Two Different Methods of Item Balance

This post did not make it up on time! I’m sorry but after all the Thanksgiving excitement I just did not feel like sitting down and writing something. I felt more like sleeping.

Since the dawn of time players and developers have fought an epic battle over item balance. Developers would create items. Players would gather those items, combine them, abuse them. Developers would have to come down with the mighty nerf bat and swing it in many directions, breaking up these unbalancing combinations. The players would then come back and rebuild what had been ruined.

Actually for Ultima Online, this has only been an issue since the Age of Shadows expansion. Before that there were very few properties and items were designed to be expendable. That all changed though with dozens of new properties and equipment lasting forever. There is next to no information available as to the design and thought process when it came to making these new systems. So we can only go by experiance.

When Age of Shadows launched there were no cumulative caps on item properties. None. So you could stack as many as you could find. If I had to guess, I would say that the developers planned on balancing properties at the creation stage. They would only carefully evaluate what items could be introduced into the world. But even before new stuff was being added, the system fell apart.

One completely unbalancing property was Lower Mana Cost. At launch, it was possible for players to accrue up to 68% Lower Mana Cost. So an eight circle spell Earthquake which normally cost 50 mana, now cost 16. You could easily cast Earthquake, an extremely devastating damage spell, a dozen or more times in a row compared to just 2 before the expansion. If this was left alone, today it is most likely possible to reach 100% Lower Mana Cost. Meaning it would take no mana to cast any spell or use special moves!

Within about 6-8 months, more and more players were loading up on the new properties. It became abundantly clear that the system was out of control. Mages were now casting spells in the blink of an eye with 4 Faster Casting (which every 1 added reduced spell timers by 0.25 seconds). But there were so many bugs introduced with the Age of Shadows expansion, that is all they could handle. Unless something allowed a player to one hit kill another, it just was not on the table. It wasn’t until over a year later that the developers sat down and tried to rein it all in.

Finally the hammer fell. Lower Mana Cost capped at 40%. Faster Casting capped at 2. Many other properties were capped as well. The fundamentals behind balancing the system flipped from a per item approach to a global approach. Now developers can add any item into the game they wish without having to compare it to everything else out there. This took an enormous pressure off the team in general and freed them up their creative ability. If they wanted to add a special helm with 20% Lower Mana Cost, it was possible. Some advantageous players would not be able to take the new helm and combine it with their other equipment to reach a new level of lowering mana consumption. They will always be limited to the 40% cumulative cap.

But this opened up an entirely new problem which have never been addressed. Well one developer tried, but the concept (decreasing returns) was just unpopular and hard to understand. With a set of hard caps, players now build suits in which they can maximize as many properties as possible. So instead of having insanely high Lower Mana Cost, they have the highest amounts of Lower Mana Cost, Lower Reagent Cost, Faster Casting, Mana Regeneration, Defense Chance Increase, resistances, and anything else they desire. I actually have a potential solution to this problem and was going to reveal it as part of a series of topics on the Stratics U Hall, but never got around to it. I will post it here some time soon.

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