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.

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5 Challenges for Cataclysm

Chris at Game by Night is dubious about whether Cataclysm can really keep Warcraft players occupied for another two years (the average time between WoW expansions up till now). Yes, there are new races and new levelling content, but once people have worked up their new alts … what then?

In many ways, the most surprising thing about Cataclysm is how little we have heard about it. It’s going to be released this year, but when? Is it in beta yet? Where are the screenshots or artists impressions of the new zones? Maybe a picture of a well known zone seen from a flying mount? How about some more information about the dance studio (i.e. ability to choreograph your own dances) which was mentioned at Blizzcon?

Just for comparison, the first beta leaks from Wrath were in April ‘08, and the expansion was released in November of that year. If Cataclysm is aiming for a release before Q4, we should start hearing more about it very soon. The longer they delay, the more likely that the expansion won’t go live until the end of the year.

Aside from that, there is a question of what exactly it really would take to keep WoW players occupied for another two years.

For raiders, I’m sure Blizzard can dole out the raid content at the same rate they have been through Wrath. For alt-fans, an old worlde revamp, new races, and 5 new zones will certainly keep people busy for awhile. Blizzard have also mentioned reworking some of the old dungeons as high level heroics – if they did that to all of them in addition to any new instances then that’s a lot of instanced content also. Plus the rated battlegrounds, which I suspect will be one of the really big features in practice.

So, same old same old. More zones, more dungeons, more races, more battlegrounds. But is that enough? And if not, what exactly would be enough?

Here’s the five main challenges I think the expansion will face.

  1. Rated Battlegrounds. How well will these take off? If this plan works, then it will throw a nice chunk of both content and challenge at raid guilds who are bored of running the same raid four times a week. Plus should be fun for the more casual guilds too. They will need to find a way for people to opt out of the ratings if they want to go run a random battleground or else the whole casual friendly, solo friendly nature of bg PvP will be lost.
  2. People who can’t raid or don’t want to raid. Wrath opened up WoW raiding to more people than ever before. Some will be hooked and raring to go on Cataclysm raids. But what about the people who decided that actually it isn’t for them? It may be that some form of cross-server LFR tool will make raids a fun, casual friendly option. But as I’ve said before, I don’t think a regular tuned 10/25 man raid would work for a cross server PUG.
  3. Hardcore disengagement. Hardcore raiders have worked within the new hard mode /normal mode framework for raid instances. But how much do they actually enjoy it? Do they want to sign up for another expansion of more of the same? More working their guts out to beat hardmodes, when the majority of the player base just doesn’t care any more and isn’t especially impressed because they are happy with their normal modes and get to see the same fights anyway. How many will decide that it’s just not worth it?
  4. Levelling through Outland and Northrend. Now, Outland and Northrend both offer very cool and fun levelling experiences. But how are players going to feel when they leave the revamped old world and have to chug through 20 levels of unchanged content before they get to the new Azeroth zones? How many of those new alts will actually make it to endgame?
  5. Class Balance and Hybrid Vigor. Wrath has seen hybrids winding up with a good deal of in game privilege. They get the extra flexibility of multiple roles, at very little cost (apart from the extra time and effort to gear up). We know that Paladins and Druids (and Death Knights, natch) have all been gaining in popularity – last armoury survey showed that over 15% of all level 80s were paladins. I’d expect this effect to become even more marked as more people create new alts in Cataclysm. Druids will get vastly more popular because … worgen druids. Plus of course, a class talent revamp for all classes could unsettle everything.

The big problem of course is boredom. People who are bored of the game are not going to be enthralled by more of the same, and Blizzard has shown no signs yet that Cataclysm will include anything other than more of the same.

And really, they have to go with ‘more of the same’ for the players who aren’t yet bored – plus they will want to increasingly save their new ideas for the unannounced MMO that is yet to come. This isn’t to say that WoW is being short-changed, but that the original design might just not be welcoming to some of the new things designers want to do.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I think they will at some point figure out how to make fun cross server PUG raids. I think the rated battlegrounds will be wildly successful, more than most people are expecting.

I think that the new expansion will struggle to hold a lot of existing endgame player’s attention for more than a few months. This happens anyway with any new expansion, but the drift will be faster than ever, and it won’t depend on new games coming out. But remember, a lot of new or returning players will be coming back to start again with Cataclysm. They won’t all be bored yet. They will enjoy the more accessible instancing and raid content. Blizzard is banking on the new wave replacing the old. Time will tell if they are right.