Thursday, January 5, 2012

Alarm bells ringing

The "New Year's PvP Update" post on mentions the following:
 Ilum will also become a major source of Valor. Valor buffs will increase and decrease based on the objectives your faction owns. These buffs increase the amount of Valor you receive per player kill. However they do not give anything in and of themselves, so players will still need to defeat other players for significant Valor rewards. Additionally, daily and weekly missions will require player kills to complete. Player kills for quests and Valor credit will have diminishing returns per player killed. So, the more players that are fighting other players, the better it is for everyone.
Am I the only one that reads that and wants to /facepalm at the inanity of the design here?  Most servers are imbalanced in population, so one side will typically have an advantage over another in open world PvP.  The way they're planning to do Ilum, the side with the advantage will capture all the objectives and then farm the other side for Valor points.  The more objectives captured by one side, the more players from that side will flock to the area to get easy Valor points, and the more miserable the experience will be for the underpopulated side.  Players will end up learning that if all (or most) of the objectives are held by one side, the best thing they can do is get off Ilum and do something else, and world PvP will die on any servers that don't have a reasonably equal distribution of active players on each side.

They've got the team behind Dark Age of Camelot working for them and this is what they come up with?  In some ways it's similar to DAoC Relics, but without the built in safeguards.  Relics provided a PvE bonus, not PvP, so once a side had a majority of the relics they'd run off to PvE, giving the other side a chance to retake them.  DAoC was also a three faction game, so population balance could be combated by teaming up, except in extreme cases.

Now, what should they do instead?  I'm not sure (I never said it was an easy problem).  The objectives have to provide something to make taking them worth it, need to be designed in such a way that flipping objectives back and forth provides no benefit (no reward "on cap"), also need to be nearly impossible to keep permanently, AND allow an underdog side a chance to participate in a meaningful way.

Obviously they could go the DAoC route and make the objectives provide a global PvE benefit, but that doesn't feel right, and I'm not convinced players would feel motivated to PvP for PvE benefits in SWTOR.  PvE in DAoC was pretty hard and leveling was slow, so PvE bonuses were a big deal.  Plus, of course, Darkness Falls.  In SWTOR though, a game where you could solo to the level cap?  I think people PvPing would want a benefit for themselves, right there and then.

One possibility would be to leave the bonuses for capturing the objectives the same, but provide some sort of counter benefit to the losing side to prevent it from becoming a Valor point farm fest.  One possibility that occurs to me is that when one side starts losing, Force using NPCs spawn in the losing side's base areas and provide a persistent buff to the losing players.  The more objectives the enemy controls the bigger this buff gets, giving the losing side a significant combat advantage.  If the enemy controls all or most of the objectives the buff should be significant enough to let a numerically inferior group of players have a chance against larger numbers of unbuffed players, possibly leading to them recapturing objectives and pushing the enemy back.  At the very least it should allow the losing side to kill off some enemy players before they go down, allowing them to progress and participate despite the unbalanced situation.

Of course, this has flaws too, namely that it encourages the winning team to NOT capture all the objectives, and as the losing side retakes objectives they become weaker, leading to an eventual stalemate.  It gets even worse when sides are evenly matched, as it could quickly become impossible for either side to make much progress without making their opponents too difficult to defeat.  That still might be preferable to what Bioware has planned though, I don't know.

I'm sure there are plenty of people out there with good ideas on how to make open world PvP work, but it doesn't seem to me that Bioware is listening to them right now.  PvP Designers need to scrutinize how players will behave in a PvP environment, and take into consideration all the possible factors (such as population imbalance) that could upset their design.  Sadly they need to do this pro-actively and aggressively, as testing players will not display the sorts of behaviors that will break their design.  Warhammer Online should have taught this lesson -- RvR (PvP) was great during beta, and completely fell apart when the game went live and players all sought out the path of least resistance.

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