Cataclysm in Review: PvP

Other than the introduction of rated battlegrounds, PvP hasn’t changed much in Cataclysm. Arenas still mostly rely on players adopting and adapting to the strongest class combinations. Outdoor PvP is still mostly irrelevant. While some minor tweaks were made to the points system, rated battlegrounds are really this expansion’s only claim to PvP fame.

Honor and Conquest Points

Cataclysm’s gear system is still governed by a two-tier point system—honor points for starter gear, and conquest points for the end-game. Arena points were renamed to conquest points because they can be obtained from both arenas and rated battlegrounds.

One major change to the points system is how they are earned. Instead of earning your points at the end of the week, you now earn them on a per-win basis. There is a cap on the number of points you can earn in a week, determined by what your rating was the previous week, assuming you played enough games. The higher your rating, the higher your cap will be.

Ratings requirements on gear were relaxed. Only high-rated weapons have a higher item level than their lower-rated counterparts. Having a higher rating results only in cosmetic changes for your armor.

In 4.2, a soft cap was added for weapons. You must now earn a set amount of honor or conquest points in an individual season to purchase them. All this really does is force people to buy some armor before the weapons. I’m not entirely sure what the intention is with this design. Its impact is extremely minor, and not worth analyzing further.

If you ask me, the current system is preferable. I never liked that a team twenty points above the threshold could have such a huge gear advantage over a team just twenty points below. Their ratings are so similar, gear should not be a huge factor. If you give someone with a high rank a substantial handicap, it simply distorts the correlation between a team’s rating and their skill level.

I hope Blizzard keeps this system for a long time.

A Word on the Honor Grind

At the beginning of Cataclysm, the honor grind was atrocious. It was about twice as long as it needed to be. Blizzard fixed this issue in 4.1, but it could have been fixed earlier. A couple months after release would have been nice.

As it stands, it’s now at a good point. The grind won’t bore you to death, but it’s long enough to make sure people don’t have a free pass.

Arena

Arenaing in Cataclysm is generally the same as it was in Wrath, so I don’t have much to say about it. The class balance is a bit different, but that’s to be expected. The other difference was the temporary absence of the Ring of Valor (often maligned by the community). But it has since made its way back into the rotation, albeit with a couple tweaks.

About the only negative criticism I really have is that Blizzard could do better to pay more attention to how different arenas can affect the balance of classes and specs. For example, the fewer all the maps have adequate ledges, the weaker moonkins become in arena, since they are so dependent on knocking people off ledges with typhoon. I’m perhaps tooting my own horn with that example, but similar issues, regardless of the class or spec, need to be monitored and addressed more than they are currently.

Rated Battlegrounds

In order to fully appreciate where we are today with rated battlegrounds (RBGs), I think it’s important to consider the history of battlegrounds.

A Little Bit of History

Battlegrounds have undergone a strange evolution in WoW. When vanilla first hit the shelves, they didn’t exist at all. If you wanted to PvP, you had to go searching for it out in the world zones. After several months, Blizzard finally implemented Alterac Valley (AV) and Warsong Gulch (WSG). But you didn’t queue for them, and you could only fight people of the opposite faction on your own server. There was no ratings system like there is today. You earned honor, and it wasn’t subject to a weekly cap. The amount of honor earned each week would determine your rise in the ranks. The first several ranks were linear in progression, but the final ranks were competitive. There could only ever be one Grand Marshal (GM) or High Warlord (HWL) at a time on each server. The ranks existed to determine your eligibility to purchase gear (with gold). GM/HWL gave you access to all the weapons. The few tiers below that gave you access to epic armor. And the rest of the tiers gave you access to superior armor. The armor had set bonuses like what you see on any PvE tier set. For example, the druid bonus made you run much faster in travel form, making them the flag runners of WSG.

It’s important to note there was no such thing as resilience in vanilla, meaning PvE gear was incredibly good. It also meant burst and escape tactics were more important than the strategies you see today (though you do technically have to escape from smoke bomb, and short-term burns mimic the way burst tactics worked, in a way).

In TBC, the old honor system was scrapped. Battlegrounds were now cross-server (confined to a battlegroup), and entirely point-based. They no longer offered the best gear you could obtain. Instead, the new arena system served this purpose. However, you could still queue as a group, meaning organized battlegrounds still persisted to some degree. But organized play became increasingly rare as the expansion went on and all of the serious PvPers began to focus on running arenas. As a result, battlegrounds became PUG fests. Furthermore, the introduction of resilience changed the style of play dramatically.

In Wrath, battlegrounds stayed very much the same as they were in TBC. However, the ability to queue as a full team was removed entirely. Organized battlegrounds practically died, only existing by the grace of a small percentage of holdouts using mods to simulate group queuing (it was extremely primitive, and you often had to spend a lot of your time dropping the queue and trying again to get in as many people as possible).

Finally, after six years of the above, Cataclysm has brought us the RBG. RBGs were needed long ago, and I much appreciate the effort to bring them to life. But they are also not without their problems.

The Good

There isn’t too much that needs to be said in praise of RBGs. That they exist at all is what’s good about them, especially because organized and competitive battlegrounds had not really been supported since vanilla. For four years, many of us went without our preferred style of PvP, and reminisced about the good old days of vanilla—about free action potions, about removing PoM before the pyro resolved, about epic two-hour long battles between the top WSG groups on the server, etc. Of course, we also reminisced about the bad things—the long and terrible grind towards Grand Marshal, and the competitive aspects of the old honor system. In some ways, what we have now is better, because the grind isn’t so terrible.

For the most part, the basic premise of the RBG system is good. It’s not like it was in vanilla, when you needed to play something like 80 hours a week to get to the top. Hell, on many servers, you didn’t even need to be particularly good, you just needed to grind out as much honor as you possibly could for as many hours each week as you could handle. There was a druid on Proudmoore who conscripted his own children to complete the task for him. When he was at work during the summer, they’d be toiling away in WSG or AV, earning him honor. While he was cooking dinner for them, one would most likely be running around literally spamming moonfire every game. And when he finally had some free time for himself, he’d step in to play. And this got him to GM, even though he wasn’t exactly the best druid in the world.

With RBGs, there is still some level of a grind to get every piece of gear. But it’s not terribly long. Of course, if you want to be the best of the best, you’re better off practicing as much as possible to stay at the top of your game, but you don’t need to play more than several hours a week to keep pace with the conquest cap.

The Bad

This is where things get a little ugly. RBGs were and are not without their problems. Their initial design was rushed, meaning systemic flaws came with them at release, and these flaws still reverberate today. The way the graveyards work in some of the RBGs have also created more problems than they’ve solved. And I still think the whole idea of clicking nodes to cap is misguided for some battlegrounds.

They Were Rushed

There’s no question the design of the RBG system was rushed. It was opened for testing during beta only a month before Cataclysm’s release. And since Blizzard had to begin prepping for the expansion’s release for part of that month, that meant they only had a couple weeks to make any major changes to the system, regardless of how absolutely necessary they may have been.

As a result, major problems immediately found their way into the system. One of these problems was the way the ratings system worked (particularly the matchmaking ratings, called “MMR”). Initially, you had to try really hard before you’d start losing points as a result of a loss. Because of this, anyone who played in the first few months was treated to having inflated ratings (both their BG rating and MMR). Sure, you still had to at least play reasonably well, but you didn’t have to achieve excellence to do well. Blizzard eventually realized their mistake, and made changes to the MMRs for RBGs. Unfortunately, they decided not to reset people’s ratings when this change was made, meaning the loss and gain of points was seemingly inexplicable and distorted.

Now, I haven’t played since 4.2 came out, so I don’t really know to what extent this issue has been fixed. Reading some threads on the AJ forums lead me to believe the MMR system has been improved in some ways, but it’s still not without its problems. (See this thread for more information.)

Another problem was the initial mistake of alternating 10- and 15-man RBGs each week. At release, you couldn’t play 10-mans every week, nor could you play 15-mans every week. You were forced to either sit people during the 10-man weeks, or skip every other week to focus on one type of RBG. This rotation caused some teams to dilute their skillset, as they’d feel compelled to rotate people in and out to get their conquest points on a weekly basis. The teams that chose to skip every other week often found their players getting bored during the weeks a large portion of the team had to rotate.

After a while, Blizzard chose simply to drop the 15-mans altogether, as the majority of RBG teams were running 10-mans. Any teams attempting to focus on 15-mans had to downsize their roster if they wanted to continue. And anyone who preferred the 15-man RBGs to the 10’s was out of luck. Honestly, I wish Blizzard would have at least tried to separate each into two different brackets. Instead, they didn’t even give that a shot, and immediately dropped the larger bracket. Who knows if the 15-mans would have gained in popularity if people had a chance to run them week-by-week, or if there would have simply been at least enough people doing them to justify leaving them in the game. I really liked rated Strand (despite my distaste for getting it when I random queue), so I was personally disappointed in losing that RBG specifically.

The biggest thing that bothers me is how the initial rush has caused reverberating effects. A lot of people who were initially excited for RBGs simply gave up and quit due to their poor implementation. This left teams on servers with small PvP communities starving to fill spots on their rosters as the available pool of players rapidly shrunk.

Clicking for Node Capture Doesn’t Always Seem to Be the Best Option

Initially, I was pretty warm to node-based RBGs where you had to click and channel a flag to cap each node. This is because the concept was proven to work in Arathi Basin, and still works in the current style of competitive RBGs.

But then the Battle for Gilneas came along. I’ve played games in Gilneas where the teams literally duke it out at the Waterworks for over half the match before someone caps the node. Sometimes my team would be dominating our opponents in terms of kills, only to be foiled by people returning from their resurrection cycle, because it takes so long to clear people out these days. Had the nodes worked more like Eye of the Storm, this wouldn’t have been an issue. We’d slowly push the progress bar towards capturing the node, because we’d have a constant one- or two-man advantage in presence at the node. But because all you need to do is hit someone to keep the team from capping, that means people can stack a small part of the team to be extremely difficult to kill, meaning they can work an advantage in terms of interrupting node capture. This causes the matches in Gilneas to become frustrating and the conditions for winning seem more based on who is better at capping and interrupting than at actually playing their class to the best possible degree. While being able to manage the battlegrounds features should be important, they shouldn’t absolutely dominate the factors that contribute to victory.

The worst part is that Blizzard really hasn’t even considered at least trying other designs for Gilneas. Who knows if the old Eye of the Storm-style capture would work or not. For all we know, it could be so much better in practice at the higher levels of competition. But we’ll never know if it isn’t tried on live servers.

Graveyard Mechanics Are Designed Sloppily

One of the problems with a lot of the RBGs is the sloppy graveyard mechanics and design. Twin Peaks and Gilneas exhibited this problem the most.

In Gilneas, at release, because people would resurrect at the node closest to where they died, it was incredibly easy to take a node and hold it. So comebacks were nearly impossible, no matter how much better you played in the latter ninety percent of a match. In 4.1, the graveyard mechanics were slightly changed, such that if you died at the Waterworks, you wouldn’t resurrect there. This made node defense a tad more difficult. But because it was so difficult to fully clear out people, teams could still rez and ride their way back to the node no problem.

In Twin Peaks, the issue is simply where you respawn. At release, if you died defending your flag carrier (FC) while you were in your base, you’d quickly come back to the aid of your defense, because you’d respawn near your flag room. Likewise, if you were on offense, you’d spawn mid-field, which wasn’t too far to rejoin your offense quickly. Of course, in 4.1, where you resurrected was changed. If you died on defense, you’d spawn midfield. But midfield isn’t much further away than your home graveyard, so the impact of this change is very minimal. Also, if you die on offense, you now spawn all the way back at your base. The negative impact this has is that people who die on offense can quickly come to the aid of their defense. So killing people other than the FC (in either design) often has a very minimal benefit. Sometimes it’s advantageous, if killing them weakens the strength of the defense enough to allow you to kill the FC with much greater ease. But this isn’t always the case, since some teams stack healers up the ass for defense, and killing one out of four does very little to increase your chances of killing the FC before they make their way back into the room from the graveyard. You’re better off waiting for your smoke bomb(s) to come off cooldown, and forcing the FC to use their escapes before combining a smoke bomb with a solar beam or silence/interrupt/CC chain.

Part of the graveyard design issue is caused by the fact that graveyards work on a static rotation. You do not always have to wait a minute or 30 seconds before you’re resurrected. Sometimes, you can get a “good rez,” and you’ll have to wait only a few seconds before you repop. But if you die when the graveyard has a full cycle to complete, you’ll be at a disadvantage. I’m not sure if one exists now, but I would definitely have wanted a mod capable of keeping track of the rez timers for each and every graveyard. This way, you could time your deaths or kills based on what would be most advantageous to you.

Graveyards simply need a comprehensive redesign for the RBGs most susceptible to the problems they create. This means I don’t think AB should be touched, but I definitely think WSG, Twin Peaks and Gilneas need to be reconsidered (even with the tweaks that have already been made to them). Personally, I think resurrections should be based on time of death. When you die, you have to wait X seconds before you’re resurrected. Of course, this would cause graveyard camping issues, since respawns would be scattered, making it easy for the other team to farm fresh repops. To solve this issue, you’d implement immunity at the graveyards, but position them so the resurrecting team couldn’t exploit the immunity. In other words, make it so people spawn in a purgatory room, and force them to take a one-way teleport to re-enter the match after everyone repops (that way everyone can take the port all at once, so they’re not fodder for farm, but can’t exploit the immunity area). This design would make killing people more worthwhile, since they’d have to wait a full cycle before being resurrected. When the team is at a full minute or 30 seconds worth of being a man down, that’s much better than someone resurrecting after three seconds with full mana and a new lease on life (for both them and any teammates they can assist).

Class Balance and Class Abilities in PvP

You’ll notice I didn’t include discussion about class balance as either a positive or negative in RBGs. That’s because, at a competitive level, class balance is never really an issue, since most of the top teams will adopt the best combination of classes and specs to compete and keep the balance of power roughly equal. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t think Blizzard should at least try to balance the classes and specs, so the more casual players can at least viably farm some level of conquest points and have a fun without feeling as though they need to play a different class to PvP. But expecting perfection in class balance is simply unreasonable, especially when you have 30 different talent trees, and over 30 possible builds.

The one thing I do want to mention is how I think Blizzard could do better to drop its hesitance in making abilities work differently in various areas of the game. Yes, it’s an admirable design intention to want to have the abilities work as similarly as possible across different playstyles. But sometimes this design concept is impractical given specific cases, and I don’t think Blizzard acknowledges this enough. Sure, they may have changed CC to work differently in PvE and PvP, and made some spells work a tad different between PvP and PvE, but they should really consider making more tweaks than they have. And they should also be open to considering differences in the way abilities work between RBGs and arenas, as well.

For example, I’m not sure if it was changed at all in 4.2, but smoke bomb was so powerful in RBGs that rogues were the must-have class for them. If you didn’t have one, your ability to kill a FC or to decimate a healer or dangerous DPSer at a heavily-contested node was much more difficult than it needed to be. This is because you often had such a large force of DPS in any given area, that smoke bomb would increase the likelihood of killing an individual by probably a thousand percent (and maybe more). That’s an amazing advantage! But its strength in arena is much more moderate. It’s definitely useful, but it doesn’t have the same impact it does in RBGs. Of course, smoke is only one ability. There is a myriad of abilities and ability combinations to consider in RBGs and arena. It is not a simple issue for Blizzard to consider or fix, even if I think they could be doing more to resolve it.

In short, Blizzard should try to balance the classes as much as possible, but we shouldn’t expect perfection. I would like to see them be a little more open to making changes in the way abilities work in different areas of the game, and that includes making abilities work different in RBGs and arena, when applicable.

Other than on these points, I think Ghostcrawler and his team do a decent job of trying to keep the classes balanced.

Tol Barad

Tol Barad is to Cataclysm what Wintergrasp was to Wrath. It is this expansion’s outdoor PvP zone. And it is full of nothing but problems. Unless your faction gets the jump on the defense at the very beginning of a match, it’s almost impossible to win.

The problem is simply that it is way too difficult to take all three nodes when the defense is mobilized. Once two nodes are taken, the defending faction will simply roll into the node with the least defense and steamroll anyone there to keep them from capping. So it becomes an endless cycle of capping and losing a node, until the offense runs out of time. If the offense is organized, it can certainly win, but Tol Barad is almost exclusively a pick-up group, since it randomizes who gets to enter a match.

The scenario just isn’t very well-designed for a match between two sides of mostly random people. And even though it deserves nearly a complete overhaul, Blizzard doesn’t seem to care about it.

How General Game Play Affects PvP

At a basic level, I don’t think PvP is all that bad in Cataclysm. It’s a simple concept putting two groups of people against each other, both with access to practically the same resources. You can’t really go wrong with this formula. The experience is automatically dynamic, because people are facing player-controlled opponents. And it is relatively balanced based on community adoption of the best compositions at the higher levels of competition.

Rather, the biggest issue is the fact that WoW’s engine has become archaic. In an era where a lot of competitive games have some awesome and fun mechanics that don’t rely merely on class or class-like functionality, WoW is missing a lot of these. Sure, we have CTF and capture-the-node style battlegrounds, but these are overly simple. You’re not hopping into a tank to cut a hole your opponent’s defense. You’re not activating your surface-to-air missiles to bring down a chopper. You’re performing simple tasks that add to the experience to (usually) only a minor degree.

Consider Team Fortress 2. If you’re playing a demoman, you can bounce your grenades off the walls and hopefully hit your enemies. This turns the concept of LOS completely on its head. Likewise, if you’re a demoman, you have to worry about killing yourself when using your grenade launcher in close proximity duels. A bad bounce off the ground or a wall can kill you, even if you do end up killing your opponent. As an alternative, you can switch to your shank. But whether or not that’s viable depends on the class trying to get all up in your grill.

 

WoW doesn’t really have too many scenarios like these, nor ability mechanics that are fun to kill and be killed by. I remember having a throwaway clan in an indie game called Nox where our sole purpose was to suicide as many times as possible in a match, all because it was hilariously fun. WoW is sort of missing that element of play.

I must also talk about crowd control and ability interruption. When these and dispels are the linchpins of PvP, the game ceases to reach its potential for fun. To me, there’s nothing exciting about getting interrupted every other cast when I’m around a shaman. There’s nothing exciting about getting trapped in a CC rotation lasting 15 some-odd seconds. The design should be re-focused on making the abilities used to kill, heal and (possibly) soak or avoid damage truly unique and entertaining.

This isn’t to say WoW doesn’t have such spells at all. They do. Thunderstorm, typhoon, heroic leap and leap of faith are all good examples. But the number of such spells are limited, and the impact of each is often situational. Also, some of the abilities lose their sense of uniqueness in simplicity. Take heroic charge, for example. You select someone and you charge them. You don’t have to aim your charge. You don’t run into a wall and stun or daze yourself if you miss. Your character automatically charges at your target, and you stun them for a short while. That’s really not that exciting to me, both as the person charging, and the person being charged. I don’t have to aim or carefully time my charge. Nor do I have to reactively dodge it, if I’m on the receiving end. You simply stun them, or you eat the stun. That’s it.

To complicate matters even further, what fun spells do exist often have numerous bugs. I can’t count the number of times I’ve fired off a typhoon, watched it pass through someone, and counted off “one one-thousand, two one-thousand” before it actually affects that person with the knockback. (I’m also sure people can’t count the number of times I’ve complained about this.)

While PvP is fun to some degree, it should be better than it is. But WoW’s engine is old. It would be incredibly difficult for Blizzard to fix the mechanical bugs, and expand the library of spells that are truly unique and fun to use. If they really wanted to do this, I imagine an engine re-code would be in order, and the server architecture and latency handling would also have to be revamped. There would also be a heap of balance issues to consider, and you would run the risk of making relatively new encounters obsolete if you want many of the new mechanics to also work in PvE.

I think the best Blizzard could do now is reconsider crowd control and ability interruption. But that would result only in minor improvements.

Conclusion

The addition of rated battlegrounds has been needed for a long time. That Cataclysm includes them at all is a godsend, despite their problems. But the game is coming closer and closer to being archaic in its design. At some point, there won’t be much more Blizzard could do to improve the experience, without redoing major parts of the engine and the game’s server architecture. And while that may prove to be impractical for Blizzard (especially because Blizzard seems intent on putting a lot of the revenue generated by WoW into other projects), there are still some things Blizzard can do. They can make some much-needed tweaks to the crowd control and interruption mechanics in PvP, and they can still increase the enjoyment factor for some spells and abilities. They can also create new spells and abilities (or vehicles or other systems) that would turn PvP on its head, without removing the spells that ensure PvE remains operational. But whether or not Blizzard is willing to make these changes, much less do them extremely well, is left to be seen. One thing’s certain: Cataclysm didn’t add or change enough for PvP to meet my expectations. And I didn’t exactly set them very high.

PvP vs. PvE

There’s an age old debate that goes on amongst PvPers and PvEers: which is more difficult? For some reason, people think this comparison is pivotal. But, really, it’s not. However, each can affect the other. For example, Archimonde is made easier if everyone in your raid has a Medallion of the Alliance. And rogues are far more potent if they’re using warglaives over s3 weapons. So discussing each in relation to the other is an important point of contention.

However, on a general level, comparing PvP and PvE is like contrasting Zelda and TF2. They have entirely different dynamics. They are almost entirely different games, even. PvE has mechanics you simply don’t see in PvP. And it’s a simple reason why: bosses have abilities players don’t. So when you come up against a boss with an ability you’ve never seen before (which is almost always the case), you’re forced to figure out exactly what it does, when the boss uses it and how to cope with it given the context of your class and raid composition. It’s similar to the approach necessary to beat any boss in a Zelda game, except there’s only one class and one person in the “raid.”

Here’s the thing. If Blizzard wants to go the route of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out or Battletoads, they can make Kil’jaeden nearly impossible and leave him that way. But everyone knows frustrating your PvE playerbase is likely to lose you customers. The playability value of the PvE game in an MMO comes primarily with experiencing new content, rather than its difficulty. So they don’t make them impossible. And thus the difficulty lies primarily in mustering up a force of players built for beating each specific boss, and maintaining this group of players. This is something even Ming understands.

Likewise, the difficulty in PvP is entirely different from that of PvE. Hell, difficulty in various types of PvP are not entirely comparable. For example, with BG’s, you have different tools that add to the dynamic of gameplay. When these tools exist, the degree of difficulty changes based on the complexity of the systems involved. But arenas are the basis for discussing PvP these days, and its difficulty is based entirely on class composition, player skill and what each team matches up against with high frequency. But one thing is certain: you’re not going to waltz into an arena match and suddenly discover that someone on the other team has Doomfire or Flame Wreath. But that has nothing to do with PvP vs PvE. Rather, it’s an example of why they are too different compare.

The dialog should focus on how each affects the other, not whether PvP or PvE is more difficult. And it’s imperative to hold this discussion, because there are players who dislike participating in one or the other. At the same time, however, it’s important for Blizzard to maximize people’s enjoyment of one side of the game without stepping on the toes of others. And I mean this in the sense that there are players who enjoy both sides of the game, myself included. It’s not like you can just disallow warglaives in arena, because it would force these rogues to go out and get a new set of weapons. And good luck to them staying on top of the ladder using some blue or S1 maces! So some of these problems need to be fixed either with the new season or with WotLK. Design concepts need to be adjusted with the addition of new PvE content, new arena seasons, new types of PvP, etc.

That said, however, bickering over whether or not PvP is harder than PvE and vice versa is pointless. And anyone who tries to generalize a specific demographic of players is simply a douchebag. No matter what side of the fence they stand on.