I hate to sound like all I’m thinking about these days are exploits, but I was recently shown a conversation between a player and a GM which confirmed a prediction I made back in February: that Blizzard applies the same reasoning to the walls of Wintergrasp as they do to the Stables of Arathi Basin. The conversation is between a player and a GM over attacking people near the mount vendors from the walls, something that happens all the time.
Blizzards stance, as stated in both blue posts and GM conversations, is consistent. From the blue post:
Players accessing any area of Arathi Basin in order to engage other players from a safe vantage point but avoid combat themselves is considered a reportable exploit.
From the GM, Gallordrynn:
(I)f you can attack someone from a vantage point and they have no way possible to reach you or attack back then it is clearly terrain exploitation.
(GMs) will all agree that attacking someone from a vantage point in which they cannot escape, defend themself, or reach their attacker is considered terrain exploitation and is a bannable offense.
This now seems like a clear, well-articulated policy within Blizzard. It’s no longer just a blue post, it’s part of the GM’s handbook. There is a policy that says certain activities within PvP are considered bannable offenses. The language is clear and repeated several times. (“Vantage point.”)
But what, specifically, are these activities? How do they differ from normal PvP? Even with a clear policy and message, I’m as confused as the player in the screenshot as to what Blizzard considers an exploit and what they don’t. The message may be clear, but the application of it is certainly not. How can doing PvP get me banned?
In other contexts I can agree with what Blizzard is doing with this policy. There are times and places where you can exploit the terrain to your advantage, and doing so is grossly unfair to other players. That kind of thing should be stopped.
I don’t think Blizzard has fully considered the implications of this rule in Wintergrasp. In applying it to Wintergrasp Keep they’ve classified many PvP activities as bannable offenses. Not just world PvP ganking from the tops of walls, either — normal participation in the defense of the Keep, during a battle, is now a bannable offense.
There’s a time and place for every rule. Wintergrasp is not the place for this one.
WHAT IS A TERRAIN EXPLOIT?
Based on the rulings we’ve seen so far, I think we can make a working definition of what Blizzard considers to be a terrain exploit.
To exploit the terrain in PvP, you must cause damage from a position where your opponent:
- Can’t escape,
- Can’t defend themselves, and
- Can’t reach you.
There are therefore two vital components to a terrain exploit: damage and position. Each of those is problematic when talking about the fairness of an exploit, but damage is at least easier to identify.
My twink has been trying to get the Arena Grand Master trinket from the Gurubashi Arena in STV lately, and I’ve gotten to watch some wicked healing exploits first hand. Basically, a group of fighters will come into the arena with their healers lining the ring around the floor and mop up. The healers are untouchable by everyone – I play on a PvE realm, and they’re not flagged for FFA combat – and the only way to take out their DPS is to get them out of range of some of the healers and burn through the healers.
Given that several of those DPS were in full Wrathful PvP gear, killing them took a lot of coordination and focus. And then they’d show up again a few seconds later. :-(
According to Blizzard’s own statements, this is not an exploit. They’re not doing any damage, just healing their friends from an unassailable position. Even though that healing is directly affecting the outcome of PvP combat, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, it’s not an exploit.
It’s clever use of the rules of the STV Arena, that’s what it is. Work that one around in your head a bit.
The great thing about the STV Arena is that things are so clear cut in a PvA environment. Either you are flagged for PvA, or you are not. If you are flagged for PvA (down on the Arena floor), everyone can attack you. If you are in the stands, you are not flagged, and therefore untouchable (unless flagged for PvP.) The game very clearly draws a line between who is accessible and who is not.
But what about those areas where the lines are not so clearly drawn?
We now have two examples of what Blizzard considers to be exploits: the roof of the Arathi Basin Stables and attacking people near the vendors from the walls of Wintergrasp Keep. What do these two situations share in common?
- Both take place in PvP zones between PvP-flagged players. There is no PvE in the area.
- Both involve a difference of elevation to separate the two players. They are on different surfaces with the exploiter having the high ground. (Thus, preventing the victim from being able to jump down to the other player.)
- There is no clear path between the two players. Pets can’t go from one to the other, warriors can’t charge, etc..
- Ranged attacks, and only ranged attacks, are possible between the two players.
- The exploiter has a line of sight defense readily available to them due to their position. They can attack and move back out of LoS quickly. While attacking both parties have LoS on each other; but the exploiter can break LoS with a few steps.
- There are clear escape paths available to the victims. They can quickly run out of range of the attacker, who must abandon their unassailable position to follow.
The situations aren’t identical, however.
- The Wintergrasp vendors are only available when the battle is not in progress, so this is not during a timed battleground. Arathi Basin has a PvP objective and a clock running.
- Because there is no battle, you can bring in unlimited reinforcements into the Wintergrasp zone. Arathi Basin is limited to 15 on 15, and you can’t summon your friends.
- Flying is permitted in Wintergrasp when there is no active battle, but never in Arathi Basin. This means that the exploiter is accessible to anyone with a flying mount who is either currently mounted or not currently in combat. In Arathi Basin, the Stables roof is accessible to anyone who knows how to jump.
- There are other Wintergrasp vendors who sell most, but not all, of the items in that location. There is only one flag at the Stables, and only one roof.
- There is a clear escape path in both cases, but in Arathi Basin the objective you’re abandoning is mandatory, not optional. You have to fight for the right to shop at the Wintergrasp Mall; fighting through the checkout line shouldn’t surprise anyone.
How do all of these compare against the stated policy (no escape, no way to defend themselves, or can’t reach the attacker)?
In both situations players can escape their attackers. The GM makes a big deal about the inability of the non-mounted victim to escape, but most sensible people in Wintergrasp just run out into the courtyard, get out of combat, and mount up. The position of the attacker doesn’t prevent the victim from escaping. If you choose not to run away and stand and fight, that’s your choice, but if you take off when you get hit you’ll likely get away. So it’s not really escape.
Classes with ranged attacks can defend themselves, but melee cannot, if by defense we really mean counterattack. There are no LoS bugs in AB or WG that prevent players in these positions from trading ranged attacks; the only limiting factor is range, and that would be true regardless of the presence of the wall or roof. If one side has range extension talents and the other does not, well, that’s an imbalance no matter where they are. The person with longer range will usually win, which is why most PvP talent builds take the range extension talents. It may be difficult to return fire if the attacker make smart use of LoS, but that’s true of anyone using LoS intelligently. Using LoS around a pillar or doorway achieves the same effect, where you create very small windows where you can cast instant spells on your target and then hide. If your opponent is spamming instants back at you, you’ll get hit, too. (LoS doesn’t defend against smartly placed AoE, though.)
Melee classes, however, are at a disadvantage in these situations. They can’t do much to the attacker except try to get up to their position by either climbing up to the roof themselves or by getting out of combat, mounting up, and flying to the top of the wall. This makes it harder for melee to effectively counterattack, though not impossible.
Obviously, nothing the attacker does from their high vantage point prevents the other player from using their defensive abilities. Real defensive abilities (Shadow Ward, Ice Block, bubbles of all shapes and sizes, etc.) function just like as if the attacker were on the ground shooting at them.
So the salient feature out of all of this is that the player does not have a clean path to their attacker. If they are a ranged class they can return fire, but there’s nothing a melee class can do once they’re in combat in that situation. Pets cannot travel from one player to the other (though pet ranged attacks still work), Warriors cannot Charge up a wall.
Pathing appears to be the common factor in determining if a position is an exploit position or not. A Warrior can’t directly attack someone on the balcony in the WSG flag room, but a pet can find its way to that person and savage them. The same warrior could run along that same path and reach the balcony (or roof, for that matter.) The different in elevation doesn’t matter, the fact that the warrior has no real counterattacks is irrelevant – if a dumb pet can get to that attacker, then the smart melee can, too.
We then have a definition to work with: terrain exploits are when you attack from a place where no clear path exists between you and your target, best tested by pet pathing.
But there’s a problem with this definition. A big problem.
THE PLATFORM PROBLEM
The above picture highlights the defensive platforms along the eastern side of Wintergrasp Keep. Each section of wall has three components: two walls, a central pillar, and a gun platform accessible from inside the keep. The guns only appear during a battle, and the platforms are often used during the battle as positions where defenders can attack the offense from relative safety. Melee players on the offense can’t get to them, and ranged offense have to establish LoS to attack defenders. Smart defenders duck back off the platform and heal between sniping folks on the ground.
The lower platforms around the tower are similar, though they don’t have guns. Guns do appear on the upper tower platforms, and if you have extended range talents you can stand up there and cast on the ground. On the lower platforms you’re fairly exposed to the enemy, but you can step behind the smaller walls or back up and break LoS to heal safely.
Pets cannot reach these platforms. Warriors cannot Charge up to them. The offense cannot reach them without breaking down a wall, unless you’re a Rogue with Shadowstep, but Shadowstep breaks pretty much every rule in the game.
Yet, these platforms are obviously intended as part of the defensive fortifications of the keep. This isn’t a situation like the walls, which you couldn’t get onto before flying was introduced in Wintergrasp. This isn’t like the roof of the Stables, where you have to be a proficient jumper to get up there. There are ramps with two stairs up to those gun emplacements. The lower tower platforms have walls that are lower and higher to give you defensive options. These platforms are important parts of the defense of the keep.
But the defensive platforms allow you to attack from a place where no clear path exists between you and your opponent.
It doesn’t matter if the Battle for Wintergrasp is in progress or not, honestly. If I’m on the platform, and you’re on the ground, you can’t get to me if I attack you. The situation is exactly the same as someone taking pot shots from the wall at players at the WG vendor… except there’s no shopping going on.
So is attacking from the defensive platforms an exploit? If I want to follow what Blizzard has set forth, yes, it is. But I’m encouraged to use them in the battle! To put them in usability terms, the platforms afford this use. They suggest that you are up high and can shoot at people, so you shoot at people from them!
The only difference between the defensive platforms and tops of the walls – aside from protecting the WG shopping experience – is that you could argue that the developers intended the platforms to be used that way, but not the tops of the walls. I heard this objection a lot when discussing Arathi Basin, and I think it’s particularly troublesome. Especially here.
THE PROBLEM WITH DEVELOPER’S INTENT
Where is it okay to stand and fight? That’s really what this discussion comes down to, isn’t it? As players who want to follow the rules, but also want to win, where is it okay to stand in Wintergrasp? Knowing that you can get a ban from attacking from easily accessible locations makes me very uncomfortable. This entire post is trying to determine some logical rules telling me where I should and shouldn’t stand.
I had several great commenters disagree with me on the Stables roof exploit, saying that players aren’t stupid and they know what the intent of the developers are in a given situation, and that circumventing that intent is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. There is a lot of validity to this argument. I’ve fallen through the walls of Stormwind, which is obviously not the developer’s intent (though it’s ultimately harmless.) People who exit the starting area in Arathi Basin to cap flags before the start of a match are obviously circumventing not only the developer’s intent, but the rules of the battleground. (It’s the preparation period, for crying out loud!)
But what happens when it’s not so clear cut? What about when getting to a spot is trivially easy and part of the game? I’m no longer talking about a set of jumps onto a roof, I’m talking about landing your flying mount on a platform.
Let’s look at the walls of Wintergrasp in the picture above. I’ve marked off three types of areas, all which fit the criteria of attacking players from an unreachable position. Green areas are those which afford you to stand and launch ranged attacks at your opponents – either there are ramps leading up there, or stairs, or doors, or guns – something suggests that this would be a good spot to defend the walls from. Yellow areas are questionable areas. They’re accessible on foot while the battle is raging, but the affordance is less obvious. You have to climb over a defensive wall and drop down to get onto this wall. There are similar spots in Isle of Conquest, by the way, but they’re much easier to get to – just drop down off the tower and land on the keep wall. Red areas are only accessible via flying mount or parachuting in from Icecrown, and are probably considered off-limits during the battle.
Wintergrasp is especially problematic because there were two distinct phases in its existence: pre- and post- flight. When it launched it was like an old-Azeroth zone, with the only flight possible via taxi birds across it. If you took your flying mount over WG you would get dismounted. So all of those areas marked in red were completely inaccessible until patch 3.2, when flight was enabled in the zone – but only when the battle was not in progress. So you could argue that flight was never in the developer’s original intentions, since the zone, as released, was a ground-only zone, and that the red zones were never intended to be landed upon.
But if you look at the history of Wintergrasp’s development, they fully intended to have not only flight, but aerial combat within the battle! It was on the box but never made it into the game! That’s why the upper reaches of Wintergrasp are so developed; it wasn’t just a sense of completion, but also because the developer’s intention was to have flying PvP.
If you didn’t know the history of Wintergrasp’s development, you would still be presented with features like this room, atop one of the towers in the southern courtyard:
If you haven’t been in this room, which I believe was rumored to be one of the spawn points for the defenders, you should take a look. It’s a great example of Titan interior decorating.
As a player, what should you infer about flight in this zone? There’s a lot of exploring you can do above ground on the structures, a lot of interesting details coupled with flat areas for PvP. Folks often have running battles atop the walls. There’s nothing in here to say flight isn’t allowed, or that standing on the walls is a bad thing to do. This is a World PvP zone, where even on PvE servers people explore the terrain, make use of cover, and ambush folks mercilessly.
So why is it okay to engage other players where there is no clear path between you and them in some spots and others? What makes the platforms okay but the tops of walls not?
Here’s my biggest objection with saying that players should know the developer’s intention and use their judgement to know what is right and wrong. Sometimes, the developer’s intention clear. But when it is not, it is unfair to blame the players for misunderstanding unwritten rules. Players may get mixed signals because design goals changed mid-stream, or just because of bad design – but whatever the reason, it is clear that the No Clear Path policy in Wintergrasp directly contradicts elements of the battle itself, and saying that it’s okay in some cases because the developers intended it there is tacitly admitting that the rule is arbitrary.
Holding people to an arbitrary standard is unfair. Banning them for doing something you’ve actively encouraged is inexcusable.
THERE IS A REASON BEHIND EVERY SIGN AND RULE
Every time you see a bad sign, say on a refrigerator at the office or on the notice board at school, or run into a stupid, arbitrary rule or law, you can be assured that something prompted that sign or rule. Someone did something stupid that prompted someone else to make a rule that says you shouldn’t drink whiskey from someone else’s hat, or to put up that sign reminding folks not to eat other people’s lunches.
I think that’s the case here, with the No Clear Path rule. There are legitimate exploits that prompted Blizzard to put this rule in place, just not in Wintergrasp.
- In Goldshire, it’s possible to jump up on top of both the Inn and the Smithy, allowing players to gank lowbies with impunity. Getting to these places involves some complex jumping and there’s no clear path.
- On the Isle of Quel’Danas, attackers could get out of reach of the guards so that they could attack other players, but any retaliation would cause the guards to attack their victim instead. (I think Silithus worked like this, too.)
I’m sure there are other examples that led to this rule. In situations like Goldshire, you can see why Blizzard might step in and take action; it’s not fun, it ruins new player’s enjoyment of the game before they have really committed to it, etc.. It’s not a bad rule, per se.
It’s just that Azeroth has changed. World PvP battlegrounds like Wintergrasp are relatively new. The game changes, and rules have to adapt to those changes.
Look at the above picture of the WG heirloom vendors. The entire area is a PvP zone, a place where players try to gain every advantage when attacking other players. This place is where the most distracted players will be, as they consider how they’re going to spend their Stone Keeper’s Shards and Wintergrasp Marks of Honor. This is a target rich environment for ganking.
But if you play a ranged DPS class, don’t stand on the wall to attack, even though that’s the most advantageous spot for you to attack from, because you’ll get banned. No, the proper tactic now is to put your healer friend up on the wall and you fly down into the thick of things, which totally plays to your strengths as a ranged DPS. Don’t worry, the healer will keep you alive!
Wintergrasp is a world PvP zone with no new players. Anyone who gets here has been playing for a while and has a character who is within spitting distance of max level. Nearly everyone here can be assumed to have flying mounts, and it’s a good bet that the zone is filled with all 80s. If there’s any place in the world where World PvP can take place on equal terms, this is the place.
And yet, Blizzard is trying to apply a rule designed for other places and times here, which reveals the flaws of that rule.
ALL’S FAIR IN LOVE AND WORLD PVP
Here I am, atop the structure in the antechamber of VoA. The only way to get up here is to wait for a battle that destroys at least the top part of the chamber gates, fly in at full speed near the top, then pull up sharply. If you time it right, you’ll land right on this ring, which allows you to gank people below with minimal risk. You can be targeted pretty easily, and it’s easy to get flanked so there’s no LoS defenses, but you can cause a lot of havoc from up here.
I’m pretty sure that I shouldn’t attack people from up here. There are very specific conditions that have to be present to access this ring (gates must be open), and if you log out at the end of one battle and log in again after another one, you can be up there with no way for other players to reach you. So while the gates are down, this ring is like the walls of Wintergrasp Keep, albeit a little trickier to reach. But when they’re closed, you’re honestly inaccessible. It’s not fair to hit people from up there.
But this is world PvP. Just because you win Wintergrasp doesn’t mean you can walk in and out of it unmolested. I have heard of servers where one faction loses Wintergrasp only to successfully deny the other side access to VoA through PvP domination of the entrance. That’s pretty cool, actually; just because you lose a battle doesn’t mean you have to lose the war.
I confess, I was really disappointed when I saw the screenshot that started this post. I had hoped that Blizzard was not going to apply the same conditions to Wintergrasp that they’d imposed on Arathi Basin, that they’d recognize that part of the mechanics of the battle is making yourself unassailable on defense.
But they didn’t.
I admit, I’d rather see this rule just go away than try to salvage it. But since it does serve a purpose in other contexts, perhaps Blizzard could make some changes to take Wintergrasp into consideration.
- Don’t design new battlegrounds to use terrain exploits as part of their mechanics. Wintergrasp is now old content, but having the same behavior be okay in one place and time, and bannable in another, is confusing and demoralizing to players. Don’t give the defense this advantage in the new battlegrounds.
- Don’t enforce terrain exploitation bans in battlegrounds which do have it as part of their mechanics. Save time and money by ignoring tickets of people attacking on the walls so you can focus on other, more serious problems with your staff, like hackers using programs to automatically gather resources.
- Consider giving players more abilities to reach attackers in unusual locations. Rocket packs would be a good place to start. As used in the Gunship Battle, rocket packs give players the ability to move to unusual places while in combat. If this kind of item were made available for general use, this kind of exploit would be nearly impossible because players could always reach their attackers. Plus, rocket bears!
- Treat healing and damage the same way. Exceptions like that make no sense and lead to further exploits, like in the Gurubashi Arena.
Rewriting the policy would be another obvious step, but to be honest I don’t know how you could do it to be effective in the places you need it (Goldshire) and not where you don’t (Wintergrasp, BGs).
Blizzard considers attacking other players from a vantage point where your opponent cannot easily reach you terrain exploitation, which is a bannable offense. This rule was applied in Arathi Basin to players accessing the Stables roof, and is now being applied to players attacking other players near the Wintergrasp vendors from the top of the wall.
This rule should not apply to players in Wintergrasp for several reasons.
- Mounted players can immediately escape. Unmounted players can run back out of range of their wall-bound attacker, get out of combat, and mount a flying mount. If a player is on a flying mount, the attacker is not inaccessible.
- Wintergrasp Keep has many vantage points where opponents cannot reach defending players that are integral parts of the Battle for Wintergrasp. The gun platforms on the walls and towers, as well as the platforms surrounding the towers, give defenders the same advantage as being on top of a wall.
- Taking advantage of these terrain exploits is encouraged by the design of the Keep, as well as the tactical necessities of the battle.
- The introduction of flight back into Wintergrasp only adds to the number of vantage points where players can exploit the terrain. It does not change that terrain exploitation, as defined by this rule, is both possible and encouraged by the design of the battleground.
- If there are differences between the vantage points that make some permissible but others not, they are not obvious to players, nor are they reflected in the rules as currently understood.
While it is almost certainly impossible to change Wintergrasp so that the rule can be fairly applied at this point, I hope that Blizzard will stop enforcing it in Wintergrasp and design their future battlegrounds to not encourage behavior that can get players unwittingly banned.
I love Wintergrasp. It pains me to have to choose between playing it with all my creativity and cunning and risking a ban, or playing it safe while my opponents do not.
But banning people for playing the way the game teaches them to play is not fair.