I heard about a putative exploit in Tol Barad earlier this week, one that would potentially allow you to break the 1:1 ratio of the zone and let you stack players on your side to overwhelm the opposition.
The theory behind it is:
- People enter Tol Barad via the queuing system which should try to slot for an equal number of players of both factions. If one side has fewer people than the other, then people on the more populated faction will not be allowed in until the levels are equal again.
- Once in Tol Barad, players are automatically placed into 40-man raid groups.
- If you drop the raid group, the queuing system thinks that the raid groups are not equal, taking a person from your side’s queue and porting them into the zone without triggering a corresponding add from the other faction.
- If enough players on your side do this, you will stack the zone in your favor.
Step 3 is where the exploit supposedly lies. It’s possible that the zone works this way – that raid groups are used to calculate the current population, and therefore could be fooled by removing players from the raid.
That’s the theory. If it’s happening, then this is game-changing – it’s no longer about which side can win this broken battleground, it’s about which side can get more people in through this exploit.
But is it really happening?
I can talk until I’m blue in the face about how the victory condition of the battleground coupled with a broken capture mechanic all combine to make Tol Barad very hard to win (say that three times fast), but perhaps it’s possible that there is an exploit in progress. Perhaps the Alliance on Durotan did use it to win Tol Barad last weekend. Perhaps the Horde does use it on a regular basis to keep control.
At some point, you have to stop speculating and start experimenting. So let’s test it out.
If the exploit works, then you should be able to observe several behaviors during the battle.
- Players should be asking for invites into the raid. This would be due to their dropping the raid that they were originally invited into in an attempt to stack their side.
- The number of players in raids should be fewer than the number of players in the zone for any given side. This is also due to the attempted exploit.
- The number of players in the zone for one faction should exceed the number of players on the other faction over the course of the battle. This would be the result of the exploit working.
The first is easy to observe by zoning in to the battle and watching general chat. The second is a little more challenging to measure, as you only have visibility into your own raid, but you should be able to measure this through watching the first raid fill up and a combination of /who and counting the people in the /1 General chat channel.
The final criteria, however, requires cross-faction cooperation. Trying to take an accurate tally of people in a crowd is hard enough, but virtual people, engaged in a battle, where they don’t have collision detection, and might be sporting pets, demons, totems, or companions? Nearly impossible to do by observation.
But it’s not impossible if you use /who and the general chat channels on each side. At least, that’s the hope.
But how could I measure the Horde numbers without transferring or leveling an alt?
Enter Ermoonia and Rosasharn of <Tech Savvy At Risk Youth> to help with data collection. Ermoonia is a reader of this weblog and killed me the other day in Tol Barad – an action, by the way, which I highly encourage, getting killed by readers honestly makes my day – who also happened to transfer over to Durotan’s Horde side a short time ago. I proposed my experiment to her, and she agreed to help out in this unnatural cross-faction analysis of Tol Barad. (“For SCIENCE!” was our rallying call.)
About two minutes before the battle, I logged in to their Vent server, where I was treated to the most entertaining Tol Barad I think I’ve ever gotten to run. I’ll get to why it was so entertaining in a bit, but here’s what we observed.
- Alliance players were both leaving the raid without leaving the zone, and then asking a few minutes later to be re-invited back into the raid. Horde players, conversely, were not asking for raid invites.
- The /who tool proved to be highly unreliable. It seems to max out at 49 results, and also includes people in the Tol Barad Peninsula zone, confusing the count further.
- We changed over to counting people in General – Tol Barad chat as an alternate benchmark, which seemed to be more accurate.
- The Alliance started out with 24 players and maxed out somewhere around 46.
- The Horde started out with around 30 players and maxed out somewhere around 47. Horde generally had 1-2 more players in the zone than Alliance, but the numbers were sometimes equal.
- At no time, at counts below 40, did the count of people in the General – Tol Barad exceed the raid browser count, on either side.
- The count between sides would sometimes vary by a few people, usually when Alliance players would leave. Rosasharn mentioned that there was usually a lot of Horde players queuing for Tol Barad, and that not getting in was a sadly common occurrence.
- The Alliance lost badly. Again.
The implications of these observations are interesting.
- It appears that Alliance players (attacking force) were trying to use the exploit, while the Horde players (defense) were not.
- Getting accurate counts is much more difficult than it seems. I thought that /who would be the easiest way to provide a running count, but since it counted both Tol Barad zones (combat and non combat) the total it provides is worthless, and the cap on display made it even more worthless.
- The faction which was supposedly committing the exploit (Alliance) never outnumbered the faction which was not (Horde), as measured by General – Tol Barad chat.
My conclusion after watching the battle for a while was that if this exploit exists, it doesn’t work very well.
In talking to Ermoonia and Rosasharn, I realized there was an additional factor we couldn’t ignore in all this – the queue size for each faction.
- The Horde of Durotan regularly queue for Tol Barad and do not get in. As the usual defenders and victors, they have a pool of players for the battle larger than Tol Barad will hold, guaranteeing that any slot that opens up will be filled. The rewards of the battle and access to the raid are such that players look at is as a good investment of their time to queue.
- The Alliance of Durotan, as the losers, do not regularly queue for Tol Barad. Even though Alliance dominates the server (1.6:1, last time I checked), the player base doesn’t feel that queueing is worth their time, so Tol Barad is filled according to the Alliance queue.
- It is possible that the Alliance exploit worked, but failed to make any measurable impact due to the lack of people in queue. If someone drops raid and the system can’t replace them, it’s possible that the exploit is working – just not having any effect.
Despite this, I’m don’t think that exploit was working, however. At the earliest stages of the battle – when both sides were around 30-35 players – not once did the Alliance outnumber the Horde. Not once. Even when I saw several people begging for raid invites all at once, the Alliance remained outnumbered or almost evenly matched.
I know that this isn’t conclusive proof. There are several problems with the methodology I can’t deny:
- If the faction with the stronger queue was exploiting, then you would see it work in action better than the weaker queue. We observed the weaker queue exploiting, not the stronger.
- The measuring methods are not to be trusted. You can only count the raid you are in. /who does not work. General chat may be accurate, but counting manually in a battle is fraught with the potential for error.
- The exploit could remove people from the count of General chat as well as the raid browser, rendering them invisible to detection.
But even with these exceptions, this experiment left me concluding that the exploit does not work.
And that’s a good thing.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF DEFEAT, QQ, AND EXPLOITS
How you react to failure is at least as important as how you react to success.
It’s not easy to admit failure. It’s not easy to admit that you just weren’t good enough in a contest, to accept defeat gracefully. The whole idea of good sportsmanship – y’all remember that one, right? – is to counter the very natural feelings of anger, despair, and frustration you feel when you lose a competition. It’s okay to feel depressed, angry, apathetic, or even relieved when you lose. Culturally, we mask all of those emotions with small rituals designed to keep the competition civil – the handshake after a match, the concession speech by a political candidate, the salute after a surrender – but civility is for the playing ground, not the locker room. Emotions are emotions, after all, and denying them just makes them stronger – and uglier.
Warcraft PvP lacks the post-game handshake. There’s nothing to humanize your opponents, to force you to look them in the eye and say, good job, you outplayed me today. So whatever emotions you feel at losing are yours to deal with, and yours alone.
You can look back on your defeat and say, I was not good enough today, but I will get better. There is always another fight.
You can look back on your defeat and say, the contest wasn’t fair, it wasn’t my fault. It had nothing to do with my skill or ability, or my opponent’s skill – it was a no-win situation. Move on.
Or you can look back at your defeat and say, they cheated. The dirty, stinking bastards cheated.
This is the white elephant in the room when discussing any type of exploit in a group PvP environment. Is the exploit really happening, or is it fulfilling the desires of those who have lost to explain their defeat? Software bug or rationalization? Did your opponent cheat to win, or were you just not good enough? Sometimes it’s easy to see a bug in action, but often, it’s not.
The psychological problem is compounded by a very real fact: we are playing a computer program with known bugs. Stuff doesn’t work right all the time. (Heck, sometimes, it barely works at all!) And unlike a real-life sporting event, where you can assume things like, oh, the laws of physics apply, and if there are 11 people on the field then it means there are 11 people on the field – in computer games weird shit can and does happen.
When I wrote How DID They Win That Wintergrasp?, I was acutely aware that there were legitimate bugs affecting Wintergrasp. Driving vehicles through the walls was bad enough, but worse was that that bug lent legitimacy to the idea that the weaker faction could glitch out the system into an instant-siege scenario. Even after the weighting structures of the zone were confirmed by blue posts, players still complained about the other side cheating to get a mass of siege engines at the start of the game.
Well, there are legitimate bugs that have affected Tol Barad. It was possible to gain massive amounts of honor without ever participating in the battle by walking across the bridge at a certain time. I’m sure we’ll find more bugs as time goes on.
And now we have this rumored exploit.
The presence of one bug lends credence to the idea that there may be others. The bugs of Cataclysm gnaw at our psyches, making us doubt if the world is really working as intended or not. Maybe the other side is cheating. Maybe we should cheat to win, too, because they’re obviously doing it.
This rationalization is the path to the dark side of ourselves. Tread carefully.
THE MANY FAILURES OF TOL BARAD
Rosasharn: Are you guys just mindlessly zerging IC?
Cynwise: Uh, hang on. *checks map* Yes, yes we are.
Rosasharn: *pauses* Er. Why?
Cynwise: *scrolls back through general chat* No one’s running the show. We’re completely leaderless right now.
Cynwise: *pauses* It’s working out well for us, isn’t it?
The Alliance on Durotan-US has gotten its ass kicked in Tol Barad pretty much since it opened. Excepting the Win-Trading Week, we’ve held it for about a day, maybe two, since Cataclysm launched. I’ve been in well-led offenses that can’t crack the 2/3 barrier, and been in total clusters of fun that barely manage to cap 1/3.
So, yeah. I lose Tol Barad every single time I play it. Haven’t won it yet.
I’m pretty firmly convinced that the design of the battleground is the biggest problem Blizzard should address, and that the Horde on Durotan don’t need to do anything but show up and execute a simple defense strategy to hold Tol Barad against the Alliance. The incentives are all there for the Horde to show up – plenty of honor, access to the dailies – and winning has created a culture of success, where they expect to win, they know how to win, they’ll field enough people to win, and if they lose they’ll make it a priority to take it back.
The Alliance, on the other hand, has accepted defeat in Tol Barad.
Rosascharn: How are you guys getting to exalted? That must be a painful grind.
Ermoonia: I’ve wondered the same thing.
Cynwise: *thinks for a minute* I don’t think I know anyone who’s exalted yet. Most people assume it will happen, eventually, but they’re not pushing to get it done.
The mentality of defeat is hard to admit, but honesty compels me to admit it – I don’t see taking Tol Barad as being worth my effort. Will I get all the rewards from there that I want? Sure, with time and some patience. It’s not worth my time and energy to bang up against a really tough battle for some extra gold and a little more progress towards a goal I don’t care all that much about. The gold from the dailies is worthless as a motivator; I make more farming in 10 minutes than those quests reward. The trinket? I’m focused on PvP right now, it’s not the trinket I want. The raid? Hmm. Not raiding right now, and PuGs have always been iffy. The mounts and pets? I’ll get there eventually.
The problem is when individual apathy becomes cultural. The Horde care about holding Tol Barad – they are used to doing it, they have a lot of people interested in the rewards, they have more spirit and enthusiasm for the place than the Alliance. The Alliance doesn’t seem to care. We’re resigned to not having it, so even when we do take it, there’s no cultural impetus to keep it. It’s not a habit Alliance players have formed. Rousing people to keep control of the zone is more work than actually taking it – when we get it, I get texts and twitters from guildmates telling me to get my ass into TB so we can hold it, but it rarely works.
And then there is the problem, clearly demonstrated in watching the Alliance play, that most of the time, we’re not even trying anymore.
Cynwise: Warden’s just fell, so you’re going to Slag next, right?
Cynwise: *laughs* It’s the logical place to go, you’re going Slag. It doesn’t matter, we’re all still zerging Ironclad.
Of the Tol Barad battles I’ve witnessed, some have been good attempts with strong leadership, but many have been rudderless zergs, with AFKers leeching honor while other players raced randomly over the map, each according to their individual whim.
The Horde comes in, they know their plan, they execute it. IC is falling, go WV. WV is falling, go Slag. Slag is falling, go IC. They know that if they execute that plan, they win.
The Alliance doesn’t know how to win, and when it has a plan, it doesn’t execute it properly. The strong leadership isn’t there, because most players have quit Tol Barad out of frustration.
The most sobering finding of my experiment was discovering that Horde on Durotan don’t need to cheat to win. The Alliance simply isn’t playing well enough, and doesn’t care enough as a server faction to hold it for any length of time.
Player frustration is one thing; at least they’re trying to participate in the game. Player apathy is another matter entirely, and far more dangerous to a game developer. I think this was the problem Blizzard was really trying to fix when they increased the Honor Point gain for offensive wins in Tol Barad – they wanted to interrupt this culture of losing before it began.
But here it is. That people have come up with this exploit, real or imagined, is a symptom of that culture.
Players want to play a fair game. They want to think there is a good chance of their winning if their skill and ability is good enough. It doesn’t matter if you look at a game and go, wow, the odds are really in the house’s favor on this one, people can and will convince themselves that they have a good shot of winning. That delusion is normal human psychology at work. We adapt our model of reality to fit our desires, not to fit reality.
If we don’t win a fair game, then the other side must have cheated.
Yet, we delude ourselves – this game was never fair to begin with.
Do not mistake me: I consider this exploit to be a cheat on the level of the Arathi Basin Fast Start exploit. It is deliberately trying to circumvent the rules of the game to achieve victory, and – if I thought it was really happening – I’d agree that this is a bad, bad thing.
But Tol Barad’s problems are deeper and more fundamental than just the rumor of an exploit. The incentives for participating but losing are too low. The rewards are geared wrongly. The capture mechanic, combined with the victory condition, is broken. Something needs to be changed to make it feel more fair. It doesn’t need to be more fair, just give the impression that it’s that way.
CONFRONTING YOUR OWN BIAS
I’m grateful that <Tech Savvy At Risk Youth> let me crash their vent server for this experiment. It was a nice reminder that we’re all playing the same game, no matter what faction we might be representing at the time. It was funny trying to get together for a post-battle screenshot – I kept getting killed by other Horde players, they nearly ran into the Alliance guards – but it offered a sense of completeness to the evening, that post-game handshake that this game lacks.
But I was also struck by how personal an experience these world PvP zones are, how difficult it is to really form an unbiased opinion of them. So much depends on your server dynamics; intra-faction, inter-faction, if guilds are working together to take the zone for the raid boss or not, PvP experience on each side. I am a player in these games, just like you, and I’m acutely uncomfortable crying too loud about how hard Tol Barad is, precisely because my side happens to lose a lot. I worry about that white elephant in the room named QQ a lot whenever I complain publicly.
Seeing your team’s efforts through your opponent’s eyes is a wonderful thing. We sucked as a team during this particular battle. There’s no way to sugar coat it – our side had absolutely no business winning. We lacked the coordination, strategy, and ability to execute.
And we were trying to cheat to win.
Instead working harder, communicating better, and outplaying our opponent – people on my team were trying to cheat the god damn system to win.
That makes me feel pretty damn awful, truth be told.
It’s pretty disappointing to have to face that your teammates are willing to cheat. I don’t want to cheat to win. I want to beat people on fair, even terms. Yes, I advocate using the absolute best gear you can afford when going into a battleground and training your skills to absurd heights for your level. Yes, I advocate using terrain to your advantage.
But I can not condone breaking the rules of the game.
It’s even worse to think that this isn’t unique to Durotan, but is becoming more widespread as the rumor of it spreads. Players are desperate to win, and they will convince themselves that this works. Maybe it does, and I didn’t test it correctly. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s been hotfixed, and it did work before, but not since I tested it. I personally don’t think it ever worked, but it’s not really the point anymore.
We have a PvP encounter which is tuned to be hard for the attacking side. With the introduction of rated Battlegrounds, perhaps Blizzard was expecting more coordinated groups to be fighting in Tol Barad. Ultimately, that’s the kind of discipline and communication you need to win as an attacker! Trying to take the zone in a PuG is the real nightmare.
Perhaps that’s the right analogy to cleave to: just as raids are tuned towards challenging even great raid guilds right now, Tol Barad is oriented towards the rated Battleground groups, where discipline and communication are the norm, and PuGs will, by necessity, suffer.
Or perhaps, that’s how I see it – because I’m losing all the time.
THE TRAGEDY OF TOL BARAD
I looked at Tol Barad when Cataclysm launched, when I was putting together my PvP gear list, and I dismissed it. I was polite about it, but let’s face it – I dismissed it as a source of PvP gear or points.
The Week of Win Trading did nothing to change my mind: the gear is not worth getting for PvP. Period. In an area where Resilience is king, none of those items are good enough to waste your time grinding.
This leaves you a PvP zone with PvE rewards, which baffles me as to how it’s supposed to motivate the right people to come in to make it a good battle. The motivation is for raiders to go and try to get the shiny trinkets and gear; but the raiders are not necessarily the ones who are running rated BGs now. Perhaps that’s it; this is a test of coordination for a raid group, to show them how running a rated battleground would work, to show players that yes, you can do this if you work together. It’s the carrot to get people into battlegrounds.
But it’s frustrating enough that people want to believe the other side cheats, which is not normally the case in normal battlegrounds. (There, people blame their own team for sucking.)
You want to know why you lose a given battleground? 99% of the time, it’s because you were outplayed. Maybe your opponents were better geared. Maybe they stuck to their strategy. Maybe they had a better class composition during the individual engagements. Maybe they used vent or /bg chat. Maybe they were just better players than you were. Whatever it was, you got outplayed. Get over it.
Most of the time, when you lose in PvP, you get over it. You learn what you can from the loss and move on. So you got outplayed in a video game! Big fucking deal. Boo fucking hoo. Get over it.
This started off as a discussion about a simple question – is the raid dropping exploit of Tol Barad real? – but in trying to answer that question, it’s become a discussion of personal motivation and bias, of the desire to win at all costs, of what makes something QQ versus raising legitimate problems with a battleground. The exploit itself is not as important as the fact that people believe it works, that they want it to work.
I think the real tragedy of Tol Barad is not that it’s unbalanced, not that it’s too hard to assault, not that Blizzard turned it into a loot pinata for a week and screwed over the idea of fairness.
No, the real tragedy of Tol Barad is that it’s giving people the wrong idea about what PvP should be like. Winning is not about skill in PvP, or of choosing the right battle at the right time and winning it – no, in Tol Barad, PvP is about working together to cram as many people as possible into a node, and then play musical chairs until someone falls out of a chair.
No wonder people want to cheat.
I find Tol Barad hugely frustrating. I don’t want to write about it too much, because I see that my biases are affecting my judgement on it. There are problems there; lots of problems. But I’m also left wondering: why should I, as a player, even care about the problems anymore?
I wish I had an answer to that.
Update 1/27/2011: Blue post confirms this exploit doesn’t work. Hooray for science!