Right now there is a booming industry that’s at the top of what I presume is a bubble of excitement - eSports. It’s a long time coming and game developers have been fighting tooth and nail to make eSports a reality in our western culture now for decades. By decades, I mean, I don’t specifically know but that word brings about excitement and excitement is exactly what eSports doesn’t bring me when I think of eSports and MMO.
Recently there has been a lot of controversy about WildStar’s PvP system, because it’s not “fair.” I spoke before in Respawn about “fair.” The problem with an “eSport” is that it’s an “eGentleman’s Game.” This concept is very simple, you take a game, you balance it, then you let people compete on leaderboard’s and in tournaments for prizes in what is considered a fair game, like any sport. This is the concept of an “eSport game.” The issue here is simply, balance - an eSport can be any genre from MMO to video poker, yet whatever genre it is, it must be balanced.
Balance is bad in an MMO, because it can quickly make a game turn from fun to not so fun in half a heartbeat. A great example is WoW, there was a turbulent period where the PvE part of the game suffered drastically because of PvP changes. Blizzard implementing different strategies for trying to turn WoW into a sport, but failed because they just weren’t fun. They made specific tournament realms with different rules, but charged real life money to go and play. They implemented PvP only changes to skills, but those came a bit too late, and eh again - I’m a big proponent of NOT balancing PvP.
Let me tell you why - if I go out and exploit some weakness in PvP and become some kind of god of the battlefield, I feel good. I feel great! Sure, the legions of other people not as inventive as I am become fodder for me running around like some viking god with a pitcher of grog or beer or whatever viking drunk and an axe in the other hand. However, the balance has to exist for everyone to have fun, especially in large scale battles.
You say, what of the casuals, those who an unbalanced system punishes, because they can’t get a weapon with stats conducive to some current flavor of the month build. Well, again, it’s just a necessary part. The proletariats of an MMO, the casuals if you will, do suffer and it isn’t that fun to get trounched, but guess what it does - provide incentive.
They see some viking god, some hardcore raider, roaming through and melting faces and they too want to do the same. So they join up, they hardcore raid, and you have an epidemic. Soon, everyone is unbalanced gods and PvP is this chaotic warfield of people trying their hardest to exploit the system (within the confines of the system). That, in essence, is fun.
Now, now, now - this is where eSports comes in. The idea to make a game eSports requires it to be fair, in some capacity. If you can do one thing, there must be a counter for that “thing.” To be a good eSport, you have make that counter something that can appear in any setup. So for instance, if a player has a stun, another player must have a way to deal with it.
MOBAs are natural eSport heroes because of items. The items are what helps balance the game, because you can now add an item that removes stun or provides a counter to this ability, so the opposing team now only needs to purchase the “get out of stun” item and now the counter is in place. In MMOs, it’s much harder, because the majority of times two groups of players come together and just go at it, deathmatch style. There is no pausing to reequip and restrategize.
So, where does that leave us? Well, the sad truth is that you can’t have a fun MMO that’s also an eSport unless it’s built from the ground up - like Guild Wars. Although, Guild Wars was not good eSport material, it was a GREAT example of how a game can go to bring fairness but allow players to exploit the system to come ahead. Good teams weren’t just good players, they were good strategists, who could take all of these skills and make a winning combination.
The result was there was a counter to everything, but you had to equip it before battle. You had to guess and assume what the other team was running. Did you go for a build that could counter a lot, but didn’t have anything in it to really push for the win? Did you go for a specialty build that exploited some game mechanic (like corpse explosion), but pray that they didn’t have someone who slotted in Corpse Explosion themselves as a counter to a popular build?
Gear didn’t (or does, since the game is still live) mean much either. Runes and the such were fun to play with, but they were something everyone else could easily have as well. A huge component in making the game still this chaotic mess of people slinging skills and spells everywhere, while at the same time having some organization to it.
So we are at this sort of odd crossroads. Players are, like always, demanding a 100% fair and unbiased PvP system in MMOs that mimics the best of eSports, where their “skill” means more than their “gear” or “build.” Yet, we know that the second you start “balancing” an MMO and making it 100% fair, you end in a situation where the fun goes out the window as matches either last forever, end instantly, or everyone just goes around trying to kill each other, but always failing.
If I could talk directly to developers making or working on PvP systems, I would say simply to make them fun. At the end of the day, it’s easier to make something fun then it is to make it fair, and through unfairness we can easily all find fun.