Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Is Stealth worth the Trouble?

There's been a recent uproar on the Warhammer beta front with EA Mythic backtracking on promises to keep the stealth mechanic out of their game. Many blogs over the last couple of weeks have covered the story and spun it towards issues of beta leaks or developer integrity. I see the issue a little bit different and think the interesting part of the story is that so many players are against having a stealth mechanic. It's not exactly a game breaking design flaw like buff bots or warlocks. Yet it obviously evokes strong feelings of animosity. I guess you have to look at where the majority of Warhammer's fan base is coming from to understand the very loud outcry.

Basically most of Warhammer's fan base is coming from World of Warcraft. So it's not that the players hate the stealth mechanic that EA Mythic introduced in their last beta build. Instead it's that stealth from World of Warcraft has such a bad association with it that most people think it breaks PvP to have it in a game. The element of surprise has always been important in real world combat and this seems to be holding true in the virtual world also. Add in the popularity of stealth classes for farming and you have a situation where there are always going to be stealthed classes fighting near lower level players who are leveling and questing. Thus you get a lot of people who don't have exactly fond memories of the game mechanic and see it firmly as a ganking tool.

Warhammer attempted to avoid the whole stealth issue by not having any form of it in their game. Though they obviously ran into some problems with the survivability of lightly armored melee classes. I'm sure those classes were simply getting slaughtered too quickly since they had to close the distance against range classes. Now a logical response might be to give them a bonus against range damage but that could be construed as a nerf against casters. As a result I'm betting stealth managed to sneak into Warhammer since it could be used to close distance and didn't nerf any abilities. Of course EA Mythic thought that people would be logical and see their version of stealth was completely different from WoW. Boy, were they wrong.

Right now we have a situation where developers have to treat stealth very carefully. Just like fear the ability is only mildly useful in PvE content but it can be game breaking in PvP. The situation can also be made better or worse depending on what other abilities a game gives their stealth classes. It's honestly become such a balancing act that new MMOs have come up with different approaches for what is a very traditional ability in fantasy games.

1) No Stealth
This seems to be the most popular stance with the hardcore PvP crowd who aren't partial to the stealth mechanic. They argue it’s too hard to balance in a MMO and leads to exploits and ganking. Some people like the excitement stealth adds to the game. Though most people agree this applies to balanced PvP encounters. EA Mythic was running with the no stealth design for quite some time and had attracted a wide following of people. The common opinion seemed to be that Warhammer would deliver the balanced PvP that had long been promised by Blizzard but never really delivered.

2) Everyone gets Stealth
The thinking behind this approach is that stealth is a cool game mechanic but to avoid balance problems everyone should get it. Age of Conan is using this approach which seems to go very well with their organized guild warfare system. Can anyone say mass ambush? They are going to allow one class, the Assassin, to have a better form of stealth but apparently everyone gets the basic ability. This could cause some balancing issues where Assassins might get an advantage in ganking players. However, if rumors are true then this game sounds a lot like EvE Online where being a ganker/pirate carries its own risk of player reprisals.

3) Only PvE, So Who Cares
As mentioned before stealth is only a so-so ability in PvE oriented game play and the developers don't have to worry about it being used to terrorize the newbie zones. Plus no one is going to use stealth to kill a NPC that has 100,000 more hp then them. The worse thing is they might be able to sneak their way into some extra gold by opening treasure chests. Unfortunately, the recent trend in MMO's is to focus on end game PvP since it takes less development time then raid dungeons. As a result it could probably be awhile before we see another PvE game that includes a traditional rogue class.

In the end the changes to how MMO's treat stealth are a direct result of player feedback. It seems if you go by general game forums then most players would prefer not having stealth in their next MMO. At the very least people don't want it combined with stun attacks and burst damage. It will be interesting to see if games without a traditional form of stealth suffer in subscription numbers or if it has no effect whatsoever. Already some lines seem to be drawn in the sand with the different approaches Age of Conan and Warhammer are taking. Some people are already theorizing that Warhammer will be the ultimate balanced PvP game while Age of Conan will be a twitchy gankfest. Could the stealth mechanics in each game already be influencing opinions even before open open beta?


David said...


Think you are forgetting that Mythic made DAOC, where entire guilds were built around the stealth mechanic. Stealthers roaming the RVR battlegrounds made playing stealth classes an almost necessity

Henrik said...

All of a sudden I'm not sure I'll start playing WAR. But maybe I will. Stealth might be ok, but not game mechanics that removes control from the player. Like fear and stun. They just suck.

Relmstein said...

DAOC had worse problems then stealth creating unfair advantages between classes. Since they were really the first PvP oriented MMO they kept running into problems like buffbots and that one expansion that forced people to PvE to get better gear.

Also I'm not sure since my experience with DAOC is limited but I don't crowd control wasn't spread around as much as it is in WoW.

Warhammer's stealth mechanic should be okay since at the moment it only allows the lightly armored classes to close distance and put a mana dot on the target. Plus the chances are high that it will be removed soon. This is from beta leak sources so its also unreliable.

Captain Angry said...

People will likely bitch no matter what it is.

Whether its stealth, fear, stunning, temporary invulnerability, or what have you it doesn't matter. Everybody will hate everybody else for their strongest (cheapest) signature abilities. Its just the nature of the beast.

You can't just reduce the game down to people auto attacking one another. Truly balanced MMO PVP (like the cake) is a lie.

Relmstein said...

OMG! There is no cake.

sid67 said...

I wrote an article on my blog on Monday inspired by the debate on Keen’s blog. The basic premise is rethinking the stealth mechanic into an alternate phase or shadow world. I’m just playing around with a design idea, but I think it could be pretty cool.

[…] I read a book years ago where our assassin/thief/hero could enter into a Shadow World in order to enter buildings and such unseen. In this Shadow World, he was unable to see people in the real world. He could, however, see other people visiting this Shadow World and the horrific creatures that made the Shadow World their home. [...]

Anonymous said...

As beta stands for war atm, its not stealth but nuker dps that is the biggest deal and 10 second fights, which mythic tires to stretch out for about the double.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, i'm not in beta so i'M not breaking nda. Just speculating.

Relmstein said...

Yes, I hear stealth in War doesn't really give you a combat advantage of any kind especially compared with some of the casters. Still people are just plain tired of abilities that seem unfair in PvP. Stuns, Fears and especially stealth are going to be unpopular in a game that sells itself as the next PvP sensation.

Anonymous said...

Non of that is actually in. Light melee imply needs a way to et close to casters, thus I think many melee classes will get a kind of spring or stealth ability.

Trevel said...

Is there a point to make the distinction between "able to close in and start a fight close up" and "being able to do explosive burst damage to a target when doing the prior"? I mean, is the problem stealth, or stealth attacks?

What would happen if stealth was coupled with a rage-like mechanic -- you could close the distance, but you needed to put some time into the fight before you could use the heavy-hitting skills?

Neri said...

Half the issue with stealth in most games is that you can very well roam the countryside in it with no penalty whatsoever besides it taking longer to get from point A to point B. If you want to stalk somebody for an hour, mess with their heads (A great way of doing this in WoW was sapping or using distract), you are perfectly free to do so at little to no risk to yourself.

The other issue is the ease of returning to stealth. It only takes 5 seconds to drop combat flagging in WoW PvP, and so long as it's been 10 seconds since you exited stealth, poof back you go into stealth mode. The rogue class even has a 5 minute cooldown where it can restealth in the middle of combat.

These two abilities, more so than any 'surprise' advantage, are the cause of player complaints. Surprise can be dealt with. Invisible people that can follow you forever and even if caught out can get back to being invisible quickly are a much larger pain to deal with than someone you didn't see for whatever reason attacking you.