The Problems of PvP Balance

David Souza looks at PvP effects on MMO design.

My earliest foray into the MMOspace brought with it my first taste of PvP in the genre when I started playing EverQuest on launch day back in March of 1999. I was a big fan of being challenged by other players in games like Warcraft and Starsiege: Tribes and figured that an extra element of danger in my new adventure would only enrich the experience; however my primary intent was to play with other players, not against them. Still, I found that the constant threat—and reality—of PvP created some of the most indelible memories of my MMO history.

When MMOs were first coalescing into a genre in the late 90s there was a general viewpoint to PvP that was pervasive which was that, for the most part, a character’s abilities did what they said they did. If a sword hit a goblin for 80 points of damage then it also hit a player for the same amount of damage. If disarm disarmed an orc for a minute, then it disarmed a player for a minute. If a stun stunned an NPC caster then…well, you get the point. So while in the early days a stun was a stun today the rift between PvE and PvP gameplay is far closer to comparing apples and oranges.

This leads me to wonder whether PvP has complicated some MMO development, particularly in the areas of character abilities and skill diversity, by overcomplicating game systems to try to balance between PvP and PvE gameplay. The reason I point to PvP as introducing the complexity is simply because MMOs find their roots deeply entrenched in PvE gameplay.

The Core of the Problem

I believe MMO PvP balance is a driving force behind the homogenization of some MMO abilities. Many games now design specifically around impact on PvP, limiting the potential for PvE customization that defines a class by both its strengths and—perhaps more importantly—weaknesses. What I wonder is why do all classes have to be so closely balanced? Is it really necessary that everyone has a stun breaker, an ability interrupter and an AoE attack?

When I started EQ at launch I played on the one, single PvP server available, Rallos Zek. It was fully open world PvP with few limitations, the primary being you could only engage in PvP with players within 4 levels of your own. Beyond that there was little else in the way of specific balance between players; the rules that you engaged NPCs with were the same rules you engaged players with. Slowly over the course of the next couple years a few basic PvP tweaks came to EverQuest, such as charms not affecting players and spells doing a set percentage of their base damage. The overall abilities of classes remained the same though, and each class continued to gain abilities based on its role in the game.

As games like Ultima, M59 and EQ proved that MMOs had a large and growing audience new titles began to surface, eventually bringing us the largest MMO success story to date, World of Warcraft. WoW launched as a game practically begging to focus on PvP, being based on a franchise what was all about faction war. Still, at launch the PvP in the game was much closer to the MMOs that came before, sporting none of today’s current systems like honor, PvP gear or battlegrounds.  You didn’t queue for PvP back in early WoW, you went to Tarren Mill if you wanted to throw down!

The feel of PvP in those days was organic and natural, and felt less like a sport and more like a living thing, however, as time went on the systems that are recognized today as standard PvP were erected and the landscape slowly, but drastically, changed. I remember one specific WoW patch during Burning Crusade. As a hunter, I was very keen on the new patch note that mentioned Scare Beast would go from having a cast to an instant, transforming a very niche spell from obscurity to tactical usefulness. Half-jokingly I mentioned to some friends that it would never go through as an instant because it would prove too powerful against druids in arena combat. I didn’t think it was so funny when I was proven correct soon after.

There are also instances where PvP balance wins out over common sense. A prime example from SWTOR is Project and Shock, two mirror abilities of the Jedi Consular and Sith Inquisitor classes respectively. Both are core, low level abilities that deal a small amount of damage and stun the target for 3 seconds. So what could possibly be the issue? The fact that the animation for Shock is a simple lightning attack, while that for Project has the character telekinetically ripping a random object out of the ground and hurling it. Since the stun doesn’t happen until the attack strikes, Shock stunned its target about half a second faster than Project did.

The solution that SWTOR’s development team came up with was increasing the animation speed of Project, so that now the attack strikes the target much faster. The outcome, however, is a truly ridiculous looking change to a very cool ability.  It happens so fast that you would think Jar Jar Binks was the one editing the animation. Was that really worth the fraction of a second to ruin the feel of the ability so that it was truly balanced in PvP? We all know the dark side is more powerful anyway, so let the force lightning have that slight edge I say!

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