Thursday, March 6, 2008

Entry 7: A Tale of Two Warcrafts

It wasn't so long ago that the idea of gearing yourself through PVP was at best a fool's errand, and at worst a massive time sink that led not a few High Warlords to outright quit as soon as they reached the top. The changes to the honor system and the introduction of Battlegroups made group PVP - gasp - fun again. This post isn't about the BGs, though. It's about the relatively sudden shift I've felt in the way the game is being managed, most notably, by the seeming reversal on the way the developers seem to be handling class balancing issues.

All of this, of course, stems from the introduction of the Arena system.

For those of you who have never attempted it, the Arena system allows players to organize themselves into teams of 2, 3, or 5 and engage in gladiatorial matches against other such teams. Players earn arena points, rank, and require both to purchase the Seasonal gear (or S1 for Arena Season 1, S2 for Season 2, etc). The Arena gear is a PVP mirror of equivalent Tiers in the PVE gear sets. S3 is roughly equivalent to T6, for example. Blizzard has tried to time the releases of new Seasons to coincide with new PVE sets becoming more frequently distributed throughout the game population, and in this way maintain a balance in itemization between PVE and PVP. They are trying, it seems, to avoid the problem that was so prevalent during classic WoW PVP where guilds who had the end-game instances on farm could, at a whim, enter into the battlegrounds and obliterate the opposing side. Now that the PVPers have gear on-par with the Raiders, that doesn't happen quite as often.

Let me go on-record saying that, as a player, I have no problem with the gear that people can get through PVP. I think it's a great way to let players earn their equipment on their own terms. There is enough of a difference in both the way PVP is played versus PVE, and in the critical stat values specific to the two sides. Eveyrone in PVP needs a healthy amount of damage mitigation, for instance, while in PVE the non-tanks (barring the odd resistance-skewed fight) don't have to worry about it as much. In some cases there is an overlap in gearing objectives, such as with PVE tanks using Resilience to help improve their survivability against raid bosses, but for the most part they are separate animals. A fully-geared PVP-er will not do as well as a fully geared PVE-er in PVE, and vice versa. Fair enough.

The problem seems to run much deeper than that. Up until just recently, Blizzard has maintained that it does not try to balance classes against each other, but rather against the game as a whole. That's why we have the rock-paper-warlock, er, scissors, relationship between the different classes. A warlock has an advantage against a mage who has an advantage against a warrior, and on and on. As a warlock, I recognize that some classes will just beat me into the ground more often than not (*cough*Rogues*cough*), and try to work with that limitation.

Now take a look at what Kalgan just posted on the official forums, in regards to the revoked Life Tap changes. Take your time, I'll continue when you're done.

Did you see the switch?

The developers are using the relative representation of the classes in the top tiers of the Arena ladder to determine class balancing issues. Any class that is 'over performing' might be due for a nerf, and one that is grossly under-represented due for a buff.

That is what sparked the whole Life Tap incident, it seems. They were starting to see too many Warlocks in the top tiers. Apparently though this data was more of a flux than they originally thought, because new numbers indicate that the Warlock Trend was receding. No problem = no least for now.

Anyone else find this really disturbing? They were ready to implement a class-sweeping change over what ended up being a spike in PVP numbers, and it certainly doesn't seem like anything the community brought up swayed their opinions at all. That, in my opinion, is the whole problem with using the PVP world to manage how classes interact with one another: the information is too volatile to support any concrete conclusions on class imbalance.

PVP, more so than most other aspects of Warcraft, is the aspect of the game that is most intensely affected by human performance. Sure, the skill of raiders is instrumental in the completion of a new encounter, but bosses are predictable (to an extent). They can be learned, tested, mastered. It's not like Attumen has three talent trees that he can play around with to "surprise" raiders the next time they come a'calling.

Players discover new interactions, new synergies, all the time. Some of these synergies provide them with tactical advantages over other teams. These synergies are not limited to in-class interactions (let's face it, talent trees have been analyzed to death), but more importantly to cross-class interactions. The SL/SL spec would not nearly be so effective if the pairing was sub-optimal, say (forgive me if I offend), with a prot-spec warrior. Of all the talents and abilities of all the classes, it does not surprise me that some combinations prove to be more effective than others. But these trends, at best, should be transitory. Players learn and adapt, they ferret out the weaknesses of the reigning strategy and depose it. Engaging a sweeping change because of a spike in a particular strategy is poor game management because it's so short-sighted. If Blizz keeps this up, they'll be playing whack-a-class forever.

If the new Tournament Server is any indication, Blizzard seems very determined to springboard the Arena game into the spotlight of competitive, legitimate sport gaming. Excuse me, but Warcraft will never be Halo, or Unreal Tournament. The key to any digital sport is the emphasis that it's player skill, not class design, that determines victory. Every character in Halo is the same, with the same access to weapons and defenses that everyone else has. It's a level field. Warcraft, by the admission of the developers themselves, is NOT a level field when it comes to PVP. Forcing the game to be such not only flies in the face of its basic premise and design (that of a cooperative environment where every class has a distinct role to play), but seeks conform the majority of game play to suit a perceived discrepancy in a comparatively minor field.

To be fair, we are likely only seeing the tip of the iceberg that is the reasoning of the developers when it comes to class balancing issues, but let me reiterate: it's a pretty ugly tip. How do you resolve the problem of having a class be perfectly suited to PVE, yet grossly unrepresented in PVP? Do you buff it to the point where you break the PVE game? Do you leave alone the class that is doing well in PVP, yet has horrible representation in the end-game of raiding? How is one metric more important than the other?

There now seem to be two Worlds of Warcraft, one firmly entrenched in PVE, and the other fighting it out in PVP. The abilities critical to successful PVE are deemed overpowered and un-fun for PVP, and the specs necessary to survive in PVP are sub-optimal for PVE. Just how much further is this schism going to grow before Blizzard bites the bullet and either implements totally different mechanics for problem abilities, or just makes a whole new game entirely?


It just occurred to me. Perhaps this is all just a smokescreen? Perhaps Kalgan made that comment about class representation in the top tier as some elaborate distraction. Perhaps, in reality, the developers are just trying to avoid coming outright and saying that, yes, they really screwed up and were very sorry for the whole misunderstanding. compelling. I loves me a good conspiracy theory.


Logan said...

If Kalgan's comments are indeed Blizzard's REAL reason for the warlock nerf, then it should logically follow that Blizzard is currently working on nerfing the most-represented class in PvP (aside from Druids): Warriors.

But Kalgan plays a warrior...

And he's a developer...


Ferenczys said...

A valid point, but is it fair to say that its warriors alone that are so effective in the arenas, or is it warriors as long as they come with a pocket healer?

I don't arena enough to be able to provide an authoritative answer. Any other readers care to comment?

Logan said...

That's a fair question, but it's besides the point if we're to believe Kalgan's assertion that the reason for the warlock nerf rollback is because warlocks aren't as highly represented in arenas as Blizzard previously thought. Whether they're effective on their own or not, warriors are very highly represented in arenas. If we follow Kalgan's reasoning to it's logical conclusion, then warriors should be due for a nerf...

...and yet there's no mention of any plans to do so.

Ferenczys said...

I agree with you, I'd love to know what the answer really is. More so, I'd like to see arena breakdowns by team composition. I think that would really help push this discussion along.