On The Edge of Irrelevance: Guild Wars 2’s PvP Nosedive

I am going to toot my own horn, but it’s a really sad tune I’ll be playing. I was right, but I really didn’t want to be right about this.

We Saw This Coming

One of the main complaints from the PvP community about the choice of Conquest as sPvP in Guild Wars 2 is the Capture Point rule set. This doesn’t mean that capture point games aren’t common or unpopular, but that they rarely become the accepted test of skill in PvP type games.

And once you neutralize or capture, then there is no benefit to hanging around. There is likely a contested area or node that needs you more at the time. It is possible that you could design your team to have sets of two players who feature a highly supportive and defensive player with someone of decent damage output to take a node and sit on it. The problem then becomes that the battle is a war of attrition. Prolonged battles and over-balance are two of the major reasons the Guild Wars PvP scene died off after being so healthy for years. If your ruleset and map dictates prolonging fights to preserve nodes then it shrinks the type of builds and strategies to use.

In larger head-to-head battles you have more room for builds to specialize into different roles and for players to coordinate their playstyle with the playstyle of their teammates. What this means is that you could have a six on six head-to-head battle with different team makeups on each side, as opposed to a standardized Cap Point team.

In Capture Point, if you try to stick together as a single swarm, then you’ll likely lose. You can’t force large battles in Conquest. If most of your team is at one spot then you give up the other two nodes. Running, delaying and interfering matter most. What the PvP community wants are those team vs team situations where the battle is all out, and it’s a matter of supporting and controlling both sides. Players want to be sized up against the whole of the other side. They don’t want to succeed at their node running, just to realize they’re losing because of something that is happening on the other side of the map for which they have no input on or access to. Players also want the extra strategy of team builds.

What ArenaNet risks by going fully in with just Conquest is alienating the playerbase that would make the sPvP attractive. You can’t be bigtime without the respect of the community because you won’t draw the community to care and be competitive about your game. You will get, and forgive the elitism here, the second and third tier players to fill in the gap of talent. In other sports, there are minor leagues and spinoff leagues. There has been basketball leagues that use trampolines and favor dunking because it has a high entertainment value. These minor leagues don’t ever rise above the level of sideshow because nobody truly respects them. They don’t draw the top talent and thus don’t draw the big attendance. I feel this is the same for E-sports. ArenaNet can’t go out there and try to push E-sports while being PowerDunk Ball.

–  The E-Sports Charade

I wrote those blocks of text over a year ago on May 24th, 2012. It was a warning about the future of PvP in the game if they stuck with Conquest. I think the PvP community will find those “warnings” extremely relevant right now, especially the final paragraph.

The Tournament Finals Swansong

At the one year anniversary bash, ArenaNet held their tournament final between the top European team and the top North American team. If I could describe the feel of everything about this in two words, it would be “awkward” and “depressing”.

The Anniversary Bash stream was above 5k viewers during the early parts of the event. People watched the opening address and the Q&A. The final part of the event was the match between Car Crash and Sync for the PVP championship. At this point, the twitch fell below 5k viewers, and then loss more viewers as the match went on.

However, it was already awkward before that. The devs kept trying to pump up the match, but the live audience issued a muttering of applause, seemingly clueless about the two teams, or just not interested in the event itself. When it came to Q&A time, a lone player from Crystal Desert asked why there wasn’t more modes for PvP in the game, and where the beloved modes from Guild Wars 1 were to be found in the game. In response, the Dev Panel looked at each other, somewhat clueless and scared. There was not a single spvp dev on the panel. The closest person to this was Devon Carter, who handles WvWvW. After the group sat quiet a second, Colin Johannson jumped on the “grenade” of a question, and effectively dodged it with a rambling bit of PR.

Meanwhile, the entire twitch stream was filled with people spamming “GvG” in the chat for the entirety of the event. The entire thing felt like a trainwreck for PvP rather than the showcase ArenaNet intended it to be.

The Victory Funeral

Following the championship, players took to the forums and expressed their issues with the handling of the PvP question, and how generally uninteresting the match was itself.

Players complaining on forums is nothing new. However, long time sPvP player, and large contributor to the cause Xeph announced his retirement from the game the following day. He said his reasons were numerous, but you could sort of tell the Anniversary Bash and its recent news was a tipping point.

The post was deleted, but the damage was done.

It’s Not the Incentives

Xeph felt the PvP lacked incentives to attract players, but that’s never really been a big part of highly successful PvP. Most of the reward comes from winning and the winning actually meaning something. Ultimately, there must be some pride in the accomplishment of winning. Guild Wars 2 lacks that feeling. It lacks is because Conquest mode is Powerdunk Ball. it’s not what people care about, and ArenaNet never listened.

And now their planned high moment is a depressing final death cry.

Can it be saved? Sure. It’s not like ArenaNet is facing any real competition in the MMO PvP space. However, they need to focus on what people care about in MMO PvP. Don’t be a MOBA. Don’t spread small skirmishes across a map. People are getting that already, and there’s a whole other audience being ignored. That audience wants tactical, skilfull, and gear balanced team fights. It doesn’t have to be deathmatch. You can establish a goal to fight over, but that goal must involve two teams fighting together.  People watch MMO PvP for the group play, Remember that.

The E-Sports Charade: Part Two

The A.B. Problem

One of the main complaints from the PvP community about the choice of Conquest as sPvP in Guild Wars 2 is the Capture Point rule set. This doesn’t mean that capture point games aren’t common or unpopular, but that they rarely become the accepted test of skill in PvP type games.

So what is a Capture Point game? It’s your basic node and resource control map. In World of Warcraft, Arathi Basin is the second battleground you gain access to and is a Capture Point ruleset and map. There are five nodes to capture and when you capture a node, your score begins to go up. In Guild Wars, the Capture Point ruleset was called Alliance Battles. The maps in Guild Wars were larger and since the game stuck you into four player squads, the battles quickly became a game of running from node to node, moving around in circles. Tol Barad in Cataclysm is a Capture Point battle of a larger scale. This map had people running from point to point as well. Of course, this running around is sort of the issue with the whole Capture Point system.

Capture Node

Standing around and scoring points.

All By My Lonesome

In the two Conquest maps shown so far, the rate at which you neutralize a node is much greater than the rate at which you can capture a node. What this means is that if you run around to a node held by the enemy team, its fairly easy to neutralize that node and make it so that it doesn’t contribute points to either side. Staying around and capturing the node takes two to three times as much time. This may be done to stop the running around issue, but so far, it doesn’t really accomplish that. People will take what’s easiest. Often you will find yourself as the only person at a node. There is no fighting. You’re just sort of standing there until a bar changes. As you may imagine, this sort of activity doesn’t really excite the PvP community. While hanging around to capture it may lead to enemies coming to stop you, there is no assurance of this. Further, neutralizing a point can often be effective enough on its own. If you have a lead of 50-100 points, neutralizing is all you need to do. You can sit on an equal amount of nodes captured and win.

And once you neutralize or capture, then there is no benefit to hanging around. There is likely a contested area or node that needs you more at the time. It is possible that you could design your team to have sets of two players who feature a highly supportive and defensive player with someone of decent damage output to take a node and sit on it. The problem then becomes that the battle is a war of attrition. Prolonged battles and over-balance are two of the major reasons the Guild Wars PvP scene died off after being so healthy for years. If your ruleset and map dictates prolonging fights to preserve nodes then it shrinks the type of builds and strategies to use.

ANet has tried to get around this with features like the trebuchet and bosses. These are meant as equalizers against heavily guarded nodes. A trebuchet shot can take out an entire group if it hits right. Downing the mini-bosses will net your team 50 points and a buff. Yet the issue with all of these things is the small size of the encounters. A boss killer and trebuchet player is often out on their own, not interacting with the team. This isn’t a new element to Guild Wars, as GvG had flag runners and split squads, but those small size roles were always balanced by larger scale battles elsewhere. One of the major issues with the current Capture Point system is that there will likely be no larger battles seen.

Where Depth Disappears

In larger head-to-head battles you have more room for builds to specialize into different roles and for players to coordinate their playstyle with the playstyle of their teammates. What this means is that you could have a six on six head-to-head battle with different team makeups on each side, as opposed to a standardized Cap Point team. For example, one side is carrying three melee characters, but there is a ranged character supporting those melee characters by snaring their target and buffing their allies speed. Perhaps one teamhas a Guardian and  a Warrior paired together with hammers. The Guardian snares a target within a restrictive circle, and the Guardian and Warrior both unleash hard hits to the trapped target. The other side could have an Elementalist and a Mesmer set up combo fields for Ranged characters to shoot through. The strategy of the melee team forces the other team to use more control fields and snares, encouraging the ranged attackers not to get stuck together and caught in the same trap.

While Guild Wars 2 encourages people to be a master of all things, the ability to focus in an area to the greater benefit of the whole is an element of strategy that fades away in a spread-out Capture Point map.

This doesn’t mean that I encourage straight deathmatch systems for sPvP in Guild Wars 2. Dueling for the purpose of training and testing will likely find its way into the game, but Arena deathmatches have their limits, too. You can still create setups where you have room for both small skirmishers and larger skirmishers. Control Point maps, where you must fight to control all nodes at once to win, create this sort of situation. It is the procession style of these maps that cause the larger scale battles. If you still had the equalizing elements of trebuchets and mini-bosses, then split squads have a place as well. GvG maps and rules had larger battles with options of flag running and split squads as viable tactics.

In Capture Point, if you try to stick together as a single swarm, then you’ll likely lose. You can’t force large battles in Conquest. If most of your team is at one spot then you give up the other two nodes. Running, delaying and interfering matter most. What the PvP community wants are those team vs team situations where the battle is all out, and it’s a matter of supporting and controlling both sides. Players want to be sized up against the whole of the other side. They don’t want to succeed at their node running, just to realize they’re losing because of something that is happening on the other side of the map for which they have no input on or access to. Players also want the extra strategy of team builds. They want the strategy of what you sacrifice from the team to run off and do small skirmish tasks in order to help your chances to win. The carousel of Capture Point maps has never excited the PvP community. It’s a “fun go”, but that’s about it.

You Can’t Be Big Without The Respect

Blizzard put a lot of effort into legitimizing their Arena tournaments as a legit e-sport. The problem was that PvPers knew the game had major balance issues and the balance issues only became worse as the scale of combat shrunk down. I took Guild Wars PvP seriously enough. I understood that the card-deck system meant that nearly everything had a possible counter. I worried less about balance. Succeeding at Guild Wars PvP meant something so it mattered to succeed. Succeeding at Arena never mattered to me for it was becoming obvious that success depended greatly on gear and which classes had the power advantage. If you weren’t the right class then it wasn’t the right game for you. That or you would have to reroll and level the “winning” class.

What ArenaNet risks by going fully in with just Conquest is alienating the playerbase that would make the sPvP attractive. You can’t be bigtime without the respect of the community because you won’t draw the community to care and be competitive about your game. You will get, and forgive the elitism here, the second and third tier players to fill in the gap of talent. In other sports, there are minor leagues and spinoff leagues. There has been basketball leagues that use trampolines and favor dunking because it has a high entertainment value. These minor leagues don’t ever rise above the level of sideshow because nobody truly respects them. They don’t draw the top talent and thus don’t draw the big attendance. I feel this is the same for E-sports. ArenaNet can’t go out there and try to push E-sports while being PowerDunk Ball.

The E-Sports Charade: Part One

Guild Hall

You must defeat your foe’s Guild Lord to win in GvG

“We are seeking/pursuing/enthusiastic about…

ESPORTS!”

I used to watch Guild Wars 2’s Hall games and GvGs in the game’s observer mode whenever I had been out of the pvp game for awhile. (Let’s say months.) This was a way for me to see what builds were being used and how people were playing. A few months ago, I watched a couple of top 25 guilds battle it out in an extended GvG. One team was using an effective split build, going around the central area and in the backdoor with a Elementalist/Monk and a Dervish to take down NPCs and bleed-n-burn down the other team’s Guild Lord. The split strategy, rather common in the first Guild Wars, forced the other team to either split their own team up, move the batlte to where the split was or try to win while allowing their NPCs to die.

My first guild would revert to this strategy whenever we were losing and at times it worked. When being pushed back at the flag, we would send off two or three warriors to take down as many NPCs as they could and then fight the team’s Guild Lord all by themselves. When it worked, the other team was pretty pissed. We “ganked” the GL or we “ninjad” the win. The truth was that this was early on in the game’s life, before split builds became more popular and accepted. Honestly, we were just making it up as we went along. On the other hand, the true split build exists in a way so that larger group left behind can survive for extended times versus a numbers disadvantage. It wasn’t until the Factions expansion came along that these sorts of builds started to appear more commonly and in a more intelligent fashion. The Assassin’s teleport ability and the Spirits of the Ritualist provided both the ninja ability to sneak in and the delaying strategy of limiting damage to a group of people.  These things, along with new skills for all the professions, made split builds a more viable tactic. When the “Victory or Die” rules came in, taking out NPCs early meant even more in regards to your team’s chance at winning a GvG match.

As far as we know, this sort of game will not be appearing in Guild Wars 2. ArenaNet has devoted all structured PvP attention to their Conquest mode. The Conquest mode is the hot-join game players see when they hit “Play Now” on the PVP tab of their Hero window. When you hit the Play Now button, you literally do play then and now. The game ports you directly into an already active game. It’s sort of like joining a random game of Team Fortress 2. This, along with the instant boost to max gear and level, makes the GW2 structured PvP game very easy to get into. Before getting into my polite little rant, I’ll clarify what Conquest mode is like.

Conquest mode is your common resource capture point ruleset and map. There are two maps showcased so far and both have three capture point spots, along with team size limited to around five or six per side. The PvP community hasn’t exactly been thrilled by this. There was a capture point game in the first Guild Wars but it was not popular, and garnered nowhere near the interest that Guild vs Guild or Heroes Ascent/Hall of Heroes did. To be honest, it’s always been tough for Capture Point maps and rules to be taken seriously as true tests of teamwork and skill by PvPers. I’ll get into why that is later, but I feel the next thing I should address is why the community is stuck with Conquest when it doesn’t seem to want it.

The True Heart of E-Sports is Corporate

From a broadcasting and sponsorship perspective, there were a few problems with the original Guild Wars PVP game. One, the depth of builds and skills was something that required a devoted interest in the game by the audience. As well, many spells weren’t all that visually apparent. By this, I mean what was going on in a sixteen player battle wasn’t easy to tell by just watching the battle from afar. You could see a Monk get interrupted by a spell, but unless you were watching the castbars of the other team, you couldn’t tell where it came from. Often, it might be a Mesmer on interrupt duty. It might be a Power Block skill or it might even be the product of some hex being triggered. Sometimes you had Rangers with interrupt skills. To understand the action on the field, you had to know the way the game was played and you had to switch around to look at people’s skillbars and guess at their basic build, come to a general idea of who would be doing what and then try to comprehend the overall battle.

This is difficult for a broadcaster to easily translate into the sort of  vibrant, excited wave- flow of phrases that any new audience can understand. On top of this, since there are eight players on each side, there’s a lot of names to remember and many important events that happen, namely the important moments involved which shift an ebb and flow of multiple players reacting and responding.  The game also featured spikes, which were synced attacks meant to make any health bar go from 100% to 0% in the flash of an eye. There is no way for a broadcaster to be able to ancticipate these spikes without listening in to the voicechat feed of both teams. In this way, a broadcast of Guild Wars almost needed a broadcasting team, and then audio from both team’s voice chats to fully visualize what was going on. These things made the first Guild Wars very demanding on broadcasters and it did not translate well into the sort of flashy entertainment package that a company can easily sell to someone who was an outsider to the Guild Wars PvP world.

This is before we even consider the complex rule sets of winning a Guild versus Guild battle. The basic point is to kill the enemy Guild Lord, but map differences, flag captures and NPCs still alive in a draw matter as well. The GvG maps were not small either and the game demanded you follow the whole map with the roles of split builds and flag runners.

Now consider how easy it can be to tell who is winning or losing in a fighting game match being broadcast. Maybe you can’t see all the technical skills being used, but a landed punch and a decreasing lifebar is visually telling all by itself. A fighting game match lends itself to excited reactions and concentrated commentary. There’s a major combo landed or a counter, and the game involves all of two people. This is far easier to broadcast and market than your average MMORPG and their corresponding llist of skills, builds and players.

So the braodcasters concern is the company’s concern. They want something that will draw an audience as large as possible. The game companies want broadcasters to support their game, because having their PVP put out there helps sell the game and gets money flowing their way from the various other companies associated with the event.

Sponsorship

Broadcasters aren’t the only money involved in the E-Sports game. Accessory and hardware companies help support E-Sports by sponsoring players and tournaments, and for this sponsorship, they get their logo and gear advertised with the tournaments and their products associated with high level play and high level players. Like any company, the E-Sports sponsors want a good deal. They want as high an exposure they can get for the lowest cost to themselves. In this way, sponsoring teams of eight players plus alternates can be pretty expensive for the companies. The truth is the more players they sponsor, the less they gain from their sponsorship. A sponsor gets just as much publicity from sponsoring a two player team at a tournament and getting their logo put on a sponsor board as they do sponsoring an eight man team.

Of course, sponsoring five players is much more cost effective than sponsoring eight. So the more the team size shrinks, the happier sponsors are. MMOs will always be more costly because they often rely on team structured PVP and Guild identities. Still, by going towards Conquest and smaller teams for their tournaments, ArenaNet is working to appease. possible E-Sport sponsors. And by providing the Capture Point map, they appease the broadcasters. Why?

Conquest gives a readout of points scored and points attributed to players.

Tiny  Battles and a Scoreboard

Capture Point maps and small teams create a situation where players must split up and keep moving. I mentioned split squads and tactics in this entry’s opening, but these split situations in a Capture Point map are different. A GVG split squad is organized to split, a tandem or a trio of players who know they will be sticking together and have builds that support each other as a split squad. The splits in Capture Point demand singular splits and multiple splits. Basically,you go where you’re needed on the map. You cannot rely on someone on your team to always be with you, so your build must prepare your character for life as a solo survivalist.

What the Capture Point ruleset creates is the One on One fights familiar to fighting game fans. When you have a skirmish at a capture point, the broadcast can focus on that particular fight and those particular players. They don’t have to worry about the build of each team or interacting builds, but instead, the broadcasting team can focus on what one player is doing versus the other player. This includes the camera, the announcers and the studio guy in charge of directing the action. These small skirmishes are the sort of spotlight situations that work for television and streams.

Also, the Conquest game mode has a running score at the top of the screen, so that no matter where the action is going on, the viewer can get an idea of how the overall battle is going. People understand points even if they don’t understand how those points are being made.

This doesn’t mean the work being done towards making Guild Wars 2 an E-Sport will succeed or even that fans should want the game to become an E-Sport in this way. In fact, I think any MMO player should be worried about their company talking about E-Sports.

Why For You Mad At E-Sport?

The problem with the whole reasoning and explanation of ArenaNet’s situation is that nowhere along the way did the consumer and the playerbase become an important factor. Everyone involved is seeking to profit off the performance of the PVP community, but that player community isn’t being considered in the design of the game. At least not considered at the same level of importance as the sponsors and broadcasters.

Despite being accommodating to a supposed audience, there is something very anti-consumer about the E-Sports pursuit. There is also a patronizing view of the audience, and I would argue an exaggerated projection of the real value of competitive gaming to the public.

And worst of all, all the planning and pleasing comes tumbling down if the playerbase rejects your PVP game.

That’s the issue I will be getting into with Part Two of this discussion.