The things I mention here are my opinions and I don't claim in any way that they are the absolute truth. I am not a game design expert. I am pretty sure that you might not agree with what I'm saying. Arguments are welcome as long as they're productive.
This is a work in progress. Your input is appreciated.
What Makes a Game Fun?
Games are supposed to be fun, right? Video games are no exception, of course. There are many elements that contribute to how fun a video game can be. Graphics, lifespan, gameplay, difficulty level, etc. However, I think that the best long-term contributor to fun in games is balance. Especially in games where you can compete with other players.
The Root of All
If you look closely, every competitive game is just a complex implementation of Rock-Paper-Scissors. And if we want to know about balance, then Rock-Paper-Scissors is an ideal place to start. The options for you are laid down. You choose between the three, and they are of equal standing in the sense that one can beat another but can be beaten by another. Any choice has an equal chance of winning or losing, ceteris paribus.
Competitive game designers make it their goal to create balance in their games. But they make mistakes, too. Playdom itself admitted that back then, the PVP of M:AA is pretty much "Use War Machine or lose." Magic: the Gathering players will be familiar with the concept of banned cards. Fighting games of today require tournaments to have the latest patch. If a game would be fun, the overpowered elements should be rebalanced.
That is why you see that they make efforts into correcting imbalances. In M:tG, they live by the philosophy that Answers Need Answers. As they make new expansions, they make sure nothing is bulletproof. In conjunction with their different formats and evaluation of cards that should be banned, they create balances so that, as much as possible, the game should not be "Use this Deck or lose". M:AA has its patch notes every now and then, nerfing or buffing heroes, reworking weapons, game mechanics, and more.
In any case, they aim for the games to be balanced. Just imagine if we add another option in R-P-S. Let's call it "Gun", and it will defeat all the other three. Would there be any reason for a player to not always use "Gun" if he wants to win? But then, all the fun will be removed from the game.
Balance in M:AA
The whole Rock-Paper-Scissors concept is very evident in M:AA. Perhaps the most obvious representation is this:
This is strong against this, weak against that. Yada yada. That's it right there. However, as I said before, they are more complex implementations of the concept. As everyone knows, you don't blow off an Infiltrator by merely having a Scrapper in the same manner that rock beats scissors. It's not automatic. They only have an advantage but it's not a guaranteed win. In the same manner, if you have an Infiltrator and the opponent has a Scrapper, it doesn't spell sure defeat for you.
What about the Generalists? In R-P-S, we don't have a neutral element. How does the Generalist class play into that "beats-that/beaten-by-another" system? Well, classes are just one aspect of the game. As said above, even if you have an advantageous class, it's not a guaranteed win. Why? Because there are so many other elements in the game that affects outcomes of the battles. Those aspects give the game a window to introduce a neutral class.
Ahh. The heroes. They are the premier element of the game, as they are the ones who accompany your agent in playing the game, whether it be doing the missions or battling other agents in the Danger Room. As such, the heroes get the most amount of discussion, or at least as I see it.
In my humble opinion, the developers of this game put the most effort of balancing into heroes, with gears (more later) coming to a close second. There are so many ways to balance a hero, but I think we can categorize them into two: Internal - tweak the hero itself, and external - via other elements.
You have many outlets in tweaking the hero - stats, movesets, and abilities. Let's take a look at the white queen, Emma Frost.
From her release up until this point in time, Emma has went through a lot of patches. I can't even imagine how much she had gone through from the conceptualization phase to the point when she was added to the game. Many games go through that kind of thing. I'd go as far as to say that most of well designed ones do so. If you regularly read the design and development column in DailyMTG.com, you'll find that many Magic cards that came into print can be way too different from its first design. Opinions may vary whether she was really making the game broken or not, but the final decisions if she gets the changes is the call of the game staff. They'd get feedback from the players, yes, but they don't necessarily follow that. Anyway, they decided to tweak her.
Moves - Changing the properties of one or more moves can help balance out a character. One example is that they reduced the damage of Emma Frost's Psychic Tap. They wanted to make it so that the majority of the damage is from the Mental Anguish, not from the initial damage. Just imagine if Psychic Tap deals about 25% of damage, ceteris paribus. Plus it has this nasty debuff which will take away more than half of your health when you do a damaging move? That's just too strong. So, they made it do puny damage. Despite that, it's still an awesome move. It inspires very strategic uses, if you ask me.
Stats - Let's use another example for this. Marvel's speedster: Quicksilver. As mentioned by other good players elsewhere, in a turn-based game, getting more turns contributes a lot to winning. Quicksilver is the first-ever hero that has two turns by default per round. "Argh! Why Playdom?!? A hero that passively has two turns is so overpowered! Nerf him!" How about no? (Fortunately, I haven't seen that exact statement.) As many have pointed out before, his starting ATK stat sucks so hard (1 bar). Even if you maximize his ATK with crystals, it can only take you so far. "But AE", you say, "I faced a QS who took half of my character's health with one crack of Blinding Punches. He's IMBA!" First, breath. Done? Now, recognize that every scenario here is under ceteris paribus. Don't know what it means? Google is your friend.
Abilities - Let's get back to Emma Frost. Particularly, her Phoenix 5 costume. The game has seen an increase of heroes who work on debuffs, especially those DoTs. EF has an answer to that - her Cosmic Power. It removes all those removable red boxes passively (and she can even remove them manually, but we are in the abilities part), and boosts the stats as icing on the cake. What a great ability, right? If it has been left at that, that would be oh so powerful. So, what balances it out? Well, it only has a 30% proc rate. That means, there is less than 1/3 chance for your character to have his/her debuffs removed if P5 EF is on your team. And that's nice, because the uncertainty is one of the things that make a game fun. By the way, please, please don't start with that "Cosmic Power procs every turn for my opponent!" I've heard enough anecdotes already, and I stand by the belief that we just tend to remember extreme circumstances, and that if we log all the data, the value we come up with will get closer to the true value (in this case, 30%) as sample size increases. Seriously, get more into statistics.
Now, let's move on to balancing a hero through external means. For this, I'll use our star spangled man with a plan, Captain America.
Okay, okay. I know Cap A has been revamped himself (Lead the Charge removed, Evade from SG removed, etc.), but the focus here are external balancing.
So, Cap A. When we talk about tanking strategy in M:AA, he's one of the most effective tanks. Some may even argue that he IS the best tank, and they have a reason. He protects even from AOE attacks, and then he counters. While his teammates are hiding behind his shield, he does damage, while you're free to just go and attack, or set up a Volcano. Your opponent will be annoyed because they can't take out your necessary pieces because Cap A shields them.
So, how did they balance Cap A? As well as the tanking strategy overall? Well, the Stealthy property has been around for a long time. Thus, we can say that it is balanced by the environment. Aside from Stealthy, they have slowly added many more anti-tanking options, some to go through the protection (e.g. Psychic, Catastrophic) or outright remove it (e.g. Farewell to Arms, buff removal, Savage Rend).
Your agent is the most customizable element in the game. You are now even allowed to change its looks. But more importantly, you can customize the agents abilities. The heroes are pretty much made for you. Yes, there are alternate uniforms but there are no more tweaks you can do than what is provided.
So, how is balancing applied on the agent? Two things: Uniforms and Weapons.
Uniforms You agent's uniform determines its class and stats. You can improve the stats with ISO-8, but each uniform will give your agent base stats. The base stats varies and this is where balance comes in.
The stats provided by the armors encourage you to build your agent into a certain type of character. Let's take the Blaster Commander Trench. It in quite the higher end for HP, highest ATK among the uniforms, nice accuracy, lower end in evasion, and the lowest defense. With the blaster bonus, we can see that it aligns your agent to be a damage dealer.
It doesn't stop there. It has 8 ISO slots that gives you freedom to buff up stats. You can go all out on the attacking end, making your agent a glass cannon. Or maybe you can buff up the defense so you have a relatively sturdy agent that can crit bruisers. In any case, you can't have them both. If you go the glass cannon route, you sacrifice the defense. If you build the defense, you sacrifice full damage potential. "But wait!", you say, "I can just put all Chaotics in my blaster uniform! Haha! I can do anything!" Okay, while that has a point, you'll still be sacrificing some things. The Chaotic ISO buffs all stats indeed, but they are evenly spread out. Meaning, you still can't get the full damage potential of the glass cannon build, or the sturdiness of the defensive build.
With the introduction of the Power Armors, now your agent can have passive abilities which counters the bonuses of its counter-class. This goes nicely into the "answers need answers" thing. Provided that you got them, then it unlocks more customized builds for your agent.
Let's take the Blaster Power armor. It has the same stats as the Commander Trench, but it has the passive Reflexive Flash. It gives anyone attacking your agent with debuffs that make them likely to miss. If they hit, it's for less damage. You can have a defensive agent that doesn't rely on the defense stat. However, your agent needs to be attacked to give the Migraine and Blinded to an opposing character. For that you may still have to build for the defensive stats which can affect the points you can give to your agent's attack.
To be continued...