Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Warhammer Faction Balance Finally Hits Home

About a year ago now, I predicted that balancing faction populations was going to be the make or break issue for Warhammer. It turns out that I was only half right. First, the game needed to fix its general performance and polish issues to get players to stay around long enough to encounter lopsided endgame population balance issues. Now that the numbers appear to have stabilized (in the 300K subscriber range), the game is ready to have the problem that I predicted would be its major challenge.

How is it going? Let's check Keen's blog for his latest observations:
"On Dark Crag Order has our King on farm status. We’re locked out of the city more than we’re allowed to enter these days."

The situation is so imbalanced that he believes that Order will completely dominate the new contested Land of the Dead zone when it launches.

When in doubt, blame WoW
In fairness, Blizzard did their best to steal Warhammer's launch thunder. I can understand some degree of animosity. However, there does come a point at which blaming WoW for everything, even if it's partially true, becomes somewhat moot.

Case in point, Mythic's Jeff Skalski has an interview with Massively in which he blames World of Warcraft for the fact that keep flipping happened in their game. You see, WoW players aren't like players of real MMORPG's.
"They don't know what EQ was like, they don't know what UO was like, they don't know what MUDs are, so they don't have this broad concept. They just want stuff now and they want to get out quickly. They want instant gratification and they want to be constantly patted on the back with an enthusiastic, "Good job, good job!"

What was the effect of having literally hundreds of thousands of these instant-gratification-obsessed WoW kiddies paying Mythic $50 a piece to try out their carefully designed incentive structure?
"What ended up happening was the players began taking the path of least resistance. Players even went to lengths to avoid one another, and that really confused us. We thought they had bought our game to RvR, but they're avoiding enemies! Then we had things like keep trading and round robin keeps going on...."

After all, no player of any game before World of Warcraft ever looked for shortcuts in the incentive curve. Also, it makes perfect sense for someone trying to design the next great PVP MMORPG never to play a single match of Alterac Valley.

What can be done?
Sniping at WoW aside, Skalski says that the goal of the new Land of the dead is not to replace the game's premiere city sieges. This is a mistake.

As Keen notes, the underpopulated realm on any given server loses access to the basic PVE instances that they need access to in order to obtain gear. On paper, that sounded like a good plan; players should really care about losing their city. The problem is that, in a non-instanced world, there isn't very much the players can do about losing their city. (See my comment on a loading screen tip to the effect of "what are you waiting for, go get your keep back!" from the month when I played the game.) Mythic stated that they did not want to create a situation where the losing side does not have any incentive to log in while their city is under enemy control, but that appears to be precisely what has happened.

All of which gets back to the Land of the Dead. As devs, including Mythic apparently, learn to their peril, players go where the incentives are. The solution, then, is to put the best loot in the contested Land of the Dead. This would encourage the victorious side to focus their efforts on that zone.

With the primary focus shifted elsewhere, Mythic would be free to make the process of actually laying siege to a city far more difficult. Players would still do it occasionally for prestige (much as players attack WoW's faction leaders today), but there wouldn't be as much of a reason to permanently occupy the enemy's city. This, in turn, would allow the outnumbered side less restricted access to the city dungeons, where they can actually gain the gear to compete during an occasional forray into contested territory. Also, use of a contested instance lessens the odd contradiction where the overall point of the RVR endgame is to gain access to a PVE King instance encounter.

Does this defeat the purpose of the whole "impact PVP" city siege model? Partially, yes. But so does having the best players, like Keen, flee their servers until the game is left with a bunch of one-sided zergfests. If you do not provide players with something more entertaining to do than being slaughtered mercilessly by a larger, better geared force, they will quit. Even if we accept the absurd proposition that this situation is Blizzard's fault, fixing it is now Mythic's problem.


DeftyJames said...

Exactly. The number one problem in game development is that developers try to impose their vision of what their world should be on the players, forgetting in the process that the players are footing the bill and want to impose their vision of the game on the developers.

In truth, it's a negotiated process and one thing that makes WoW so successful is that Blizzard listens to their players. (And by listening to their players I do not mean the forums!) I mean crunching the numbers and seeing what their players are actually doing (a la Sunwell.)

Anjin said...

Just thinking out loud here. I never played DAOC, but I understand many people have sited the three sided conflict as the major factor in faction balance. We know Aion has two player factions and an NPC faction to simulate that. I wonder if an NPC faction in WAR could help serve the same purpose.

Snafzg said...

Great points and proposed fix to be sure, but we'll still be left with a fundamental issue WAR currently experiences.

When a city is under siege, the entire RvR campaign locks down for two hours, which means you can't participate in any form of RvR unless you're in the city siege itself. When a city is taken, it gets locked down for 16 hours.

City siege basically nullifies non-city RvR.

The same will happen with the new LotD zone. One side will gain control and everyone from that realm will enter Land of the Dead (for the first few months anyway since it's shiny and new). That will drain people out of the RvR lakes, meaning the losing side has no-one to fight.

Their only option will be RvE to gain control of the zone again so they can purge the enemies from the LotD zone. Most people will participate in the purge because they'll be starved for action, which drains the RvR lakes even more.

Rinse. Repeat. Lame. :P

WAR is truly suffering from a lack of a third realm.

Syrana said...

Wow, those were some bold assumptions he made in that interview... because, clearly, people that play WoW and then Warhammer Online never played the "classic" MMORPGs. *rolls eyes*

Do I deny the fact that many people want instant gratification and pats on the back? No. But that's not just a WoW player issue, that's something I see more and more in society itself.

Yeah, it's definitely at the point where blaming WoW is getting old... WoW is not the source of all their problems.

Stabs said...

Honestly their whole attitude to population balance has been to ignore the issue.

DAOC had some weaknesses with regard to balance, I believe it was Midgard that was the generally less popular one. But to go into a two faction game with no faction controls or incentives whatsoever was pure pure dumbness.

They either needed control (eg toggle: this server is now only accepting new players of the Order faction) or incentives (eg you will start out with +5 stats if you roll Order on this server now).

Just ignoring the problem and trusting the players to be honorable enough to select the losing side out of altruism is ..... words fail me. Have these guys never heard Raph Koster talk about "the enemy"?

Yeebo said...

I tend to agree with Snag. The real issue is that a game focused on RvR style PvP can't function well with only two factions. Either have three factions ala DAoC, or allow the players to self segregate into numerous factions ala EVE.

Kash said...

I have never thought a third faction to be the holy grail of balance that everyone seems to think it is. Simply a mechanisim that lets two of the biggest beat down on the smallest.

Mythic's biggest mistake was their Beta. The players had no attachment to their characters and simply fought because they wanted to. Turn on live and suddenly getting that gear is important as its never going to get wiped. In that environment the flaws in endgame were never going to be realised.

That all said I still blame the players for a lot of this. On my server balance has swung one way or the other a few times for a period of a month or more. It is not caused by quitting but simply people logging off as suddenly when their realm starts winning again a LOT of people suddenly reappear. Thats just poor sportsmanship and theres not a heap Mythic can do about it except maybe a losers buff or two.

BryanM said...

It's an innate flaw in the sharded universe structure. Given a series of zone instances, ala Guild Wars 2, where sides would be much more evenly matched, the overall side preference is what becomes relevant. The problem then becomes the overpopulated side tends to put up with more boredom. Surprisingly, this is a problem with a simple fix: add more boobs to the unpopular side.

Also this allows the population to express itself more throughly the game, to lessen the chance of utterly empty lakes. As the entire population of the game could have the chance to play together in an unpopular area.

It's tiresome in this day and age that isolating players from one another is still somehow the default design decision.

warrior guide said...

I do not agree with everything said in the OP.

You talk about instant gratification and that only WoW player think that way, but that's plainly wrong.

The demand for instant gratification is wired into every human brain and our culture goes great lenght to satisfy it.

It's also true that WoW gives more instant grat. than other games and attracts MORE of players this way.

I'm playing WoW myself and tried Warhammer when it was published and the only reason i quit was because I couldn't meet enough friends/enemies and the performance was just terrible.

But anyhow... when it comes to instant gratifications, every player responds to it. Some more than others.