Monday, May 12, 2008

Population Balance and World PVP

Tobold ponders "Will Order or Chaos prevail in WAR?". This has been my big question about Warhammer - how do you reconcile a system where the side with more people wins with real lasting consequences? (Warhammer promises to allow the sacking of capitol cities, which can leave the losing side without auction houses or bankers as a penalty even after they suffer the indignity of being bailed out by NPC's.)

Personally, I play on a PVE server in WoW because I don't find anything especially enjoyable about being killed while questing, not being able to enter instances because one side is occupying the portal, etc. (Apparently, a non-zero number of people who rolled on a PVP server, thinking it would make them more hardcore, don't like these things either.) I suppose spirit shards are actually a decent bonus, the [Mark of Defiance] is a great trinket for casters (though your side need not WIN to get the tokens for it), and it's good to have access to the vendors in Halaa once every so often when you have stuff to turn in. In general, though, WoW's world PVP is not about lasting consequences, and therefore the fact that superior numbers carry the day matters less.

My main experience with numbers-matter PVP was in LOTRO's Ettenmoors. Players can roll up a "monster character", basically controlling a level 50 mob. It's actually very well done - playing a stealthy Warg, shadowing the enemy raid and its healers, you really get the flavor of THINKING like a Warg, lurking until the moment is right and preferably striking in a pack. Problem is, the "creep" side needs to kill players to get rank to unlock their skills, and the game is balanced such that the creeps need a slight numeric advantage (or turtling in their NPC keeps) to stand a chance. If there are no organized groups of freeps roaming around, hordes of bored creeps wander the countryside, killing any brave or foolish adventurers. If organized groups do show up - which happens on a semi-regular basis since people are more likely to care about rank on their persistent player character than a relatively disposable creep - the freeps can steamroll their way across the zone.

There are several ways to balance this sort of situation. Blizzard's approach to battlegrounds was to instance everything and cap entry so that the sides are even (at least before AFK'ers, etc), but that inherently takes away the persistent part of the equation. Turbine's was to make several attempts to design and introduce super units - Trolls for the creeps and Rangers for the freeps - and make more of these super units available to whichever side was losing at the moment. They've had to pull the feature several times due to bugs that let people deploy more Rangers/Trolls than intended, and I didn't have time to see how the system has evolved in the last six months during the weekend's re-trial.

As to Warhammer? Well, it's a bit too early to say for sure - there are few details available, and those could all change since it is still a beta. But, with the stakes higher than you see in either WoW or LOTRO, the balance is far far more critical to Warhammer's success. Someone in the comments section at Tobold's suggested that they are considering carrots to encourage people to join the losing side (if I remember, DAOC had this feature too), but also sticks to try and slow down the winners - e.g. faction specific queues (not much unlike Blizzard's battleground queue only for the entire server).

I cannot imagine a commercially successful game telling players that they cannot play their characters because their side is too popular at the moment and having that go over well. Players want to play with their friends, not on some other faction or server. But, at the same time, the losing side is going to go from losing to nonexistent if players log in to find their cities destroyed and themselves zerged under every time they enter contested territory.

I wish them all the best, because I'd rather see more competition for Blizzard to force them to keep on their toes, but this issue is going to literally make or break their game.


Christian said...

I think this is one of the huge major super-key issues for a heavily pvp mmo. Thank you for the link to more discussion on it.

Personally, I think Order will have a much bigger appeal to the "I want to play a pretty" demographic, and the counterargument that Order still does nasty things in-game (and thus aren't the "good guys") isn't as convincing, since most of that demographic is not particularly in-tune with WFB lore. The humans, elves, and dwarves are "good guys" on face, even if in-game things are different. And it is also worth noting that Order is getting invaded, so at least initially there is another heartstring pull for those guys. It'll be left to be seen how much of an effect that slice of players will have on the larger RvR goals, though.

BTW, I have recently stumbled on your blog, and give both your analysis and your choice of topics 70 billion thumbs up. Really cool idea for blog topics. I look forward to being a regular reader.

Green Armadillo said...

Thanks for the kind words! :)

I carefully didn't venture a guess in my original post, and I'm not convinced that it's possible to predict this accurately. If Order comes out on top, I think your explanation will rule the day. That said, a few things that Chaos has going for it:

- Scantily clad Dark Elves. Sad, but true, BE's made a big impact on The Horde.
- Elite Backlash. Many of WoW's elite prefer the Horde because they wanted to get away from the pretty demographic. This factor could be magnified because A) many fans of other MMO's hate WoW and blame it for everyone playing their game that they don't like and B) many players will WANT to be on the winning side so their city wins instead of losing.
- Lore? I don't know much about Warhammer lore, but it seems like the Greenskin Horde gets the same kind of devotion from fans that WoW's Horde gets at Blizzcon. I could be totally wrong on that, but there might also be some factor of choosing the race that looks like bad guys precisely because they look more badass.

If I really had to guess, I'd guess that Order will still win out because of WoW's demographics (you have to figure that most potential Warhammer players have played WoW), but I won't be shocked if it goes the other way, or even if it varies from server to server as players look to join the winning team (the exact opposite of what Mythic wants). The truth is, crowded servers/factions tend to get MORE crowded as new players come to join their friends, and these factors won't make the balance easier.

From a design perspective, though, it doesn't matter which side wins, only that one side is going to outnumber the other, and it's going to fall to the developers to find a way to make that work.

Christian said...

Good points. I hadn't thought of the Blood Witch Effect (*rolleyes*).

I wonder how easy rerolling will be. I'd think that the easier it is, the more likely people would be willing to switch sides. Even if capitol cities are being razed for about a day every few weeks, that sides Scenario queues are going to be significantly longer all the time, leading some people to want to be on the underplayed side despite any additional top-down buffs.