World vs World vs World. WvWvW. WvW. WuvWuv. We have many names for it, but today we finally have some concrete information. Having read that fantastic blog post early this morning, I have to say that I was truly filled with hope about this PvP mode. Typically I have found large-scale PvP to be something that always sounded cool in concept and almost always ended up in tears and Zerg. Is that inevitable? Is large-scale PvP just a dream that in the end will always come down to Zerg-fests? Can players coordinate large-scale tactics, and what’s more, is there any incentive to? Can server imbalance break PvP in half? Do the developers even care? These are all very important questions to be asking when developing a system meant for large-scale combat. The infrastructure and design decisions laid down in the infancy of a feature can have wide-ranging and powerful consequences.
Now, I’m no fortune-teller, but having played a lot of games and having spent a lot of time analyzing the systems that lead to success and failure, I can say that I feel that ANet is doing all the right things in their designs. Before getting into the systems of GW2, I’m going to spend a little time talking about other experiences I have had and why they didn’t work out well. I’ll start mostly be talking about my last experience with large-scale PvP: Aion.
The road to bad PvP is paved with good intentions
As a bit of background, Aion had two main kinds of PvP: Invasions (via rifts) and The Abyss which was a large multi-tiered PvPvE area. It was quite large and filled with various keeps/castles that could be occupied by both factions. There was a third faction of monsters that would also periodically attack in force to try to keep things interesting. In many ways, Aion’s Abyss sounds a lot like WvW on paper. It’s a separate zone, there are three factions, there are player-controlled keeps and some weapons to break into the keeps (battering rams). Both systems involved large numbers of players on both teams, and both were (essentially) consensual, meaning that you knew full well that this area was made for PvP and you didn’t ever need to go there.
Unfortunately, the Abyss was kind of a mess. The design decisions behind it were in my opinion only half realized or were poor decisions from the inception. Although the Abyss was large, there were not actually very many places that you could actually “control”. You could have people wherever you wanted, but you only were in possession of a small number of keeps. As a result, it tended to cause tightly condensed battlegrounds with a huge number of players because there just wasn’t all that much to actually capture. Adding to this focus even more, the keeps were not able to be attacked during certain times because they had invincible barriers. In their defense, this was because holding a keep allowed members of your faction to access PvE instances, so they wanted to give some time to let people actually do those once their faction had control. It was a design decision with a solid motivator, but the PvP outcome was undesirable. So not only were there few valid places to group up and attack, but those places could only be attacked at certain times, meaning everyone who wanted to participate would be there at the same time.
The outcome of these decisions was that you would have a huge number of players on each side basically forming battle lines. They would sort of stand (or fly) there waiting for it all to break out while occasionally taking pot shots at one another. The end result once combat started was basically a huge, uncoordinated, chaotic cluster frak and whichever side had more people would win. Even worse, the game lagged so bad when there were that many players all in close proximity all firing off their abilities. Not only was the system not programmed adequately to handle those confrontations, the designs of the keeps, the map, and the timing all encouraged the biggest weakness of the system. This problem was even further compounded by server imbalances. Frequently one race was far more popular than the other, and since the Abyss was only warring between the two races on one server, one side or another typically had a huge advantage over the other.
Looking for a fair fight
Despite their basic similarities, I think that the decisions ANet has made for WvW are more well thought out and are all there to create a fantastic experience. It seems clear to me that they have considered the ramifications of each mechanic and have attempted to create elements that synergize with one another and work to relieve many of the common problems that large-scale PvP tends to have. Let’s take faction imbalance for starters. Frequently one side is more popular than another and leads to unregulated PvP having a vast numerical advantage for one side. GW2 does not have factions, so already this problem is somewhat mitigated. Servers are generally much closer in population than the factions within them are to one another, so the likelihood of noticeable imbalance is reduced. They haven’t solidified the details on server switching yet, but ANet has confirmed explicitly multiple times that players will be able to switch between servers for free, albeit with some form limiting rule to prevent abuse. With the ability to switch servers, servers will be even more likely to be roughly even in population. Yet another reinforcing mechanic is that each time the WvW session completes, the servers will be ranked and be paired up with other servers of similar rank. Not only will this measure ensure better competition among severs, it will likely be a good indicator of server participation and therefor reinforce server balance. If one server has a very meek showing in WvW, they will be ranked much lower and will be very unlikely to be matched up against servers with very active WvW groups.
But wait, there’s more! Not only are servers matched up by skill, and by extension participation, but there are three sides to this fight. If one side does happen to be dominating, this setup allows for the other two sides to work together… at least until their inevitable betrayal. Having one server outnumber another is conceivable. Having one server outnumber two servers? Highly unlikely. Not only does the mechanic prevent gross imbalance, it also adds yet another layer of strategy. Is it better to attack but leave your flank open for the third faction? Is it better to be proactive, or better to watch and wait for the other two factions to start fighting and take advantage of their positional or numeric weakness?
One of the main problems with PvP in many games is Zerging. If anyone is unaware, Zerg is a race in Starcraft that is particularly known for swarming with numbers (of typically weaker/cheaper units). In MMOs it refers to everyone just piling up into a big ball and just rushing head to head with the enemies, usually just swallowing up any smaller group. There are essentially only two ways to beat a Zerg scenario: make a bigger Zerg ball yourself, or split up and never directly engage them. Unfortunately, most MMOs do not facilitate the latter method. There is typically one big objective or no objective at all save killing all the enemies. As such, there really is nothing to do but Zerg up. After all, fighting 100 vs 50 and then 100 vs 50 is far easier (for the 100) than fighting 100 vs 100. In Aion, the timing of the sieges and a complete lack of secondary objectives was the perfect recipe for massive Zerg-offs. To take a game that handled it much better, we need only to look to Guild Wars (the first) in the Alliance Battle format. Each Alliance Battle (AB) map had several objectives to capture, and each one was worth the same weight as the others. It was purely a measure of how many points you had captured, not which ones. You were also rewarded for each kill you attained.
This gameplay setup lead very frequently to at least one side Zerging up. They would group into one big ball and roam around the map quickly dispatching groups as they ran across them. The advantage was that they got almost all of the kills and were rewarded for it, and they could capture any one point quickly. Fortunately, the map layout and point system actually allowed spreading out to be an effective counter strategy. The system already had each side broken into three groups of 4 players which made communication very easy for small groups. Even if one group was caught out by the Zerg ball, the other two could both capture different points, netting a 1 control point lead (2 captures, one loss). Each point had some form of NPC defense however, and that meant that if your team wasn’t fast at killing them, the Zerg ball (or another enemy team of small numbers) could take their capture point first and then still make it to contest the point you were going after. The result was a wide variety of strategies that all had various degrees of success, but there was almost never one truly correct answer for all situations.
In fact, it is clear that AB influenced the design of both forms of PvP in GW2. The competitive mode features multiple control points (perhaps always 3?) with a small number of players. From playing and watching, it seems that there are merits to both grouping up and spreading out as a mobile unit, as well as playing a lone sandbag style. Certain professions and/or builds seem to focus on different styles, and as such they will promote diversity. Grouping up can yield big gains if they can ace the enemy team, giving them free reign to take all the points and kill the enemies as they try to capture anything. Likewise, splitting up can allow for parallel captures that have to be dealt with one at a time by a group, but has the liability of getting caught and killed very quickly by a larger group.
In the WvW scenario, there are no capture points but instead there are points of interest that will be rewarded at the end of the day. They have scaling difficulties to attack and defend as the value increases. The thing that makes this design truly compelling though is that not only does it allow smaller groups to contribute to the cause, it also interlocks the objectives so that one side can’t just sit back and turtle on the main point. Capturing a castle is a huge tactical advantage, but once you have it, keeping it indefinitely is very difficult. By giving the defenders tools to ward off attackers, you can hold a keep against a larger number of enemies, but the genius in the design is that you require resources from outside the keep in order to keep holding it. In a very real way, if you just group all of your players inside the keep, you will likely lose it through a siege war of attrition. The defenders will need to send out players to deal with the siege weapons or else they will get wrecked. They need to send out players/patrols to guard their supply lines, else they won’t be able to make repairs and upgrades.
In order to defend, you must split up. In order to attack, it would behoove you to systematically set up a system which will make it hard to be attacked, in effect making you a defender as well. All of these systems work to reinforce one another and create a very dynamic PvP environment. Instead of being designed with individual goals like accessing dungeons, each system is designed to add a dynamic element that interplays with all of the others.
Capture the flag
In addition to all of these great systems, there is yet another system put into place to keep the fight interesting. Layered into WvW, there is a miniature form of Capture the Flag weaved into each team’s home base map. I’m pretty interested to see just how big the reward is for successfully infiltrating the enemy base and stealing their Orb of Power. If the reward is large, this will be a very unique aspect of WvW. If one side is walled up in a large keep it may leave their home base wide open to be stolen from, giving yet another edge to the attackers. If the reward isn’t very big though it will probably become an unused feature. Breaking into an enemy stronghold, fighting through tough guards and potentially players, and then having to get the Orb to an Alter quickly will be a lot of work, and if the benefit isn’t good, it will be time and effort wasted. Fortunately, even if the feature goes largely unused, it isn’t designed in such a way that it would encourage a negative behavior either, so at best it is a cool feature and at worst it does nothing.
EDIT: As was pointed out by Neok on Guildwars2Guru , there isn’t really a valid way to know if the capture the flag element will not have a negative impact. It could in fact be the case that the bonus is so great that it creates a scenario much like I was describing with the Aion force fields where it makes a huge Zerg choke-point at the start of each week. To be perfectly honest, I am a bit hazy on how the Orb will work; at this point I think it will be something that gives a temporary buff and then respawns back at the home base, much like flag running in GW1′s GvG. It could become an integral part of WvW. All I can hope is that it doesn’t create an unforeseen environment for bad gameplay. Call me cautiously optimistic on this feature.
In the end, only time will tell if all of these features can coalesce into an amazing PvP experience that has real lasting longevity. There are many traps and pitfalls that seem to have already been avoided, and I hope that a very strong and active community finds this mode to be something worth spending a lot of time with because that is ultimately what any PvP needs to thrive. I for one am excited both from a design perspective and just from a general player’s perspective.