The Miracle of Tol Barad

If you have been following any WoW blogs at all, you have probably realised that Tol Barad, the new open worldish PvP zone, and inheritor of the Wintergrasp mantle has been a complete clusterfuck.

Problem 1: How to find your PvP zone

Tol Barad is actually a zone in two sections. One which has a bunch of annoying daily quests, designed to encourage PvP by setting both horde and alliance after the same NPCs. It also features fast spawning mobs with massive aggro ranges, and – naturally – lots of nice reputation rewards such as weapons to encourage people to keep plodding through dailies there anyway.

The second part of the zone is the area where the 2 hourly PvP battles happen. I spent at least a month wondering why I never saw any of the PvP when I was doing my dailies and it was announced that the battle was on. The reason is that there’s actually no signposting at all to the PvP section of the zone.

tolbaradmap

The bridge that I’ve marked in red is actually the route to the PvP section. It isn’t marked and there aren’t any breadcrumb quests to take you there.  (You can also get ported there via the PvP tab, of course.)

So you can do your daily quests in Tol Barad without ever either engaging in PvP or encountering the battles for the zone. Some people would see this as a good thing. I think it’s just bizarre.

Problem 2: Unbalanced PvP

The actual battleground section has a central keep, three surrounding buildings and three surrounding towers. When the battle is on, the attacking force has to take and hold the three surrounding buildings at the same time. The defending force has to stop them. Each faction is nominally there with similar amounts of players.

What could possibly go wrong with this scheme? Apart from the fact that the attackers need to split their forces into at least three parts and the defenders just have to stop them holding one building for 10 mins to win.

Problem 3: This isn’t a fix so much as a bribe

The better fix would be having NPCs take the central keep or something and just get both attackers and defenders to have to hold as many buildings as possible.

But actually what Blizzard did was increase the rewards for when the attackers win. 1800 honor points (which is what you get for an attacking victory) will buy you at least one piece of PvP gear. Do this a few more times and you’ll have a full set.

The miracle of match fixing

You might think that it wouldn’t really matter how large the bribes were if it was still so much harder for attackers to win. And you’d be right if just about every server in both US and EU hadn’t started to arrange match fixing. I checked through several realm forums on the official site and every single one had a thread about Tol Barad, suggesting exactly this.

All that needs to happen is for the defending side to not try very hard so that the attackers always win. That way both faction get lots of freebie honor points for winning as attackers, the zone changes hands every 2 hours and everyone gets a chance to do the extra dailies that are awarded to the winner.

I know a lot of people view this as cheating but I am so impressed that pretty much all the playerbase, with minimal interaction, got its head together to cooperate on this. This is what I call the miracle of Tol Barad, and I hope other game designers are paying attention.

It’s normally so hard to get people to cooperate even minimally and Blizzard just pretty much threw some free loot at people with an obvious optimal strategy (let the zone switch hands every fight) and they’ve all been able to communicate, organise, cooperate, and profit.

Shame it had to ruin the one way I had found to make money as a blacksmith though, in selling starter PvP gear …

Twinks, Heirlooms, and Morality

Yup, it’s a morality tale for Friday.

Gordon opines that twinking is a form of cheating in his We Fly Spitfires blog. His reasoning is that supplying other characters with cash or equipment is not in the spirit of MMOs. Nope, they are like the American Frontier – you go in with nothing but the sweat on your brow and the shirt on your back and see who has the guts, luck and moxie to live off the land (ie. the low level mob drops). Also it drives up the prices of low level gear and gives experienced players an extra advantage over newbies.

Andrew rebutts this at Of Teeth and Claws, and asserts every player’s right to twink out their alts. He comments that aside from the fact that anyone can twink an alt, it’s also a metagame that a lot of people enjoy.

It’s hard to really argue that supplying alts with gear and cash is against the spirit of the game, when the game lets you do it. People like treating their new alts like spoiled children with lavish gifts and treats. Not only that but sending along some good items and gold adds  interesting replay value to alts – you can power through all the quests that were really annoying when you did it the first time, see how the class plays at low level when it’s well geared, for example. And we love to do it.

I’ve also played games where you couldn’t easily send money and gear between alts and we all found ways around it. Get a trusted friend to hold the items while you swap alts and then trade them back to you. Get a second account. Drop items on the floor and quickly relog so that the alt can grab them before they disappear.

Is it cheating? Nope. Although it does have the effect that newbies have a much rougher game experience than alts. We can call this the school of hard knocks. At least everyone had to do it once.

Twinking for PvP is an altogether more interesting metagame. MMOs aren’t usually designed to be balanced below the level cap, you’re intended to make your way through the levels and then do whatever it is that the devs have planned for max level characters. (Or roll another alt if it’s CoH.) So if players choose to make a project out of finding out how powerful a low level alt can become for use in level capped battlegrounds, it’s an interesting challenge. It could involve farming for drops, buying expensive items and enchants, getting boosts through instances and finding clever ways around game mechanics that weren’t really designed to be given out at those levels. And the rewards? Becoming a virtual god amongst men when fighting non-twinks.

Because the game isn’t balanced at low level, twinks can be monstrously powerful in comparison to new players at the same level. I’ve fought twinked out hunters in Warsong Gulch at level 19 whose pets had more health than my alts. It may not be cheating, but it doesn’t entirely feel fair either. At that point you hope that your team has as many twinks on it as the other side so they can keep each other occupied.

What I do like about twinking is that it feels anarchic, as though you’re somehow fighting The Man by insisting on playing the game by your own rules. It’s also controversial and guaranteed to stir people up – no one enjoys a PvP fight where they literally don’t have a chance.

But is it really the twinks who are to blame for that, or the game design that lets gear give such a huge advantage?

How Heirlooms are changing the twinking game

Heirloom items are the new big thing for alts in WoW with this expansion. They are bound to the account not the character, their stats scale with you as you level from 1-80, and they are roughly equivalent to good blue items of their level at all times. You can buy them either with daily quest rewards from the Argent Tournament, with badges that  you get from running heroic instances, or with the tokens that you get from PvP in Lake Wintergrasp (for the PvP heirlooms).

That has both encouraged twinks and taken the wind out of the market at the same time. No one pays high prices for the old favourite twink weapons any more, they just use heirlooms. There is some grinding involved to get the tokens together but once you have, you can just keep passing the gear from twink to twink. All your alts who use the heirlooms are effectively twinked.

So at this point, it’s really hard to argue that passing nice stuff to your alts isn’t an accepted part of the game, at least in WoW. And PvP twinks can face off against other PvP twinks in battlegrounds by turning their xp off. Again, hard to argue that it isn’t now an accepted part of the game.

I do wonder if some of the charm and challenge of twinking has gone from the game with the introduction of the heirlooms – specifically designed for twinking alts and relatively easily available to max level characters. Don’t get me wrong, I like the heirlooms and I think they’re an interesting experiment in removing gear dependence completely in the levelling game while leaving it in endgame. They also nudge endgame players towards alting as an alternative to raiding or PvP.

More than ever, the new player is disadvantaged in PvP. And not only the actual newbie, but anyone who rerolls on a different server where they have no high level sugar daddy to feed them gold and heirlooms.

But guess what, for an immodest RL fee to swap servers (and possibly factions too), an alt from the same server as your high level character can wing its way to the new guy, bearing gifts of heirlooms from afar. There’s going to be a lot of money in this for Blizzard if they don’t do the decent thing and implement cross-server mail.

A lot of people will pay for the fun and convenience of battleground twinkage and faster, smoother levelling. And the old twink playstyle of working out how best to pimp a lot level alt may be gone forever – because the answer will always be ‘use heirlooms’.

Is it cheating to fake achievements?

It was only a matter of time before people figured out how to fake achievements in Warcraft.

It’s become quite common for people putting together PUGs and raids to ask prospective members to link achievements, to prove that they know the fights or have beaten them before. It was probably inevitable. The ability to ‘boast’ publically about your in-game achievements has made them the ultimate skill currency.

The downside was always that this depended on Blizzard-definitions of skill. There aren’t any achievements for raid leading, for example, which is where it might be most glaringly useful. (You want me to sign up for your raid? Prove you know what you’re doing?) In any case, if you want to show that you are a skilful player, now you can prove it.

Or can you?

I was reading this discussion on the official forums last week, which is all about people using addons to link achievements that they haven’t actually completed. I laughed. I have limitless faith in the ability of players to find ways around stupid rules with which they don’t agree.

And I’m also sure that someone out there is working on an addon to check the official achievement lists published by Blizzard in the armoury to verify whether a linked achievement is real or not. It’s like the hacker/anti-hacker wars all over again.

But  is it cheating to lie to someone about your achievements in an online game? Well no. You can say what you like as long as it isn’t offensive. There’s nothing in the EULA that says you have to always tell the truth to other players. Blizzard have stepped in before to  stop certain types of misdirection on the auction house (e.g. people listing really expensive items next to really cheap ones to try to lure the illiterate into buying both by mistake), but they don’t get overly involved in personal disputes.

What if you fake that the message actually came from the in-game interface? This one is tricker. Back in MUSH days, we called this spoofing and spoofing another player meant that you made it look as though they had said or done something when actually it was  you. It was viewed as funny but impolite. You see this also in bboards, where you can edit a reply to make it look as though someone said something which they didn’t. Again, can be funny, not very polite.

Faking a message from the game engine is edgier because it’s a kind of appeal to authority – but to my mind, still in the category of funny but a bit naughty. If nothing else, it teaches players the valuable lesson: don’t believe everything you read online. If people really want to see if you know your stuff, perhaps they’ll have to actually talk to you, check your gear in person, or go look it up for themselves.

What do you think? Cheating or not?