The state of balance between classes in World of Warcraft is something I have always pondered on. Finding constructive and concise arguments, with suggestions on improving its state, are an extreme rarity.
Class power has a huge effect on the realm they play in. Many people create alternate characters, seeking something different, and in my experience this is usually based on the easiest to play, or the best damage per second (DPS).
This presents the great issue where if a singular class stands above the rest in most combat aspects, the populace of other classes on the server may drop. This issue is more potent in arenas, as players roll the cookie-cutter combinations.
Of course, one plan for correctly balancing classes lies within “mirroring”. I have played MMOs such as City of Heroes, which use a mirroring system; however, this takes a huge chunk out of the replay factor in the game. For example, I have played through class X, so I look for something new. I decide to try class Y, however, class X and Y are the same, with different spell details.
PvP and arenas have been been met in Wrath of the Lich King with an overhaul of “resilience will fix it”. This has made it notoriously harder for classes based on critical strikes to survive, when compared to classes with more sustainability. 1000 resilience is a common amount in high-level PvP. This equates to 12% less chance of receiving a critical hit, and also 26% less damage taken from critical hits.
Improving this system for arenas could be simple. If Blizzard put a cap on top of resilience at a moderate value, players would begin to focus on other stats after reaching it. If the cap was around 500, then players would reach it quickly, allowing them to focus on other elements to improve their character. This would also allow breathing room for mixing gear, making player versus player far more variable.
Resilience brings me to another issue: gear dependence. Some classes can feel very underpowered until they earn gear with a high item level. I have helped three friends earn good gear for their warriors which, in my opinion, is the most underpowered class when it first reaches level 80. This can cause issues while trying to get people to group with you, as you can’t perform on a level equal to other classes.
Improving the way easily obtainable (green and blue) gear scales for underpowered classes would make great steps towards improving the playable quality of lower geared characters.
I believe that talent trees in WoW are very well structured. They give an excellent illusion of choice for the gamer. In talent trees, we see many ‘cookie cutter’ builds focused on maximizing DPS, eventually all players choose the same points to do so.
While the build you choose may vary, depending on if you are playing against others or against the environment, the common builds usually remain static. There are many resources that fuel the design of these builds such as Elitist Jerks, a website dedicated to the mathematics behind spells, talents, and gear.
In the past I have become a victim of this routine, whereas you may wish to play a different talent style for fun until, eventually, you become alienated as you will not be accepted into groups. The reason for this is because your play style is not the most powerful or common.
The latest expansion brought the game its first hero class, a type I believe can’t work in any MMO. In WoW, if you have a character at level 55, you are able to create a death knight. The journey of your new death knight is meant to be iconic; you start out as an agent of the Lich King, not from level 1, but level 55 instead. You progress quickly and get a full set of armour, but beyond the pretty exterior lies a deep problem.
You are a hero or alpha class, thus you are meant to be stronger than other groups. To keep stable population with others, you can’t be any more powerful. If you are just as strong as every other class, what makes you a hero?
Possibly the most common cliché in World of Warcraft is “bring the player not the class”, as stated by a Blizzard representative. Although raids can be completed without certain classes, an elemental shaman’s totems in a raid can increase the overall DPS of each player in the raid by 500. This is something my guild has enjoyed ever since one of our older members changed from a DPS warrior (underpowered) to a shaman.
Blizzard have made steps towards improving balance, giving multiple classes the raid useful ‘Replenishment’ buff. A common argument in the old cliché is that you do still need certain classes. When you are learning a new encounter, a raid buff such as heroism (from shamans) can be the difference between a kill and failure.
Essentially, it is completely impossible to achieve class balance without mirroring classes; you would also have to be forced into executing moves in a certain order. If a game is too linear, when our modern gaming industry demands more choice and reaction, there would be no hope for it being a sustainable product.
Balance is extremely sensitive. If you change a class’s talent to improve them when they do PvP, you may end up making changes to their playability in PvE. When this second issue is recognised and then corrected, another issue elsewhere will arise. It is an endless process.
My verdict is that, no, we will never see a truly balanced class system in World of Warcraft. This is partially due to the points I make above, that small changes in one area, can affect other areas in the class. However, I believe this is mainly down to the players, if they are regularly beaten by another class, regardless of their statistical balance, they will always consider them overpowered.