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PvP – The Agony & the Ecstacy

Isabelle Parsley Posted:
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A few years ago I’d have told you that PvP was probably one of my least favorite activities in MMOs. I avoided it wherever possible, which in most games is fortunately not that difficult – and I mostly didn’t play games where PvP was a large part of the gameplay.

PvP seems to be sort of like Marmite or fruitcake – you either love it or you hate it, with very few people in-between. (For the record: love and hate.) I tried it a few times in Asheron’s Call, and I even made a character on the PvP server, but I never really understood what people see in it. To my mind the gameplay outside of PvP was plenty exciting enough without needing to let myself get punched in the face by other players.

I dabbled occasionally at PvP in Star Wars: Galaxies, where there seemed to be more point to the activity than just killing other people, but it never really grabbed me and the overarching Rebel-versus-Empire atmosphere wasn’t as well executed as it could have been; and I never played DAOC long enough to really get into the Realm-versus-Realm thing, though from what my friends said it certainly made a big difference when PvP was written into the underlying design of a game. (It can also make a huge difference when there are more than two factions in a given game, as there were in DAOC, but that’s outside the scope of today’s column.)

Then came 2008 and Warhammer Online, which was a game based on PvP, and suddenly I discovered that I don’t hate PvP at all: I just don’t like pointless PvP. Faction-based PvP is something I can apparently get my head around just fine, because usually there’s a game-based reason to engage in it – locations to be conquered, territorial gains to be made in order to open up new targets, tangible benefits to be acquired, and so on. That made sense.

Warhammer was also my first experience of limited-duration PvP events (called Scenarios in that particular game), where you pit a certain number from one side against a certain number from the other and make them fight for flags, locations, or some other maguffin that gives you a reason to be there in the first place other than just punching other players in the face. Though of course, punching other players in the face really is what it’s all about, no matter how you dress it up.

Having tried various different classes in the Warhammer beta, when live rolled around I ended up with an Archmage main which, though it sounds like a pewpew magic class, is really more of a pew-capable healer class. The spousal unit made a tank and together we plunged into low-level scenario PvP. And OMG it was fun! Except when it was QQ-horrible, which was really rather often until we and all the other PvP newbs gained a bit of experience at, you know, punching other players in the face while preferably avoiding getting punched back.

I learned a few things about PvP back then, even though I didn’t play Warhammer for more than a few months. One is that superior numbers will almost always win, skill and tactics being more or less equal, which isn’t entirely different from real life. Secondly, I learned that in the heat of battle it’s really hard to get players to actually stop and think about what they’re doing, which is why the zerg is the most common tactic, if it can be called that. It doesn’t help when the PvP battle map is designed to favor the zerg, which seems to happen quite a bit, but we’ll get back to that. Third, I learned that a little communication goes a long way and that most people never bother with it – they’re too busy either zerging or getting killed on their own to actually watch what’s going on in chat.

Most of history’s great generals said it one way or another, and here’s Napoleon’s take: “The secret of war lies in communications.” My experience of Tier 1-3 scenarios in Warhammer got a lot better after people learned that a few well-placed (and accurate! Accuracy is kind of important!) instructions in chat could almost instantly turn the tide of battle one way or another. And I don’t mean just yelling “EVERYONE GO TO FLAG-001 NOW!” For one thing, caps in chat does not actually mean you’ll be instantly obeyed – and for another, that’s a pretty useless instruction. But just telling people that keeping X many people at Y location for Z minutes would help win a given scenario, or that avoiding the giant ball of fire coming down the mountain is a really good idea if you want to stay alive (Khaine’s Embrace, anyone?) – believe it or not, that sort of thing really helps.

(Tangent: for a fun look at communications, Google “Dude with the thing”. Not only is it funny – it’s also spot-on instructions for what to do in one of Warhammer’s most chaotic and entertaining scenarios.)

Not everyone is born knowing how to PvP, and I’m one of them. Receiving clear and concise instructions, even if it was just at the start of a battle, helped me figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing (other than avoiding getting punched in the face) and how I could help the rest of my posse win.

Fast forward 2 ½ years and suddenly I’m back in WoW, with a level 85 character and the new Cataclysm PvP area, Tol Barad, calling my name. Well actually it’s more the nice gear you can get for doing the battleground that’s been calling my name, but to get the gear you have to get the commendations – and while you can get them by running dailies, you can get more dailies (18 instead of the usual 6) if you take part in the battles… and win. Winning is the important thing. Winning is actually the only thing in Tol Barad because, at least for now, you get bubkes for losing. Not even one lousy commendation as a pat on the back for bothering to show up and giving it a good old British try – just a handful of honor points which are nice, but not quite nice enough. Lose 6 or 8 times in a row and suddenly you find yourself wondering why you’re bothering in the first place.

And that’s possibly the biggest problem with Tol Barad, and why PvP is suddenly both really fun and horribly depressing for me. It’s an event that always starts with the zone’s three capture-points in the hands of one faction or the other; it’ll never be neutral, so you’ll always have an attacking side and a defending side right from the get-go. Unfortunately the current design heavily favors the defending side – and I mean really heavily. The defending side could be an army of half-blind chimps and they’d probably still be able to put up a credible defense. The attacking team not only has to overcome this inherent defensive bonus, but they also have to be damn-near perfect in every other respect in order to have a decent chance at winning. Which means they have to NOT zerg unless there’s a tactical advantage to doing so, they have to communicate, and they have to think about what they’re doing.

There’s a lot of communication going on during these battles, but part of the problem is that most of what’s being said is either suicidal, stupid, or tactically insane. And while there’s also plenty of skill in the battles, on both sides (I don’t like to bash my faction-mates when we’re losing and I don’t actually buy the theory that Horde players are just plain more skilled than Alliance players), no amount of skill can overcome inherent strategic advantages, inaccurate communications, and a staggering lack of tactical sense – at least not all three at once.

The whole point of meaningful PvP, to my mind, is to present players with a set of challenges and make them overcome said challenges while they’re also punching other players in the face. Players really are less predictable than the game AI and it can be amazing fun to pit yourself and your skills (or lack thereof in the case of me and twitch-skills) against real people. As for defensive or offensive benefits, chaotic situations, communication issues and figuring out tactics – that’s what PvP is all about, so it’s just as well we’re not perfect at it or most of the fun would be lost.

But what you also need is to give both sides a more or less equal chance of winning, because otherwise the mostly-losing side will lose all motivation – and I’m not sure that’s true right now about Tol Barad. Our side won it and held it for 3 or 4 days running over the weekend and early this week, and now it’s the other faction’s turn; and for me, that’s too little turnaround. It shouldn’t necessarily change hands every battle – in fact it’s a lot better if it doesn’t, because the quest benefits accrue over several wins – but a better chance of winning (and the greater threat of losing!) would certainly motivate me a lot more to keep taking part when my side is in the middle of a losing streak.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to queue up for the next battle.


Isabelle Parsley