MMOGology: Gear of war

Last night several members of my Alliance guild initiated some old school, world PvP attacks on Tarren Mill. We were bored, looking for a fight, and boy did we get one. It was fun for a while, but it wasn't long before I realized we had no chance of winning the skirmish. It wasn't a lack of skill, strategy, or cooperation that drove our faces into the ground. It was the fact that our group didn't have the gear necessary to be competitive. There's nothing more demoralizing than getting utterly pwnd by someone that you can't even scratch; despite the fact that you're of equal player level. I've realized there is a Grand Canyon sized gap between a freshly minted 70 in quest gear and one that's been raiding or participating in arena battles. It's the equivalent of a level 60 attacking a level 40. There's a very noticeable difference.

Of course, I shouldn't be surprised by this in a game that's so gear-centric. One of the primary draws of World of Warcraft is the amazing gear that you could potentially get; if only you'd spend hours and hours running and rerunning instances or competing in arenas or getting your hinder stomped in the battlegrounds thousands of times. But for casual schleps like me, the gear divide is a source of endless frustration. It becomes less a battle of skill, and more of battle of who has logged the most hours playing the game. Maybe that's the whole point of PvP in an MMOG; reward playtime over ability. But does it have to be this way?

When you look at competitive online gaming in other genres you don't typically find that gear makes a difference in your PvP viability. Whether it is strategy games, first person shooters, fighting games or racing games, players normally start on an even playing field. All players are given the same tools as their opponents. In most first person shooters, for example, each class of player gets the same weapon loadout. Each soldier gets the same rifle. Each engineer gets the same turret construction kit. Each medic has the same health pack dispenser. PvP gear is generally balanced on each side on the battlefield. The defining element of engaging your opponents involves the skill in which you use those tools, the strategy of the team on which you play, and your knowledge of your environmental surroundings. Experience obviously means a lot in any game. Practice makes perfect, and practice means investing time in the game to better your skill. But the time investment required to become competitive in other genres is nothing like the time required just to get the tools to be competitive in MMOGs. I've played WoW for three years. I know my class and I know how to play it in PvP. My knowledge and ability means squat if I don't have the tools to succeed. As a casual player, it is difficult to obtain the tools. Therein lies my gripe with PvP in MMOGs. If I don't have the time, I can't get the tools. If I can't get the tools, I can't be competitive. If I can't be competitive, why bother playing the PvP game? In most other gaming genres you at least start on equal footing (in terms of gear) regardless of time invested in the game. Even if the player you're up against has more skill because he has spent more time practicing, it feels like a fair fight.

One of the most anticipated new MMOGs on the horizon is Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (WAR). The major draw, the key gameplay element EA Mythic is pushing, the thing that defines WAR and separates it from other MMOGs is the focus on PvP (or RvR - Realm vs. Realm - as they like to call it). In a recent interview with lead developers at EA Mythic, Ten Ton Hammer asked if and how Mythic's approach to PvP would balance gear vs. skill. The WAR developers responded as follows: "Both skill and gear will obviously play a role in a player's success in RvR. That is the nature of this type of game. Some players will naturally excel in combat and we don't want to penalize them for this. However, we don't want them to dominate all the time either, thus gear comes into play." Call me crazy, but doesn't this attempt at "balancing" assume that players with uber skills aren't going to possess uber gear? That assumption is totally ridiculous. Hardcore, competitive players want to maximize their advantages in PvP not only by practicing to become good players, but by acquiring the best gear. Thus the "players that excel in combat" will also be the players in the better gear. It's basically the same old model of hardcore, 24/7 players dominating those with less time to invest in the game. The developers even admit that, "that is the nature of this type of game". Maybe Mythic's developers are right. Maybe there is no real way to balance gear vs. skill in an MMOG. But if the primary draw of a game world is its PvP component, and the basic PvP model isn't changing; what will compel a casual player like me to play? I'm not saying WAR won't have unique RvR action like Mythic has successfully implemented in Dark Age of Camelot, or that the game won't be compelling to hardcore players. I just can't see a casual player sticking around in a PvP world where he can never feel competitive. And maybe that's fine with Mythic. Maybe they don't want the casual crowd QQing in their forums and stinking up the place with their care bear diapers. Of course, they also won't have all that nice money that comes with capturing the casual market. One potentially bright spot in the WAR model comes from an interview with Josh Drescher who says that "The absolute best [gear] will come from taking part in city siege and capture." In other words, the best gear is a rewarded from PvP participation, rather than through PvE raids. Of course, WoW has a somewhat similar model in which the best PvP gear is awarded via PvP combat in arenas. That doesn't make it any less difficult for a casual gamer to obtain the gear to be competitive.

So the question becomes, is it possible to create PvP content in an MMOG that feels fair to players of all play styles; a PvP environment in which both casual players and hardcore players can feel competitive. If such an approach is possible, are developers willing to implement it when one of their primary goals is to keep players from leaving their game by tempting them with difficult to acquire loot? If players aren't continually chasing epic loot to be competitive, what else will keep them paying to play? Would it be possible, for example, to enter a PvP area and receive a standard gear loadout from a weapons quartermaster? Think of it like playing laser tag in real life. Everyone is given standard issue fighting equipment based on your character's class. When opposing factions meet on a battlefield it would be all about skill and strategy rather than who spent 80 hours running the same instance ten times to get every single piece of a gear set. But then of course, what's the point of spending all that time raiding if you can't use your shiny, badass gear against those whiny casual players? Maybe a mixed approach of PvP environments for both standardized gear and individually acquired gear would work. You could have standardized gear arenas that reward players with individual gear to allow them to be more competitive in individual gear arenas and world PvP.
Many of you might be rolling your eyes and saying, "QQ more Care Bear. If you hate it so much, don't play." The thing is, I love PvP in other genres and I love MMOGs. Despite that, I have yet to play an MMOG that satisfies my PvP craving with a PvP model that seems fair to all players. The thing that discourages me is that I don't see any change in the attitudes toward what MMOG PvP combat should be in upcoming games. Maybe it breaks the mold and defies the model, but I think PvP should be conducted on a level playing field between equally geared combatants. To be fair, Blizzard has done a decent job of making low-end PvP gear more accessible to casual players in recent patches. It's not impossible to be competitive, but it still requires a good deal of time.

Although I enjoy occasional PvP as a distraction from the PvE grind, it's definitely not the reason why I play an MMOG. If I want competitive online play I'll play Gears of War, Battlefield or Team Fortress 2. At least when I get a beat down in those games I can respect the guy for his skill and know I have a chance against him next time around. If developers are of the opinion that gear must play a large factor in MMOG PvP, then I personally can't see PvP as a strong selling point for an MMOG. I hope that in the future, someone will find that magic blend that allows both hardcore and casual play styles to face each other on a fair, competitive playing field.
This article was originally published on Massively.