Now that the Sandbox changes have been posted, we have an idea of what Wargaming has up its sleeve for rebalancing gold ammo.
For those who aren't aware, "gold ammo" refers to the special ammo type that every tank gets that costs the most credits per shell (usually by a significant margin), because until somewhat recently they could also be bought with gold. In fact, way back in the early days, this ammo could only be bought with gold. WG is trying to use the term "special ammo", as "gold ammo" is strictly speaking no longer accurate, but the term has a nice ring to it, so it has lingered.
Anyways, gold ammo tends to be either better overall or better in every single way to standard ammo (sometimes called "silver ammo"). This is seen as problematic or even pay-to-win by many players. It is a constant complaint about the game, which is why WG is trying to rebalance it.
But does it really need to be rebalanced? Well, yes, it's the title of the post. Here are a few reasons why:
Gold rounds are better because they have higher penetration. Different ammo types do have different characteristics: APCR normalizes less than AP, and HEAT doesn't normalize at all while struggling more with spaced armor. However, penetration is king, to the point of almost completely outweighing any downsides. Tanks like the KV-2 or Strv 103B, where the silver round and gold round are both AP / APCR (respectively), are outright broken in this respect. Arguably, this is also true for any tank with silver AP and gold APCR, because the higher penetration of the APCR means it always has better penetration, even after accounting for normalization.
In-game performance is balanced by out-of-game consequences. The only real issue with spamming gold rounds is that it costs a lot of credits, but no one will hold their shot or switch to a crappy HE round because they're worried about losing credits. You'll fire the gold now and worry about the cost later. Many players will unapologetically fire all gold because they can afford to and hey, why not? This is a fundamentally flawed approach, which I've pointed out multiple times over the years. If you want players to change their behavior in-game, you need to have consequences in the game, not just in the garage.
Goldspam leads to armor creep. This is a simple observation, but an important one. Way back in the old days when gold ammo was only available for gold, it may have been blatantly pay-to-win, but it did mean that armor could be balanced around silver ammo. Now that everyone can use gold ammo, armor really only works if it can resist gold ammo, which has led to armor creep. Look at tier 10 over the past few years – almost every single new tank since the tier 10 LTs has lots of armor, and the most common characteristic to buff for tier 10s has been armor. This leads to a chicken-and-the-egg sort of problem, where now that everything seems to have dummy thicc armor, you have to spam gold, but they only have that kind of armor because so many people are firing gold.
The existence of bad silver rounds punishes new and free-to-play players. Everyone talks about how "gold ammo is better", but there's the other side of the coin, "silver ammo is worse". Free to play players in many tiers (new players in low tiers, anyone in high tiers) just can't afford to fire gold rounds, and yet so many tanks are balanced in such a way that gold rounds make the vehicles much more capable, or are outright mandatory. I'm not just talking about the low tiers – the E 100 is one of the most popular tier 10s in the game for new players, but the AP round is completely useless against most of the heavies it faces. This leads to the unfortunate circumstance where you have finally bought a tier 10 tank, but can't afford to play it. I personally had this problem, and it is a very common issue.
Gameplay is much less diverse. I mean this in a couple of ways. For instance, if you have a good gold round, why flank that tough superheavy when you can just pen it frontally? With current map designs, flanking is starting to not even be an option. This has become a core part of the current game balance. Also, I really like that different ammo types have different properties, and wish this aspect of the game was more emphasized. What about new ammo types, like APHE, or making HESH work differently than HE? What if tanks had way more than 3 shell options, so you could choose your favorite 3 to bring into battle? Can I safely charge that tank because he didn't bring a high-damage round? Can I overangle in my British heavy because the enemy only brought HEAT? Would I use a different ammo selection for competitive play? There is so much untapped potential.
Alright, so we've established that the current gold ammo situation can be improved. Wargaming is starting with the obvious – reducing the alpha damage of gold rounds. Want better pen, lose some damage – it's a clear tradeoff. And yet, they're going about this a weird way – instead of nerfing gold damage directly, they're buffing HP and silver rounds. It's overly complicated – why the heck would they do it this way?
Because it's a good idea! It actually makes a lot of sense. Here's why:
Psychology. Humans are naturally loss-averse – we are more worried about a loss than a gain, even if the outcome is identical. By buffing everything else, players will complain less, even if the outcome is 100% identical. It might seem stupid, but, well, humans are stupid.
Efficiency. Low tiers need to have their HP rebalanced anyways. Why not kill two birds with one stone?
Balance. This is the only way to rein in OP premiums, because WG refuses to nerf the tanks. However, there's nothing wrong with buffing everything else around those problematic tanks.
Fair enough. But is this even the right approach?
I think so – having shells do variable damage is an important first step to more dynamic ammo selection. But will it actually work in practice? We don't know yet. We're in uncharted waters, and that's why Wargaming is testing this in the Sandbox. We can sit around talking for hours about the hypothetical benefits and drawbacks of this system, but at the end of the day, the only way we'll know for sure how the player base handles the change is with a full-scale experiment like this. Are players okay with this? Will they adapt to the changes? What vehicles will need further rebalancing? Are people happy with the results?
Personally, I am very hopeful. Hitpoint disparity has long been an issue in this game. World of Warships is a great example of a game that learned from WoT's mistakes and improved upon it. They have a much better crew system, a much better grind, and there isn't nearly as great a difference in health points between tiers. It's not like being a tier 5 medium fighting tier 7 mediums that can literally have 2.8x as much HP. There is some risk in testing both changes together (rebalanced gold ammo and rebalanced HP pools), as there are a lot more moving parts, but I think the outcome will be positive. I can't wait for some of these changes to make their way to the live server.