Be forewarned, I have not made an MMO, so my opinions here are conjecture. I am however an avid MMO player and a game designer of other genres, and I've put a lot of thought into what I would do differently if were to design an MMO. I don't think I'm alone, so please read on and respond as we discuss the possible futures of MMO design.
Game Balancing Abilities
The topic I'm focusing on today is game balancing, specifically character abilities and classes which could apply to PvE or PvP. This isn't a simple task. The most accurately tuned game stats informed by data analysis can run counter to player expectations and behavior.
It's nearly impossible to keep everyone happy. Players get disappointed with their character, and they might leave the game, so companies buff up their class a bit and maybe nerf another class a bit, which can of course make players of that class want to quit. (I still don't forgive DAOC for nerfing my Berserker dual-axe skills.) For you WoW players, this was like capping the stun time at ten seconds which made everyone except the rogues very happy. So there in lies the problem: you try to do right by forcing some balance with a live patch but you risk making changes that can truely piss off your players. It's a no-win scenario or at best a lesser-of-two-evils decision.
What I Would NOT Do
I would NOT do what WoW did and start blurring the lines between character classes by giving them all similar but renamed abilities. My level 80 warrior had three ways (beyond health potions, bandages and sitting) to heal himself! He'd become his own healer, which makes him almost the same as a paladin except he couldn't heal others.
I would NOT do what DAOC, EQ, WoW and many others have done by taking something away (nerfing) only to give the class something in exchange, like a great new ability or buff that ensures that the class remains the uber-class preferred by players.
I would NOT do what Blizzard reportedly did and assign a lead designer per class and expect that somehow these designers would balance out their classes. It may be different now, but that's what I was told by someone who once worked there on the original. Judging by the last add-on I played where Death Knights were clearly the top PVP players and could PVE in red areas and instances three or four levels above them, I'm judging things haven't changed at Blizzard all that much.
What I Would Do
I've long thought about ways I would tackle the balance issues. Out of the box game balance based on pure data analysis techniques fail when the game ships and player behavior defies designer expectations. Live patches to fix the problem upset player expectations i.e. what they've grown used to.
I had often thought one way to solve this expectation issue is to hide some of the numbers and to get the players used to having their abilities' performance go up and down. That is, a black box where a player can't predict everything precisely and the randomness can be tilted slightly for one class or another without players being the wiser. But RPG players like to see their numbers, so the solution couldn't hide all the numbers.
It's when I started playing Aion that I saw a perfect opportunity for this solution, though NCSoft hasn't necessarily taken advantage of it for balancing purposes. (or maybe they have, that's the beauty of it!) In Aion, all classes have chain abilities where the third chain ability (usually heroic, highly dramatic and effective) has a random chance of becoming available. It's a black box.
Players get used to hoping for that ability to unlock and are very satisfied when it does. They see all the damage numbers they normally want: they just don't know how often the ability will get unlocked. That random chance is the only hidden number. Now add a class factor to that random formulae that can be changed live behind the scenes and players will not necessarily be the wiser. No announcements, just tweaks, all the same damage numbers they're used to seeing and no players believing for certain they've been nerfed.
What You Would Do?
Please add your comments to what you would do differently to resolve the challenge of balancing abilities