A frequent topic on Twitter, Reddit, the forums, etc. is game balance. Which heroes are overpowered? Which heroes are underpowered? Which items are dominating the Halcyon Fold? And what can be done to make it all more balanced?
One of the key members of the game balance team at Super Evil Megacorp, Zekent, was gracious enough to let us pick his brain about the balancing process for Vainglory, including the process of designing new items and heroes. We hope the Vainglory community finds this useful.
Keldegar: Hey everyone, this is Keldegar from Broken Myth and I have a very special interview for you today, I have with me Zekent from Super Evil Mega Corp, and he can kind of introduce himself and tell what he does for SEMC!
Zekent: Hi I’m George “Zekent” Liu, my official title is technically Video Community Manager, though for the most part I haven’t really been doing too much on video or community managing as of recent times, but, eh whatever.
Keldegar: The topic we wanted to talk about today is hero balance, since Zekent is part of the live balance team. I wanted to kind of pick his brain and see what it’s all about. So what is the live balance team, and what does it do?
Zekent: In general, the live balance team makes sure that all the heroes, items, map objectives and everything in vainglory are as balanced as possible, so that whatever hero you pick, and whatever you play, you can play it with a certain degree of confidence that if you are playing well or your opponents are playing poorly that you have a solid change of winning.
That said, one of the big things for us is that heroes will stay close to the core of their kit. Whenever a hero is designed by Ciderhelm and the Heroes team, they always have some sort of goal in mind. Take Ardan for example, he is pretty good at tanking heroes that are dealing small amounts of damage, or Catherine who is great at blocking large bursts of damage with her Stormguard. You kind of want to stay as close to that core as possible while tweaking the heroes.
Keldegar: So you’re saying that there is a certain vision when you are making a hero, and you want to always stay true to said vision?
Zekent: Right, we want to stick to that core identity of the Hero, you want to make sure that when you are playing Koshka you feel like you are playing Koshka, and not something else.
Keldegar: Do you want to talk about who is on the team, do you want to give any shoutouts?
Zekent: The main people on the live balance team are me and SurpriseBirthday. However, we do get a ton of feedback from everyone in the office and all the players. Pretty much everyone has some sort of feedback about balance at any given time. So I like talking to anyone in the office who is willing to spend some time and talk about random balance issues. It doesn’t really matter what skill tier it is, I like to keep track of what is happening at any and all skill tiers. In particular, I want to give a shoutout to Roam, Nivmett, UebelAndre and TinkeR. Those folks are just close to me in the office, so it’s really easy to just talk to them about what they think is strong, what they think is weak and what needs some tweaking. The people I mentioned are also the ones that are the highest in skill tier, as far as skill tier in the office is concerned, so they’re also the people we go to when we want to do some good playtesting.
Keldegar: So let’s talk about heroes, specifically Vox. During Coffee With Zekent, you talked about possible changes to Vox and he is also a hero that has seen constant changes since his release in 1.3.
Zekent: Vox is a tricky one, when he was designed he went out and he was…well, pretty strong. He basically dominated every game and match-up. Since then we have tweaked him quite a bit, and he is actually in a solid spot right now. That said, we still haven’t quite reached what we had in mind when we made him. Ciderhelm’s dream was to make Vox someone who would be good at killing single targets when he is build Weapon, but he would then be bad at killing the entire team. However, his CP build would be terrible at killing your actual target, but everything around it would be destroyed. The changes that he’ll be seeing in 1.18 will probably bring him much closer to that design intent than previously.
Keldegar: So how does SEMC decide that a hero needs to be changed?
Zekent: Well that one is quite tricky as well; it comes down to quite a few factors. If a hero is straying too far away from their original goal, or they aren’t distinct enough, that is usually something we want to address a little bit. That being said, there is no real rhyme or reason to when we address one hero or another, it is usually the case that we see a hero is not used enough or isn’t good enough because another hero fills the same niche but better. So then we look at all heroes that fill the same niche and ask ourselves what makes one stand out from the others.
Keldegar: So what kind of data do you use to determine whether a hero is too weak or too strong?
Zekent: I personally watch a lot of streams from a lot of skill tiers, I have a good idea of what heroes the streamers of youtubers like to play and such and I watch them endlessly. It is a good way to see how each hero is performing at every single skill tier and why it is performing well or poorly. We do also have win rates internally. Sometimes a hero will have a fantastic win rate at a lower skill tier, but really low at a high skill tier. Sometimes it will be a low win rate at high and low tiers, but a fantastic rate in the middle tiers. So it is actually very interesting to figure out exactly why certain heroes have certain win rates.
Keldegar: When you balance a hero, do you balance it more around competitive, or do you balance it for all skill tiers?
Zekent: I personally like to balance it around all skill tiers, because I do think it is very important that everyone has a good time when playing a hero, or when playing against a hero. So a hero that is a very common one, or at least stands out to me, is Saw. When you don’t know how to play against him he just absolutely destroys you. But once you realize you can stay out of his range and poke him, proxy farm, get the stun on him, or knock him back with Glaive… it becomes significantly easier to deal with him. However, we still want to make sure that a hero is viable at every skill tier. It might not be viable in the exact same way, but they should still be so.
Keldegar: I definitely can get behind that, I know one of the things SEMC always asks for in their feedback is how it feels to play a hero.
Zekent: Yeah and that is for sure a huge core of our design principles. Does it feel good? Maybe you are not winning every single game, but did it feel good to play, did you make that one amazing play that made you feel good, because you played that one specific hero, was there that one clutch moment, or maybe a couple throughout the match. It’s not all about winning or losing, it’s about having fun, if you are not having fun, then we have screwed up.
Keldegar: Once a hero needs balancing, is there a process you go through? Iterations? How do you ultimately make changes that balance a hero?
Zekent: This comes down to how close to the original kit design a hero is and how complex the kit is. So one thing we have been doing recently is to reduce the complexity within a kit. Take Vox for example, we haven’t as much changed his playstyle or his kit, but we’ve been making it more understandable. For example, his pulse gives a percent increase to his Resonance and I’ll just ask you, what exactly do you think that does?
Keldegar: It gives you bonus damage on his crystal damage of his basic attacks.
Zekent: Right and I feel like the way that is worded in the skill description is kind of odd, it’s like: +75% damage and you are like, +75% of what? What is this multiplying? We’ve been trying to reduce and simplify the wording of the kits to make it much more understandable in addition to making it lean closer to the original intents. So that is an example of a hero that can keep the same playstyle with a more understandable kit. But for heroes that we think need small tweaks, we just go and change a few numbers around.
Keldegar: I’ve been noticing in recent updates that a hero will get nudged slightly every update until it is in a good place.
Zekent: Right. We’ve been worried about overcompensating and make a Tank Skaarf or a Tank Koshka once again. That is not what we are aiming for; we just want to put them in a good spot. We want to make sure they see play, but not that they’ll be seen every single game.
Keldegar: What about items? We haven’t seen new items for a long time after the game was released, until Minion’s Foot and Contraption. So is it hard to create new items?
Zekent: Items are much trickier than even heroes or general balance. This is because items will impact every single game you are playing in. If an item is very powerful, you’ll see it in every game and this has an effect on 100% of the games in Vainglory. Whereas if we have a hero who comes out strong, sure they are good, but that only affects every game they’re in, so about one out of five or six games. But if we have an item that is overpowered, things can get pretty dicey.
Keldegar: You mean like when you could build three Fountains?
Zekent: Fantastic wasn’t it? Three Fountains, three Crucibles, no one was ever stunned, team fights lasted for like 30 minutes, it was great.
Keldegar: And a Breaking Point!
Zekent: Yeah that was not the greatest time ever. It was interesting I will say, it was fun to play, until you realized no one was ever dying.
Keldegar: So in last week’s Coffee with Zekent you hinted at some new items. Can you talk about the process of creating these, since you said it’s pretty difficult?
Zekent: The first thing we looked at was: Are there any holes in the item tree, or are there any points in the game that are lacking in diversity. So first we needed to identify at what point you are just lacking choices. We focused on making sure that those points had a few more options. And that was a good starting point. From there on it just came to iteration; test that thing, did it work out, did it not. If it did, great, we can go on with the same idea, maybe not exactly the same, but you can try some things that are in the same vain. Overall, I think we have a good diversity when it comes to items in Vainglory, however, I think that one of the big trees which is lacking is utility. We can definitely use some things there and you guys can look forward to seeing some items get out there in the next updates. Maybe not in 1.18, but in the summer you will see quite a few more options along those lines. This isn’t to say that our weapon, crystal and defenses trees are complete yet. We have ideas to add more to those in the future, but the main thing right now is to make sure that utility has some more options. So that whenever you are playing, it’s not just: let’s get the Fountain, let’s get the Crucible and let’s get the Warhorn. But it will be: oh, in this situation I want to get the Crucible because of X, or the Fountain because of Y. I personally want to see a lot more item diversity with every single hero. This won’t just end with the utility tree, we will take a look at all of the trees and add in things were we think it is necessary and maybe change things around or move things around.
Keldegar: It definitely sounds like an exciting time for roam players, with new roams and new utility items.
Zekent: Yeah we showed off that little clip of Lance blocking the Hellfire Brew at the end of Coffee With Zekent last Wednesday. He’s pretty fun to play, so I think players should be looking forward to playing him.
Keldegar: That is definitely my favorite of his animations. So I have some more questions for you, this might be a bit more personal. Who is one hero that you feel is underused, or better than players think?
Zekent: This is tricky, because I’ve always been telling people about how Ozo is really strong. He has a fantastic early game, and his mid-game is decent once you get the Aftershock. His late-game might fall off a little bit, but the goal is not to drag it out that long. You can end the game fairly early, especially with how much sustain he has with any sort of life steal. I personally find him incredibly fun to play, and just to be able to catch people off-guard, close some really long distances and do serious amounts of damage in unsuspected fashion, I find him pretty awesome.
Keldegar: I guess what I’ve been seeing – and I coined the term BOzo, which is Buff the Ozo – with his changes recently, like his faster animations, he can put out good damage with Adagio and he just never dies.
Zekent: Yeah this is actually a really fun team comp, you can put an Adagio in lane and get a Phinn or Ardan as his roamer, and he’ll just become unkillable. It is almost like fighting against a Krul, but he can bounce around and flip people over and it’s absolutely hilarious.
Keldegar: Yeah it’s a lot of fun. So do you have a funny story you’d like to share?
Zekent: I think most of the fun stories are things like making a typo during a playtest and suddenly Ardan is doing like 5 million damage with his Blood for Blood.
Keldegar: You mean like the one that made it to live with his Gauntlet?
Zekent: I don’t even know what happened there, there is some bug with cooldown and energy recharge on Ardan that made him one shot people. It did cause some funny moments, but it is not something that we would every put out intentionally. There was a moment where I was playing Catherine and the enemy Ardan used his Gauntlet, so I just put on Stormguard and wiped their entire team.
Keldegar: Yeah I had a screenshot of my Gauntlet doing over 30 thousand damage.
Zekent: It was pretty ridiculous, I don’t know exactly what happened to make that happen, but we got it fixed pretty quickly. Good stuff.
Keldegar: Well, I really appreciate that you took the time to do this interview, and we at BrokenMyth especially love Coffee With Zekent and the Facebook streams, so we hope that the plans are to continue to do those.
Zekent: For sure, we’ll be doing both those and the dev streams. We’re still figuring out the timing of both of those, so we might change up the schedule in the future, but we’ll probably keep doing it.
Keldegar: Awesome! Well, thanks again, this was Keldegar for BrokenMyth, and I had Zekent with me today to talk about live balance and hero balancing and I hope you enjoyed it!