This whole Warbringer debate once again reminded me of why I simply cannot enthuse myself over the idea of PvP. In an MMORPG, player-versus-player combat inevitably spawns a casters-versus-melee conflict, and you simply cannot balance it out. There is just no way to do it, since there is no state or situation in which both are happy. When the caster is successful at kiting, the melee dies without being able to touch the opponent most of the time – if the melee manages to stick close, the caster will be interrupted, silenced, stunned, pummeled and ultimately ripped to shreds. Blizzard stated more than a year ago that melee needs to be in range and casters cannot be balanced around kiting. Fair enough, but it’s not working. It can’t work, because no matter what else you put in place, being at long range is a huge advantage for the caster (they can’t be hit), and being in close range a huge advantage for the melee (they can, you know, actually hit). And so PvP turns into one big arms race between snares and gap closers. It’s always either the melee complaining about being kited to death, or the clothies complaining about being blown up. Or both.
Truth is, the traditional classes-and-levels MMORPG is unsuited for PvP combat to begin with. Yes, this is a blanket statement. No, I’m not going to qualify it. I am going to justify it. Somewhat. The problem, you see, is in the early design process. Most MMORPGs, strangely sometimes even supposedly PvP-centric ones, such as AoC or Aion, are, at their very core, designed as PvE games. How can I tell? By looking at classes, class roles and skills. The holy trinity is a PvE concept. Whenever you see neatly separated tanks, damage dealers and healers, taunts, detaunts and threat modifiers, you know where the wind blows from. In Warhammer, tanks actually have a role in PvP. In AoC they’re the guys with not enough damage output to kill anything and a ton of irrelevant survivability.
WoW? No matter how often Ghostcrawler, whom I respect a lot, says that WoW has two parts, both PvE and PvP, it is, at a design level, a game as deeply grounded in PvE as it gets. They wrote down roles, they wrote down tools, and then distributed them among classes. It is glaringly obvious, that the question never was “how would an encounter between a warlock and a paladin play out?”, but always “in which specific ways would a warlock and a paladin contribute to a group’s success?”. Because the tools were given out to classes assuming their co-working in fighting an outside enemy, how those tools would measure up against each other did not come into focus until much later. Moreover, many of the so called utility skills are designed specifically to neutralize particular mechanics the player, or rather the group they’re in, is confronted with. That mechanic may happen to be a fundamental offensive or defensive tool of another class. So, you end up with “counter-classes” and the ever popular rock-paper-scissors principle. Except, RPS is boring, because the outcome is mostly pre-determined.
But PvP isn’t balanced around 1v1! Yeah, I’m sorry, but if you do not balance around 1v1, you effectively do not balance around anything. Cleverly, they iterated to claiming they don’t balance around 2v2 either, weighted the respective Arena bracket down, and thus moved the problem into 3v3. Is WoW-PvP balanced around 3v3 now? Not really. It’s just that at that level complexity gets so high, that you can always wave your hands in the air and say, well, there are so many variables and possibilities, the composition is just one of a plethora of factors. Which is kind of true. But drowning a problem in magnitude is not the same thing as solving it. In the end, no matter the macro-format, on the micro scale, you still have one character and another character beating up on each other, and one of them has to win. Yes, they have teammates, but if A is doing more damage to B than vice versa while at the same time taking less in return, A’s teammates find themselves at an advantage.
Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not advocating the case of those who try to argue, that you should be able to grab an arbitrary assembly of classes and have an equal chance of success regardless. I do not support that notion (neither does Blizzard). Composition should matter. Synergies is what MMORPGs are all about. Which is exactly what puts them at odds with fundamentals of competitive eSports. The very idea of any sport is to create an even field, on which the competitors can, well, compete in terms of the discipline in question. However, to even out the field in an MMORPG means to turn it into an FPS where you shoot fireballs instead of lasers. And no one would want to play that, because Quake is simply better at being Quake (and Unreal Tournament at being Unreal Tournament, and Counter-Strike at being Counter-Strike, and so on). I heard there was a PvP-competition MMORPG-style game called Fury, a year or so ago, that had all “serious PvPers” excited .. for about a week, and then they all went back to their games and all the serious FPS players went back to laughing about them.
Why do we have PvP at all? Because games are played by humans, and humans love to match with each other. You have a character, I have a character, just out of curiosity, let’s see how they perform against each other – sparring fight! And there, you have a duel function. It’s more fun when it’s large scale, so we get BGs. It’s even more fun when it’s rated, so we get Arenas. And people get so excited about it, that they forget it’s just an afterthought in a game with a fundamental PvE mindset. As long as the developer teams get together and start their brainstorming with “okay guys, we need tanks, healers and damage dealers – ideas?”, we’ll have PvE games, which will then contain some sort of PvP interpretation and implementation, and everyone will be bitching for years about PvP balance issues, because no one thought about that sort of balance right from the beginning, but instead about who gets to cast fireball and who gets to cast rain of fire.
Only if the designers sit down right at the start and ask “so we have the ranged guys and the melee guys, the guys who can heal and the guys who can’t, the guys who can deal a ton of damage and the guys who can take a ton of damage – how is this going to match up?”, only then will the result have a chance at being a balanced PvP game (cf. Darkfall, in some respects). If that’d be still fun or popular, now that’s a different question.