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Blood Sport: Perfect balance, the PvP pipe dream

V'Ming Chew

Thank you for all your comments on my first blog entry! Yes, PvP is indeed a volatile topic to write about, and I fully expect some of you to disagree passionately with me. I constantly seek to pull information, and opinions from a wide range of sources and players, so that we can all make better sense of this ever-changing beast we all love called PvP. I do not know it all - and I suspect nobody does - we can all learn something through this exchange of ideas.

"Nerf warlocks!"

A familiar refrain in the forums, in general chat, and even in guild chat. So familiar that OP has almost become an affectionate term for warlocks. But can anyone remember a time when people believed that Blizzard employees all played class x and when the prevailing QQ in the community was "Nerf class x!"?

Have you ever thought that a certain class was 'so madly imba' that you wished the devs would fix it immediately, especially after you've been mauled by that class?

The idea of 'balance' is seductive - imagine WoW where you walk into every fight confident that your character can beat any opponent. Is balance really about that? Is balance achievable? Even if we get it, do we, as players, really want it?

Patch day comes and with every nerf and/or buff, we assume that the devs are trying to reach that nirvana of Perfect Balance. Why is Blizzard happy with a rock-paper-scissors model? Wouldn't everyone be happier if there was Perfect Balance?

Is Perfect Balance possible?

Let's look at the practical difficulties of Perfect Balance. There are nine classes in WoW. Using this formula, if we match each class with another, excluding mirror matches, which we can safely assume to be balanced, notwithstanding gear, we will have:

(2+9-1)!/2!*(9-1)! - 9 = 36 matchups for 1v1

Let's consider Blizzard's older game - Starcraft - which most people consider to be reasonably well-balanced. Starcraft has three factions - Terran, Protoss and Zerg:

(2+3-1)!/2!*(3-1)! - 3 = 3 matchups for a 1v1 multiplayer game, excluding mirror matches

Presumably it will take about 12 times as much resources to balance WoW, relative to Starcraft. Without sounding like I'm making excuses for Blizzard, I'd rather be playing the game than to wait for it to be perfectly balanced. (Even Starcraft was released to the wild unbalanced and took an expansion and four balance patches over two years to get it 'right'.)

Are we all unwitting playtesters in this search for balance in WoW, since an MMORPG's development is never really 'finished'?

Using the same formula on Arena teams, and excluding mirror matches again, we get:

  • 990 matchups for 2v2
  • 13,530 matchups for 3v3
  • 827,541 matchups for 5v5

If balancing 36 1v1 encounters is tough, it is near impossible to even start to balance close to one million different 5v5 matchups! Is Blizzard then trying to pull our collective legs when they say they are trying to balance team PvP rather than duels?

Before we accuse Blizzard of lying to us, consider this: maybe we should start thinking of classes in a new way, as 'packages' of resources and abilities, rather than nine discrete blocks. We'll look at these resources and abilities in a future article.

What is balance?

Many players yell for 'balance' - where every defeat at the hands of a certain class is a game-breaking moment.

Balance, unfortunately, isn't just about someone having a chance of winning. It's where every class has an equal chance to win or lose, when all of their abilities are used correctly.

An example of a perfectly balanced game is chess. Players have identical pieces - perfect symmetry as far as tools are concerned - and almost perfect knowledge: no hidden pieces, no hidden moves. Only your moves in the future are unknown to your opponent, and that is determined by skill and skill alone.

Now consider WoW. Your knowledge of your opponent's play is very far from perfect, and you can only make educated guesses at his or her gear, spec, location (for stealthed toons), or even class! Imperfect knowledge and timing issues (WoW PvP is a much quicker game than chess) brings luck and other imbalances into determining the outcome of the PvP encounter.

The easiest route to 'balance' is to give players symmetrical tools. I can safely say that no WoW player would want that. Having arguably unique and customizable characters you can call your own is what gives WoW, or any MMORPG, its character, color, and drama.

Imagine the unlikely scenario that we've achieved balance without cloning the classes, will we then come to miss the inter-class tension and drama that we have come to so loathe (and dare we say it, love)?

Why do people scream for balance then?

Nobody likes defeat, especially when there is no chance of retaliation. It is however all too human to blame your character, or your opponent's character, rather than to take a hard look at the player - you.

Improving your PvP performance and Arena standings involves making better educated guesses in this game of imperfect knowledge. Experience and in-depth knowledge will narrow this gap.

Unfortunately, your PvP game could also be simply limited by the speed with which your fingers fly across the keyboard (older players can probably attest to this, of which I'm one of them - lol). The good news: this too can be overcome with practice practice practice, and the help of some addons and macros.

Hey, if all else fails, invest in a Marvelous Madstone of Immortality!*

At the 1v1 level, WoW is a rock-paper-scissors game. I am wary of saying that Team PvP is balanced in the current state of the game, but we can probably agree that it is relatively free of game-breakers and class exploits. There are no run-away winners at the moment, although some classes are better represented than others in the Arena format.

Perfect Balance sounds good on paper. After almost three years of going live and numerous patches, we are still not there. Will we ever hit that gameplay nirvana? I'd say no. Do we want to get there? This may be a moot point when the time does finally come.

In other words, Perfect Balance will remain just that - a PvP pipe dream.

A quick tabulation** of the Arena PvP Ranking table for the US servers reveals the following:

The Hunter is still under-represented across all Arena formats. Paladins are curiously under-represented in 3v3, posting only a 5% presence. Expectedly, the Warrior has a big presence in teams across the formats. Druids are in a lot of smaller teams, while the opposite is true of shamans.

Comparing US 3v3 teams with EU servers:

Largely similar class distributions across the US and EU servers, with paladins perhaps more accurately represented. Druids seem more prevalent on US servers for this format. Hunters are also poorly represented on EU servers.

I shall continue to tabulate these numbers over the following weeks - it will be interesting to note the effects of patch 2.3 on class representation at top levels of Arena play.

Will there be a new king of the OP hill? We shall see.

** I noted the rating of the team ranked 100, and counted the number of toons for each class with ratings higher or equal to that.

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