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The Art of War(craft): A rambling year in review

Zach Yonzon

In last week's column, where I went over the World PvP objectives in the Outlands, some players expressed indignation at how Blizzard supposedly "forces" PvE players into playing PvP. There are different views on this, such as Massively's Craig Withers, who wrote about a distaste for impersonal PvP in WoW and thus avoids it like the plague, and well, myself, who would actually like to see more PvP-oriented goals implemented in the game. As the shadow of the aptly-named WAR, or Warhammer Online -- which trumpets a supposedly rich PvP and RvR (Realm vs. Realm) experience -- looms, World of Warcraft appears increasingly lacking in PvP content. More and more, suspicion arises that WoW PvP is flawed by design. In his article, David points to reader Aviel's well-ordered thoughts on the matter -- that PvP's basic flaw is that it is an Honor grind, Honor being the currency for gear. As long as it is currency, Aviel says, people will find ways to earn it in the quickest manner possible (e.g. AFKing).

For the most part, I agree with that statement. Blizzard has designed WoW PvP to be a task/reward system that is vulnerable to abuse. The simple fact, however, is that the entire game is a huge task/reward system, from the very existence of mobs (including bosses), which award loot when killed; to quests, which give rewards for completing certain tasks. Without that mechanic in place, the entire game would break. Players do daily quests not out of sheer enjoyment -- although some can be fun -- but because it's a reliable method for earning gold. When Patch 2.4 eventually hits, players can earn upwards of 300g by doing daily quests. I am willing to be that people will be doing daily quests not (just) because they're fun but because most players need gold.

In its current iteration, Honor is a currency, making it a prime candidate for farming. This design is largely due to the fact that WoW PvP has mostly been an afterthought. Actual PvP objectives and rewards, i.e. the Honor system, didn't come into the game until Patch 1.4, about five months after the game's release. The first Battlegrounds came out a month later in a subsequent patch. Because PvP isn't deeply interwoven into the world, the Honor system feels tacked on, distinctly separated from other currencies or means of acquiring loot, or reward. What matters, however, is that Blizzard recognized the need for PvP and managed to find a way to incorporate it. Blizzard Vice-President of Game Design Rob Pardo, in his 2006 AGC keynote speech said, "Early on we really didn't know how the honor system was going to work, we didn't know if we were going to have titles and achievements but we knew we had to have PvP and we knew that it had to be fun."

It has to be fun
Thus, long-windedly, I come upon the key word: fun. PvP should be fun. In fact, the promised forthcoming changes to Alterac Valley will be geared towards making the Battleground a more fun experience. Lately, non-participation in the Battlegrounds, particularly Alterac Valley, have become such an issue that people are simply staying clear of them. Obviously, AFKers are only part of the problem, despite the welcome hard-line change to Blizzard's policy against them.The way Blizzard sees it, they need to figure out why people AFK in the first place. While it almost seems like a rhetorical question, the driving philosophy behind the query is this: is it fun enough?

I wrote about my reasons for participating in PvP. The bottom line, for me, is that it's fun. Obviously, there are many out there who do not share this sentiment and prefer to experience the game from an entirely PvE perspective. I even wrote that PvP was inevitable and was promptly rebutted by staunch strictly-PvE players. I stand corrected despite the fact that I can't imagine playing World of Warcraft without participating in at least a single game of, say, Warsong Gulch. These days, most people are playing Battlegrounds and Arenas purely for the gear. Acquisition of gear is the end goal whereas in a perfect World of Warcraft, it is merely a byproduct of having fun in those scenarios. Some players target an Honor total, purchase their item, and are done with a Battleground entirely. Others, as I mentioned, feel "forced" into PvP to acquire gear. More and more, I am falling under the impression that PvP is something that many players are participating in simply because of the allure of (seemingly) easy epics.

Gears of war
Welfare epics. It's an excellent mechanic, really. Blizzard called these epic items "welfare" because everyone, even players who don't raid, has (or eventually will have) access to them. The call of shiny, new gear appeals to all players, even those not normally inclined to PvP. Without the promise of new items, will players still be queuing for the Battlegrounds? I'll be bold as to answer that myself -- probably not. Without any rewards at the end of the day, Battlegrounds and Arenas will likely become ghost towns because, as fun as they are to play (pure PvE players will just have to take my word for it on this one), they're just not that fun. The entire game is based on tasks and rewards, and PvP is no exception.

Is Honor the best mechanic for it? I don't know, but I think Honor has worked really well in the past year. Then again, this might stem from the fact that I was weaned from a time when Honor bought nothing. Acquiring one million Honor points one week used to be a necessity in order to merely have access to the best gear (if you didn't have the gold to purchase your items within the week, tough luck!). It was a cruel, unforgiving system that only got harder the closer you got to your goal. Those million Honor points were gone by Tuesday's maintenance and the grind would begin again. Nowadays, the persistent Honor-as-currency system caters to even the most casual player, which is a good thing. AFKers are a natural by-product of the system but without it, there might be little to no PvP in WoW to speak of save for the occasional griefer with epeen issues.

Ironically, 2007 was the year where Blizzard definitively drew the dividing line between PvE and PvP gear. The introduction of Resilience last year is one of the most important developments in PvP. In my opinion, it ranks as the biggest change to PvP in 2007. It dichotomized PvP and PvE so clearly that a player decked out in completely PvP gear is highly unlikely to outperform a player equally geared with PvE items in a PvE scenario. Conversely, players with high resilience were now more likely to last against -- if not outlast -- players in raid gear. In the old days, players who raided and were decked out in Tier 2 or Tier 3 gear were devastating in the Battlegrounds. With Resilience, you PvP to get gear for PvP and you PvE to get gear for PvE. Ideally, of course.

Something that gets very low points for me in 2007 is the appearance of the PvP gear. They're lazy recolors of existing raid gear. They're nice enough, to be sure -- with some awful recolor choices -- but they're a far cry from the once-unique models of the old Honor system. In the old days, PvP gear was distinctive. Now, they're mere copies of PvE gear. In my opinion, many of those item sets were the best-designed gear in the game to this day. The coolest thing about them? There were different looks for Alliance and Horde players. Alliance set and weapons were proud and gleaming, while the Horde items were gritty and savage. 2007 saw that visual distinction give way to raid-recolor homogeneity.

Other things... other quibbles
Was 2007 a fun year for PvP? I certainly had my share of good times. 2007 was also the year a new Battleground was introduced but was also the same year that Blizzard confirmed that Eye of the Storm was going to be the last Battleground until Wrath of the Lich King comes out. The funny thing is, I think it would have been pretty exciting to have gotten additional maps for existing Battlegrounds, similar to Arenas. It is fairly easy for Blizzard to generate even symmetrical maps with the same mechanics in place as the existing games. The new Battleground simply doesn't do it for me. As I explained in an earlier column, Eye of the Storm seems like the least developed Battleground simply because it doesn't have a story. No factions, no real world location... for me it was just one of those things that made me feel more like PvP was just an afterthought in WoW. 2007 also saw the most changes to Alterac Valley, with more looming on the horizon.

If there was anything big about PvP in WoW in 2007, it was definitely the Arena system. Aside from Arenas, 2007 was a rather lackluster year for PvP. Because of Arenas' such huge success (long queue times, anyone?), Blizzard has taken it as a barometer for class balance, dealing nerfs (Blessing of Freedom, Blessing of Sacrifice) and buffs (Arcane Shot, Aimed Shot) based mostly on a class's Arena performance and desirability (representation). The irony is that the changes made to classes affected them not only in PvP but in PvE, as well, despite the fact that the changes are meant to address imbalances made apparent in Arena scenarios.

Looking ahead
If there's anything I'm looking forward to this year, it's Lake Wintergrasp and all that that implies. As Warhammer Online touts a rich PvP experience in its core gameplay (some would say PvP is its core gameplay), Blizzard seems to have responded in turn with their announcement of a completely PvE-free zone in Wrath of the Lich King. It seems like a small concession to PvP players, but it's definitely a hopeful start. Will there be (uniquely modeled) gear available in the zone? Will there be quest chains or daily quests? Will there be new Battlegrounds? Will there be -- gasp! -- new titles obtained from participating in the zone? The new Westfall-sized zone has so much potential I can't wait to find out what Blizzard has in store.

I don't expect major changes to PvP this coming year, despite how flawed the Honor or Arena systems might be. For the most part, they've worked well. I have a feeling people will be doing more PvP as WotLK draws near... as the prospect of Northrend greens replacing hard-earned raid purples trudges towards inevitability, people will start to raid less and less. I also expect Blizzard to deliver on a more integrated, consequential World PvP implementation, however. Although Lake Wintergrasp is a purely PvP zone, I fully expect Blizzard to have World PvP objectives in other zones, as well. With all the lessons learned from the past, I hope that World PvP will become more useful, compelling, rewarding, and ultimately, fun. If there's anything I hope for PvP to be this coming year, it's that Blizzard succeeds in making not only Alterac Valley more fun but World of Warcraft PvP in general. Beyond the glitz of the gear and the glamour of titles, PvP -- through its different channels (Battlegrounds, Arenas, World PvP) -- should be fun to play in and of itself. Make PvP fun enough, and even Mike Schramm won't be asking silly questions such as, "who says PvP matters?," up on Massively. Have a killer 2008, everyone!

Zach Yonzon writes the weekly PvP column The Art of War(craft) while eagerly awaiting for the boat that will take him to Northrend. He is learning how to operate a siege-weapon in preparation for his siege license exam.

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