There's an interesting new devblog out today from CCP, from our old friends Team Best Friends Forever:
Go give it a read. I'll wait.
Back? OK. I want to say two things about this dev blog, one rather general (this post, today) and one very specific (my next post, tomorrow).
With one exception (tomorrow), these are excellent changes, and really impress upon me the need for Team BFF to be made a permanent part of CCP's DNA with regard to EVE Online development. There's never -- never! -- going to be a time when this team isn't needed, and it's no coincidence that keeping this team at work is item #1 on my agenda as a CSM candidate. These kinds of small iterative fixes are really what this game really needs.
And it's clear from the devblog that Team BFF considers themselves able to take existing structures in in EVE and balance them, which is great... and quite interesting!
The original StarCraft, an RTS released in Spring 1998, is hailed as a model for its perfect balance between its three races: Terran, Zerg, and Protoss. However, StarCraft didn't start out well-balanced. For those of us like myself that were around for the initial release, and especially for the follow-on release StarCraft: Brood War, we can remember how badly balanced the first releases of that game were. The Zerg were so over-powering in those early SC PvP battles that there really wasn't much point to playing Protoss unless you wanted to get wiped out early. Terrans at least stood a chance in that very early going, but soon, by using the Zerg even more aggressively, you could wipe out a Terran player regardless of his skill as well. And thus, one of the first Internet memes, the "Zerg rush", was born and is still part of the language today.
Not long after the release of StarCraft, Blizzard implemented a hotfix for games on their multi-player network that greatly increased the build time of the Spawning Pool needed for the Zerg rush strategy. That appeared to close this particular gap. At first, there was a great deal of howling from the players that favored the Zerg. However, they soon found ways to compensate and Zerg rushes remained quite common despite that nerf all that summer. Worse, people who stuck to the single-player StarCraft campaign were advised by other players not to download the fix until after they'd completed the Zerg campaign. Unfortunately, the much longer Spawning Pool build time made several of the late single-player Zerg missions much more difficult.
I believe you call that an "undesirable macro-scale outcome." ;-)
By the time of the release of Brood War that Christmas, though, Blizzard had begun doing something very smart. Instead of making very large balance changes every six weeks or so, they recognized that with the multi-player network access so prevalent, they could distribute much smaller patches much more frequently. And this is exactly what they did. Throughout Winter 1999 and well into the year, a large number of small changes were made to individual units and buildings across all three races. Each time a change was made, it was evaluated in multi-player battles for a few weeks. Some changes were kept, other changes were adjusted. Some units were adjusted over and over again -- the Protoss Carrier and Terran Science Facility come to mind.
And every unit was subject to changes to every aspect of its design. Not long after Brood War was released, Blizzard took note that the build time increase on the Spawning Pool hadn't entirely fixed the Zerg rush, so the Spawning Pool was nerfed again by increasing its build cost. Sometimes, units were buffed and nerfed at the same time. A howled-over change to the Wraith decreased its cost and increased its air-to-air damage, but nerfed its ground attack capability at the same time. Small changes were made, evaluated, and then further small changes were made if needed.
It was a winning strategy, and resulted in StarCraft's famed reputation for stellar game balance. It didn't happen by accident! And it didn't happen right away. There have been more than 30 patches to StarCraft and Brood War since their release, something completely unheard of at the time, but it's now a strategy followed by all game developers... and sometimes a bit over-relied on. ;-) When StarCraft II entered Beta, Blizzard followed the same strategy.
And it's a model that I wish CCP would adapt. Take a few badly balanced ships. The Thorax, Caracal, Myrmidon, and Rupture come to mind as good initial targets. Make very small changes to them. Watch their use in the field and ask for comments on the changes. Ignore the howling when you gently nerf a favored ship. Zerg players howled too, but they adapted. So will EVE players; they thrive on it, in fact. But the key word there is "gentle". You have the opportunity to make large numbers of very small changes to ships and then judge the changed balance. If the balance is disrupted, go in and tweak again. If the change is too gentle, you can always increase the magnitude of the change in a later patch. Make these patches frequent! You don't have to wait months.
There's far too strong a tendency in CCP right now to just accept bad unit and item balance as "part of New Eden." That, I'm afraid, is simply ridiculous. You don't make jokes about how fixing rockets is pointless because nobody uses them. You fix them and make them a good use of player skill points, or you dump them entirely. The U.S. F-18 Hornet fighter jet was long-regarded as a sub-par design, with too light a weapons load and too short a range. The U.S. military did not accept this: they demanded upgraded versions of the fighter and since its release, there have been three major variants of the F-18. Other real-life military hardware both in the U.S. and abroad go through similar evolutions.
CCP, let's make this happen. Pick a few ships and let's get to balancing.