Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Well Balanced Weapon - Why Haven't Two-Handers Been Fixed in Diablo 3?

Diablo 3 has just received its fourth major update since the launch of the Reaper of Souls expansion earlier this year and each of these patches has made significant efforts to balance the game. That’s to say that work as been done to ensure that all classes are as effective as each other and various builds for each class are equally competitive. It’s a tough job and no one expects perfect balance from an incongruous system where each class uses dramatically different play styles, but I have been puzzled by the developers routinely overlooking one obvious area for improvement in their balance passes – two-handed weapons. Why?

The gaming trope for two-handed weapons is that they are slow but powerful. Rounding out the other possibilities, a one-handed weapon and shield provides solid defence but is less powerful while dual-wielding is fast and brings death by a thousand pin-pricks. Not every game follows these rules, but it’s pretty much the default thinking gamers use when first approaching a new game that offers the choice. With this in mind, balance is usually achieved by calculating the damage per second (DPS) a setup can provide. As an example, a two-handed weapon hitting for 10 damage but taking a full second to swing is roughly equivalent to a dual-wield setup hitting for 5 damage but attacking twice per second. Obviously, most modern games are a lot more complicated than this simple example but the idea of balance is the same; regardless of setup, the player is able to output an equal amount of damage rendering all options viable.

At first glance, Diablo 3 doesn’t really have a balance problem – two-handed weapons swing slower but hit harder than their dual wielding counterpart. If anything, two-handed weapons should be considered better because they typically have significantly higher DPS ratings than one-handed weapons.  However, if this were the case, everyone would be clambering to get a giant hammer instead of a short sword – a quick look at the gear of the top accounts in the world shows this is definitely not what players are doing. Pretty much everyone, excepting crusaders (I’ll get back to them), is using a dual-wield or sword and shield setup. So what’s the deal? As you might expect, weapons in Diablo are more nuanced than their raw damage stats.

Beyond straight damage, Diablo’s weapons can roll a variety of affixes that confer bonuses to their wearer. In the current meta-game, beyond raw power, players are seeking a weapon that includes a high main statistic appropriate to their class (strength, intelligence, or dexterity), a bonus damage multiplier (such as adding extra damage or attack speed), and a socket (a customisable bonus chosen by the player through inserting magic gems). For most stats, two-handed weapons can roll values that are about twice that of a one-handed weapon with the notable exception of the socket. What this means is that a player wielding two-one handed weapons effectively has two-sockets to use. Given that the bonuses conferred by gems in sockets are considered to be of a much higher value than the other stats, players are incentivized to dual-wield. As an aside, shields are able to roll certain statistics (namely critical hit chance) that cannot be found on weapons and can create situations where, coupled with the extra defence, it’s logical to use one.

Unfortunately, the solution isn’t just a matter of allowing for two-sockets on two-handed weapons (although this would go a long way to making them attractive), players also consider the relative usefulness of attacking more frequently. One of the easiest examples to demonstrate this is the notion of overkill. If a two-hander deals 10 damage in one second but an enemy would die with 5 damage, that extra damage dealt is useless. This becomes a problem for balance if a one-handed weapon deals 5 damage in half a second as the player now has a speed advantage to move on to the next monster. Further, in Diablo, many ‘on-attack’ bonuses are conferred ranging from restoring life per hit or reducing the cast time (cooldown) of big spells. While this is mitigated somewhat by altering proc coefficients – basically forcing it so that slower attacks cause an effect more frequently than faster attacks – it can be maddening to find the right balance across all the different ways the game allows an attack to be done and how a player might use them in combination.

It’s not all bad for two-handers though. The aforementioned big spells hit bigger with a big weapon and essentially provide more (big) bang for your buck. Also, two-handed weapons are less-resource intensive; swinging more slowly means you aren’t spending your mana (attack fuel) as quickly and may prevent situations where your character runs out of gas. Even further, in a game that’s all about finding the best loot, finding two great one-handers is twice as difficult as finding one great two-hander. Finally, some classes (specifically the Crusader) have the ability to use a two-handed weapon as if it were a one-hander which makes equipping a dagger on them seem pretty foolish.

Clearly, the sheer number of variables that power the player judgment of which weapon is best prevent easy balance. That said, with so few players using two-handers why hasn’t the development team tried something. Previously, I offhandedly suggested that adding a second socket to two-handers might be a good idea but let’s play that suggestion out. Overnight, the potential damage output of two-handers has gone through the roof and so has the viability of builds that benefit from them. The inherent raw damage advantage of two-handers is now magnified even further and players would almost certainly flock to them to exploit this using abilities that have been balanced over the last several patches for a different meta-game. This change will invariably cause a re-evaluation of some abilities and will create a knock on effect of further balance tweaks. Sure, two-handers are now being used more but suddenly a bunch of abilities are out of whack. The point that I’m illustrating here is that even a seemingly straightforward change can create significant waves down the line in ways that may not be easily foreseen.  This is why developers prefer to make smaller changes cumulating over time instead of dramatic changes all at once (adding a second socket would be a huge change).

The reality is that two-handers are in a tough place where it’s not exactly clear what the best way to make them competitive is without creating instability elsewhere. Sure they need a buff but too little doesn’t solve the problem and too much will create a ton of headaches. Accurately predicting the Goldilocks zone is next to impossible as it would entail predicting the ingenuity of the player base to exploit cracks in the system. I think that something more than minor changes are needed and at this point and (this is pure speculation) I believe that the development team is waiting for the first major content patch (ie. the biannual super patch) to start changing things. Players naturally expect a series of balance adjustments following the biggest updates and if the development team pokes the wrong slider for two-handers they will have a grace period to put it back before experiencing community backlash. Personally I would prefer it this way instead of daily build-altering balance tweaks - Diablo will never be perfectly balanced and a consistency to the imbalance is better than seeming randomness.

There is no doubt that two-handed weapons in Diablo 3 are in need of some love from the development team, but exactly how to make them attractive isn’t as obvious as it first seems. If it were simply a matter of making DPS equal amongst all weapon types this would have been done ages ago. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately from a different view) Diablo’s mechanics are complex and predicting the consequences of adjusting any one slider is an inexact science. At this point, the inaction from the development team tells me that they feel that more than just a few small tweaks to two-handers are needed and they're consequently waiting for a major content update to start fixing them.