Friday, June 15, 2007

Time for a divorce?

Yesterday we were discussing the problem of class balance in games that have both PvE and PvP. The root of the problem is that the PvE and PvP gameplay are so different that the same ability can have different power in the different modes. Similar problems exist between solo gameplay, group gameplay, or raid gameplay. The much discussed warrior taunt ability is a good example. It is obviously great in group and raid gameplay, wasn't implemented for PvP because of being potentially too powerful, but is obviously damn useless in solo PvE. It seems impossible to design a game in which all classes are different, but where they are equally strong in all different modes of gameplay.

While you can PvP at any level, the most PvP is going on between characters having reached the level cap, whether in World of Warcraft or in other games. Also raiding is an activity that typically takes place at the level cap, there are no level 30 raid dungeons in WoW. Technically you can raid a low-level dungeon, but you're punished by getting minimal xp and aren't able to do any quests. That gives us a hint on why games like WoW are designed as they are: They have two distinctive phases, one with solo / small group PvE to level up, and a second phase where the leveling has stopped. PvP and raids are additional content for the second phase, because PvE is less fun when you don't level up any more.

That makes sense insofar as it can be argued that PvP and raids are *more* fun when there aren't huge differences in power between the players involved. A level 20 and a level 70 on the same battleground or in the same raid wouldn't make any sense. In both PvP and raids you still can make your character stronger by earning better items, but the power of the avatars is much more homogeneous. With the characters being more equal, the differences in player skill become more prominent, which is an advantage.

The only problem with having a game in two phases, one with a rapid rise in power over time, the second with a much slower power evolution and more focus on player skill, is that not everybody enjoys both parts equally. Some people are mostly interested in the first phase of PvE leveling up, others mostly in the second phase of raiding and/or PvP. For some unknown reason the people who enjoy the first phase more are being labeled "casual", and the people who enjoy the second phase more are being labeled "hardcore". But that are just semantics. The eternal "casual vs. hardcore" conflict isn't so much about how casual or hardcore you are, but about which phase of gameplay you enjoy more, and thus would like the developers to concentrate on. Nobody is fooled by the game developers trying to sell you a game like WoW as one whole package. The phase 1 players clearly don't like the current end game. The phase 2 players experience the necessity to level up to the level cap as a chore, as seen when the top teams in the arena tournament got banned for account sharing.

So why not split MMORPGs in two? Make one game that is exclusively about PvE leveling up, with no raids or PvP "end game", but raising the level cap in every expansion. And make another game without levels at all, where people effectively start with stats and equipment equivalent to what somebody in blue gear at level 70 has, and which only has raids and PvP in which you can slightly improve your powers by earning gear. For the phase 1 players that has the advantage that once they reach the level cap, they really feel they have "won" the game, and don't find themselves in front of an end-game they don't like. For the phase 2 players, they don't need to bother leveling up any more, they jump right into the part they actually want to play. Now some people claim that leveling is necessary so you learn how to play your class. But frankly, I leveled two priests, to 60 and to 70, in World of Warcraft, and soloing them in PvE with bubble and wand taught me absolutely nothing about how to be a good healer in a raid. If anything solo PvE teaches you bad habits, like doing maximum possible damage for a mage, not taunting for a warrior, and so on.

With the MMO market having grown considerably, there is now enough volume to have more specialized games. There is no real advantage of having both phases in the same game, but there would be a lot of interest in the separated games. What do you think?

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