Saturday, October 29, 2011

It's complicated

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, back when DotA was still nothing more than a custom map in Warcraft III that people played alongside other horribly unbalanced just-for-fun "Hero Arena" maps, things were a lot more simple than they are today. DotA, when it started, competed directly with these other Hero Arena maps, but the core concept was the same; the player would chose one Hero out of a large pool and duke it out alongside other players. Since Map Makers were lazy in these days, many Hero Arena Maps would recycle existing skills from the game, often simply exchanging models or graphics while keeping the trigger intact. As Map Makers became increasingly skilled and more tools became available to them, however, more complex skills began to surface and the Heroes became more dynamic, something people appreciated because it showed effort and added complexity to the game.

Fast forward a few years and you'd almost think you've landed in some sort of dystopian future where designers create horrible abominations of skills, the stuff that Mary Shelley probably has wet dreams over. At least, that's what the community might have you believe. As I have pointed out in the past, the community will cry overpowered whenever a new Hero is released, regardless of what kind of Hero it is. But this special kind of gripe that the community holds isn't even about balance; I'm talking about complexity.

In order to properly experience the irony of today's complaints regarding skill and hero complexity you'd have to go back in time... or just have played DotA. The year was 2009, the place: The PlayDotA forums. Tensions were growing as Icefrog had just released his newest overly complicated, overpowered abomination: Huskar, the Sacred Warrior. But as it is today, balance was only half the story. The problem people had with this Hero was that he was too complicated, after all, DotA was just a "Hero Arena" map that (the majority of) people simply played to relax and have fun, why should they have to bother to try and figure out the rocket science that was a percent sign. Indeed, the Community was upset, it seemed Icefrog was forsakening the very values that had made DotA a success! Simple heroes with simple designs. Stuff like Sven, the Rogueknight, who, as many people love to bring up, was "easy to describe" and could be summed up by saying "he has a stun, a cleave, armor aura and double damage". Trying to describe a new Hero in a few sentences these days is indeed somewhat challenging, "He's got a charge that deals your auto attack damage, an ability that jumps over another player and knocks them back and slows them- and you can use it twice if you are fast, and an area of affect stun that also damages and also goes off twice- and a passive ult that makes you go faster if the enemy doesn't hit you, and it also lowers your cooldowns...." just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Damn kids! Back in my day we didn't have Spell Vamp!

As we know the present is doomed to repeat the past because it cant remember it. But back when people asked Icefrog why he didn't just create another simple Hero with a stun, an aura and a double damage ult, his answer went something like "because that's fucking boring and we already have a hero that does that". As Huskar aged and people began to accept him as a classic DotA Hero, presumably through rose colored nostalgia goggles, his "complexity" problem was quickly forgotten (and pressed onto the next Hero instead). Fast forward back to the future and we've got the same deal between the Community and S2 designers. People often ask S2 why they don't simply create a "simple" Hero that wont boggle their minds. Aside from the fact that there is an equally large pool of people who would be outraged if S2 recycled an ability 1:1 (something DotA used to do, how many Heroes in DotA have crit?), this just isn't exactly possible to create a brand new ability that is both simple and original. A New hero with recycled abilities would quickly be picked apart by the community and quickly dismissed as a boring pile of rubbish- hell, even Cthulhuphant, a Hero that is fairly original by most people's standards, was ridiculed for having "Magmus Stun" despite the fact that the abilities worked differently in almost every way imaginable.

Of course, there are those who link complexity to balance, an age old fallacy that I think I've spent enough time debunking in last week's article. Complexity or "the amount of stuff a Hero does that I can count" doesn't actually have anything to do with balance since everything is relative. A "simple" Hero like Hammerstorm can be viable and strong because his "stun", while simple, is actually an incredible un-missable AoE Immobilize/Silence/Perplex/Disarm that he can spam with a Blood Chalice. When people make simplistic comparisons like "Hammerstorm has a Stun, Monkey King has a Stun and a Slow, Monkey King is superior" they are leaving out important details like "how long does the stun last?", "how easy is it to hit?", "how much Micro/skill is involved", or "how much Mana does it cost?". Gemini has three stuns? That's nothing, Rhapsody has six!

Presenting: The most overpowered Hero in the game - 9 Stuns

In conclusion, it is my firm belief that complexity is not a choice, but a consequence. HoN has over 90 Heroes, each with 4 skills. When you set out to design a new Hero, odds are you are going to have to mix a few things together to create a skill that hasn't been done before. Whether or not mixing all that stuff together will make the skill or the Hero overpowered is something that remains to be seen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

It Only Does Everything™

Whenever S2Games releases a new Hero, the Community is skeptic to say the least. This isn't a new phenomenon, and can be viewed empirically by quickly glancing at YouTube or Forum posts left by disgruntled members of the Community when the Hero is first announced. When this first started happening, I was somewhat confused, because it seemed like no matter what Hero came out, no matter what skills or weaknesses it possessed, it would be quickly dismissed as the newest overpowered garbage to grace the game.

If you read my last article, you might be scratching your head asking yourself if you are about to read the same article twice- but there is a distinct difference here. A hero like Emerald Warden or Tremble didn't just carry the illusion of lower-bracket chaos, they literally delivered it. No matter what the highest tier competitive player says, these Heroes dominated the lower game brackets and left players frustrated. Players who claimed they saw this coming a mile away were quick to remind everybody that "they told you so".

But that's not why I'm here writing to you today. Because for every "I told you so" there are at least one hundred unspoken "I told you so, but I was wrong"'s that are sadly never uttered. What I am talking about is the insanity- no- the literal hysteria that is ignited when a new Hero is announced.

This deafening hysteria quickly consumes the forums in a wave of panic and utter disgust. How could S2 dare to create a Hero of this caliber? With skills like that, why would I even bother picking anything else? These questions are tough to answer because they might as well be rhetorical questions, carefully cherry picked from a garden of stupid. When critiquing a new Hero, players continue to fall into the same traps by regurgitating the same arguments. To set the record straight, I don't have any problems with people criticizing a new Hero, but I do have a bone to pick with the following strategies:

"The Counter"

This argument revolves around simply counting up everything a Hero does to make it sound overpowered. It sounds something like this: "It has a huge Nuke, a Stun, a Slow, Crit, Invisibility, a +300 attack speed buff, increased movement speed, AoE silence (goes through magic immunity), near permanent invisibility, free wards and counter-wards". Sound ridiculous to you? That's because it is- I just described Scout to you, a Hero that I don't think anybody has a problem with today. Good job Sherlock, by counting up every single thing the Hero does you can literally make anything sound overpowered. I hate to break it to the population- but Heroes have to be able to do something in order to be useful.

"The Contextless"
The context-less argument is all about throwing out random information that sounds ridiculous because it has no context at all. This usually sounds something like "780 magic damage every 11 seconds at level 16", a hilariously out-of-context statement written by an Anonymous writer impersonating [S2]DivA. We can only assume what he meant to say was "Buffs you and 2 random Heroes around you if they are in 600 range- if both you and the two random units that get the buff happen to attack twice within a short interval you can deal around 780 damage- also you are playing a squishy Int Hero that has one of the lowest base HP in the game and has no ultimate". But technicalities like "the hero has a passive ult, of course his base abilities are going to be better" usually fall quickly (and silently) under the table.

"The S2 Conspiracy"
There's an ongoing conspiracy theory that S2 designers are secretly sexually insecure and overcompensate for this by creating overpowered Heroes to "one-up" (no puns intended) the original DotA cast. Fans of this theory like to attribute this fact by the fact that "all S2 Heroes have stuns, long range and good attack animations"- statements that aren't just false but also, again, don't provide any context for the Hero that is coming out. S2 Conspiracy theorists tend to be DotA loyalists who don't understand that a Stun is actually an Immobilize, a Disarm, a Perplex and Silence balled into one and are then disgusted when an S2 Hero contains two or more of these abilities split into separate skills. These are the same people who don't understand why Hammerstorm and Magmus are good roaming Heroes.

"The Astrologer"
The astrologer, similar to the S2 Conspiracy Theorist, prides himself on being ahead of the curve. He is quick to recognize something he's seen before, which can only mean that S2 is all out of ideas. Sentiments from the Astrologer include statements such as "Another Invis Hero?", "Ranged, has a Stun, AoE ult- big surprise!" or "can you guys create anything other than Int Heroes?" when the 2nd Int hero in a row comes out. The Astrologer, like the others, is fool-proof, because no matter what the last Hero was that came out was, he will always be able to somehow connect the two to confirm his ongoing suspicion that he's got S2 all figured out. His predictions are, and will always remain, completely flawless.

So, all these bases covered, how is it possible to actually judge a Hero before it comes out? Simply put- you can't, stop trying. There's no way to judge exactly how balanced a Hero will be when he isn't out yet because you simply don't know how he will synergize with other Heroes, how the finer points of his abilities work out- Mana costs, Cooldowns, Armor values, Stat Gain, etc. All these finer details mesh together and often paint a much different picture once the Hero has sunk into player's minds. So the next time you watch a Spotlight video and you're absolutely sure Flux is going to be the next pubstomper- do everyone around you a favor and keep it to yourself until the Hero has been released and is at least 1-2 weeks old.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Balance- Or: Why your Opinion is Wrong

Balance is and will always be one of the hottest topics in any video game that revolves around winning. In a game like Heroes of Newerth, where there are over 90 Heroes, each with their own unique synergies with one another, Balance can often be somewhat challenging. Adding one new Hero to HoN every two weeks has been a controversial change among many players on the grounds that they don't believe S2 can balance the game fast enough.

As somebody who is very attuned with the Community of Heroes of Newerth, I observe a lot of balance complaints. It seems like there is always one Hero out there that the majority of the Community believes to be overpowered- currently this hero has a name; Emerald Warden. In a HoNCast Interview yesterday, balance guru DOGKaiser was asked what he thinks about the numerous complaints about Emerald Warden being overpowered. His response left a lot of the Community flabbergasted- "95% of Competitors think Emerald Warden could use a buff".

This isn't the first time Competitors and the casual Community have been in disagreement, it happens all the time, and while it is not uncommon to see a Hero that is both viable in Competitive play as well as pubs, a Hero that is viable in one but not the other is somewhat less common.

I'm frequently asked why S2 doesn't nerf such Heroes. It's hard to answer this question without offending somebody. Maybe this graph will help:

Balance in HoN is done the same way it is done in every other (good) RTS (or ARTS) style game- from the top down. To a lot of people, this seems unjust. Is it fair that competitors' opinions are valued more than the average joe? No. Does it make sense? Yes. In today's world of the vocal internet forum, everybody believes to be a beautiful unique snowflake. Designers, not keen on being tarred and feathered, will never be seen uttering these words:

If you aren't the best of the best, your opinion is worth less.

To the majority of HoN players, this will definitely seem unfair. After all, if the majority of HoN players are in the 1500 bracket, shouldn't their opinions be valued more? Shouldn't the game be balanced around their metagame? Why should we balance a game around the smallest percentile of players? The truth is somewhere in this graph:

The problem with balancing a game around the "sweet spot", or the area where the most players play, is that it doesn't work. This is because, depending who you ask, you are always going to get a very inconstant consensus. The further down the MMR ladder you climb, the more erratic the metagame becomes. If you ask somebody in the 1000 MMR bracket who they think the most overpowered hero is and why, they'd probably give you a Hero you almost forgot existed.

Competitors aren't perfect. A competitor is not a designer, he can identify a problem but not provide a solution, much the same way a designer can release a well designed hero without it being completely balanced from the get-go. But when it comes to balance, a competitor will always be held to a higher regard than somebody else, because he is playing in an environment where people will be utilizing their heroes to the highest possible potential, and that's where "sweet spot" balance drops the ball.

So where does this leave the players in the 1500 bracket? Are they doomed to be victims of Emerald Wardens, Trembles, Nomads and (if you can think that far back) Zephyrs? Sources say: No. While it is true that competitors will always be held to a higher regard, that 1500 bracket players are, in fact, not doing everything in their power to counter that Emerald Warden, that Tremble, that Zephyr, balance can often be changed in a way that it nerfs the Hero in such a way that he is less effective in pub play while retaining his skill in the competitive scene. This can be accomplished by making the hero less easy to play while keeping his overall strength intact.

Concluding, let it be said that just because a lot of people think a hero is overpowered, it doesn't necessarily mean he is, because HoN is balanced from the top down. Playing only one hero and getting to 1800 MMR without losing does not, contrary to popular belief, prove anything. Most competitive players could reach 1800 MMR without losing playing pretty much any hero, given the right team and communication. While Tremblerape & Crew are certainly an entertaining sight to see, they don't actually say anything about balance on a competitive level. This doesn't mean the Hero shouldn't be tweaked in such a way that he is less powerful in pubs, but it does mean the Hero probably isn't overpowered.

So, before you cry nerf, take a good long look at yourself. Who are you, and why do you think your opinion matters?