It’s Not Really So Ba(ra)d

February 10, 2011 at 21:08 (Game Design)

So this is a post about game design. Or, I don’t know, maybe that’s not the right descriptor, but at a minimum it’s a post about how a rule-bound competitive scenario within a video game was designed, and how it could be better. I think that counts.

The basic point I want to advance is that the Tol Barad battleground, recently released in Blizzard’s latest expansion to World of Warcraft, was actually quite close to being a well-designed experience, and has the potential to shed the issues holding it back from that level of quality with a few simple balancing tweaks.

So wait … am I trying to tell you that all of your abysmal experiences in Tol Barad are due to false consciousness, that it’s actually just fine and you should quit your blubbering and learn to play? No. What I am saying is that the awfulness of certain factors within the broader experience is probably, I would guess, causing a lot of people to overlook the fact that when they’re not actively considering how the balance issues have trivialized the game’s outcome, they’re actually having lots of fun.

B-but Tol Barad Is Terribad!

Let’s stop and take a bit of an historical view here. (Just crossed off from my life’s bucket list: “start a blog entirely for the purpose of finding an opportunity to type the words ‘an historical.'”) To put it entirely too breezily, Tol Barad’s predecessor – the Lake Wintergrasp battleground from the previous expansion – was created in part to address a criticism that many players had leveled at organized Player vs Player content since the early days of WoW: while smaller-scale battlegrounds and arena matches were compelling in their own particular way, they failed to deliver the exhilarating visceral experience of the very large-scale and less-structured PvP action that would spontaneously erupt on occasion in some areas of the game world. Players felt that skirmishing or capture-the-flag was neat and all, but they were really hankering for no-holds-barred, clash-of-vast-armies, wade-into-the-breach-with-axes-flailing total war.

Being clever game designers, the folks at Blizzard realized that a completely unstructred large-scale battleground would be pretty inane: no objectives or rules means no meaningful starting or ending point, no break from the monotony of endless slaughter, no larger sense of point or purpose. Even the Southshore-Tarren Mill bloodbaths of yore had something of a point beyond defeating other players. So when Wintergrasp was drawn up, it was sort of trying to be two things at once. My personal opinion is that it didn’t get either thing quite right, but that’s not the point. The point is rather that several years later, along came Tol Barad, and – easy though it may be to overlook – Blizzard finally delivered on its promise.

No, Seriously, Try It, I’m Not Crazy

If you’re reading this with any kind of interest, you can probably take me up on the following challenge: go queue up for Tol Barad, doesn’t matter whether it’s offense or defense. When you get ported in, resolve yourself to do the following: do not care at all about the outcome. Don’t think about how pointless it is trying to capture all three bases if you’re on offense. Don’t think about what a foregone conclusion the whole exercise is if you’re on defense. Don’t worry about it. Just go and play.

Are you having fun yet? (If no, did you actually follow through on my instructions? You did? Right, then, I’ve notified the blade runners. They’ll be along shortly to retire you, replicant.) The inevitable conclusion, at least for me, is that Tol Barad, when you look at it through the lens of pure moment-to-moment gameplay experience and refuse to zoom out to the metagame, serves up that “epic clash of armies” experience in spades. Most of the time, what you are doing in combat is exactly what you were loving in Southshore or pre-revamp Alterac Valley: slogging, Braveheart-style, into an endless tide of enemy players. It’s brilliant. I recall one particularly satisfying experience in which my team was outnumbered at Ironclad Garrison, but managed to hold out against hundreds of opposing players, dwindling down to the very last man – me! – just as the clock ran out. That was some Spartans-at-Thermopylae shit right there, boys and girls. The stuff of legends, lived via keyboard and mouse. To borrow a tired old phrase from the forums, it really puts the “war” back in Warcraft.

Unfortunately, Imbalance > Fun

So then … why does everybody hate Tol Barad?

The problem lies in the layout.

The problem lies in the layout.

Well, you know, the obvious reason, the one on everybody’s lips: it’s grossly imbalanced in favor of the defenders. For those unfamiliar, it’s a three-way King of the Hill game: the attacking team wins as soon as they capture and hold all three bases (green circles in the above image) at once, and the defending team wins if the attacking team has not succeeded when the game clock runs out. There’s a further wrinkle in the form of three towers (orange circles) around the map that the attacking team may use siege vehicles to destroy in order to buy 15 minutes of extra time on the clock.

The smaller (and widely overlooked, but still important) problem with Tol Barad’s design is that the defenders are not adequately incentivized to foil the attacking team’s attempts to bring down the towers; they end up being a foregone conclusion, prolonging everybody’s frustrating experience by 15 minutes. The larger problem is the more well-known one: in order to prevent the attackers from winning, the defending team need only form a single giant group and move around the map in a triangular fashion, steamrolling what defenders remain at any given base, thereby guaranteeing that they will always hold at least one base (since it takes such a short time to move to the next base and capture it).

What’s the root cause of this imbalance? In my view, it’s ultimately the placement of the graveyards on the map. Players on the defending team who are killed are sent to the center of the map (red circle) and brought back to life within 30 seconds. Players on the attacking team who are killed are placed just outside the nearest base and brought back to life within 30 seconds. The net result is that a freshly revived player on the defending team can rush to whatever base is the most strategic target in roughly 3/4 the time it takes for a freshly revived player on the attacking team to do so. (Unless I’ve really lost my grip on high school geometry, if you’re sitting at the center of an equilateral triangle with sides of length 2, the distance to any vertex is the square root of 2, so it’s about a 1.414 to 2 advantage … right?) Thus, no matter how coordinated the attacking team manages to be in rushing any given node, assuming the team’s kill:death ratio is anywhere remotely in the neighborhood of 1:1, the defending team will replace defenders faster than the attacking team can replace attackers. More generally, the defenders have an easier time of being able to “snap” to any particular point on the map at the drop of a hat.

A Small Tweak That Would Make a Big Difference

Opinions are a dime a dozen, but here’s mine: Tol Barad’s geometrically-created imbalance doesn’t need to be addressed in a blanket fashion. Rather, it can be recruited to create more compelling gameplay. How? First, make the towers matter. The defenders’ advantage is greatly mitigated if they have a serious stake in preventing the attackers from toppling those spires; now their attention is divided six ways instead of three, which in itself makes for more interesting spur-of-the-moment decisions about where to attack and defend; and because of the mechanics of the siege vehicles, the attackers don’t have to expend quite as much effort in assaulting the towers as the defenders would have to invest in rebuffing them. Second, give the attacking team a way to mitigate the defenders’ map-based advantage. What sort of way? Why, one that depends on the towers of course. I’ll throw this out for starters – carve it up as you will:

Baradin Ferocity: Increases mounted movement speed by X%, and reduces the time between graveyard resurrections by Y seconds, for each spire destroyed in Tol Barad.

If I had to guess, I’d plug in X = 20 and Y = 6, and tweak those numbers as necessary. The result? After 3 towers go down, with 60% increased movement speed and 12-second rez pulses, the attacking team is able to coordinate a formidable snap offense, more than negates the distance advantage of the defenders, and has less to worry about when a player dies, since they’ll be back sooner than a defender would be back. If you’re worried that this gives the attacking forces the upper hand, that’s the point. (Well, it oughtn’t be too huge of an upper hand; maybe x = 12 and Y = 4 would be more reasonable to start with.) Picture for a minute the tactical complexity we’ve introduced: at the start of the battle, both the attacking and defending teams have a lot do to and much to worry about. The defenders can’t overcommit to the towers lest they lose the bases and hence the game; but they can’t undercommit either since Baradin Ferocity would really turn the tide if it kicked in. The attacking team, meanwhile, faces the same problem it always has – the basic difficulty of juggling all three bases at once – only now it’s a good problem (i.e., interesting and pressing) because the defense is similarly overburdened. Everybody goes home happy, and Baradin Ferocity gives Blizzard an easy-to-jigger fine-grained adjustment tool if the win ratio still drifts too far to one side or the other.

You might guess that I’m not very happy with the solution Blizzard actually chose to implement, which makes it harder for the attackers to wrest any single base if the defenders control all three, and makes it easier for the attackers to gain control of the third base when the other two are already under control. I haven’t actually played any games with this fix in place yet, so I can’t speak with authority, but my prediction is that it will be of very little help. I won’t go into detail about why I think that,  but I will point out that if nothing else, the towers continue to be totally irrelevant to the defending team, and that’s just a shame; they’re passing up the opportunity to add a really beautiful measure of depth to what is already a very fun battleground.

As for me, I’ll still happily slog in there whenever I have the chance, gleefully slinging spells into a crushing onslaught of foes. Just don’t ask me how much fun I had once the defending team has achieved its inevitable victory, because, well, just like anyone else, I’m quick to forget the enjoyable moments of an overall wasted effort.

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