Tag Archives: Essays

On Faction Imbalance in Random Battleground Populations

Cynewise - Arathi Basin Farm

The fantasy of Warcraft battlegrounds is that there are two relatively equal sides to the conflict. This isn’t just a fantasy that is pushed thematically, through lore and storytelling. This is an idea that is promulgated through the structure of random battlegrounds themselves, through the random queue mechanism that promises a similar experience to all players, no matter what faction their characters are.

However, this fantasy is false. It’s not false because of story or lore, but rather because of the interplay between three factors: 1) experience and gear providing advantages in PvP, 2) the random matchmaking mechanic itself, and 3) the separation of the pool of players into two teams.

Under the current system, faction imbalance in random battlegrounds is inevitable and leads to negative player experiences on both sides.

Let’s look at why.

THE IDEAL SYSTEM

The core idea of random matchmaking for games is: given a large enough pool of players and a large enough number of games, any given match will be equal. You should have approximately the same ratio of inexperienced to experienced players on each team, an equal distribution of gear. The goal is to allow individual performance to dictate the outcome.

In an ideal world, it looks like this:

Faction Imbalance - Figure 1

The above picture represents the overall pool of players for random matches.

The first factor that we have to account for is that gear (on a character) and experience (of a player) both influence the success of a game. Gear is a fundamental aspect of World of Warcraft that affects a character’s ability, and in PvP it is acquired through experience. I’ve represented the combination of player experience and character gear through the relative size of the dots above – the larger the dot, the more influence that player can exert through a combination of experience and gear.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 2.png

The random battleground mechanic is the next component to consider. At any given time, a group will be drawn from these pools of potential players.

When the system is at equilibrium, the queue times on both sides will be the same and the total area of all dots selected will be equal. Some flux is expected due to random selection of players, but over time the result should be solid queues and a 50/50 split in wins.

At this point we have the ideal state of random matchmaking.

Now let’s introduce faction into the population.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 3

Now there are two pools. There’s limited fluidity between the pool – a player can choose to take their dot and go to the other side, either by rerolling (with a smaller dot) or faction changing (with the same size dot) – but that’s limited by the barriers of time (leveling) or money (faction change fees). So we’ll assume resistance to change within the pools unless there’s a reason to change.

Ideally, faction shouldn’t matter. But by splitting the source population in two, it creates a situation where not only is equilibrium impossible to achieve, it becomes something players rationally choose to avoid, creating bad experiences on both teams.

INTRODUCING IMBALANCE TO THE SYSTEM

The key to making the above system work is that the two pools that feed the teams in matches need to be equal. Any imbalance between the two affects the teams in a match, which in turn introduces a feedback loop into the population pools. Over time, small imbalances become magnified until the system stops working.

I’m going to assume just two things here.

1) The perception of an imbalance is more influential than the actual imbalance. Players only respond to imbalances that they perceive, through experience or communication with other players.

2) Experienced players are more likely to respond to imbalances than novice players. New players have not yet been exposed to the imbalance, and the chance that a player will respond to an imbalance increases over time.

Let’s start off with a simple case: the perception that one faction is better at PvP.

CASE 1: THEY’RE THE BETTER TEAM

It doesn’t matter how this idea originates. This could be through an early legitimate imbalance in a smaller population. It could be through a bad sample. It could be through some vocal members of the community repeating it. It doesn’t matter if the seed is real or not – all that matters is that players believe it.

If one faction is perceived to be better than the other, we should observe a slight shift of experienced players to that side.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 4

Once this happens, a feedback loop starts with the matchmaking algorithm.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 5

What might have started as a rumor now has evidence behind it, as the matches skew slightly in one team’s favor. As players grow in experience, they slowly react to this imbalance rationally.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 6

The players on the losing team evaluate their performance over time and consider that maybe the other faction is better. Their experience is that they lose more than normal, that the other team just does a better job. The pressure to investigate the other side increases.

The players on the winning team feel far less pressure to change sides. Matches become progressively easier as more and more big dots join their pool. Why stop when you’re winning?

Queue times are also affected in this scenario. One side will have a larger pool of interested players than the other, resulting in long wait times for the perceived ‘better’ faction, and nearly instant queues for the ‘weaker’ faction. This amplifies the feedback loop and introduces the negative experience to the stronger faction.

Long wait times but higher chance to win, or fast queues for a probable defeat? Those are the choices you have when one faction is perceived to be better than the other.

CASE 2: THE STREAMS THAT FEED THE POOL

Let’s go back to our original state of equilibrium and look at a different variable – new players.

Player population is never static over time – people pick up and put down Warcraft all the time. A certain amount of churn – loss of experienced players – is expected within the pools as players either stop participating in PvP or stop playing Warcraft entirely. Churn is offset by new players joining the pool, either new subscribers or experienced players who are trying PvP for the first time.

So here’s another assumption: dots of all sizes can drop out of the pool, but only small dots join the pool.

Because of the gear structure and scaling present in instanced PvP, no player can start out as a really big dot. They might be a great player with experience in the class, but even with the best heroic raid gear the character will be undergeared for PvP. Best case: an experienced player with great PvE gear tries PVP and enters as a medium dot. That’s pretty rare, so we’ll assume only small dots enter the pool.

In a state of equilibrium each faction will have equivalent churn and growth rates, resulting in equal-sized pools. If one side churns or grows faster, imbalance will be introduced.

Let’s say that one side is slightly more popular than the other. Not popular in PvP, but overall more popular with the entire player base.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 7

Over time, one pool will get bigger than the other – but not necessarily any better. The ratio of small dots to big dots is maintained over time as players improve and gear up. As long as the flow is consistent, equilibrium is not disturbed by overall faction imbalance. That’s great!

But what about when you have events which disrupt that flow?

Faction Imbalance - Figure 8

The more popular side finds itself at a temporary disadvantage. More small dots entered their pool than the the other side, yet there hasn’t been any time for them to mature into big dots. The numerator of big dots hasn’t changed, while the denominator of little dots has gotten bigger.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 9

Ironically, an influx of undergeared toons affects the more popular faction more adversely than the unpopular faction. Team quality declines on the popular faction, causing more losses. More losses means more churn as new and old players alike get frustrated.

Conversely, the unpopular faction weathers the influx better and their small dots grow and mature in a victorious environment. The popular side has a double whammy of initial frustration with their teammates followed by better-geared opponents.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 10

And that brings us back to Case 1’s feedback loop.

Faction Imbalance - Realmpop, US Faction BalanceI’ll just leave this here with a note that undergeared, inexperienced boosted level 90s are about the smallest dots you can represent on these graphs.

CASE 3: BETTER GEAR

World of Warcraft is a game of gear acquisition. Even with the experiments with uniform gear scaling in Mists of Pandaria (Challenge Modes, Proving Grounds), there’s no indication that random PvP will move to an entirely uniform set of gear across players.

So what happens when one side has an advantage in gear acquisition?

PvP gear is generally acquired through three methods: crafting, honor points, and conquest points. Everyone has access to crafted gear, honor gear is available through both random and non-random BGs, and conquest is available from random BGs and rated PvP play.

There’s no immediate faction advantage with the above gearing strategy, especially not from a state of equilibrium. If everyone starts off equal, with the same access to gearing opportunities, there won’t be a problem. But as soon as a problem is introduced, the gear system throws another wrench into the works.

The key is the rewards for winning a random battleground.

Over time, the faction which dominates the random BG queue will acquire more Honor and Conquest than the side which does not. Rated play is essentially factionless, as is crafting – so those two methods are effectively a wash. But control of the random BG reward allows that subset of players who don’t do much rated play to gear up faster than their opponents.

In the dot model I’m working with here, the really big dots get big at the same rate no matter what, but the small and medium dots grow into bigger dots at a faster rate, causing a feedback loop independent of faction changes.

In the North American servers, we see an additional layer of complexity to this problem. Alliance PvPers dominate only the two largest BGs – AV and IoC. Horde dominates the random queues. Alliance PvPers therefore queue specifically for those two BGs (and ONLY those two) so they can gain some honor with a victory, and those BGs reward a lot of honor anyways. The Horde is able to queue for random BGs specifically excluding those two maps, therefore ensuring both that they’ll both gain better gear faster and that the Alliance will continue to dominate those maps. The only reason to venture into AV or IoC as NA Horde is for achievements.

My understanding is that the situation is reversed in the EU, but ultimately it doesn’t matter which side is on top. Both sides suffer because of the feedback loops introduced by gearing strategies.

I should note that the current PvP gear system at endgame is an improvement over previous seasons and twink brackets, when individual items could enter imperfectly into a faction and tip the balance quickly. The level 85 twink bracket experienced an influx of 3 Lute of the Sun-Kings from the BMAH in 5.2, causing a dramatic increase in the relative power of the side which possessed them. This, in turn, caused the opposing team’s twinks to abandon the bracket, which destroyed the competitiveness of the bracket.

I mention the fate of that bracket only as a cautionary tale.

The Hooded Monk - Cynwiser - S14

SOLVING THE PROBLEM

There are a few different ways to address the imbalances caused by faction in random BG matchmaking. Some work better than others.

1) Remove gear as a factor entirely. This leaves experience as the only determining factor between teams. It reduces the impact of new players joining, but doesn’t address the perceived imbalance between factions, which is the more pernicious long-term problem. Also it runs completely counter to the core idea of Warcraft.

Since this is offered as a solution a lot, I think it’s worth pointing out that while eliminating gear as a factor in PvP would fix some problems (mostly with class balance), it won’t address faction imbalance. Players will still gravitate to the perceived better faction.

2) Remove the bonus for random battleground wins. This has several drawbacks, most notably that it reduces the overall pool of players for BGs. It also only stops the gearing feedback loop (case 3), and doesn’t address anything about cases 1 or 2. Ineffective and possibly counterproductive.

3) Allow players to group cross-faction. I’ve been a strong advocate of this for rated play – let me do Arenas and RBGs with my opposite faction friends, already, no one cares about faction in rated play! – but for unrated random battlegrounds, it’s actually counterproductive to solving faction imbalance! This removes the obstacles for faction switching AND puts you in a premade group within a match, further skewing the results. Experienced players on the weaker side would just jump into groups on the stronger side, resulting in further domination.

(I still think this needs to happen for rated play, but that’s a different discussion.)

4) Eliminate factions entirely from the matchmaking algorithm. The implementation of this could include giving players the appearance of the opposite faction or not, but completely removing faction from random selection solves the problem completely. With no perceived faction advantage, players will no longer migrate. Queues become optimized and extremely fast. Best of all, matches become random again. You can enforce rules like role selection (X number of healers per side) and gear logic because your pool is doubled in size.

This is a massive paradigm shift and runs counter to the idea that Warcraft is a game of factional combat. Adding options like “queue as mercenary” help address this somewhat, but not completely, since the population will still be segregated into non-random sets.

5) Rig the system. Give the weaker side a behind-the-scenes buff to their abilities. Use real-time data to see what a faction’s overall performance has been and calculate buffs to tip the scales back to equal. Perhaps this is dynamic scaling instead of flat scaling – one side might scale up to 510 while the other scales up to 504.

This is hard to implement right. It adds in another level of variability and addresses some of the weaknesses of case 1, all of the issues of cases 2 and 3, but it’s a tremendous amount of effort to get in place and will require maintenance and constant tweaking. The best system is one that self-adjusts, but that requires time and development resources which could be spent on new content.

6) Bribe players on the weaker side. A CTA-style bribe bag (like is offered to tanks and healers to queue for heroics) doesn’t incent good players to queue on the weaker side – and the weaker side already has a surplus of players. Any solution needs to get the good players off of one side and onto the other in a completely random fashion, and bribe bags actively work against that.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 2.png

My personal opinion is that the correct solution is to get rid of factions entirely from the random matchmaker. Every other solution keeps some type of imbalance which will inevitably cause a feedback loop to skew the balance one way or the other. Eliminating factions brings queue times back down while equalizing opportunity for victory. It solves the major complaints of both sides of the faction divide.

This solution will not be popular with many parts of the playerbase, entirely for thematic reasons. I get that. For the NA region it means Horde players win less often (but have shorter queues) and Alliance players win more (but give up dominance of the PvEvP battlegrounds.)

Making the game more fair isn’t going to make everyone happy – everyone loses something.

But until the mechanics of random battlegrounds change, dramatic faction imbalance is not just a possibility – it’s inevitable.

—-

If you like this kind of analysis and think you could use someone like me on your team, drop me a line. I am a kickass IT professional with an emotional need for thorough analysis, and I’m recently unemployed. My brain is for hire. :)

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On the Tyranny of Classes

I know I’ve said this a few times before, but it’s still strange to me, as a traditional RPG player, to be faced with the limitations of MMORPGs. In many ways these are two radically different mindsets that share the same type of setting and gameplay elements; the entire concept of and RPG character is flipped on its head for MMOs, especially WoW.

There are traits I’d consider immutable for an RPG character: race, gender, appearance, identity. (It’s not that they absolutely can’t be changed, but that they are beyond the normal magic/technology of a fantasy setting. You need strong magic to make this happen.) There are other traits which can be changed over time – professions, proficiencies, even classes (depending on your RPG engine of choice, of course.) Who your character is takes precedence over what they do, and – just like in the real world – they can change what they do, learn new things, take their own path.

World of Warcraft turns my expectation upside down. The only thing about a character that can’t be changed is their class; everything else is up for discussion. Who they are matters not at all; what they do is the important thing. My druid has gone from a female night elf to a male tauren and back again, all without ill effects in Warcraft – but there’s no plausible way for this to have happened. That’s okay! Not everything needs to make sense when talking about class mechanics. But it’s weird. It’s weird to think that that kind of radical character transformation is possible, but a warrior can’t become a paladin (or vice-versa). A Highborne mage can’t find the ways of Elune and become a druid; a disaffected mage can’t become a warlock.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this again while playing Cynwise, my warlock main whom I discarded about a year ago. Seemingly like a lot of folks, the effect of Decline and Fall on me was to pick up my warlock again and start playing her. At first it was to check things for accuracy, then it was to see LFR and Deathwing. After that I started PvPing again, first to get the Cataclysmic Gladiator’s Felweave outfit, then because I realized that now is a great time to work on Battlemaster. I’m having a mixed time playing her; there are times I enjoy it a lot, and other times I find it frustrating and absolutely no fun at all.

But she’s the closest one I have towards that goal, my only real vehicle in the endgame, and if I am going to be PvPing I may as well be working towards some goal. I enjoy it well enough most days.

It’s not the comeback I was hoping for, but it’s at least a quiet return.

CHANGING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAME

One rather important development that’s happened in the past month has been the announcement of account-wide achievements in Mists of Pandaria. Basically, most achievements will now be applied across all your characters, so if you Explore Mulgore on one toon, you’ll get that achievement on all of them. Meta-achievements will roll up the accumulated achievements of your characters, so if you have done all the quests in Kalimdor, but not all on the same toon, you’ll get it across all the toons. Some achievements are going to roll up your totals across characters – honorable kills for the Bloodthirsty achievement, for example – but details of which and what are sparse.

This is a cool thing. As I come out of my data-induced warlock stupor I like it more and more, even without the details which would help me answer questions like:

  • Will accumulated wins contribute to the Veteran achievements of specific battlegrounds? I have 80 WSG wins on Cynwise, but 253 on my extant toons. Will victories be rolled up into a single total like Honorable Kills, or not?
  • Will the individual BG Master achievements be treated as meta-achievements? I have almost everything for Master of Arathi Basin on Cynwise except Resilient Victory, which I have on Cynwulf. How will this work?
  • Will PvP reputation be additive? I am about halfway through the absolutely brutal and ever-worsening Justicar grind on Cynwise; will the rep I earn on other characters apply? I’ve played in 522 WSGs and 410 ABs on my non-deleted toons, but only 202/234 with Cynwise. Will reputation across toons be added like HKs?
  • Will Battlemaster even be a Meta-achievement? There are no guarantees here! Things change in development. Some metas may get left out due to coding constraints; others due to policy discussions. To preserve prestige, Battlemaster might be deemed an achievement which needs to be done on a single toon, perhaps like the Insane.

The old advice is to not count your chickens before they hatch, and that applies as much to software as it does to poultry. It’s interesting to speculate about account-wide achievements, but I’m having a tough time convincing myself that they’re going to be there, and that if they’re included at launch they’re going to work all in my favor.

I mean, the idea is great. The idea is awesome! Quoting Greg Street from his post announcing the change:

Overall, we never want you to play Character A instead of Character B because of achievement concerns. If Character A had the Violet Proto-Drake, then you might not play Character B. If Character A was only one holiday away from the Violet Proto-Drake, then you may not play Character B. If Character A had completed most of the raid achievements from Dragon Soul, you may not want to bring Character B for one fight and miss out on the achievement. Having alts is cool and working on achievements is cool, but we don’t want the two systems to work against each other.

I like this direction a lot. Play who you like, in the situations you like, and it all counts. Which toon you play – which class you play – doesn’t matter anymore. So many achievements I work on that I’m like, this doesn’t need to be done on Cynwise. Some I can motivate myself to do – cooking and fishing dailies, since she’s Chef Salty Cynwise. Others – Loremaster – I just look at and go, I would get so much more benefit from leveling an alt through that zone than taking an 85 there. This change is so, so very welcome from that standpoint.

But the implementation of something this complex causes me concern. There are caveats, and gotchas, and corner cases; I’m just wary. I want to see it in action, on live, before I let myself relax and go, yes, this will be okay.

See, it comes back to the immutability of classes in WoW, and the experience of Warlocks in Cataclysm.

TRAPPED BY A CLASS

What do you do when you decide a class isn’t right for you?

I think the answer to this is heavily dependent upon how long you’ve played Warcraft. When I’d been playing for a few weeks and I didn’t like playing my Paladin, deleting him was no big deal. There was no commitment to the character besides a fondness for the name.

But as characters grow, and level, and become a player’s main character, that kind of abandonment becomes more difficult. That character accumulates stuff; not just levels and gear (though don’t discount them!), they get pets, awards, titles, achievements, mounts. They have experiences and start forming part of our amorphous digital identity. They get reputations in game, and with guilds, and with real people. Their UI gets customized, their abilities get internalized, their macros get fine-tuned. It’s progressively harder to say, eh, fuck it, I’m going to switch and play something else. It can be done! But it gets harder than ditching a level 46 character.

Players I know who have switched mains for raiding or PvP seem to go through certain stages of anguish over this. Every time someone drops a pure DPS to tank or heal, it’s always emotionally complicated. The player is experiencing the content, but not necessarily on the character they’d like the experience on. Or they enjoy the class they’re playing on but it’s not their main. Sometimes it works out well – the new class is a better fit than the old one – but even then there are questions of discarded mains, of emotional attachments which need to be resolved. Rerolling is a tough step to take.

Changing for the need of the group is at least voluntary – players can at least take a stand and say, no, I’m a Hunter, take me as I am or else – while changes to the class are more pernicious. What do you do when your class changes underneath you to the point where you don’t enjoy it anymore? This happens to many classes between expansions, but it can also happen in the middle of them.

I think that when this happens to players it’s a very dangerous thing for player retention. When a player is forced to choose between playing a class they don’t enjoy (to achieve their in-game goals) and one they do (but doesn’t contribute to those goals), a crisis is created. Play the game in a way you don’t like to get what you want – or play in a way you like but not get the rewards. This is a no-win situation for the player.

Furthermore, this crisis removes the incentive to keep playing the game at all, which makes it a problem for Blizzard. If the options are:

  • Don’t have fun + get what you want
  • Have fun + don’t get what you want

Players will rightly say, why should I play this game? They may be able to force themselves to do it for a while, but eventually fatigue will win out.

I call this getting trapped by your class. You want to play something else, but don’t want to not be playing your main. Or you go and play something else, but regret leaving your main behind. Whenever I hit a BG on my warlock and there are no healers, I’m immediately sad panda because I would rather be playing a healer. Give me a healing spec, even a shitty one, and I will be all over it in PvP.

But now that I’ve started working on Cynwise again, and she’s so damn close to so many of those Battlemaster/Justicar achievements, it seems a real shame not to at least make the attempt.

RELEASE FROM BONDAGE

I still wonder what it would be like to have class changes in World of Warcraft.

I’m sure that technically, a class change is more complicated than a race change, and probably more complicated than a faction change. There are quests that need to be checked, abilities which need to be reassigned, mounts which need to be modified.

I think gear is probably the easiest thing to consider. If I wanted Cynwise to have a radical transformation and become a Paladin, for instance, I can see Blizzard saying that she shouldn’t be able to wear Warlock tier sets anymore. This should be simple, because the class restrictions on the class-specific gear would go into effect as soon as the class transfer took place, leaving players with the daunting task of both gearing up with the new class tier, while trying to juggle bank space in case they ever changed their mind and wanted to go back.

But is there a compelling reason to not allow class changes in WoW?

Say there’s a concern about people changing classes too often to suit the needs of a patch. Put a 30-day CD on it, but also use class change data to track population and identify balance issues with the class. If Shadow Priest DPS is off the charts, or a specific tank performs really well in a given tier – and everyone changes to take advantage, that’s 1) revenue for Blizzard and 2) an indication that that spec needs tuning. Migratory data would actually be a net positive.

I suppose that one advantage of account-wide achievements is that low-level characters can contribute. In a way, this provides a way to “delevel” your characters – you can have different characters twinked at different levels to play in certain brackets, at-level content, or to play with friends. That’s something to consider in favor of achievements.

While I like the idea of account-wide achievements, I can’t help wonder what would have happened if Blizzard went a different way and considered allowing class changes. Changes would end class tyranny but preserve the uniqueness of a character, of feeling that you really have done it all on one toon.

And they would generate a huge amount of class migration data. That kind of shit would be analyst porn.

Account-wide achievements need to be fairly seamless – and include reputation and other earned currencies – to match a class change.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll take ‘em, and gladly. If account-wide achievements been in place during Cataclysm I think subscriber numbers would look better – if nothing else, the trapped by a class crisis could have been avoided.

But don’t forget about the benefits of class changes, either. It’s a conspicuous hole in WoW’s polished portfolio.

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On Headshots and Dynamic Content

I used to spend a lot of time designing RPG systems with my friends. This hobby was born out of both frustration with the existing systems we had for various genres (so close! yet so far away!) and a genuine enjoyment in tinkering with games. We’d write up a set of rules, run a few play tests, tweak, and repeat the process. Sometimes we’d move the system we came up with over to different genres and see how it fared; other times we’d try completely off the wall ideas and just see what worked.

One of the questions we always asked was how to deal with the gun-at-the-head problem. This is a simple problem to phrase, but not always simple to answer within a RPG:

What happens if you put a gun to a PC’s head and pull the trigger?

The very first RPG systems, based around miniature gaming, didn’t deal well with this kind of question. If you took a sword to someone, the rules stated they did a certain amount of damage. If the person had more hit points than the weapon could do, they would survive. As characters gained hit points, the percentage loss fell, making them effectively invulnerable to a single attack, no matter how it was presented. It doesn’t matter where you hit them or how you hit them.

Much of this problem was ameliorated by having a reasonable game master, of course, but it exposes a fundamental problem with the concept of increasing health in a game and realism versus gameplay. Realistically, human beings can get one-shot by all sorts of things – falling pianos, automobiles, knives, guns, poison, elevator shafts (only on soap operas, though) – without adding fantastic elements into it like dragons and spaceships and aliens and mutant radioactive cowboys. But within the context of a heroic game of any kind, we have to suspend realism – a bit – and make up the concept of being able to handle those kinds of events.

The great thing about RPGs is that there’s no right answer here to how you proceed with this suspension disbelief – it all depends on the game you want to play. AD&D explained Hit Points as a combination of many different survival factors – luck, ability to avoid blows, skill in defense, maybe magical defenses – that allowed for characters to fight dragons and survive. Twilight 2000 took a far more realistic (and fatal for PC) approach, with detailed combat hit tables that could spell a head shot. I couldn’t even conceive of getting too attached to a character in that system; I swear I rolled a new one every game session. White Wolf’s Mind’s Eye Theater had a very elegant staged system (before the Revised edition came along and required PDA-based combat) that emphasized that combat was a terrible idea, because you could die really easily if you hadn’t designed your character to survive it. Paranoia gave you six clones and assumed they would all die in hilariously gruesome ways.

Does your character die, or not die, when that trigger is pulled, that is the question.

Game Master discretion played heavily into a lot of the highly fatal game systems. Most (but not all) look at the game and tell the GM, if this death doesn’t make sense, don’t let it happen. If it does make sense, let it happen.

In the World of Warcraft there are no Game Masters, no judges you can appeal to for character survival or death. The computer is your master, All Hail the Computer.

RELATIVE VERSUS ABSOLUTE POWER

I bring up the gun-to-the-head question because it brings to the forefront a real problem when talking about WoW – is it really an RPG? I think it’s safe to say it’s not a traditional RPG, though you can comfortably role play within it. There’s a spectrum of immersion that goes from complete (detailed character histories, interaction, all actions are taken in character) to practically non-existent (arthasdklol), but even within the most jaded anti-RPer’s experience are role playing elements. There’s art, there’s story, there’s questing. There are different worlds to play in. Raids are not abstract exercises – they are a digital simulation of an environment. You are not just playing a digital object which has properties and affects other digital objects through predetermined routines – you’re playing a hunter, a priest, a mage. You’re raiding Ulduar or Firelands or Trial of the Crusader.  The RPG elements are always there.

But there are many concessions to the truth that this is a computer game based on gear acquisition that break RPG immersion. I’m not talking about things like language barriers or profession limits, unchanging zones or any of the other things that are design decisions, or part of being an MMO. Warcraft’s systems are set up to drive you to acquire more and better gear.

1. Levels introduce artificial barriers to encourage leveling.

What is to stop a young Tauren brave from wearing the mighty gear of his elders? Get your head out of WoW for a moment – what is to stop him from putting on the physical garb which conveys these great bonuses? What prevents him, exactly, from picking up an epic mace dropped by Deathwing himself and smashing opponents around him? Okay, let’s say the mace isn’t from Deathwing. Why not a level 60 mace? Or a level 35? How does that work, exactly?

Plenty of games encourage leveling through the promise of more power. You get more skills, you get more points to assign to abilities, you get more talents or feats or whatever. WoW has a lot of that – riding, flying, professions, etc. – but it differs in that it uses gear as a motivation. Other games give out better gear as a result of more challenging opportunities – you can take your level 2 characters in to see an adult red dragon, but they probably won’t come out alive – but they don’t explicitly limit gear to levels.

The Hit mechanic is another example of this kind of artificial barrier used to prompt players to level. It’s interesting playing with a level 19 twink who has more health than most mobs in level 30-40 zones, who does enough damage (at level 19) to tackle those zones, but to be unable to effectively function because everything misses. There’s no real reason Cynderblock can’t hit the raptors in Arathi Highlands, except that the rules say so to promote the idea that leveling is important.

(Also, Crushing Blows can bite me.)

2. Levels grant abilities, but require better gear to maintain the same level of effectiveness.

In AD&D, a +3 sword is a +3 sword, no matter what level the wielder is. More powerful characters have more magic items (and more powerful ones) but there is no scaling in efficacy. WoW is radically different: as your character levels, that +3 sword becomes less and less effective. All combat stats decay; Hit, Haste, Crit, Resilience are obvious examples of this (you need more points to achieve the same percentage at higher levels), but even straightforward things like a weapon’s DPS will indirectly decay due to higher health pools of opponents. (e.g. If you used a 5.0 DPS sword to kill a wolf in Northshire, each swing takes off a certain percentage of the wolf’s health. Using that same sword to kill a wolf in Northrend would result in a far weaker attack.)

If you don’t acquire gear as you level, you will quickly find yourself unable to function effectively. The Ironman Challenge is a good example of what happens if you continue to wear white-quality clothing throughout the leveling process. It gets really hard, really fast.

3. Endgame content releases are designed around increasing gear power, not character power.

It’s strange to write it that way, because it’s such a fundamental part of what WoW’s endgame is. But there you have it. The endgame removes the acquisition of additional abilities, talents, skills, and replaces leveling with additional tiers of content. There is no fundamental difference between a fresh level 85 character and one who has been playing at 85 for a year, except for their gear.

And that gear will determine what content they are able to participate in.

In a tabletop fantasy RPG this gets handled differently. It’s hard to set aside the idea that you don’t gain experience for actions in AD&D, but let’s try for a moment. Let’s say you hit the end of a campaign and the big confrontations are happening. You’re level 20 and stuff is epic. You might realize that you need a specific magic item to tackle the final challenge, or that you’re not strong enough and need to recruit others. Or it happens without you being able to prepare for it – you go in with your wits and your sword and your luck and hope for the best.

You don’t sit there and say, I need to go grind out points in dungeons so I can tackle the dragon.

4. Gearing/leveling make all damage, and therefore encounter difficulties, relative.

The ultimate nail in the coffin of the gun-to-your-character’s-head scenario is that the combination of gear and levels make every encounter highly relative. Realism gets thrown out the window when you can’t even sit down and say “a gun does X amount of damage.” Which gun is it? What level is the person wielding it? What are they wearing? What about the person getting shot, what level are they, what are they wearing?

Warcraft makes it so that you can’t make statements like, a punch does 1-2 points of damage modified for strength, a gun does 1-6 modified for dexterity, a sword does 1-8, which in turn means you can’t evaluate that and say, yeah, a gun could kill an average person or not. No. In WoW a gun might do 10-35 damage or 4000-5000 points of damage, and the target might have 100 health or 150 million health. A punch from a level 85 character could kill half a village in terms of raw damage.

This kind of system suspends realism in favor of in-game power.

It’s interesting playing through a lot of the revamped leveling zones in Cataclysm. The presence of elite Forsaken and Gilnean troops in Silverpine brings to the forefront that while these mobs are badasses for your level, they’re still like… level 25 elites. Objectively, they’re not that tough. Level up a bit and come kick their asses later. But doing so breaks the immersion of the story – you might be Sylvanas’ most trusted soldier, but let’s face it, a level 60 Forsaken with decent gear could beat the entire Gilnean army without breaking a sweat.

I think it’s even more interesting when Warcraft suddenly decides that it’s going to follow realistic logic. Nobody gets one-shot in World of Warcraft by a gun to the head, right?

Well, right up until Sylvanas gets killed by Godfrey in Silverpine Forest, that rule pretty much makes sense. But suddenly she’s dead, and you’re like, wtf, can’t you move out of the pistol barrage?

And then you realize, no, the most powerful Forsaken on Azeroth just got one shot by a pistol. Anyone can die at any time.

(As long as they’re NPCs in a cutscene.)

We need to keep this in mind when we talk about level-appropriateness of zones.

OUTGROWING ZONES

Kleps over at Troll Racials Are Overpowered had an interesting article today about how level 85s shouldn’t do low level battlegrounds. It’s an interesting read, and though I had a couple of knee-jerk reactions this morning, I sat down and thought about it for a while. And it’s an interesting proposition, even if I don’t agree with it.

I tried to step back from my position that battlegrounds having the highest replay value in the game and really see what Kleps’ is saying, how battlegrounds and dungeons are handled in such radically different ways.

  • Dungeons get easier as you level and acquire gear.
  • Battlegrounds remain more or less the same as you go.

This variability of difficulty doesn’t have anything to do with the inherent nature of either dungeons or battlegrounds. While there are some abilities which make different maps easier (having mounts for large terrain expanses), generally none of them render a map unplayable. It’s nice to be able to mount up and run in ZF or AB, but you can run LFD without it. You can play AB without a mount.

But there’s an interesting kernel in here, this idea that we outgrow content. That, at some point, Wailing Caverns becomes too little, too wee, too small. It’s in the past, it’s in our history, it’s not appropriate for us to run anymore. We aren’t young heroes any more, we’re saviors of Azeroth, freeing a druid from the Emerald Nightmare in the Barrens is beneath us. There’s no challenge in doing it (except getting lost, and the map is no longer the hardest boss in WC.) There’s not really any reward, unless we’re tying to find some purple and green gear for a mog outfit. It’s appropriate when we are leveling through the Barrens, but not afterwards.

Most dungeons are, indeed, like this. Outland and Northrend dungeons make sense only in their relative contexts, and only provide challenges there, too. As you level up, your potential gear grows, and you become more and more powerful relative to that old dungeon.

Battlegrounds don’t really make sense – have never really made sense – in this context. How could you have a bunch of level 85 characters fighting over Ashenvale, when that conflict zone is for levels 20-30? It’s not appropriate. Neither is level 35 characters fighting in Netherstorm – the leveling problem goes both ways here.

It’s easy enough for me to say, listen, PvP is entirely relative. It’s not about how much health you have, it’s about how much health you have relative to the damage your opponents put out. It’s not about how much damage you put out, but how quickly you can deal it during periods when defenses are low or healing is unable to address it. This is why battlegrounds work. This is why they work from level 10 all the way up to level 85 – it is about the relative challenge. Yes, there are issues within each bracket. Yes, burst is too high in some. Yes, health is too high in some. Yes, there are too many/too few counters in some.

But perhaps the easy response is not really the right response. Perhaps it’s not that battlegrounds are broken, and that their design needs to be defended – but rather that dungeons are broken.

MAKING HEADSHOTS MATTER

Increasing health as you level makes no sense. There are a lot of things about leveling that don’t make sense when you really think about them, but the increases in health are a big one. It’s a construct of the RPG genre, a gameplay element that helps you feel like your character is progressing.

That progression is completely divorced from the story. Look at many of the successful early zones in Cataclysm: Silverpine, Westfall, Darkshore, Barrens. You are interacting with the story on a heroic level in these zones. It doesn’t matter that you are only level 16, you are interacting with your faction leaders and named lore characters. You are taking on challenges with significant lore-based ramifications. Your actions shape nations.

And your level doesn’t matter.

It’s not just leveling zones where we see this, though. Leveling dungeons have plenty of hugely significant events. It’s tempting to trivialize some of them because of their low levels, but you discover important facts about the origin of the dwarves, kill Therazene’s daughter, bring down the remnants of a troll empire, kill the Dark Iron Emperor and bring Moria Bronzebeard to power. You free druids and dragons from the Emerald Dream. You counter the Defias threat to Stormwind.

All of these things are important for the story of your character, and are pretty heroic on their own. But because they’re at lower levels, we tend to dismiss them as invalid or unimportant. But they are!

The more I play, the more I think this is the real, fundamental flaw behind MMORPG storytelling. There has to be a way to say, hey, make the gun to the head matter. Make this content relevant to me. Make it appropriate for the story, and appropriate to my character. If it’s supposed to be a challenge, make it a challenge, even if it’s Wailing Caverns and I’m level 85.

This is one area where I think PvP outshines PvE by a longshot. For all of its flaws, PvP in Warcraft allows the content to be relevant to you no matter what level you participate in it. Alterac Valley is as much of a challenge at 85 as it is at 70 as it is at 51 because other players make it so.

When talking about game design I often refer back to the FUDGE Scale – a relative measure of the quality of something in a RPG. Instead of increasing without limit, character abilities get defined relative to base standard. So, for example, I could be playing a starship engineer who is a Poor pilot, but a Great mechanic. If I attempt to make a repair with a Good difficulty, I’m probably going to be able to make it. If I try to make a starship maneuver with a Good difficulty, I’m probably not.

You can think of the FUDGE scale as fuzzy logic applied to RPGs – it’s how we tend to think about actual characterization, abilities, the gut check to make sure that the numbers and the system work right. It helps us describe problems like the problem of Cataclysm 80-85 leveling – you go from a Superb character to a Poor character over the course of this journey, and then back to Superb through the course of Cataclysm’s raiding tiers. It’s a disconcerting journey to take a character through – I went from faceroll tanking Northrend content at 79-80 to getting my ass kicked in the Throne of Tides at level 80, struggling to stay alive and wondering what I was doing wrong. It’s simple – my relative power level dropped, dramatically. That’s okay, but disheartening.

What if we could adjust this, though? What if we could turn around and say – make it easier. Make it harder. Three levels of content difficulty – leave it the way it is, make it easy for your level, make it hard.

Gee, that kinda sounds like Dragon Soul raiding, doesn’t it? Only instead of three tiers structured with absolute values, create them with relative difficulties: as they were (“at-level,” “normal-mode,”), easy for your current level, and hard for their current level.

Heck, get rid of levels as a gate of content. Allow people to try content at any level, just normalize the content for their current situation. (“Level 10 twinks raid Dragon Soul, down Deathwing, film at 11!”) Take a page from SW:TOR’s PvP and make it so that levels are irrelevant – gear and abilities are normalized so that level 10s can fight level 40s. Expand that to PvE, make it so level 40s can get together and raid Ulduar – skill trumps leveling.

Gear could even be reworked in this kind of a model – instead of providing constant increase in power, we’d seek out gear that had certain special abilities. Perhaps it’s elemental slaying gear for MC and Firelands, undead slaying gear from ICC, and you raid so that you get gear with special abilities which carry you on to other raids.

Instead of obsoleting Battlegrounds because our characters outgrow them, why not make Dungeons more relevant throughout the leveling process? Make it so that you pick a raid not upon what’s current content, but on what you enjoy or has gear you actually want?

It’s a very different world to consider.

DYNAMIC CONTENT AND WARCRAFT

This isn’t going to work.

As a system, relative difficulties make a lot of sense. If you design a RPG so that difficulties are Easy / Normal / Hard from the ground up, you can go ahead and ensure that your content is fresh and valuable no matter how your leveling system works. Characters wouldn’t outgrow the story. You could take your 85s through Silverpine and Darkshore and have those be interesting experiences, instead of 1-shotting your way through everything. A MMORPG designed around dynamic content difficulties would be a lot of fun to play.

But that’s not the World of Warcraft.

WoW is a game of gear acquisition. That’s the fundamental premise of the entire game. You get good gear, it will become old and crappy gear as you level up. You’re going to need better gear every few months at the endgame. You’re going to need it with every new expansion.

If you take the importance of gear away, you remove many of the motivations people have for playing WoW. Characters don’t level to get better abilities, don’t run dungeons and raid to get better gear. They don’t subscribe month after month trying to get the newest latest best gear; they run through the content, enjoy it (all of it), and then go do something else.

Conversely, battlegrounds stand outside of this. While gear is important, it’s only important relative to your fellow players. Gear as well as you can for your opponents. This rule works from levels 10-85! Your opponents will always be dynamic. Having a static set of maps allows people to master the game-within-a-game of each individual BG, but they aren’t tied to specific levels. There’s nothing in them that really refers back to the PvE zones which they live in – they’re just maps. Timeless maps with high replay value that the developers don’t have to mess with while they create new content for PvE to consume – and outgrow.

Changing the foundations of WoW makes for an interesting thought exercise.

But ultimately – headshots will never kill your toons.

(Except in a cutscene.)

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Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual

Play With Your Friends: WoW as the Social Game Network

My druid, Cynli (born on Durotan), visits Visper, the GM of Waypoint on Medivh.

Play with your friends. That’s the promise that online games have held out to us for many years, the ability to play computer games with friends regardless of physical location. MMOs take this to an extreme – play with thousands of people, some of whom may be your friends – but that’s the general idea with any networked video game. It’s the reason that Blizzard implemented RealID messaging across their game platforms. It’s the reason why they are working towards removing your server as an impediment to playing with friends with cross-realm dungeons, raiding, battlegrounds. I fully expect to see cross-realm arenas, questing, and progression raiding in the future.

Blizzard has even started working on addressing one of the biggest problems with RealID – the lack of anonymity – by implementing a BattleTag system, one that will hopefully address the very real privacy concerns of RealID, while allowing people to still play with online friends. This is great! Over the past few years we, as a culture, have developed a lot of social network tools that allow us to control the amount of information we share online. This should be as true for a video game social network tool as it is for any other social tool; users care about how much information they present about themselves, and will migrate to tools which allow them the right amount of control.

Consider how different the internet landscape is today, in 2012, as opposed to 2004, when World of Warcraft launched. Facebook had launched a few months earlier, but in that year it expanded to over 800 colleges and grew to 1 million active users. Warcraft reached 10 million users in January 2008, while Facebook had reached 60-70 million. Social networks were in their infancy in 2004, centered around weblogs and photo sharing sites. The rise of Facebook is illustrative of a larger trend of making social internet tools more accessible, to a broader swath of the population.

I mean, the numbers are mind-boggling.

  • One in nine people on the planet is on Facebook. (I’m not one of them.)
  • Twitter handles a billion tweets every week.
  • Google+ gained its first 10 million users in 16 days.

The amount of traffic generated by these kinds of sites is simply staggering. The impact of them upon MMOs like World of Warcraft cannot be understated. MMORPGs distinguish themselves from other video games by their social component, and since 2009 they are competing not just against other MMOs, but against all types of social computer activities – games, photo sharing sites, networking sites -

– even Farmville.

Furthermore, social networks have capitalized on something that MMOs have failed to – new mobile computing platforms. Only now, 5 years later, are we really able to see the impact that the iPhone’s introduction in 2007 had to the mobile computing market. It wasn’t just that it revolutionized the smartphone market – it did, making other manufacturers and platform developers realize they needed better interfaces and support for widespread application development. It also laid the groundwork for entirely new device markets like tablets, devices with great entertainment capability due to their flexibility, power, and ease of use. The iPad and Android tablet market has crushed other device types – remember when netbooks were going to be the new big thing? – and as technology moved away from the desktop, social media came right along with it.

Online social groups just aren’t what they were in 2004-05. We’ve rapidly moved past the idea of localized communities, instead going for fully global networks, with integration across websites and media. Your phone is, in all likelihood, a powerful computing device which can keep you connected to nearly all of these networks. It’s more likely that you keep in touch with your friends and family through some kind of social network than not.

And because it’s not just a social network, it’s also a video game, Warcraft is trying to keep up with these changes. Xbox Live is also doing this on the console space, but only WoW has both the subscriber base and the vision to pull off this necessary transformation.

I said in my post On Snow Crash, Virtual Avatars, and Warcraft’s Social Network Appeal that Warcraft is a video game bolted on top of a social network. I really think that gets to the heart of the matter, and is something that any criticism of Cataclysm needs to take into consideration. Not only does the video game have to be compelling, but it has to allow us to do things with our friends – friends who we are tied to through those other social networks. The sheer number of online connections people have now means that any networked video game needs to be able to be flexible enough to accommodate them, to allow them to play video games with those friends. Cloud-based gaming is the way of the future.

Battle.net is in a great position to become the default social network for computer RPGs. By providing a framework of interaction between players on different servers and even in different games, Blizzard can use Battle.net to allow other game companies to adopt their network instead of developing one themselves. By publishing APIs to be usable by third parties, this puts Blizzard in the position to:

  1. Capture the customer relationship (by requiring a free bnet account, or creating one for the player)
  2. Introduce players of other games to Blizzard products (free marketing)
  3. Create new revenue streams from other game companies for “enhanced” bnet services.

Is there a cost to this? Yes, absolutely, and as a product developer I’d be very concerned with how to recoup the operational and development costs here. Perhaps the API is free to use for most games, but special features (guild circles, intergame profile management, etc.) are charged to the hosting game company. Perhaps the Google+/Facebook model of monetizing member data is used. Maybe it’s a hybrid.

This kind of technology addresses a need that multi-player games will need in this new social reality, but game developers don’t want to spend time developing. It also has reach far beyond a single game – if it can get into the market with the right services, for the right price, with one of the largest embeddded userbases in the space, the potential for Blizzard to form an ubiquitous social gaming platform is very, very high.

However, there’s one problem within Warcraft that stands in the way: Guilds.

Do you have to belong to a guild in WoW, or not? Is it an optional social circle or a requirement for full participation in the game?

The guild system that has evolved in Cataclysm is very different from that which existed before, and is actively countering not only the general movement in social networks to be more inclusive, but also Blizzard’s own attempts to make players more able to play with their friends.

World of Warcraft’s infrastructure requires players to create accounts on specific, mutually exclusive servers. If I roll on Durotan, I cannot interact with players on Drenden or Moonrunner, and vice versa. Each server is effectively its own independent social network, limited in scope, much like old-school BBSes were. This made sense in 2004, but in 2012 social networks are broader, which is the whole point behind Real ID/BattleTags grouping. Warcraft is moving players towards a cloud-based existence, where your server matters less than your friends list. I personally think this is a good thing, because no matter how nostalgic I am for the old days of BBSes, I enjoy the present day reality of a global social network.

But guilds remain tied to servers, and they remain mutually exclusive.

This wouldn’t be quite as problematic if guilds were merely social units, like they were before Cataclysm. But not only do we now have to contend with the integrating this social circle in to the cloud-based experience, an entire system has been developed around them to make belonging to a guild valuable and worthwhile to a player.

Let’s take a simple example, a player who wants to play both Horde and Alliance. She joins nice guilds on both sides of the same server and enjoys spending time with each group. But depending on which character she chooses to play, she either has to choose one social group or the other. This doesn’t have anything to do with guild perks or reputation – imagine a social network that forced you to choose between talking to one set of friends or another when logging in, and see how popular that would become. It’s not enough to be able to talk individually. The community of a guild is important.

Now, while you might want controls over who you interact with at any time – think of Google+’s Circles here – you don’t even have that option here within Warcraft. Either you’re able to chat with Guild A, or with Guild B, but not both at the same time.

Yet, you’re able to talk to individuals in those guilds if they’re bnet friends.

Guilds, as they stand today, are both WoW’s greatest social strength and its strongest force working against letting players playing with their friends. Guilds are important, but they tie players to a specific group on a specific server, isolating and separating them.

But with a few changes, guilds can join the new cloud-based paradigm Blizzard is moving towards with Battle.net.

1. Allow player characters to belong to multiple guilds at the same time. How this manifests is open to debate – one guild might be chosen as the only one they can represent at a time, allow access to the bank, has the guild tag on display, generates guild rep towards that guild, etc.. At a minimum, give players access to the social components of guild membership – guild chat. This allows them to stay connected with their circles.

2. Allow guilds to function cross-server. Remove the server as a consideration of guild membership. Guilds need to be able to function as social units across servers. Are there technical restrictions to this? You bet. Perhaps guild banks and perks are limited to the founding server. Perhaps limits are put in place to how many cross-server members are allowed. But allow members to group up with other guild members easily, regardless of location.

3. Extend guild chat to games outside of Warcraft. This gets a little trickier, and may involve changing the guild association from character to player. Any Battle.net-enabled game should be able to carry with it the idea that a player is a member of a specific guild, and feed guild chat to him or her in that game’s chat interface. The game in question may not have guilds, but the player can still interact with those text channels through the game’s interface.

Imagine how different things would be right now if players of other MMOs could still be present in your guild’s chat.

4. Extend guild chat outside of video games. Stop tying the game’s social experience to video games and leverage existing social networks. Go multi-modal with their tools. As a game company, you have to consider the ROI of putting Battle.net on every different platform out there. My recommendation – don’t even try. Use their tools to get off the desktop and onto the phones and tablets of your players.

See, guilds are – or should be – supersets of friends, acquaintances, and even co-workers. They’re folks united with a common purpose, a common goal, even if they might not know each other very well. It doesn’t matter if they are a hard-core raiding team, a PvP world defense squad, or a fledgling leveling guild – they’re a group of people working together. Doing things together. Playing together.

Attaching mechanics to guilds causes pressure on the social cohesion of the group to conform to those rules, to achieve goals that are (in many cases) counter to the goals which brought them together in the first place. This genie is out of the bottle, so to make the best of it Blizzard needs to bring guilds into the cloud.

Like it or not, servers as social units are not Warcraft’s future. Each and every new cross-realm development shows this trend. Unfortunately, the guild structure remains the strongest bond to the server mentality in WoW.

For guilds to survive – and they need to survive – they need to change to meet the new social networking reality WoW finds itself in today.

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The Problems of PvP Reputation Grinds in Cataclysm

Cataclysm Patch 4.2 introduced several undocumented changes to the reputation system in Warcraft. Some were quite welcome: city tabards now worked in Burning Crusade dungeons, allowing alts going from 60-70 to keep gaining home city reputation while running LFR. Others were less welcome: dungeon bosses gave less reputation in general.

The biggest change for battleground enthusiasts, however, was in Arathi Basin and the reputation awards for the League of Arathor and the Defilers.

  • Before 4.2, you got 100 reputation per win (10 reputation per 160 resources).
  • After 4.2, you get 60 reputation per win (10 reputation per 260 resources).

Yes, that’s a 40% nerf, and is before guild perks or Diplomacy bonuses are factored in.

Exalted with any faction requires 42,000 reputation points. To get Exalted with the Arathi Basin factions before 4.2, this required, in the best case, 420 wins. More realistically, that’s probably around 600 games, as you still gain experience from losing as long as you get some resources on the board.

After the 4.2 changes – and as this has never been confirmed as a bug, we have to assume that it was a deliberate change – Exalted requires 700 wins, or probably around 1,000 games total.

One thousand matches to Exalted. At 20 minutes a game, that’s 13.9 days /played in Arathi Basin.

Warsong Gulch isn’t really any better, but it didn’t change during 4.2. It’s been bad for a while. At 35 rep per flag capture, you’re looking at 1200 flag caps, or a minimum of 400 three cap games. Since you can win with a single flag cap, and can lose without any flag caps, you’re more likely looking at 600-700 matches to Exalted.

Does this seem like good design?

CONTENT THAT GETS PROGRESSIVELY HARDER

The 4.2 Arathi Basin reputation nerf is actually not the first time that PvP reputation has been nerfed – these reputations used to be far, far easier to grind, and the Justicar/Conqueror titles (Exalted in Warsong Gulch, Arathi Basin, and Alterac Valley) were much more in reach.

Back in the old days, Marks of Honor – remember those? – could be turned in to the appropriate quartermaster for reputation (3 Marks for 50 rep), shortening the grind considerably. Before Wrath of the Lich King, you needed far fewer victories to reach Exalted:

  • Warsong Gulch: 273 wins
  • Arathi Basin: 280 wins
  • Alterac Valley: 70 wins

Let that sink in a bit. Getting to Exalted takes 127 more WSG and 420 more AB victories than it did now than it did in Burning Crusade. That’s victories – I figure you’ll have to play 30-40% more games total to do it. If you’re in a guild with the reputation perk when you start and all the way through, you can shave 10% off.

No analysis would be complete without looking at some of the other changes that have taken place to these battlegrounds:

  • Warsong Gulch now has a timer, which limits the amount of time each battle can take, so 40 mins – 1 hour long matches are no longer the norm. Unfortunately, this timer also means that each victory can be earned with a single cap, making the rep gain wildly variable. It’s pretty much a wash.
  • Arathi Basin was reduced from 2000 resources to 1600, which means each victory awards fewer reputation points. The rate of gain, however, has remained unchanged before 4.2.

The resource gain reduction in Arathi Basin is partly responsible for the increase in the number of games required to play to get to Exalted. The rate of reward wasn’t substantially modified until 4.2, though, so while we can say that it’s not quite as bad as the numbers say, it’s still bad.

It’s still about a thousand games to Exalted with the League of Arathor and the Defilers.

I guess they’re really hard to impress.

IMPROVING REPUTATION IN BATTLEGROUNDS

This is what content that gets progressively harder looks like. And it’s honestly not all that much fun. If you started playing in 2005, this was difficult but doable. If you’re starting now, in 2012, this is brutal.

Is this a good game design? Is it good to have a goal like this, one that is so far out there that you really have to focus on a single character for years to get it?

Yes, for years. Let’s say you are a relatively casual player and can play 3-4 AB battles a night (2 hours with queue times). You better keep up that pace for 286 days.

Nothing but Arathi Basin. No Arena. No PvE.

Just AB. BS, LM, ST. No, go GM. LM inc 3. Go Farm. GO FARM. BS going. BS gone.

I’ve played about 300 Arathi Basins across my different characters in the past 3 years. Cynwise has the Veteran achievement there. I know the place pretty darn well at this point, and I haven’t even scratched the reputation post. She’s 9796/12000 Honored. Yikes.

I don’t mean for it to sound like I’m complaining, because at this point I’ve totally given up on this as a reasonable goal for me. I’m not getting it. It’s not worth it to me.

But contrast AB reputation to Alterac Valley reputation, which most people get Exalted around 80-100 victories in. I have two characters at Exalted there, another two at Revered, and most of the others are making great progress. Some of this is due to factional imbalance in the old battlegroups, but it’s also due to the amount of reputation awarded.

This kind of reputation grind – one that requires commitment, but is doable on your way to the Veteran (100 victories) achievement, feels more realistic. Let’s face it, after you’ve won 50 battles, you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of it. By 75, the NPCs should know your name when you zone in.

All three of the original battlegrounds have reputation, and they are all tied into specific objectives within those battlegrounds. This has benefits – you gain rep for doing the stuff in the BG – but it also has drawbacks, as we see here. The scale is so out of whack now that changes need to be made to WSG and AB to make their grinds relevant again – otherwise people will simply look at them and go, that’s not worth it, and it fails to have any value.

Just like now.

These tasks are supposed to be hard, not impossible.

(There’s also the issue of  lingering resentment caused by increasing the difficulty on a task over time, but that’s a different post.)

My opinion is that the reputations need to be scaled to a number of games or victories. That’s how we evaluate these grinds, after all, and that the huge disparity between AV and AB points out that one can be done on multiple toons, while the other is an all-or-nothing deal. Personally, I like the 75-125 win mark – it’s an investment, but given the number of battlegrounds out there, it’s not unreachable. It still allows you to play other battlegrounds without feeling guilty. You could make an argument that it should be easier – 50 – or harder – 200 or 250 – and I’d go, okay, at least we’re in a ballpark. Personally, with the number of other things to do in the game, I lean towards a lower number. But settle on some number of victories/matches and base your rewards off of that figure.

Also, standardize reputations and rewards in battlegrounds. It baffles me why the Isle of Conquest has a tabard for the Master of Isle of Conquest achievement, AV/AB/WSG have them for Exalted reputations, and EotS, Strand, BfG and TP completely lack them. I’m not crazy about the IoC model – I don’t really like Battleground Achievements that aren’t “Win” and “Win More” and “Win ALL THE GAMES,” but it’s at least a viable, consistent model that could be used.

The gear rewards from leveling should also be adjusted to reflect the new brackets and early introduction of several battlegrounds (Eye of the Storm, I’m looking at you), but that goes without saying.

Consider extending the BG reputation system to PvE and Arenas. I like this option least of all, but I think it needs to be put out there – the way it works now is really bad. Arathi Basin and Warsong Gulch are arguably the two worst rep grinds in the game. Tabards that could be worn while questing, dungeons, or – best of all – in Arenas and Rated PvP – would allow people to grind while doing other stuff.

If you could Arena in the name of the League of Arathor, would you? (I bet you would. I’m not wild about raiding/dungeons for PvP rep, but it’s something to consider as well.

I actually think a piecemeal approach to fixing reputation systems is harmful, and that the battleground reps need to be considered as part of the entire reputation system. Reputation tabards are an interesting idea, but wouldn’t it be simpler to code the game to award X amount of tabard rep per Y thing done (mob killed, boss killed, BG/Arena won), then check the tabard and award it appropriately? I know I’m falling into the non-programmer fallacy of “it sounds logically simpler, so it should be simpler to code,” but… I have been a professional programmer, and it actually is simpler to code up one system than a bunch of disparate other systems. It’s harder to yank bad code out and make sure things work right after the fact, but … I’ll stop.

One of the things Blizzard mentioned they wanted to work on in Mists was WoW’s reputation systems.

I hope when they do so, they take a long look at the BG reputations and make them a more accessible part of the game.

Because tasks that get progressively harder as the game ages?

Yeah. They’re not fun for anyone.

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Level 60 PvP Gear Not Available for Transmogging

I, for one, was really hoping that scenes like the above picture would have become more commonplace: the bright and dramatic designs of the level 60 PvP gear filling the streets of Azeroth’s cities, allowing players to choose some dramatically great looks at a relative pittance.

However, it is not to be.

Quoth Bashiok, who is just the messenger:

The items out in the world (Marshals, Grand Marshal’s, High Warlord, etc) that use the level 60 PvP art are un-transmogrifiable (including the item level 115 stuff that shares the name from Burning Crusade).

In Area 52 a set of vendors has replaced the PvP Vendors who used to live there. Grex Brainboiler, Krixel Pinchwhistle, Tini Smalls, Kezzik the Striker, Big Zokk Torquewrench, and Leeni “Smiley” Smalls. These vendors sell new, transmogrifiable versions of the classic armor to players who have the Feat of Strength for Legionnaire/Knight-Captain or higher under the old PvP system.

There was a bug with the Feat of Strength granting access to these items, but was hotfixed within the last couple of minutes. If you meet the criteria log out and back in and you should be able to access the vendor.

The design intent with the Feat of Strength achievement requirement was specifically to limit these particular art styles to players who earned them through the OG (and relentlessly difficult) PvP honor system, while keeping the door open to reward them to more people in the future.

In a future patch the items sold by the Area 52 vendors will also be renamed ‘Replica of’ to be more consistent with the items sold by the Darkmoon Faire – they’re currently exact duplicates of the original items that allow transmogrification, which is obviously a bit confusing.

Potentially related, since he’s in the same area, Kezzik the Striker sells inaccessible Season 1 Gladiator’s, Season 2 Merciless Gladiator’s, and Season 3 Vengeful Gladiator’s gear to all players, as the majority of that gear didn’t have restrictions.

This is somewhat confusing if you’re not up on PvP gear sets, so let me summarize:

  • Level 60 PvP gear, of all ranks, is not available for transmogrification. This includes any armor you may have had purchased previously from the Legacy Honor Vendors.
  • If you had the right to wear this armor back in Vanilla, you have the ability to wear this armor as a mog set. However, you can’t use your old set – you have to go to Area 52 and purchase a lookalike set. You have to have the Feat of Strength to be eligible.
  • Arena sets which had been removed from the game (S1, S2, S3) are now available for purchase again in Area 52.  This gear should have no restrictions.
  • All other PvP gear looks to be eligible for mogging. Brutal and Wrathful gear both appear to have no issues. All the level 85 gear I checked seemed fine, too.

This issue with the level 60 PvP gear has led to some confusion about what does and doesn’t work with transmogrifying PvP gear. It’s a pretty simple rule – everything but the  distinctive level 60 gear should work.

To be frank, that kinda sucks.

I THINK WHAT WE HAVE HERE IS A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

I confess, I was really disappointed by this exclusion. I was really looking forward to trotting out the Knight-Lieutenant’s gear I’d ground Marks for back in Wrath and rocking the old-school Vanilla Warcraft look. I knew that there were some things that I wanted to try mogging that probably wouldn’t work – Direbrew’s Bloodied Shanker for one, Dark Herring for another – but that’s because they fell outside the mogging rules as explained by Blizzard.

Having the level 60 gear be excluded really made me go … wait, what? I see a lot of the gear while leveling through the 60-70 bracket, the shields are some of the best looking in the game, and it’s a really distinctive, Warcrafty style. It’s a great look, and I wanted it.

But there’s another side to this, too.

There’s the side of the Warlords and Marshals and all the players who ground out the truly hellacious PvP grind back in Vanilla. For a long time, they had their titles, and they wore them as badges of pride. Once removed from the game, those titles were impressive and had an aura of Old Skool about them, something that later PvPers couldn’t touch. Anyone could get their gear, but no one could get those titles.

Cataclysm took those titles away from these players. Oh, they still had the titles – but Rated Battlegrounds allowed anyone to get them. They were no longer unique signifiers. The vestiges of the old grind were washed away.

So here’s something for those players who did that grind – they’re the only ones who will get to wear the really great PvP fashions as their daily wear. They’ve gotten something special back, something unique, something Old Skool.

I think, had this just been communicated in advance, I wouldn’t be sitting here going, man, this sucks. I’d have gotten over it, just like wielding a beer bottle or fish. It sucks, it’s arbitrary, it’s confusing as all getout, but at least it wouldn’t be a surprise.

I think it’s a surprise to a lot of people, sadly.

ACCEPTANCE

This is going to confuse a lot of players, especially those who pick up some of the 60 PvP gear as they level an alt and then wonder why they can’t use that great outfit later on for transmogrification.

I think it’s a nice gesture to say, hey, as a tip of the hat to our long-time PvP players who did the grind way back when, let’s let them be the only ones who can wear the old armor. It returns some uniqueness to the old PvP grind, and instills a sense of wonder around these outfits.

I’d love it if Blizzard presented it as such, not slip it in unnoticed. Someone at Blizzard made this decision and got it implemented. Someone approved getting the new sets in to Area 52. Folks at Blizzard knew this was coming, and it has the potential to be cast in a really good light.

But it wasn’t. It was dropped in unnoticed. And when gear changes get dropped in unannounced during a season transition, I start getting really nervous. Bad things happen when Blizzard doesn’t talk to their PvP playerbase. I’m really trying hard to forget the last time they forgot to tell us things about how the PvP gear system was going to change.

Sure, I’d selfishly like this change reversed, because then I can have the great old Vanilla PvP fashions for my Wrath and Cata and Mists toons. But if this is a way to honor Vanilla PvPers, I’m actually really okay with that. What they did was special! Preserving uniqueness is a great thing! I can go wear the Burning Crusade PvP gear!

It just would have been nice to not get my hopes up.

 

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The Curious Case of the Big Daddy and Secretly Scaling Equipment

The Big Daddy is the Cataclysm heavy explosive available to Goblin Engineers. It requires Engineering 440 to use, and 500 to make, it’s expensive, but it also does respectable damage – about 5k – and the damage is tripled against targets at full health. Oh yes, it can crit, too, so you could get a lucky 30k damage off this baby. It’s also off the GCD, so it’s great to use after an instant cast spell, though you really want to use it on “unsuspecting targets” – thats those poor folks at full health – whenever possible.

They’re not quite as nice as the Global Thermal Sapper Charge was in the early days of Wrath – massive siege damage in SotA/WG/IoC was awesome – and they’re not as cheap as Saronite Bombs, which you could make part of your attack rotation with impunity – but they’re good for what they are.

Except… you notice that little bit about “Requires Engineering 440″ to use?

You can get Engineering 450 at level 65, when most characters have around 4k-8k health. Even in the level 70 twink bracket, health pools range from 10-14k, with 18-20k reserved for tanks.

These bombs can 1-shot an entire defending force if you attack when they’re at full health at level 70. At level 80, they can still take out 1/3-1/2 of the defender’s health.

Holy crap.

PvP being PvP, players figured this out, and maxing your Engineering at level 65 became an even easier way to dominating the battlegrounds than rerolling Mage.

(I kid, I kid!)

So far, you’d think that this is a simple story of an item being overpowered in the leveling brackets and getting removed from said brackets, right? I mean, you can’t have bombs that can take out entire nodes of defenders, can you?

But instead of doing the obvious thing – raising the required Engineering level beyond 450 – Blizzard did something really interesting.

SCALING DAMAGE WITH LEVEL

Sometime between 4.1 and 4.2, the Big Daddy was changed so that the damage scaled with level. No longer was it 5k at level 65 – now it was 700. Level 79? 1400 or so. The damage was changed to allow it to still be used at lower levels, but for it to become less attractive overall. Saronite Bombs do more damage at level 65 than Big Daddies, which solves the problem neatly and returns us to the idea that you might be able to use things from the next expansion while leveling, but you probably shouldn’t be using things from two expansions away.

That’s actually an interesting rule to consider: think about how unbalancing Wrath-level gear, gems and enchants would be if they were available at, say, level 30. There are limits on enchants to prevent this from happening, for instance (item level 35 for BC, 60 for Wrath), but no limits on the gems – but sockets don’t show up until BC-era gear anyways, so it isn’t a big deal. With the introduction of Cataclysm, gems needed to have restrictions added because you could have level 60-70 players sporting Cataclysm gems.

So why didn’t the devs just change the Engineering requirements on the Big Daddy to be 475 instead of 440? This would have placed the items out of reach of everyone lower than 75, which would take care of the most egregious abuses. It would still unbalance the 75-79 bracket, but that bracket is already unbalanced because of the availability of Cataclysm-balanced gear starting at 78. The 80-84 bracket is unbalanced as well, but it’s unbalanced because of scaling and the hard ramp of gear. Adding in a bomb that does 5k-30k damage isn’t going to further unbalance things.

Or will it?

Think about this for a minute. Instead of making a simple change that mostly fixed a problem, the developers dramatically changed how something worked by level, making it scale all the way from 65 to 85 (and possibly beyond). It still does a lot of damage, and is great against unsuspecting targets, but it’s not going to 1-shot people in any bracket it’s available in. That took thought, planning, and careful analysis to realize that a simple level restriction wasn’t going to work.

In every sense of battleground fairness, this is a great change. And it’s great for many brackets.

Which is why it’s so unexpected. Not because we shouldn’t expect that Blizzard does the right thing (we should), but that it’s one of the first times I’ve seen an item nerfed in PvP in such a way to take into account its impact in multiple brackets.

The problem with items with fixed stats is that their value increases the earlier you get them. Cataclysm introduced stat inflation into not just the endgame, but up through level 65. The inflation is really unbalancing. It doesn’t take a scientist to notice that if you increase health pools five times between level 80 and 85 that maybe, just maybe, items that are scaled for 85 shouldn’t be used at lower levels.

But hopefully, we can start seeing more fixes like the Big Daddy nerf, which address this inflation in multiple brackets.

Fixing leveling PvP is not simple. Little things add up. I’ll wager you didn’t even realize there was an explosive that could 1-shot you from level 65 to 80 until this post. The fact that it was fixed without your knowledge is a good thing. There are a lot of small, unbalanced items which good PvP players seek out and use against their opponents, and they add up. Not all of them are as big as this one, but hey – this is the Big Daddy we’re talking about.

Smart fixes like this raise the possibility of other items using smart scaling, which would be a good start towards equalizing the brackets. Heirlooms already do this; having normal items start adhering to this rule would help bring leveling PvP back into a more balanced state.

Bravo, Blizzard. Well played.

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