In Zarhym’s recent foray into the PvP forums, the sentiment that low level PvP is broken in Cataclysm was voiced over, and over, and over again. The floating skull responded diplomatically:
We talked to Ghostcrawler about this yesterday. He’s well aware of this, but more importantly, he’s not very happy about it either. The class design team’s first priority is obviously balance around the end game, but absolute neglect of low-level balance isn’t okay. This is something that isn’t going to improve much in patch 4.3, but we hope to have more sound solutions coming.
I really sympathize with Zarhym here. This is not an easy topic to cover; I think the issues around low level PvP are actually more difficult to resolve than the balance problems of the endgame, because there are contradictory elements that simply cannot be reconciled – elements which do not exist at the end game.
These elements have a name. They are called new players.
And they are the reason not only why low level PvP is imbalanced, but why it should stay imbalanced.
THE PROBLEM OF LOW LEVEL PVP
It’s not enough to wring our hands and say, “low level PvP is broken.” While it may be true (and I believe it is), we have to look at the specific ways in which problems manifest in the battlegrounds.
- Classes are imbalanced. Some classes have very good burst, others do not. Some have very good defenses, others do not. Some have counters, others do not.
- Damage is very high relative to health. Characters die quickly in 1:1 situations.
- Statistics vary wildly between characters within a bracket. Whether it is due to gear, professions, or enchants, players in the very early brackets show up in a wide variety of gear that can make one character ten times more powerful than another.
- Stat scaling at low levels heightens small differences in gear. Due to rating decay, a few points in any stat will have a more dramatic impact at low levels than at higher ones.
These four interrelated problems cause lowbie PvP to appear “borked” and “broken.” I don’t like using those terms because I think that even in its current form, lowbie PvP is actually a lot of fun, both on the geared and ungeared side. But these problems combine to create strata of twinks within low level battlegrounds that can create seriously lopsided matches.
The real problem of low level PvP is that Blizzard removed one kind of twink from lowbie battlegrounds, only to have the void be filled by by another, more pernicious kind of twink:
Regular, experienced players.
LEARNING TO PLAY THE GAME
Think back to when you first started playing WoW, or your first MMO. Not just the early levels, either – the very first day.
I remember my first login, fumbling around on my MacBook’s trackpad, trying to right and left click with a single button, struggling to simply move and target. Concepts like combat stat decay and burst damage were far from my mind; I was trying to figure out how to perform the most basic functions of character control. And I struggled with it! It took me a week to get up to level 12; I didn’t even know basic MMO conventions. I didn’t get my first green piece until my second character – it was a Disciple’s Vest of the Whale, and I had no idea that green items existed before then.
I bring this up because the starting experience for a new player has a radically different set of challenges than that for an experienced player, and the game must take those into account. It must teach them basic mechanics of the game while also making them feel like they are accomplishing things. In order to retain customers, the game must reward new players and make them feel powerful and heroic – to pull them in and get them so they want to see more, to challenge them just enough so that they hit level 10 and go, WOW, this is awesome, let me keep on playing!
What Blizzard does not want to have happen is for someone to get frustrated at level 5 and walk away from the game, leaving a virtual corpse in the road outside Goldshire.
This is why characters start off with one ability and grow slowly – so players don’t get overwhelmed. This is why early abilities were substantially reworked in Cataclysm – so that each class would have just enough abilities to keep things interesting without overloading someone. It’s not just to make classes easier to learn – it’s acknowledging that new players are learning a lot of other things, too, and that low levels don’t need class complexity to make things worse.
Compare and contrast this with an experienced player, one who has learned the fundamentals of an MMO through the endgame. Zones which forgive the mistakes of someone just learning how to steer their character become trivially easy to a character who has a gaming pad and mouse set up, customizes their UI on the fly, writes attack macros as soon as they log in, knows how to pull multiple mobs, etc.. This isn’t about “catering to casuals,” however you want to take that term – this is about a real difference in skill between someone who is just picking up the game and someone who has played it for some time.
I used to think that the lower levels were easy for me because I outgeared them on my alts. I’d go roll an alt with enchants and heirlooms and stuff would die very quickly. It was only later that I realized I could do the exact same thing in starter gear and quest rewards, because I was a better player than the first time I leveled a character. Of course I should find the content easy! It’s made to be challenging to someone else, to teach them the skills which I already possess!
Think of how big this skill gap is that these early zones have to cover – be accessible enough to a completely new character, but not completely bore a veteran rolling yet another alt.
This is a fundamental truth of the lower levels which cannot be ignored when talking about low level PvP imbalance: the early game has to hook new players on the game and teach them the skills to play it. It has to be accessible to new players – not just to teach them the new skills, but to hook them on the game so they don’t go do something else! World of Warcraft has to be engaging enough through the first 20 levels that someone picking it up for the first time says, hey, this is pretty cool, it’s worth paying money to keep going.
From a business standpoint, this is a far more important priority than keeping experienced players challenged for 30 levels or so. They’ll get their challenge through other means.
Keep this in mind as you think about low level PvP, and as we dive into the math of stat scaling.
WHY THINGS ARE ALL DOWNHILL FROM LEVEL 10: THE PROBLEM OF STAT SCALING AND RATING DECAY
Most of the low level zones follow a fairly consistent character development arc. You start with trivial tasks at the very early levels, overcoming a minor obstacle by level 5 or 6, gaining experience, and overcoming a moderately difficult challenge by 10-12. By then you’re ready to move on to another zone, where the difficulty increases substantially over the next 5 levels or so, but so does the importance of the story – and the rewards. By the time you hit level 20 in that next zone, your character is authentically heroic – low level, but they’ve saved the day in a major way.
This arc is reinforced by a substantial shift in game mechanics that takes place at level 10.
I love going over at Shadowpanther.net’s formula page when trying to explain why a character at lower levels is sometimes better than one at higher levels due to stat scaling. Having each level laid out in a chart provides a better visual aid to see how ratings decay for a lot of people than mathematical formulas.
If you haven’t read these kinds of charts before, the first seven columns go over how much of each combat stat you need for 1% of the value; so if the Crit column in the level 19 row says 2.94, that means you need 2.94 Crit to equal 1%. (3 Crit rating is therefore 1.02% at 19.) The rest of the table relates to a very specific Rogue (and Hunter) stat called AEP, which isn’t relevant to our discussion here.
The Shadowpanther chart helps illustrate how stat scaling works. The more you level, the more value of a particular stat you need to get 1% of it. You need more stuff on your gear as you level in order to maintain a certain level of power. You can think of it as gear getting weaker as you level, if you like, or of driving you to acquire better gear to stay in good form.
Where stat scaling gets interesting is in the really low levels. Look at levels 1-10. There is no change in stat scaling in those first 10 levels – 1 point of Crit will get you 1.85% increased critical strike chance. There’s no gear decay at all until you reach level 11 – when suddenly, stats start to drop off pretty quickly.
Let’s go back to the initial character development arc again, but this time, looking at stat scaling.
From 1-10, characters get increasingly more powerful as they level. They gain primary statistics at each level that apply linearly; if you gain 5 of your primary statistic, you get the full benefit of that 5 points. This happens with or without good gear, mind you – because combat statistics are flat, the more you gain, the better your character becomes.
This increase has a deliberate, positive psychological effect on players. People feel like they’re getting more powerful as they level – because they are. This is much like a traditional RPG, where a level 5 character is substantially more powerful than a level 1 – it’s an entirely different ballgame. Challenges have to be adjusted for the fact that you’re now a badass. That can be pretty cool.
Magical gear and enchants function in a linear fashion with this model. Just like in AD&D, a +1 Sword in the hands of a level 1 character functions exactly the same as in a level 10 character. It increases the chance to hit and damage the same amount. The damage might be a lower percentage of the higher level character’s overall damage, but that’s a function of them doing more damage overall. The gear remains unchanged.
Let’s translate this idea into WoW: let’s say a piece of gear gives you +3 Haste, which (for example’s sake) gives you +1% Haste at level 1, and at level 80, and at level 85. The more you level, the better gear you gain, the better your stats get. You could wear your level 70 gear and be just as effective at level 85 as you were at 70 – more so, since your base statistics have improved! Perhaps your linear stats (like Stamina and Mana) are lacking, but your gear is as effective as it was when you raided in Burning Crusade! It would make for a very different kind of game, since once you reached a certain level of power on your gear, it would be sufficient to handle most challenges in the game – but that would eliminate the idea of a gear tier, where it gets progressively more powerful.
For the first 10 levels your character gains in power, drawing you in, making you feel like yeah, I’m getting good at this!
Starting at level 11, linear scaling goes completely out the window, and rating decay sets in.
Starting at level 11, characters get decreasingly more powerful as they level due to stat scaling. At some point, they actually get weaker as a result of rating decay, as each point of a statistic they get by leveling counts for less than it used to. Gear becomes required to start making up the difference.
Look at the charts again. See how all the stats (other than Resilience) start going down in potency at level 11? That’s rating decay in action. Each point of a rating contributes less actual impact the more you level.
During the normal questing arc, this change is ideally hidden by moving to a new, more challenging zone. Things feel tougher in the second zone because they are tougher – but it’s not just because the opponents are tougher. You’re getting progressively weaker as you level, at least until you start getting gear to help make up the difference – and even then, you never really go back to the great scaling you enjoyed at level 10.
The story arc carries you towards a heroic achievement at level 20 at the same time game mechanics make you less potent. In a way, it makes a lot of sense to increase the overall difficulty of the game at this point for new players – but instead of making the mobs substantially more difficult, WoW makes PCs weaker and more dependent upon gear. This bait-and-switch works because it prepares players for the rest of the game, where they will be acquiring increasingly powerful gear to overcome more powerful challenges. The challenges are harder, but characters don’t get any more efficient from their improvements. The damage numbers are just bigger. The mana pools are bigger – but so are the spell costs. You’re not actually any faster or more accurate. You’re not more skilled, you just have bigger numbers.
This ties in directly to the first symptom most people point to when talking about low level PvP’s problems: gear.
THE PROBLEM OF GEAR AND ENCHANTS
Heirloom gear and enchants represent two sides of the same problem – adding stats where new players lack them. They are both fundamentally unbalancing because the early leveling game is balanced for new players who lack those stats, not for experienced players with them. By walking into one of the 1-20 zones with anything other than quest rewards, you’re overgearing the content.
Generally speaking, that means the content is geared for:
- Mostly whites through level 10-12
- Whites and greens through level 15
- Greens and maybe 1-2 blues by level 20
Keep in mind that many slots will not be filled either, even by white gear, so you’ll be missing a head, neck, 2 rings, 2 trinkets, and maybe a ranged slot.
The obvious problem is that there are players who have gear with stats in slots where other players don’t. It doesn’t take long to figure out that someone in blues versus someone in whites is imbalanced. And that is absolutely true: better gear increases the amount of damage, healing, and health available to low level characters.
But the unseen problem is that, even with rating decay, gear scales better at lower levels. That scaling curve makes small differences much more prominent at levels 11-20 than at 40-60. It’s not just that gear grants more spellpower, attack power, or stamina – it’s that it grants more Haste, more Dodge, more Crit than it will at later levels. Heirloom gear is better gear at level 10 and 19 than at 35.
But wait; enchants are even worse.
I’ve maintained that enchants outperform heirlooms in terms of raw power, but they’re even more potent at lower levels because of stat scaling. Keep in mind that many of these enchants were to be used at level 60 for raiding, and are not scaled for the leveling game. So an enchant like +15 Agility is pretty good at level 55, but it’s amazing at level 10. With the right combination of enchants, you can approach 100% Crit, Dodge, even Haste (Iron Counterweights FTW)!
But only for levels 1-10. After that point, stat decay kicks in, but vanilla enchants remain overpowered for the early brackets (up to 20-24, at least.)
Consider that you can have two rogues in the 10-14 bracket, and one could have 10x as much Agility as the other. Ten times as much.
And that Agility is giving more Dodge and Crit than at any other point in the game.
Let that sink in for a bit.
You have experienced players with access to gear through heirlooms, professions, and the AH. They can get great enchants which are at the peak of their potency in the early brackets. They have access to consumables (scrolls, rum, buff food) that new players don’t.
And they are playing the same game with players who are over the moon about a blue cloak with +4 of their primary stat on it.
I don’t see any potential problems with this in PvP. Nope.
THE PROBLEM OF CLASS BALANCE
You know, the gear problem is actually probably the easiest problem to solve with respect to low level PvP. Modifying the BG matching algorithm to filter based on an aggregate gear score – be it item level, total attack power/spell power, things like that – would be hard to implement, easy to work around, but conceptually it could work.
Class balance is a much harder problem to deal with at low levels.
Cataclysm brought with it a complete reworking of how abilities were learned by classes. A few gained some abilities early on, but many abilities were moved to later. Most AoE abilities were moved up to at least level 20. And Talent Specialization at level 10 granted some new abilities, but at the cost of a more flexible playstyle. I once wrote in Wrath that I needed to think of myself as a Mage, not a Frost Mage. Now I have to think like a Frost Mage – only lacking a lot of the tools of one.
The abilities at lower levels always present people with a challenge. Things are so basic and elementary at low levels. You have some of your core abilities, but not all of them. You don’t have many things that work together. Very few classes have counters, and those that do are OP.
The decision to move abilities around was entirely driven by making a class easier to learn for new players and for players new to the class. The first 5 levels are very basic, with abilities coming at a relatively steady, bearable clip. (The only class where I feel like you get too much at once is Druid because of Cat form at level 8.) The first 20 levels see a lot of abilities get introduced to a character – but not all abilities are equal, or are granted at the same time. And that’s not a bad thing, for leveling! Druids having Cat form at level 8 is honestly good for their leveling!
But how do you propose to balance this?
Look at the level 10-14 bracket and what different classes gain. Warriors gain Taunt at 12 and Heroic Strike at 14. Warlocks gain Bane of Agony at 12 and Fear at 14. Hunters gain Wing Clip at 12 and Hunter’s Mark & Disengage at 14.
- Warriors get basically one attack which replaces an attack they already have (Strike).
- Warlocks get an instant cast DoT (dramatically improving their damage output) and the best PvP CC in the game.
- Hunters get two different escape methods: a snare and a leap. Both of those can’t be countered at this level by melee classes. They also get an attack buff.
There are two points here.
First, each class changes between the bottom and top of the low level brackets. In most cases, these are important abilities that get picked up in the early levels.
Second, each class changes differently. Warriors are actually becoming excellent lowbie tanks, while Hunters are picking up skills to make them great in PvP.
Third, many abilities have counters later on – but not yet. Warlocks might have a reliable escape from melee – but it comes at level 80. Warriors get gap closers – but at level 35. Counters add a lot of complexity to a class that, frankly, a new player isn’t ready for, and many experienced players who are new to the class aren’t ready for, either.
This isn’t a case of simple DPS balancing, of tweaking damage output to bring classes in line with each other. Each change made for PvP has to be considered in the context of a specific bracket, not “low level PvP.” What will it do at 10-14, 15-19, 20-24? More importantly, what will it do to the leveling experience? Will it give players too many buttons to push too soon?
Here’s the thing – when you take away gear as a factor, like in the xp-off bracket, you still see differences between class performance in both PvP and PvE. This is true at level 10, it’s true at level 70, and it’s true all the way up to level 85. Level 85 is where it’s the most balanced, not only because that’s where the majority of the players play, but because that’s where class toolkits are complete.
If you ask me who you should play in low level PvP, my standard response is to play what you enjoy playing, because then you’ll have fun. But secretly, I keep a list.
(I know, you’re shocked, shocked I say.)
You want to be OP under level 25? Play a Hunter, a Sub Rogue, Arcane Mage (Frost is also good at 19), Disc Priest, or Resto Shammy.
Consider what is really being asked for when people want class balance throughout the leveling experience: please balance 30 specs across 15 brackets in addition to the endgame. That’s 450 different class/spec/level combinations to balance against each other at 15 different points.
Oh, with no real standard of gear.
And make sure it’s balanced for PvP and PvE, too. Don’t screw up the leveling curve and cause players to get overwhelmed.
And don’t forget that you have to keep the endgame balanced, too.
See where this is going?
I’m not saying that classes shouldn’t be roughly balanced – they should, and this is where homogenization comes in handy. And this is a real problem in low level PvP – some classes are just not very good at certain points, even with the best gear you can get on them. I don’t PvP on my level 19 Warrior twink anymore, it’s too damn hard to be successful.
But blanket calls to fix class balance at low levels have to consider the context of that balance, and why it’s not as simple to implement as it is to ask for.
LOW LEVEL UTOPIA, OR THE PROBLEM OF EXPERIENCED PLAYERS
When you combine aggressively scaled statistics, rewards for experienced players that allow them to easily and consistently overgear early content, and a redesigned leveling program which spreads class abilities further along the leveling curve, and then toss that mixture into the early part of a game designed for new players, you get a highly combustible mixture.
Sending it in to Warsong Gulch at level 10 makes it explosive.
The complaints about low level PvP are valid enough – burst damage is too high. Some classes lack any real PvP defenses. Other classes and races may have abilities which are perfectly suited to PvP.
But… these problems have always been there, in the lower brackets, in the higher brackets, pretty much everywhere in Warcraft.
It’s interesting that these complaints are so rampant now, in Cataclysm, when there were periods in Warcraft’s history when low level PvP was far more hostile to new players.
Before the split brackets, before xp-locked brackets, before heirlooms, there were twinks. Twinks ruled low level PvP with an iron fist. They weren’t kind or gracious about it – they were as good as they could be, they played to win against the other twinks, and if you got in their way as a new player you were going to get steamrolled.
It was not balanced. It was not fair. It was not a good experience for new players, to be sure. And twinks were reviled for it, but they had unapologetic fun on their own terms.
With 3.2, battleground XP, and the creation of the xp-off battleground bracket, twinks were moved away from new players and given their own playground. Battlegrounds became a place not to perfect your craft and your self, but rather part of the leveling experience.
And that, right there, is where the current problems started. Not with heirlooms, but with adding experience to battlegrounds.
The promise of twink-free BGs was a heady one. I remember the excitement of those first months when people flooded into BGs to level through PvP. And it’s remained great – being able to mix up PvP with dungeons and questing keeps leveling fresh and exciting. It lets you avoid Outland or Northrend entirely, if you’re burned out on those expansions.
But with experience came the expectation that leveling through PvP should be fair(er).That by removing the twinks, the leveling brackets were now safe places to go with undergeared characters or new players. They weren’t, of course, but as long as the gear difference between characters wasn’t too extreme, the brackets weren’t too out of whack. And that was actually what happened, since those BGs were for leveling, people didn’t stop to get great gear and PvP – they came in the gear they had.
And then came heirlooms.
Heirlooms allowed players to outgear their opponents right from the beginning in PvP, and as more heirlooms have been added, the problem has gotten worse. While enchants are actually more imbalancing than heirlooms, most players aren’t willing to blow 500g on a glove enchant for an alt. (Heirlooms are vastly more popular than Hand Me Downs, so they get the blame for this one.)
Heirlooms gave early PvP levelers the edge they needed to be really good in PvP, to the point where they could dominate (and level faster.) Others noticed this, and got BoA gear too, and Heirlooms are now a really good idea if you want to level through PvP from 10-60. A new twink class was born: experienced players.
Instead of the PvP utopia that removing the twinks and granting XP was supposed to create, the exact same conditions prevailed.
The only difference was that now there was an expectation that new players could participate in low level PvP, that you could go in without putting a lot of work into your gear and still be successful.
The expectation might be there, even if the reality doesn’t match it.
Oh! And that the people who formerly decried twinks had become them. Let’s not forget that.
But PvP in Warcraft hasn’t changed. It has been, and always will be, very dependent upon gear. If you have better gear, you will do better. It’s also very class dependent; certain classes will do better at certain points than others.
Can low level PvP be improved? Absolutely. There are class tweaks that can be made to help both with leveling and PvP – Destro Warlocks getting Soul Fire at level 20 was a good example of this.
But even if you can fix some of the class balance issues, you will still have to contend with the very brutal fact that there will always be a great disparity between new and experienced players. As long as you have PvP as a viable leveling option, there will be wildly different gear levels between players.
Balancing low level PvP makes the endgame balancing act look easy.