Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 02, 2007
Can you force PvP balance?

All races aren't created equal in a MMORPG. As much as developers try, players never distribute themselves evenly among a game's available races. In PvE that doesn't cause much of a problem, who cares if there are more humans than gnomes in World of Warcraft? But in PvP real problems of balance appear. In World of Warcraft the problems are apparent: On most servers Alliance outnumbers Horde up to 2:1, while on some few servers players conspired to boost Horde numbers and there Horder outnumbers Alliance. Numbers are important for overland PvP. If one side brings 200 people to a fight and the other side only 100, the final result of the battle is foreseeable. But if you restrict the numbers, like WoW does with battlegrounds, suddenly the more numerous side is at a disadvantage, because they are stuck much longer in waiting queues.

Now PvP is not the central feature of World of Warcraft, and imbalances like this don't matter very much there. But a number of upcoming games are more PvP-centric, and have realm vs. realm wars, in which one side can conquer the territory of the other side. Examples would be Warhammer Online : Age of Reckoning (WAR) or Pirates of the Burning Sea (PotBS). What if in WAR the chaos side outnumbers the empire significantly, or the other way round?

If video games have one bad influence on players, it is that they teach us the wrong belief that you can always win. This is because the computer opponents are designed to lose most of the time. Players got so used to winning all the time, that they go to great lengths, including cheating, to not lose. Unfortunately in PvP by definition some player must lose, not a computer who doesn't mind. That causes a problem with realm vs. realm type of PvP games, because even a small initial imbalance can cause people to think that one side is "better" than the other, and that causes players to choose the apparently "better" side preferentially, thereby increasing the imbalance. Dark Age of Camelot hasn't gotten its realms balanced after 6 years of existence. Although both WAR and PotBS say the plan to have "resets", after one side wins, it is unlikely that in the next round on the same server a different side suddenly dominates. If somebody has a high-level empire character in WAR and the empire just crushed the chaos side, he isn't going to reroll a chaos character for better balance. But maybe the chaos guy who got crushed will give up and move over to the winning side. And as long as one side significantly outnumbers the other, the more numerous side will win every war, even if they lose a few battles.

So I was wondering if a numerical imbalance of one side over the other could somehow be prevented. To take World of Warcraft as an example, WoW already has waiting queues for full servers encouraging you to play on a less populated server instead. What if those login queues worked separately for Horde and Alliance? Instead of capping a server population at lets say 4,000 players total, it would be capped at 2,000 Horde and 2,000 Alliance players on PvP servers (where you can't have characters on both sides). I don't think WoW really needs that change, or Blizzard would do it now, but for a new game like WAR this would be possible. Do you think the number of players per side on a Warhammer Online server should be capped, to avoid one side outnumbering the other side by a too large margin?
War isn't fair in real life, so why should it be so on a computer game?

The problem is that both sides have to be balanced as far as character classes and equipment are concerned (otherwise people complain), so the only thing that can make a difference is numbers on each side.
People hate the fact that some characters are more powerful than others in PvP. Everyone wants to be able to kill everyone else without having to avoid certain classes (eg Warlocks/Hunters).

Blizzard already took away the only real difference between Horde and Alliance when they gave Paldins and Shaman to both sides in BC. Hence in battlegrounds, unless the map layout gives you an advantage, the side with the most players is going to win most of the time.
Perhaps if one side is winning all the time, the developers should change the onjectives to suit the results.
eg Side A must capture 6 objectives to win, Side B only 2, or something like that.

An alternative to the problem of too many Alliance players compared to Horde, would be to make Horde stronger in pvp than Alliance, and then the battlegrounds could have say 20 Alliance vs 10 Horde.

Possibility of that happening in WoW is probably zero, though.
War isn't fair in real life, so why should it be so on a computer game?

Simple. Because people don't pay to lose ALL the time. I think most people can accept losses as long as it's a roughly 50-50 chance.

I've said it many times before, I don't think that a game that has PvP should have such large differences in gear as WoW has. But that's a different discussion really.

Regarding Tobold's thought on queues: Yes I've thought about that for a long time. I think it quite possible that such a design would make the population on a server regulate itself, provided that you are informing the players of the queues in a meaningful way. If people notice that one side has too long queues they might be encouraged to reroll on the other side. Also inform of the last 10 days queues on both sides on avarage when making a character. You still get the choice of rolling on the side with the larger population if your friends are there for example.

Also you can have different solutions. For example, give the underpopulated side a xp bonus dynamically depending on those last 10 days mentioned above. Add a slight damage bonus to the underpopulated side. Possibly these can ideas can also be scaled depending on how large the population imbalance is. So if the difference is really low it is hardly noticeable. There could be other ways too, those were just some that I've been wondering about myself if they should work.
Side queues are a great idea. LoTRO did something somewhat similar in putting queues on the most popular servers, even though they were not full, to encourage all the new players to spread out. After the initial rush, the queues were removed. As far as I know, it worked, so maybe it could work in WAR as well.
Two observations spring to mind, if you're designing for balanced PvP teams:

Have three or more 'sides', ideally an odd number. Stops outright zerging, as there's always the flank to consider. Two teams tends toward a victory, three tends toward a stalemate or standoff, from what I've seen.

(Not played DaoC though, so no idea how it works for them)

Don't make one side 'The Good Guys' and the other 'The Forces of Darkness'. Most players want to be The Hero, and seem to pick 'Good', if such a clearcut choice is available. They'll also tend to go for 'attractive', rather than 'ugly', which is a similar sort of problem. Faction of similar people, with different ideals are a better and more ambiguous option.

WoW, EQ2, SWG, etc. all suffer from the above two, making PvP probably quite hard work for those on the 'Bad' side - Horde, Freeport and Imperial.
Undead should have been a 3rd faction in WoW. I can't accept that the nature-loving Tauren would be anything but disgusted by the Forsaken.
A 3 way split would have made WoW much more interesting.
For many, PvP is all about imbalance.
Think "twink".
And while we're theorizing, doesn’t the person who has invested the time and effort to get the great gear deserve the advantage that was earned?

Many don't want a fair fight that is about skill -- they'd much prefer to lay waste to a weaker enemy; it's a great ego boost and makes for good "fish stories". Isn't that what the classic PvP rogue in WoW is all about? Sneak up on a weaker opponent and beat the snot out of him, and if things go badly, vanish like a coward?

But unfortunately, in WoW there are many ways to gain gear, and not all are equal -- for example, Blizz has allowed honor farming in AV (knowingly dubbed AFK Valley these days) for a long time, and it's only gotten worse in TBC because of the changes to honor calculation. It may be the only place in WoW that you can "earn" rare and epic gear by hitting your space bar as you eat popcorn and watch TV.
About "joining the winning side" - as a matter of fact, that's what often happens in online first-person shooters. When one side starts winning by a larger margin, everybody hops sides - people just don't like losing all the time, understandable. Eventually all the players are in one team (or switched servers), and in the other one there's just bots left - which causes the remaining players to switch server or stop playing for the time being.

You can't just switch side or stop playing like that in an MMO, which alleviates the problem, but only perfect balance (Starcraft-like I'm tempted to say) can achieve a truly even spread among the races.
Yeah I have to aggree that some sort of artificial method is needed to force pvp population balance. Either load balancing on the servers or an odd number of factions. Then again could you imagine the queue waiting times for three faction battlegrounds?
...odd number of factions.

That won't work either, unless the two "lower" factions are automatically allied with eachother.

Another thing is that I believe WAR will try to balance out the problem of a losing side with more NPCs after each loss. Loosely speaking for each loss that a given army has, the next go around there will be more NPC soldiers on the losing side and less on the winning side. This means with each win, the likelihood of a following win is diminished.

Eventually the winning side will be facing a large enough NPC army that they just won't be able to over come it, and the opposing army will eventually come out on top, causing the previously winning army to get a few more soldiers the next go around.
How is this problem handle in other genres? For example, FPS games?

It isn't really. Join in progress games will always create games with uneven sides.

I think if we knew a genre that successfully handles this issue, we could apply it to MMO's.

RTS games don't usually use join in progress. They start with a lower number of players as well. If one of them leaves during a game, it doesn't cripple the experience as much as an MMO where the balance favors numbers and combat verse multiple opponents lessens the likelyhood of a positive outcome.
That won't work either, unless the two "lower" factions are automatically allied with eachother.

...or if there are no two lower factions :) - either make them rock-scissors-paper, or achieve blissfully perfect balance. The former is much more probable though.
You really can't compare WoW's current state of PvP with RvR. Generally speaking you can, but the problems with World of Warcraft are far deeper then the problems mentioned here, such as queue times.

Racial imbalances dominate the PvP Arena challenges. Whereas, people doing nothing in the Battlegrounds, otherwise known as "AFKavers", chip away at the honor points achieved by everyone else but themselves.

The comparison of games therefore, lies in which game holds the least frustration for the player looking for an even playing field.

Unfortunatley, Blizzard-US has lost its grip on cheating and is even allowing it to some degree by enabling players to act as "leeches" against their own allies.

While Blizzard-EU has put a harsh stop to it, the sour taste of bitterness in the mouths of numerous players everywhere, have set the stage for a love affair with any upcoming game that promises a divorce from WoW's unfixed problems.

WoW's PvE system promises rewards through endless grinding of reputation and instance runs in TBC. The gear that gets you there faster is through a PvP system that is unbalanced and severely problematic, not to mention has players up in arms to the point of quitting even before said promised future game has arrived.

On any given day, one perusal of Blizzard's forums is enough to witness a real sense of RvR; where the players are at war with the developers themselves.

If Everquest is any example, Blizzard would do best to make immediate changes before a mass exodus from WoW to Warhammer takes place in its own unique battleground devised by the customer.
How about offering some sort of XP bonus to less-popular classes / sides?

If your character levelled-up more quickly, would that encourage you to pick it?
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