I'd like to take the chance to clarify a few things, as some points keep coming up regardless of how many times they are addressed -- Which is understandable! We can't expect every user to feverishly keep track of our every post when the evolving nature of balance standards can't be conveniently explained in-game.
I'd like to provide reassurance for concerns about item nerfs to counter some spreading misconceptions. If you're concerned by any notion of excessive nerfing, or have read posts to that effect and have not yet seen a counterpoint, please read the following in detail. I'll provide both a bullet point summary and detailed explanations.
There is no design policy for pursuing perfect mathematical balance at the expense of fun.
There is no such thing as a design policy for nerfing items into uselessness, or making something cease to be fun as a requirement for coming up with other fun items.
Balance and fun are not mutually exclusive.
Balance is often brought up as a dirty word describing the pursuit of a perfect mathematical standard with no regard for fun. I'd like to dispel this misconception definitively, as discussions can't go anywhere constructive when different users are using the same word with different definitions.
This notion is completely incorrect. Balance is a dynamic model for the mechanics of the game, encompassing time/resource economies and mathematical variables, and the standards with which this model weighs the importance of skill and chance to achieve fairness. It's a set of rules to keep things fair for everyone and keep us able to make fun content in the future.
We are not trying to achieve perfect balance. We know it's impossible, and we wouldn't want to do it in the first place. Balance isn't some state of perfect mathematical compliance, it's a tool used to keep the game sustainable and fun for our entire player base, without deliberately excluding anyone. Consider Tier 3 classes: The amount of skills alone is a huge, calculated exception to mathematical balance, made purely for the sake of fun. T3 class armors are essentially on their own set of compression rules.
As a set of rules for design, Balance is a creative tool, and fun is the goal of its use. They're two sides of one coin. Using this tool is a tricky tightrope, because no RPG can sustain itself only on mathematical balance, or by chasing any idea that sounds fun with no regard for balance.
If we abandon balance for the sake of fun, we'll quickly run out of design space(We'll come back to this term later) for fun concepts, and we'll also be abandoning players who want a challenge in order to exclusively cater to one small subset of our playerbase (Players who specifically want broken gear). If we abandon fun for the sake of balance, we wouldn't have time to come up with interesting items as we get bogged down in the backlog of fixes ó Which would abandon the interests of all casual players. Either alternative would run AQ into the ground.
Making items not fun is never our goal. This has never been a reason behind any design change, and it's not a matter of not having ideas for fun items unless we take away other fun things. Fun is the very reason why we work on keeping items compliant to balance.
The question stands, then: How exactly does balance lead to fun?. After all, even with the above explanations being given often in various mediums, the two are still treated as antithetical. It's a fair question! We don't often elaborate on the exact reason, and the absence of answers can quickly turn into a narrative.
Balance governs more than a power budget for items.
It helps to keep the idea of each build alive, and keep items from stepping on each other's toes: As is often the case, if two items do the same thing but one does it slightly better, you'll obviously prefer the better one -- And if the worse item isn't a step in progression towards the better one, well, one of the two has an issue.
Balance also gives us some boundaries for how many features an item can have, which helps with having time for other items.
Having a set of balance standards massively speeds up item design. Developers don't have to figure out how to apply a given mechanic from scratch every time an item uses it.
Balance standards give us the means to update old items. When an item is old enough, it can't just have its numbers tweaked. It might even be dependent on features that have been updated, and generally has to be remade from the ground up. Balance gives us a reference on the closest manageable equivalent to its old mechanics.
A frequently brought up notion is that we should let overpowered items sit because this is a single player game. While it's an understandable notion, it's also fundamentally incomplete. A single player game is experienced by a single player at a time, not by a single player ever. A player doesn't interact with the experiences of others, but there is, in fact, more than one experience being catered to.
That the gameplay choices of any given player do not directly impact the gameplay experiences of others does not alter the fact that development choices affect the experience of all players. Consistent balance is essential to the continuation of the game, for reasons including, but far from limited to:
The value of all player experiences. Arbitrary choices and exceptions made for the sake of the preferences of a few detract from the experiences of the others and curtail future development.
The integrity of our word as developers. Contradictory standards and arbitrary exceptions invalidate all reasons we may give for future adjustments. Players could (And rightly would) point at any decisions we take and consider them moot on the grounds of inconsistency with other arbitrary choices. Balance is not something one takes piecemeal, especially only where it's easy or non-controversial to implement.
The range of possibilities for future development. The existence of overpowered items inherently curtails the development of all future items that may be measured against them. In contrast, underpowered items are inherently unsatisfying, especially when not every individual item can be so elaborate as to have appeal beyond its primary use. %melee costs for effects increase the more than an item has going for it, making hedging the value of items that would measure up to arbitrary exceptions an exercise in spending additional effort for something that players are likely to be turned away by the drawbacks of.
Therefore: Single player games aren't games with one singular player perspective. Balance remains important because our choices affect every player, our integrity depends on consistency, and both underpowered and overpowered items hurt everyone's fun. We can't design for any individual player; we have to design for the sum of our audience. That means that we can't simply say that players should avoid using overpowered items, as we'd be damaging the sum of experiences (And the game as a whole) in order to temporarily cater to a small subset of individual ones.
While "Broken" is typically used as jargon for "Good", a broken item is one that's clearly weaker or stronger than it should be. This result is underpowered and overpowered items respectively. This is where the notion of perfect mathematical balance goes out the window: Just as an item doesn't need to be broken to be any good, an item can be mathematically balanced and still come out overpowered or underpowered.
Both overpowered and underpowered items tangibly hurt the health of the game, in the short and long term. How do they happen? Sometimes standards change to improve the game as a whole, and an item gets left behind. Sometimes an unforeseen combination makes an old item break battles. Sometimes, honest human error is the cause. Whichever the cause, they have a different impact on the game. Let's go over that effect:
Underpowered Items: Believe it or not, these are brought up more often than any requests for nerfs, only beat in that regard by requests for timetables on Essence Orb changes. We know that they're a problem because they're disappointing, reduce engagement, and most importantly of all: They're not fun. They're frankly what we most look forward to tackling, since it means making something fun again.
Why do buffs seem like such a low priority compared to nerfs, then? Part of it is that they get less traction in discussion. Gaining power results in short discussions, and satisfaction is expressed less frequently and intensely than dissatisfaction. Part of it is the distribution of releases: Our highest profile releases of recent years are huge buffs in the form of class revamps, and this is an ongoing design direction. Buffs are one of our highest priorities, then, but revamping entire classes and tweaking individual broken items make for disparate discussions at first glance.
Overpowered Items: While they seem like a simple opposite of underpowered items, they pose a different kind of problem. An underpowered item is largely an isolated problem: The problem boils down to the item itself, what it could have done better, and how to improve it. An overpowered item or broken combination affects other items and battles. When it IS practical to deal with them, they're a higher priority because the more overpowered something is, and the more overpowered items there are, the fewer fun ideas we can design in the future, as early as the week after such an item comes out. This includes buffing items.
We've established, then, that an underpowered item damages the release it was in (Like any missed opportunity to provide a fun item for a given build), while an overpowered item is an ongoing source of problems. Buffing individual items can suffer as a priority when we have several weeks entirely dedicated to the time consuming endeavor of buffing entire outdated classes. Nerfs, due to happening when the time can be spared to fix a problem, are often scattered throughout the year -- And therefore, so are their discussions.
But what about the concrete damage being alluded to when it comes to overpowered items? How DO they hurt the game?
We've gone over the damage that unbalanced items cause in the present. Design Space is the specific part of the game's future that is damaged by overpowered items. Now, contrary to the above misconceptions, this is not a matter of being out of ideas for fun items unless we take away other fun things, be it to draw your attention or repeat the removed idea.
Design space is essentially the imaginary collection of every idea we could reasonably, successfully implement. Every possible item, build, or feature that could stem from these ideas. When a game developer talks about an occurrence of opening design space, they mean that implementing a feature or fixing a problem has created new possibilities. When design space is closed, it means that an issue is making it so that a group of these possibilities can't be implemented or wouldn't succeed no matter how well it was executed.
In the context of AQ, this applies to fresh ideas, revamps of old items, and buffing underpowered items alike: The space for any given one of these is hindered if it'd fall flat because of a broken item's existence -- Either because it doesn't synergize with it, or because it competes for the same niche and can't compete with an unfair example of it.
Here are four major examples of clearing design space in AQ:
Revamped classes notably rely on both weapon-based and spell-like skills. The latter could never compete in general when Chieftain's Ironthorn was still extremely overpowered, and design space for Paladin would have been low to nonexistent. CIT was blocking out the design space for all spell-like skills because they could never compare with a flat +50% to the damage of anything that could be affected by its broken boost. By extension, it was ruining design space for all class revamps, especially in tandem with resource loops -- Not to mention that no shield could hope to compare with it.
Quick-cast resource loops make it very difficult to craft assumptions about costs, and so tackling those over time makes a variety of resource costs much more reasonable to implement. The sole functionality lost by Purple Rain is being able to instantly, retroactively remove any cost that the player could manage. Not only does losing that not make the spell useless, as there are multiple distinct use cases for the new version, but the fact that rewinds are no longer outside of balance has a huge benefit. Namely, now that there's an established value for them, we have the design space for future rewinding items.
Resource converters with no limits were unbalanced in a number of ways. They were broken both mathematically (Outdated values) and practically (It's poor design to be able to dump an entire resource into another). On top of being broken by themselves, they were part of the above issue with Purple Rain. We can't reasonably make new resource converters until this issue is tackled, but exploring new rules for them means that we could have a variety of items that convert resources and have other features in the future.
Creating a set of restrictions for the new challenge area in the Void has opened a vast range of design space for encounters. By separating the broken combinations that invalidate any boss mechanics not specifically and intricately designed to counter them, it's now possible to provide a higher tier of challenge. Notably, there will be a lot more room for creativity in the task of creating said challenges. There's a whole niche of players that we weren't able to answer the requests of before, and now we can do it without it getting in the way of casual play. There aren't many clearer examples of how balance directly enables fun ó It's certainly the most exciting example!
That covers it! The importance of balance in general, what balance and design space are and aren't, the reason nerfs are more noticeable than buffs, and the reasons that these happen in the first place.
One last clarification: We're a small team of human beings*. It's always possible for a buff or nerf to go too far, and take us right back to the start. That is, of course, a problem, and never the goal. When that happens, it's just as important to fix as the original issue. The goal is keeping AQ fun for as long as possible.
*:Any rumors of me being an eldritch horror are partially unfounded.