan scouting supremacy was to limit them to 50 ton mechs, which thanks to civil war tech and the Bushwhacker release, only led to Inner Sphere domination of the mode. (Thank Kerensky they’re reversing that idiot move with the Black Lanner release.)

    Tl; Dr: PGI tried to turn a mech sim into a twitch shooter FPS, failed miserably, and haven’t learned a goddamned thing since.

    Reply
  9. BootDisk

    I thought the Clans were supposed to self-balance by only sending in the bare minium of forces to win the fight? I thought they even competed among themselves, the winner being the one who agreed to go into combat with even few forces than his peers?

    In MWO, I would think you would see five or six Inner Sphere ‘Mechs against two or three clanner, and that this would be balanced.

    Reply
  10. Kdogprime

    They could have solved this problem with two simple changes:

    1. Remove customization.
    2. Separate the Clans and IS.

    Customization has always been a part of Mechwarrior games, but lore-wise it is actually very rare. Most mechs were not customized unless it was; a necessary field refit; a variant produced in a mech factory or at a repair facility; owned by a Solaris jockey. For the vast majority of pilots, the mech they bought was what they got.

    As for the IS and the Clans, they mostly fought each other for centuries, so unless they plan to make matchs with small numbers of Clan mechs vs. large numbers of IS mechs, then they shouldn’t have mixed the two in the first place and just kept the two groups apart.

    Reply

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