In Champions Online, there is a power called Ego Sprites which is a point-blank, area of effect, damage over time power. You fire it, it hits up to five people around you and ticks for moderate damage. There is an advantage for this power called Slave Mentality. If you take this advantage, then 10 seconds after you fire your Ego Sprites, you will get a slight heal over time effect based on the number of people you hit with the initial damage DoT.
Originally, Slave Mentality was bugged. Instead of stacking once on every creature in the affected area, it would stack as many times as you could fire it. So, if I jumped into a group of five enemies and fired my Ego Sprites (with SM) five times, in 10 seconds I would get twenty-five ticks of healing each second… which for those of you who don’t play Champions Online, can add up. To test the power, I duelled one of my friends and fired no other power but Ego/Slave and I could easily get the power to overstack enough just on him to out heal any damage he could do me (and he was the PvP FoTM ice build… which has since been nerfed, but then was quite the damage dealer). If you abused the bug, it was the best heal in the game.
So, they rightfully fixed the bug, making the SM so that it stacked only once on each target, but they also nerfed the heal to 50% of what it was before. Because this is Champions Online, people complained… and probably rightfully so… why fix the bug and also nerf the power? Why not just fix the bug and then see how the power performed? The answer from the forum community was “Ego Sprites is a AoE damage power; the heal is just a nice bonus.”
Now, I had characters with Ego Sprites and Slave Mentality, and I did use it with impunity to essentially heal tank for my group. It needed to be fixed and it was. After the fix though, I felt that the heal advantage was useless and ultimately respecced out of the power. But this isn’t a nerf whine post… in fact, the nerf is just a small part of what this post is about. This post is about hybrid powers and how they perform.
What really got me thinking about this topic wasn’t the nerf itself, but the response to the nerf:
“Ego Sprites is a AoE damage power; the heal is just a nice bonus.”
See, before the fix/nerf, Ego Sprites was a decent damage power, but certainly not a top performer. With the Slave Mentality advantage, the power became a decent damage power with a super-broken-awesome heal component. After the nerf, Ego Sprites is still a decent damage power, but now the SM advantage is just a “bonus heal”. The problem is, I don’t need a decent damage power. I need a great damage power. I don’t need a “bonus heal”. I need an honest-to-goodness-keep-you-alive heal. With that thinking, I tried a little thought experiment:
Say, I am a game developer and I am creating a power that is a life drain — a hybrid attack/heal. In the rest of my game, the regular, single-purpose attacks do 100 points each round of combat (a few seconds), and the regular single purpose heals heal that much as well. Since, this power is a hybrid, it can’t be top-tier in either attack or heal, and I take the common sense road of balancing it by reducing the damage component by a similar amount as the heal component I am adding. In the end my power ends up doing 70 points of damage and healing 30 every “round” of combat.
Now, I take my newly created power and head out to fight a standard npc who has 100 hit points and does 50 points each round. Strangely enough, I find my new power underperforms. In a typical exchange, I attack my opponent, knocking his health down significantly and then he smacks me for 50 points of damage. I then attack a second time and kill my enemy, while healing 30 of the 50 points dealt. At the end of the combat, the enemy is dead, but I have taken 20 damage for my trouble. That doesn’t sound too bad until you realize had I just taken the regular attack, I would have alpha-struck my enemy and killed him taking no damage.
In this example, the “balancing” reduction in damage allows the npc to remain alive longer, thus he does more damage, thus any benefit I might get from my heal is negated. We can do a similar experiment with a hybrid attack/hold power. Let’s say it is balanced 50/50, so it does half the damage of a straight attack, and holds enemies under a certain threshold (level, or “eliteness”). That’s a fine power and in fact, in our original example, the enemy would take 50 points of damage in the first round and then be held and finished off in the second round with no damage to us. So… THIS hybrid power is good, right?
Sure it is… and let’s even ignore the fact that you effectively doubled the time it took to kill this guy (I am not THAT much of a min/maxer). The problem comes when you fight that next tier of enemy — the Master Villain in CO, the Boss in CoH, or the Elite in WoW. Let’s say that the developers have made it that much more difficult to hold this guy and it requires a hold with an effectiveness of say 75 to do so. A full on hold power would hold this guy, but your hybrid does not, and now you are left to plink away at this baddie with an attack that does 50% damage.
The problem with secondary effects is that they are often balanced in such a way that when they are effective, you don’t need them anyway and when you need them, they aren’t strong/reliable enough to be effective. That’s the new Ego Sprites/Slave Mentality: The power is a moderately effective DoT that is fine against trash mobs where I don’t need its healing capabilities — but there are better AoE attacks out there so why not take one of them? When the going gets tough, and I need the hit points from Slave Mentality, they won’t be nearly enough, so why take the advantage?
In many games, procs suffer from this balancing act as well. The idea is I take a weapon or power and give it a 5% chance of doing something cool in addition to its normal damage. Ok… that sounds great. However, let’s say that the developer balanced the aggregate effect of the proc and lowered its damage by that amount. In our very crude notation, that would make it a 95/5 item… doing 95% of the damage of a normal sword, but having an additional effect that “makes up” for the lost damage. If we go back to our original example, in 1 out of 20 fights, I take no damage, but in 19 of those fights, I take 50 points of damage!
Even worse, is that with this proc item, I am not just giving up damage, I am giving up control. The randomness of the proc makes it even less likely to be useful than the gimped hybrid power. Sure, when it fires it is nice, and over the long run, I will do the same, or more damage, with the proc. However, remember that most of the time, the proc does not really affect the outcome of the fight. Let’s say the percentage of attacks where the proc does not matter is 90%. So it might matter 10% of the time… but it is only 5% likely to fire, which means that 99.5% of the time… the proc does nothing useful for you; it either fires when no one cares, or does not fire when you needed it.
That leads me to The 110% Rule which is: When balancing a hybrid power (or a proc), none of the effects should be trivial and the sum total of them should be more than 100% of a non-hybrid power. MMOs favor big numbers over versatility (this post is longer than I anticipated, so we should go into this one later) and so for a hybrid to be worth the power pick, it has to add up to 110% or more of the effects it is made up of. Actually, my guess is that the sum total should be closer to 133%… more of a 66/66 split… but in deference to sports cliches everywhere, I settled on 110%.
I love hybrid powers and procs because they make characters more interesting and allow lots more variations than straight up heals, attacks and holds. However, game developers take note that these types of effects need to be balanced carefully, and in a way that on the surface looks overpowered. There should never be a hybrid power where, “the heal is just a nice bonus” because that really means, “the heal is next to useless… take a freakin’ heal power instead.”