A game mechanic that provides too much power is overpowered. A game mechanic that provides too little power is underpowered.
Calculating the power of a game mechanic depends on the type of mechanic it is, thus we have sub-categories for game balancing; these sub-categories include: weapon balancing, health balancing, armor balancing, powerup balancing, and movement balancing.
Let us focus on weapon balancing for now.
The power of each player depends on their skill and their will to victory, it also depends on their mental and physical state which varies over time. A highly skilled player who is exhausted may lose to a low skilled player if the low skilled player happens to be well rested, focused, and not hungry or thirsty. The highest skilled player may also lose if his will to victory is hindered by emotional trouble or drugs.
These occasional situations where the higher skilled player may lose are out of our control and prediction. It makes more sense to balance the weapons assuming that the mental and physical states of all the players are equal, with the inherent skills of all the players being the only set of variance.
For the rest of this article, I will only compare the weapon damages per second (DPS) between vanilla quake 3 (VQ3) and Quake Live. The base grounding for actual weapon balance may be discussed in a later article.
VQ3 vs QL weapon DPS
Let's look at the weapon balancing for Quake 3 Arena. Here are the VQ3 weapons and their respective damage output per second:
Railgun (66.6 DPS)
Machinegun (70 DPS)
Shotgun (110 DPS)
Grenade Launcher (125 DPS, 125 Splash DPS)
Rocket Launcher (125 DPS, 125 Splash DPS)
Lightning Gun (160 DPS)
Plasma Gun (200 DPS, 150 Splash DPS)
Compare this with the DPS's of Quake Live:
Machinegun (50 DPS)
Railgun (53.3 DPS)
Shotgun (100 DPS)
Heavy Machinegun (106.6 DPS)
Lightning Gun (120 DPS)
Rocket Launcher (125 DPS, 105 Splash DPS)
Grenade Launcher (125 DPS. 125 Splash DPS)
Plasma Gun (200 DPS, 150 Splash DPS)
Note that in VQ3 the Lightning Gun used to have more DPS than Rockets and Grenades, Grenades also used to have equal DPS with the Rockets. Machinegun also had more DPS than Railgun.
Quake Live has altered the original rank of the weapons by making Lightning Gun have less DPS than Rockets and Grenades, and making Grenades have more DPS than Rockets, and making Machinegun have less DPS than Railgun.
It has not been proven that either VQ3 or QL is more balanced. But we definitely know that their weapon balancing is different.
DPS is not the only determinant of the weapon's power. A weapon may have spread, a limited range, or be projectile based.
VQ3's shotgun fired 11 pellets and had a spread constant of 700. QL's shotgun fires 20 pellets with a spread constant of 1000. So even though VQ3's shotgun does 10 more damage than QL's shotgun, the QL shotgun has a higher chance of hitting the target at all ranges; not to mention the QL shotgun (a close range weapon) has a longer range than the mid-range Lightning Gun.
The high probability of a hit with the QL shotgun sometimes enables you to kill a weak, Railgun-armed enemy at distances as far as 1500 units.
With that being said, it appears that QL has buffed SG while nerfing the LG, RL, RG, and MG.
Lightning Gun balance
LG used to have 160 DPS (8 damage), pre-Steam QL nerfed it to 140 DPS (7 damage), post-Steam QL nerfed it again to 120 DPS (6 damage).
After that last nerf, the LG is now weaker than RL. Now RL is supposed to be that type of weapon that beats LG at close range and loses to LG at mid-range; the last nerf to LG now makes RL and LG be equally matched at mid-range.
Consider the difficulty of using the LG vs the RL at mid-range. It is much easier to hit 50% rockets than to hit 50% LG. Two equally matched players, may roughly hit 40% LG against each other and 50% rockets against each other. Consider the scenario where these players are fighting at mid-range, one with RL, the other with LG. The RL has 125 DPS with direct rockets and 105 DPS with splash rockets. Even if the RL player was not hitting direct rockets, his DPS with 50% accuracy could go up to 52.5 DPS. The LG player on the other hand, hitting 40% accuracy with the LG would have an effective DPS of 48. To do more DPS than 84 damage splash rockets at 50% accuracy would require an LG accuracy of 44%.
In summary, the LG is underpowered since it takes more skill to do less damage than the rockets.
The Plasma Gun (PG) is highest DPS weapon that has not been altered since VQ3. In QL, the PG does 75 more DPS than the weapon ranking right below it. The nerfing of all the other weapons below it has practically made the plasma gun into a flamethrower. Compared to the 6 damage LG, and 84 splash damage RL, the PG penetrates better than any other weapon at close to mid-range with 20 damage per cell.
While it is true that PG is the hardest weapon to use, it does 60% more DPS than LG and RL and 100% more DPS than SG. So weapons that are specialized to a particular range (SG for close-range, LG for mid-range) get raped by the multi-ranged, multi-purpose plasma gun.
Heavy Machinegun balance
The HMG does 13.4 less DPS than the LG. It makes up for this by having more range than the LG and a spread constant of 400 which makes it easier to aim with.
The HMG was introduced in the post-Steam version of QL, most likely as an LG alternative to make it easier for new players to get frags. This weapon has no purposeful existence other than to increase affirmative action for lower skilled players.
Is DPS power?
It is too simplistic to measure a weapon's power by it's DPS, but I believe it is a significant factor. Perhaps a math formula can be constructed to take into account spread, projectile velocity, and maximum range. But this may still not get to the root of the problem.
If we want to really know how to calculate the power of a weapon or game mechanic. We have to know, conceptually, what power is. Maybe power is a product of our will, and this power is what alters our position between victory and defeat. This concept may be discussed later.