3 big problems with ranked battlegrounds

Ranked battlegrounds have been something of a THING in the current MMO cycle, with WoW introducing rated battlegrounds in Cataclysm, and SWTOR introducing ranked battlegrounds with the last patch. I imagine they exist in other games too. They involve players being part of a fixed team and queuing together for battleground play against other fixed teams, with rankings and points assigned for wins and losses. So it is an arena-style setup but with more players and pre-existing layouts and objectives.

On paper, it should be a happy medium for offering keen PvP players the chance to play battlegrounds competitively, while keeping the random PvP players away from organised groups that will roll straight over them.

I haven’t heard much from the WoW side about how well the rated battlegrounds have been working out, but I do know the main issues in SWTOR. I suspect they will be similar, although because of the cross-server queues in WoW, it might not be as bad. This is hard to gauge since the WoW PvP forum is dominated by discussions about arenas rather than the rated bgs at the moment. And here’s a thread from the SWTOR forums where people discuss why they aren’t queuing for ranked warzones.

Problem 1: Long queue times

I noted in a recent post that one of the goals for any random queuing mechanism would be to get as many players into the queues as possible. The queues in ranked battlegrounds can be very long, purely because each group needs 8+ players so there aren’t many teams queuing at any given time.

This sometimes means that ranked teams get bored and queue for random PvP instead, where they just walk all over the randomly queued players which isn’t much fun for them either. You could argue that this means the system is working as intended and random players should be encouraged to PvP in a more organised way. Which isn’t much help if the rest of your team isn’t on, you’re a new or casual player, or if you like random-ish low impact PvP.

Problem 2: Insufficient teams for well matched rankings

In any ranked PvP setting, ideally players would prefer to be matched with teams who can give them a good fight. (OK, there are some players who would always prefer a walkover, but aside from those.) That means teams of similar experience/ ranking/ ability in PvP. If a newbie team is consistently matched against an ultra-hardcore PvP team, they don’t have a lot of space to experiment and learn tactics because they’ll be over-run immediately all the time.

You would expect the hardcore teams to dominate, but if they are actually putting off newer teams from learning to play the rated game, then there’s no turnover when more experienced teams get bored,  and also no teams for other newbie teams to play.

Problem 3: Needing to grind random PvP to get the gear to play in ranked teams

The way PvP gear is acquired in both SWTOR and WoW is that a new max level character can buy a set of entry level PvP gear. To improve this, they need to earn tokens by playing battlegrounds which they can use to buy better gear. This will likely be quite grindy, depending on how much you enjoy the PvP in random battlegrounds. (In WoW you could also play arenas to gear up more quickly, as those queues are much shorter.) If the majority of teams in rated battleground play have the better quality gear (which they will) then every single new team member needs to do that gear grind if they aren’t going to be a weak link, gearwise.

The gear dependency of PvP is an issue in themepark style MMOs in any case, but it’s clear that this pre-requisite isn’t going to encourage more teams to queue for ranked battlegrounds unless they were already quite keen PvPers. That’s another barrier for newer or more casual teams to face.

Getting more teams into the ranked queues

Probably the rewards for playing a ranked game, whether you win or lose, need to be significantly better if they are going to encourage inexperienced players to team up and try their luck. The gameplay and rewards system should encourage teams to work on improving their performance, and that means limiting exposure to wildly better teams. This may mean that hardcore teams keep facing the same small number of competitors. It may mean extra achievements for the first time you play a ranked match or win one to encourage new players to try casual teams formed from general chat as an alternative to random queuing.

Another option would be to enable ranked battleground queues only at specific prime time slots, so that queues will be primed at those times. Or just give extra rewards to teams who queue on ‘ranked battleground night’.

I find this quite a tricky problem, but it’s undoubtedly true that people are put off creating new teams or  experimenting with pick up teams with voicechat because of concerns that their gear isn’t good enough or they’ll be facerolled repeatedly by the server’s best teams. And the people who do run teams are frustrated by the long queue times and lack of good matching. Ultimately I suspect the ranked bgs will be left to the hardcore who will probably arrange their own fight nights between themselves.

12 thoughts on “3 big problems with ranked battlegrounds

  1. Beside agreeing wholeheartedly with your post, I’d like to supply some anecdotal evidence:
    My guild where very much into rated battlegrounds (in wow) when they where first introduced With a full night dedicated to it – and 3-4 months later, they where not. And the realm-forum discussion on it seemed to be very much dead too.
    Maybe with the mists of pandaria, this feature will resurface, but I honestly doubt it

  2. Ultimately any PvP is going to be dominated by a simple design decision – does gear or skill matter?

    As long as gear matters then ranked or competitive PvP will only appeal to a small portion of the game.

    I would even go far (in WoW’s case) as to say when PvP didn’t have it’s own stat *more* people participated in PvP – not because more people had gear (in vanilla they certainly didn’t) but because people didn’t have to ‘grind’ out separate sets of gear to feel like they could meaningfully participate.

    Any kind of real ‘competitive’ PvP should have normalized stats – then only the skill matters.

    Although modern shooters have been leaning in the ‘get gear for exp’ model for a while – nothing they have matches the sheer cliffwall that a new guy in the ‘newbie set’ faces vs. someone that has the full ‘top set’.

    That disparity only grows as the expansion/content gets long in the tooth further reducing anyone from wanting to try.

    The ranked system (like Arena) only makes this problem larger – in part because the best ranked teams get more upgrade points and thus get better gear faster which leads to them dominating until they get bored.

    Frankly I think PvP is responsible for quite a bit of the ‘magic’ that WoW has lost and the ‘blandness’ that you see people complain about in Rift and SWTOR.

    In WoW’s case – until arena came out talents/skills/abilities were varied, different, unique, and sometimes superpowered. Once Arena hit in TBC radical skill and talent balancing started to occur in waves that keep coming – even this latest expansion is doing a 100% talent revamp – and regardless of what blizzard wants to say about ‘interesting’ talents – I think the real reason is because they ‘balance’ the game around you only being able to have enough points in one tree to get the end talent – and as soon as the lvl cap raises the ability to have ‘end talent a’ and ‘mid talent b’ wildly changes *PvP* so they have to fix it. This has resulted in the ‘talent overhaul every expansion’ syndrome alone with the ‘make each class a role’ and ‘homogenize buffs’.

    The end result in WoW was a loss of unique identity for each class and talents/abilities that no longer feel ‘awesome’ but rather ‘meh’ much of the time.

    In SWTOR’s case they ‘saw’ the problem WoW had with class balance and thus designed from the ground up so that every class was a perfect ‘mirror’ of each other – so a sith inquisitor is really the same thing as a jedi consular – just different ‘names and graphics’ for each ability.

    That leads to a sense of blandness.

    In each case I don’t understand why they don’t just bit the proverbial bullet and put a ‘pvp’ flag on every skill/talent – and then just balance around that – so that stuff works different when you are targeting a player – it is alot of work but I’d be willing to bet in WoW’s case it would have been less work then talent redesign (75 times) – or in SWTOR’s case it could have been done from the ground up.

  3. The problem with ranked/rated PvP is that, for most players, it delivers the message “you aren’t as good as you thought you were”. And it cannot do otherwise, since only a mathematically small slice of the participants can be at the top.

    Since the main value proposition of an MMO is ego inflation in a social setting, this is not attractive.

  4. I don’t know how hard it would be to implement, but I’m of the opinion that they should offer independent (solo) bg rankings to complement teams. This would of course have to be paired with your suggestions to prevent killing off team play but hear me out. The idea of rankings is great; pvpers relish competition and progression. That leaderboard is a big deal. Yet a lot of potential competitors are simply excluded because they can’t meet up with teams at set times, totally closing the door on that feature for them. It’s the same reasoning behind the lfd and lfr tools in WoW. Allow independent rankings and all the sudden these players have more purposeful pvp. Additionally, it would offer options for the downtimes encountered by those able to better organize with other players. I have to wonder why developers have simply ignored this option when leaderboards are so prevalent in other aspects of gaming.

  5. Doing well in ranked BGs is a lot like doing well in hard mode raiding. when you get a ranked BG team together and they know their roles, they can carve up opposing teams like they were whipped cream. If they venture into regular BGs, it can be a big disaster for the random BG-er on the other side.

    Due to the size of the teams, ranked BG teams work best in a cross server environment. I think that arenas would be smarter implementation for TOR in a server-only situation, but that’s just me.

    • It makes sense to think of it like raiding: there will be preferred raid compositions, gear, tactics, etc and people are expected to be coordinated. The team needs to schedule being around for practice sessions. Plus members are expected to be competent PvPers on top of that.

      You’re probably right about arenas for TOR, plus you could work it into the lore very easily since I think the Hutts run that sort of thing for bets anyway.

  6. I wonder if Rated battlegrounds would work better with a more formal structure.

    Like a tournament which kicks off at specific times, and you play teams in a specific order. Then you give out prizes based on tournament results.

    Since there is no arbitrary queue any more, a lot of the issues with queue times and insufficient opponents goes away. However, the tradeoff is that you can’t just queue whenever you feel like it and for however long you want. You have to stick to the tournament structure.

  7. Well, my experience with WoW RBGs has been surprisingly positive. We are lucky to have a very stable guild (no one’s going to drama-quit if a night gets cancelled), and that we have a core of PvPers to field a reasonably balanced team every week. Where I’m impressed is that we usually have >5 minute queue times, that we see a wide variety of classes participating (unlike arena comps), and that our opponents are as well-matched as they are — we are often within 50-60 points average rating, at most the gap will be twice that.

    …except for the handful of times we’ve been matched against a team hundreds of points above us, or that one time they were 1000 points above (I stopped reading their individual ratings after 2900, 2900, 2700…). So despite that people say RBGs are to challenge the “hardcore”, I think 1600-level teams like us get faster and more appropriate pairings than the really high end teams. I’m not sure whether a 2200-level team really gets that much more enjoyment out of steamrolling us than steamrolling a standard battleground — I’d expect them to stop queuing if they only face long waits and weak pairings.

    I am often on the fence regarding PvP, and I now love running RBGs with my guild. It’s been a real bonding experience, which has helped us be able to shrug off even the tough losses more easily. Especially after Dragon Soul was rendered so bland and repetitive by running it in LFR first, at the moment my epic moments in WoW are way more likely to involve a last-second flag turnover for the win than a last-man-standing boss kill.

  8. Rated battlegrounds were pretty much the only content I still did in WoW for the last six months of my subscription, so I was quite into them. Ultimately the problem was that we stopped progressing and the frustration of it split our team apart. Unlike with raiding, where everyone can get to the end boss eventually, you can’t have everyone be on top of the PvP ladder eventually. While it makes perfect sense, it’s ultimately still frustrating for many people to see their rating get “stuck”, especially if they feel that they personally could do better if only others in the team weren’t holding them back.

    I haven’t really had any urge to pursue ranked PvP in TOR because the other content keeps me entertained enough. Casual PvP is actually pretty fun because I see very little raging and people always attempt to cooperate, even in randoms, so I don’t necessarily need a fixed team to have a positive warzone experience. Also, in terms of rewards, you can get ranked commendations from normal PvP, it’s just slow. If you’re not hugely competitive, actually playing ranked games currently seems like more hassle than it is worth.

    • I am now in the mindset that any type of highly competitive group content in MMOs will end up splitting casual/ friendly guilds which are usually prized for welcoming a wide range of players (ie. wide range of skill, abiliity, available time.)

      My WoW guild (and I know this from reading forums) I think was taking some steps into RBG and the most hardcore players (who were organising the training and driving this) left for another guild which had a more competitive PvP ethos. I don’t mean it was a bad decision for them, clearly they were going to be happier with more people around who shared their enthusiasm, but that was it for the RBG.

      I have a gut feeling that the ‘best’ type of content for MMOs is something which allows players of different skill and commitment levels to play alongside each other. That’s one of the smart things about LFG when it works, and also about world bosses, zergs in PvP, world events and social events. Because not everyone wants to end up segregated via what type of content they are most obsessed by at the moment.

  9. Ranked PvP exists in other genres as well, albeit more at the “Arena” level, i.e. teams of four or so. Ranked play in FPS and RTS is very popular. I played ranked matches of Halo 3 for about six months and was middling to slightly below on most playlists. I didn’t mind at all. In WoW / MMO Arenas I was generally middling to slightly below as well, but I found it frustrating.

    Why do MMOs suffer more from the “get stuck, get frustrated” problem, than ranked play in RTS or FPS? I’d guess it’s because of grinding, queue times, gear playing a role, and extent of getting smushed, i.e. the issues others have identified above. When I played Halo, I was never so outmatched my whole team would be spawn camped 5 games in a row (the game is designed such that it doesn’t really happen, although there are other FPS where it’s more prevalent), I always went into each match with equal gear, queue times were short, I didn’t have to grind anything beforehand, there were lots of rewards like cosmetic gear, avatars, banners, and the core gameplay (to me at least) was pretty fun. There were also loads of maps and game types.

    So my solution is:
    * Standardise gear load-outs, just like WoW is standardising load-outs (iLvls) for new challenge mode dungeons, removing grinding and gear mismatches
    * Add a vast array of rewards that are somewhat easy to get and desirable, but cosmetic, like nice pretty gear with no stats, pets, elite mounts, banners, avatars
    * Carefully design maps to prevent abusive / griefing play like spawn-camping
    * Also make sure the variety of maps and game types is large
    * Make sure at all costs that the gameplay is intrinsically fun
    * Create a virtuous circle by using the above points to encourage mass participation, leading to short queue times

    Honestly though, the biggest issue is the gearing one. Every truly successful competitive game I have ever seen, whether its football, rugby, Starcraft or Halo, basically has teams enter on an even footing, where ability, dedication and training make or break the team’s performance. The concept of *gear* being important tends to be limited to rich men’s games like golf or sailing.

  10. I do not play ranked BG yet I really support them.

    IIRC there was a Blizzard comment about how they regretted the eSports/Arena decision really complicating the balancing issues. E.g., a similar reason to why 2v2s were devalued.

    So rBGs at least dilute some of the “nerf xxx” cries; there is nothing worse than PvEing on a class that is OP in PvP – you have some disappointment in your future.

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