MetaBalance or “The Cool Factor”

So I’ve been playing Warhammer Online.

Well it was inevitable really. If only so I could find out what they’d done to a game I technically spent 18 months of my life laying the foundations for (and by that I mean developing the failed Climax version which actually has nothing in common with the Mythic version other than the name and the creative director).

I like it. It’s more fun than World of Warcraft to me and I put that down largely to it being Warhammer. I’ve never cared about Blizzard games overmuch but I (like many UK games developers) spent much of my teens painting lead figures when I should have been chasing girls.

That plus the fact you can dive into the fun stuff straight away and not have to grind 20-40 levels before it’s worthwhile. PvP is where it’s at for me.



Warhammer is proving a theory of mine: Game balance has far less to do with stats and numbers and far more to do with art.

Allow me to run with this for a while:

Take a look at the current server queues for WAR. The majority of servers have queues on the side of Destruction but only a handful have Queues on the side of Order. Now unless Destruction have less slots assigned to them this means that there are far more people who want to play as the bad guys than good.

This is interesting because it goes against what happened in WoW where Alliance outnumbered Horde.

Back when I was designing an MMO for Climax (Not Warhammer Online but another one that never got signed) we chatted with some guys from NCSoft and we got around to the topic of the “Good guy bias”. The idea that on average players want to play as the “Good guys” more than the bad guys. At the time the anecdotal evidence was in favour of this theory with just about every MMO having a bias towards the obviously Good side.

Now I think this theory is flawed. My new theory is that players want to play on the side that looks “Coolest”. 

Currently as an Order player myself (and I chose Order on the basis that Witch Hunters looked cool) we are noticing some trends in the make-up of the Destruction vs Order playerbases. Destruction fields far more tanks (Chosen and Black Orcs) than the Order side who field far more Damage Dealing classes like Witch Hunters, Bright Wizards and Shadow Warriors. We are very lacking in frontline fighters meaning Destrcution tends to run straight into the softer ranged classes right past the few front-liners we have.

This may be leading Mythic to investigate why everybody is favouring Destruction and the Chosen and Black Orc classes in particular (I don’t hav enumbers to back any of this up but I see more of them than any other class in PvP). I can save some of their effort: It has nothing at all to do with numbers or combat balance.

There is no flavour of the month effect going on here. Chosen and Black Orcs aren’t any tougher or more dangerous individually than SowrdMasters or Ironbreakers. However what they are is “Cooler”. Faced with character creation and the choice between being an Elf in what appears to be a nightdress or a Huge guy with a beard in spikey plate mail armour you instantly think that the Spikey armour guy is “Better” than the Nightdress guy.

This is what I think of as “MetaBalance”. These two classes may be perfectly balanced numerically but because one of them has art that matches the stereotype closer it affects how players choose their character and even how they play them. I’ve seen Swordmasters complain that Elves have no tank class when Swordmasters ARE their Tank class. The problem is they don’t feel or look like a Tank class and this changes the psychology of the person playing making them believe themselves to be weaker than they actually are.

This theory is backed up by my experiences as a Destruction player fighting Order on another Server. I’ve seen Witch Hunters (Who carry a pistol in their off-hand) playing as if they are a ranged class and not a melee class. One of my friends who has done more Destruction PvP genuinely didn’t relise that Witch Hunters are supposed to be a Melee class until I told him.

This gets further backed up by Warrior Priests who try to stay out of combat and heal people when they are at their most effective upfront with the Sword Masters and Witch Hunters.

On the other hand we have Destruction. Where all of their classes play alot closer to how they look. Big guy wearing Spikey Platemail? yep he’s a Tank. Goblin with robes and a staff? yep ranged caster and healer. Elf with a dagger in each hand and no clothes? Damn right that’s a melee DPS character.

Classes being played alot and well on the side of Order however are: Bright Wizards (Ranged DPS and they look it), Arch mage (healer/Caster and again they look the part), Iron Breaker (Dwarf in lots of armour and a big axe yes he’s a tank), Shadow Warrior (Blatently Legolas).

So how much does Art affect population balance in an MMO? My answer would be “Alot more than people think”. Power Gamers are the only ones that will consider statistics when choosing their class while the rest of us go with the character we like the look of.

Warhammer is currently suffering a population imbalance because the Destruction side just look cooler and appeal to more people than the Order side and importantly more closely match the stereotypes of their class.



The net result means I’m sick of seeing bloody Bright Wizards everywhere and no bloody Iron Breakers.

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  1. Posted September 25, 2008 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    There are definitely multiple forces at work when people make choices about their identity. Of course, we know that people optimize to win. But in a game, winning literally isn’t everything; you don’t really die if you fail. So players are free to make identity choices based on other criteria…which faction is perceived as moral, powerful, aligned with some inner emotional state, et al. I find this fascinating and tried to touch upon some of it in a talk about game avatars.

  2. rob hale
    Posted September 25, 2008 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m now intrigued about the relative population spread on the foreign language servers because I’m sure cultural background will affect which classes are being chosen. Are people on the German or Spanish servers choosing different classes to those on the English servers? A huge part of what intrigues me about MMOG design are these psychological meta elements that come about after the game has launched and watching the long-term effects of them at work. You don’t get that with Console titles.

  3. Posted September 28, 2008 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Thank you! I’ve been championing this same thing.
    I also chalk up the racial imbalance on Order to artistic concerns.

    I’m currently working on an app that scrapes the Realm War site to collect exact statistics, but in my 200 member guild, only 18% of us rolled High Elf. I can’t help but believe that it’s because every non-Shadow Warrior class is indistinguishable but for weapon until the mid-20’s or so.

    In addition to looking the part, I think all players also want to look “unique.” I just don’t think that’s really that possible as a High Elf.

  4. Posted September 30, 2008 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re on to something.

    In City of Heroes/Villains, I noticed that the characters I would stick with were always the ones that I gave the ‘Huge’ body type to. I think because their animations /looked/ so much more powerful than the standard male and female body types, even when that didn’t match up at all to their capabilities (e.g. Unending Sickness, who had no hitpoints at all, and did crappy damage)

  5. Posted October 2, 2008 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    It was pretty simple for me, I got on the night of release, asked what side we were playing, asked what a good hybrid healer/tank was (if there was one) and chose Desciple of Khaine…..I didnt care what it looked like, I just wanted a class that fit my play style.

  6. Spacedoubt
    Posted October 4, 2008 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    This may be parallel to your point, but it certainly helps that the evil factions in both WAR and WoW have compelling narratives that define their motivations. Too often the good guys have all the limelight in that regard.

  7. Warning
    Posted October 23, 2008 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    An interesting idea. I largely agree with it.

    Though I do not play MMO’s, I tend to notice a similar trend in online shooters. Many games and mods (Counter-Strike and the Source mod Insurgency immediately come to my mind) feature terrorists, insurgents, and other low-tech armies squaring off against the United States military or European special forces. If a server does not have team auto-balancing enabled, more often than not the ‘good guys’ will have the numbers advantage. This is especially true at the beginning of the game or mod’s life cycle when it is fist released.

    I used to attribute this to the fact that less people wanted to play as the ‘bad guys’ and more as the ‘good guys’. But now I realize that maybe the game’s art design is to blame.

    The ‘good’ 1st-world-country forces are always sporting camouflage, helmets, body armor, and other military-supremacy apparel accessories. On the other hand, the ‘bad’ 3rd-world insurgents tend to wear jeans, bandannas, and t-shirts. Heck, sometimes they even run around bare-chested.

    I can certainly understand a new player’s attraction to the superior look of modern military technology.

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5 Trackbacks

  1. By The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun on September 28, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    […] Designer Rob Hale thinks about Metabalance in Warhammer Online. Specifically, what he describes as “The Cool Factor”. Specifically, he’s thinking […]

  2. […] Sunday Papers roundup, which linked off to another piece touching on robe-wearing tanks, “MetaBalance or ‘The Cool Factor’”, and there’s a comment there from Harvey Smith linking back to a talk of his on game avatars. […]

  3. […] “Metabalance or The Cool Factor” @ Schizoslayer – A great post and I agree, we tend to play classes that look cooler to us than ones that don’t, no matter what abilities they have. […]

  4. […] “Metabalance or The Cool Factor” @ Schizoslayer – A great post and I agree, we tend to play classes that look cooler to us than ones that don’t, no matter what abilities they have. […]

  5. By naruto shippuden manga on April 3, 2016 at 10:11 am

    naruto shippuden manga

    MetaBalance or “The Cool Factor” | A Games Design Blog

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