Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Building a Better Battleground System

The battlegrounds are going through a lot of fine tuning in the upcoming patch. It's not surprising since the developers have admitted that PvP in World of Warcraft is a little too focused on arenas right now. I seems like Blizzard might slowly be moving towards another revamp of the honor system in the future. However, before they upset the balance of power between arena and honor points they probably want to look at sprucing up the individual battlegrounds. At the moment a couple of battlegrounds are vulnerable to stalemates and honor farming expeditions and players can often find themselves trapped. Warsong Gulch is the poster child of the never ending death-match and a twenty minute time limit is a welcome addition.

The resource gathering battlegrounds are not quite as broken as Warsong Gulch, but Blizzard still has a couple of good modifications in the works. Both Arathi Baisin and Eye of the Storm are having their victory conditions changed so that only 1600 resources are required to win a game. Also it looks like Blizzard is finally rewarding players who defend flags by giving flags an aura which increase honor gains by 50%. Another corresponding change is that flags now only take eight seconds to capture instead of ten. This should encourage teams to have players on guard duty or else be very vulnerable to ninjas.

Strands of the Ancients is also getting a slight update, which I think is good idea. The Wrath of the Lich King battleground has surprisingly become a favorite for alliance players and their faction does seem to win it more often. I attribute this to the alliance always starting on offense first which seems to give them a slight mental edge when they manage to take the relic chamber. A sizable percentage of players don't like putting any effort into a game which at best can only become a tie. Thus, the horde suffers from more AFKs mid-game then the alliance. Randomizing the starting position should fix the issue though I'm sure it will make earning honor harder for alliance characters.

Beyond the small tweaks to battlegrounds in Patch 3.2, we can probably expect some major changes further down the line. I have a feeling that we'll be looking at something that allows epic weapons and armor to be earned without a high arena rating within the year. That's not to say that Blizzard will just hand out gear upgrades to anyone with a working battleground bot. Instead, I think we might be looking at some sort of battleground rating system. In the past Blizzard experimented with a match making system for battlegrounds that used the ilevel of a player's gear. It was quickly taken out though, since it caused the queue times to dramatically increase.

However, the current matchmaking system for the arenas is very efficient and I think it could be adapted to the battlegrounds. This might just be the perfect solution to the bots and afk players which have consistently plagued battlegrounds. The current system simply rewards players for being in a battleground and the reporting system really only works in the longer Alterac Valley. If a personal battleground rating was used on some higher level PvP gear it could solve a lot of balance problems in PvP. Currently, the smaller arena brackets suffer from better geared "Ringers" who run friends through late at night. This often results in players who attempt to bring their arena rating up fairly getting pounded. Battlegrounds are much more resilient to this type of manipulation since the games are opposing factions only.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pimp My Gear

I was a little mad when Champions Online and Jumpgate Evolution were delayed, but before I could even fume about it I actually got an invite into the Champions beta. I'm not going to go into any details, but I'm glad to see that Cryptic is keeping true to their history of awesome creation tools. I was always impressed by the character creation process in City of Heroes even if I found the actual gameplay quite boring. In fact a lot of my friends also thought that creating a costumed crime fighter was more fun than playing the game. In college I would often come back from class to find that my roommates had filled all my character slots with cyborg pirates. It's a shame that no other MMO developer has allowed players the same level of customization.

I guess the major reason is because most MMOs work off the diku model, which means that character progression is all about equipment upgrades. If equipment visuals were set at the beginning of the game then most players would probably start off with the most awesome looking weapons and armor they could imagine. Half the reason players like climbing the gear progression ladder is because the higher level stuff tends to look better. Thus, just putting a costume generator from City of Heroes/Champions into a WoW clone is probably a bad idea. Still this doesn't mean that a such a system couldn't be adapted for an equipment based game.

I think one good idea would be to meld the City of Heroes character creation system into crafting. It would require some fine tuning, but such a system would probably create a strong game economy as some players made their own gear. Developers could even use item rarity to limit the "awesomeness" of weapons and armor. A plain looking pattern or design could require crafting materials from low level mobs while the more spectacular ones could require items from dungeon bosses. While not everyone would want to design their own gear, I think a lot of players would appreciate more variation in equipment. This is especially true at the end game of MMOs like World of Warcraft where tier sets tend to make everyone look the same.

It's a very boring system and I don't know any valid reasons why everyone should look the same. I've heard the argument that it's good for PvP so that you can visually recognize weaker and stronger targets. That may have been true in the past, but the user interfaces for these types of games have improved over the years. Most now allow opponents to see hitpoints and mana, which are pretty good indicators of a player's equipment status. I don't think there is any good reason for not opening up a complex crafting system which allows players to customize the visual look of items they make. I realize that a lot of developers are afraid of "the time to penis", but City of Heroes has managed to avoid the issue.

I really hope the MMOs that come out over the next couple years start adopting the same level of customization seen in City of Heroes. I'm getting awfully tired of everyone looking the same when I raid or PvP. It's especially painful when the graphic artists are rushed and you get some of the ugly armor sets seen in Wrath of the Lich King.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Please Play Our Game Less - Go Outside or Something

Most players are aware that the next patch for World of Warcraft will be changing Wintergrasp into a somewhat bastardized mix of open world pvp and battelground instances. I almost used the term "hybrid" to describe this change, but I think that implies beneficial traits being mixed together. Nothing can be further from the truth in this situation since the changes are designed to make Lake Wintergrasp less popular with players. This trend was noted by a lot of different bloggers earlier in the year when Blizzard switched the Wintergrasp quests from a daily format to a weekly one. There's a definite sense of irony in trying to make parts of your game less popular so you can avoid latency issues.

It's not like changing the quests to a weekly format had any real effect in making Lake Wintergrasp less popular either. Both factions still desire loot from the Vault of Archavon and tokens for winning games are still useful for freshly minted level 80 players. That's probably why Blizzard has decided to take the limiting factor of battleground queues and mix it with the reset timer of world PvP objectives. Thus the servers only have to deal with about a hundred players being squeezed into a small area once every three hours. Of course I'm pretty sure more then a hundred people want to participate in Lake Wintergrasp, but hey it's their fault for playing such a popular game in the first place.

I might be overdoing the sarcasm here, but Blizzard seems to have this new attitude of ignoring any problems brought on by limited server resources. They may have broken all sorts of sales records with Wrath of the Lich King, but they sure aren't in a hurry to use that money on additional processing power for servers. I can't entirely blame them for not rushing to upgrade since the number of concurrent users has been dropping over the last few months. No reason to rush and spend money in a tough economy when the demand might not be there in the future. Hell, I can even run instances during the weekdays now without constantly running into the dreaded "Server cannot create additional instances" message.

However, Blizzard is walking a fine line by avoiding architecture upgrades by implementing bad game design. The next patch may reduce the lag problems in Lake Wintergrasp, but it's sure to cause a lot of resentment when people keep missing the queue. Also I wonder about the proposed changes to emblems in the heroic dungeons. I think it's a great idea to let dungeon players catch up with raiders. However, it's sure to have large numbers of players flocking back to heroic dungeons just as the new raid zone goes live. On the weekend it can still take me 10-15 minutes to create an instance for my group and I'm expecting the problem to only get worse after the patch. Hopefully, Blizzard has some sort of solution and it doesn't involve re-working the daily dungeon quests into a weekly format. Otherwise I fear World of Warcraft might be starting to implode from the weight of its own success.