Never Settling Down: Solving sPvP Balance by Constantly Changing It

Disclosure: I am rank 45 (Tiger) presently, have mostly played solo arena (or solo queued), and have never been on an organized PvP team. I also played Heroes’ Ascent and Random Arena in Guild Wars 1, though not to high ranks (Rank 6 Hero, Rank 4 Gladiator). I consider myself an experienced player, but not top-tier PvP.

sPvP is Stale (TL;DR)

Regardless of the high-profile World Tournament Series, the updates to matchmaking*, and the balance update that went live 3 days ago, structured PvP is extremely static (the past 3 days excepted, it’s the first balance update in 2 months). And static for PvP creates a feeling of staleness.

*Seriously, thank you Justin O’Dell and your entire team for overhauling it, even if there are kinks in the works still. The levers exist to get them out.

This is downright terrible for several reasons that I’ll get into shortly, the chief one being stale content bores people, and people stop playing boring stuff.

The root cause of this staleness is the meta. More specifically, the static nature of the meta. Except for the immediate aftermath of a balance patch, things settle into the expected meta builds, and a bunch of outlier builds that get trashed 90% of the time by people playing meta.

Players can change the meta, but they are slow to do so. The chief driver of meta changes is balance updates, which is something that Guild Wars 2 has rarely, both compared to other eSports-level games and its own predecessor Guild Wars.

The lack of regular balance updates has bred a culture of mockery around putting “eSports” in the same sentence with “Guild Wars 2.” This GIF is funny for a reason:

Rytlock telling it like it is

A competitive game aspiring to be considered an eSport needs regular, meta-changing balance updates.

This becomes even more true with the upcoming addition of more traits and skills through specializations and the Revenant in Heart of Thorns.

Staleness is Bad

The bane of MMOs is an accusation of staleness. Once something feels stale enough for people to complain about being bored and finding that content stale, it’s already in the process of causing people to quit doing it (the silent majority).

Worse still, once people start making that accusation and it can’t be readily refuted (“hey, we had <x> update, <y> new feature”), it snowballs. People who thought it was okay, if a little samey, start reevaluating their decision to enjoy the content, and can contribute to the vicious cycle.

For Guild Wars 2 PvP, this creates a host of undesirable effects:

  • Lower population
  • More complaining, both with and without merit
  • Sharper analysis of anything done to fix the staleness
  • Dislike of otherwise positive additions that don’t fix the staleness
  • Less patience for “the right” solution, rather insisting on any solution

The other points speak for themselves (especially with a quick look around the PvP forum or any PvP-related topics on reddit), but lower population needs additional attention:

  1. With fewer people in the mix, matches are harder to balance, particularly at off-peak times (curbstomps are an even faster way to make people quit than boring sameyness)
  2. While not perfectly correlated, the number of people playing has an effect on people willing to watch (streams, eSports tournaments, etc.)
  3. Less data to make informed balance decisions from
  4. Possibility for metrics to drive development decisions, diverting resources away from less-popular sPvP to other more popular content (this one exacerbates the problem, because the resources to “fix” may not even exist)

So staleness is bad (really bad), but how does a static meta cause that? Couldn’t players just avoid a meta, taking advantage of the thousands of options available?

The Meta

Due to the nature of competitive PvP, a meta will always exist as people find the most optimal combination to dominating matches, all player skill being equal. And while it is possible to find a “counter-meta” that eventually replaces the existing one, it is often simpler to play the meta better than the next person.

Thus, the meta tends to stick around, especially if initial efforts to “counter-meta” aren’t really that effective at countering the meta. Or if the counter-meta takes substantially more skill (and far fewer mistakes) to accomplish its goal.

The immediate problem is that as the meta settles in, people know what to expect at all moments. One look at a team composition these days is enough to know how the match is going to unfold.

When you know what to expect, it’s simply a matter of execution. Or worse still, knowing that unless the other team executes very poorly, you’re doomed by composition alone. Matches get boring, fixed in their own way, because everyone who’s been around the meta for a decent amount of time knows how things are going to go down.

People are able to talk of specific “eras” of the PvP meta (hambow, guardian bunkers, celestial engie/ele come to mind), spanning months of time,  a functional eternity for PvP. And rarely are people speaking of such metas in glowing terms.

Static Meta = Endless Complaining

Structured PvP in Guild Wars 2 is unpopular, most of it feeling the same even as personal skill increases. This has led to the people dedicated to PvP blaming everything including the overall “state of balance” (represented by the prevailing meta compositions) for how “bad” PvP is.

From either the static meta, or the boredom/low population it causes, every single major complaint can be derived:

  1. “Matchmaking is bad.” Too many people got bored, either from the same matches all the time, or from getting curbstomped because queue times exceeded the threshold for a reasonably balanced match.
  2. “Why won’t ANet nerf <meta thing*>?” While everyone will call for nerfs on what they don’t like playing against, if most people are asking for nerfs to the same thing, the meta has stabilized too much.
  3. “This map favors <current meta> too much.” People wouldn’t notice the favorable effect on the current meta if they weren’t seeing it for months at a time.
  4. “Well, have to wait <a long time> until the next balance update. Most common one after the few balance updates that happen, and generally a way of complaining that the part of the meta they most disliked is still alive and well.

*Meta things can be professions, traits, runes, sigils, skills, particular compositions.

And players who are complaining are not players that are playing. As explained above, this creates and perpetuates a vicious cycle of people leaving sPvP, or causing others to leave.

Successful eSports Games Update Regularly and Often

ArenaNet keeps mentioning how making Guild Wars 2 an eSport is a priority. It’s one of those things famous for not being off the table. But one look at the games that are successful (or were, in the case of Guild Wars 1) and there are four consistent elements:

  1. Additional content semi-regularly
  2. A high skill ceiling, but a fairly low skill floor
  3. Easy to follow the flow of a match at a high level with no prior information
  4. Regular, consistent balance updates

Guild Wars 2 has the first two in spades, though PvP updates have been very rare (Heart of Thorns looks to be addressing this, but I’ll get there). While effects spam is a problem for understanding the nuance of a GW2 match, the use of a capture points mechanic (and a blatantly obvious one, at that) allows it to fulfill the third element.

Where it fails horribly is the fourth element. I dug through all the update notes and picked out each patch that included balance changes to skills, runes, sigils, gear, or similar (click to expand):

PvP Balance Updates over GW2's Lifetime

While at the release of the game balance updates were somewhat regular, from July 2013 onward it became nonexistent. Each update that was received was a massive change that shook up the meta for a month, but then settled around something new for 2-3 more.

Compare this against Guild Wars 1 following the release of Nightfall (this graph has the same overall time period of 28 months):

PvP Balance Updates since Nightfall Release

The “double lines” are when ArenaNet released two skill updates on adjacent days, something they would commonly do to jerk-correct a blatantly overpowered (or accidental) change, or put in something that wasn’t quite ready to go live when the first patch shipped.

On the sum, Guild Wars updated monthly. Further, it has substantially more updates in the same time period as Guild Wars 2, most of them after ArenaNet announced that Guild Wars: Utopia was cancelled and they were moving to Guild Wars 2.

(Side note from these two graphs: ArenaNet learned their lesson about PvP/PvE splitting far sooner in GW2 [literally, the second balance patch of the game] than in GW1 [long after Eye of the North came out]. This is especially a good thing because GW2 enemies are substantially different from players compared to GW1’s PvE enemies.)

Now compare against the most popular game in the world right now (which also doubles as the most popular eSport), League of Legends:

League of Legends Patches (Start of Season 4 to Present)

Ridiculous consistency, though I’m scratching my head for the missing bar around July 15th. Maybe there wasn’t anything they wanted to balance at the time, I don’t know.

Furthermore, Riot Games has had enough balance experience with their game to specifically direct high-level changes over and above tweaking the numbers on champion abilities and stats. They’ve done large changes like that at the start of each season (first and fourth to last bars on the graph above are huge changes).

Going back to Guild Wars 2, virtually all sPvP has gotten since July 2013 has been big changes. Only the two most recent patches have been smaller tweaks and additions. This creates an immediate meta shakeup (good), but also leaves no place for fine tuning (bad). Balance cannot be achieved in large changes.

I believe that the big changes are actually spaced out well enough, with about 3-4 months between each. If Guild Wars 2 PvP ever becomes popular enough to create a need for seasons, those big changes will likely have to be on either side of them.

The problem is that right now those are the only changes. Again, nothing but big changes never achieves balance, or a constantly shifting meta that’s interesting to play within.

“Guild Wars 2 and 1 aren’t the same game.”

While in some cases this is a valid argument, for structured PvP it is not. Guild Wars 1 defined MMO PvP for its entire active run (2006-2010 in my opinion, or all the way until GW2 release, depending on who you ask).

If its successor is nowhere close to that, despite having tons more “levers” to pull (gear stats, skill values, runes, sigils, major/minor and adept/master/grandmaster traits compared to inscriptions, runes (to a very minor extent), attributes, and a metric ton of skill values), then continuing to make the “different games” argument is hurting more than helping the long-term viability of structured PvP, and by extension, Guild Wars 2 as an eSport.

It’s time to start taking pages out of the old game’s book, because they worked. One complaint that was almost never heard in Guild Wars 1 was how stale the meta was. There was plenty of moaning about <X> or <Y> team composition not getting hit by the nerf bat, but very rare complaints about the meta stagnating*.

*And most of those complaints dealt with game mode stagnation forcing certain build comps, rather than facing the same builds all the time. A case could be made for Guild Wars 2 having the same problem with Conquest being the default mode of play.

And like it or not, more consistent balance updates have to happen really soon, because…brace yourselves…

Specializations are Coming

Heart of Thorns isn’t just bringing us a third heavy class with a full bevy of skills, traits, and potential rune/sigil/gear combinations. It’s also bringing 9 additional specializations. In a PvP context, specializations add a lot:

Each profession, including the Revenant, will have its own specialization that will expand the skills and traits available to the profession, as well as add new mechanics specific to that specialization and the ability to use a new weapon. – ZAM Interview with Colin Johanson and Mike O’Brien, emphasis added

Based on what they’ve said about specializations, I conjecture that it will address an existing class weakness while taking away an existing strength. Add in the note that assuming a specialization will lock certain parts of the original class away, and ArenaNet has already taken into account the need to keep specializations as an option for situations, rather than an outright improvement. (I’ll post about specializations exclusively in the near future)

While specializations are an awesome thing for people wanting more ways to progress their characters, it’s a complete non-starter for PvP if the balance is out of whack, and only batted this and that way with big changes. More, potentially imbalanced options makes poor balance worse.

So How?

First, it should be noted that perfect, viable balance for every class and possible major spec is impossible. Guild Wars 2’s class balance was built from the ground up to be about incomparables and letting people adapt on the fly rather than everything being an elaborate Roshambo. I’ll let Extra Credits explain this concept of Perfect Imbalance:

(Side note: if you didn’t know about Extra Credits, I highly suggest checking them out. Tons of analysis about all manner of things in the game industry)

What should be done, then, is shifting the incomparables regularly. This has been seen with the large changes. For instance, after the rune/sigil change with the April Feature Pack, tank guardian and warrior specs got destroyed by the load of conditions and additional damage that DPS specs gained. Fast-forward to September, and it shifted away from that to tanks of a different flavor, gaining their core killing power through might stacks.

There are several ways to shift the incomparables, but to show it well, I’m going to misuse a control system response graph:

For Illustration, I promise. (Though bonus points if you can identify what each line actually means)

  • The blue line is perfect balance (that again, cannot, and should not, be achieved).
  • The big changes that we’ve gotten correspond to the black line. Notice that when only black is used it takes much longer to reach the desired rough balance.

What Guild Wars 2 PvP needs is not just big changes, but small changes, too.

  • Tweaking a few skills here, amping a trait or two there, combined with big changes would yield the green line. It gets to acceptably balanced much faster than simply using big changes.

One complaint about the overall build system is that some things (weapons, utility skills, traits, chiefly) are worthless. This is a negative thing because it limits versatility and build variety, creating a constrained meta that requires constant re-balancing to stay fresh.

  • Look at the red line. That represents sprinkling in overhauls over time (whether that be functionality changes or simply amping values) to turn worthless things into viable alternatives.

What I’m getting at is that Guild Wars 2 presently gets one type of change*, and at a schedule that creates a static meta shortly after update. It needs three:

  1. Big changes (every 3-6 months)
  2. Small tweaks to existing, viable options (every 2-3 weeks)
  3. Overhauls of worthless options to make them viable (every 2-3 weeks)

*Based on the last two updates, it appears to be moving toward only the second type of update, which is just as bad as only big changes, because the meta barely shifts with each change as relative balance is approached.

Advantages of a Three-Type Strategy

Versatility to Balancing

The primary advantage of utilizing three different types of balance updates is something that Guild Wars 2 PvP itself desperately needs: versatility.

Rather than being stuck with the round-hole-square-peg problem of large changes within a small-change paradigm, or small changes within a large-change one, balance updates can be targeted to the needed scope.

Targeted Purposes

Each type can be utilized for a specific purpose:

  • Big Changes: For deliberately shifting the meta, either away from one that’s been around too long, or toward something new (the only difference being the former is primarily nerfs, the latter is primarily buffs)
  • Small Tweaks: For toning down the prevalence of a certain combination, or increasing the power of something that only great players can do, or any number of quick changes to the balance.
  • Overhauls: As mentioned before, this adds versatility and options to the meta, which actually lowers the need for the other two types. With enough options in the meta, people will keep breaking the current meta in a cycle, with less intervention required.

Building Trust

A balance update is to a PvP’er what a new Living World episode is to a PvE’er. Likewise, consistent (or large, in the case of Heart of Thorns) updates build trust in ArenaNet’s ability and commitment to change and balance the game.

A vocal portion of the PvP community has no faith that ArenaNet can “deliver the goods” when it comes to creating an eSports-worthy gameplay experience. They mock any such statements, because actions speak louder than words.

Regularly making balance updates, and taking into account both player impression and gathered metrics with those updates, will rebuild that broken trust. Players will become allies in the push to make Guild Wars 2 combat irresistible, rather than cynical enemies chuckling about such a naive task.

Agility

One thing that the present approach to balance lacks is the agility to see a negative situation and push another change to blunt it.

An example would be the sheer strength of Rune of the Nightmare (chance of causing 2 second fear when hit, 90 second cooldown) after the April Feature Patch, a strength made even stronger by the fact that condition necromancers always run Master of Terror (fears are 50% longer in duration, so 3 seconds of lockdown without burning a single cooldown). It took until the balance patch three days ago to rightfully nerf it.

That’s the kind of situation that should get seen as a problem after a couple of weeks, then nerfed. If the nerf is too much, then find a spot in between.

The flexibility to buff, nerf, buff slightly exists under a three-type paradigm, rather than whenever there’s a bunch of changes to push to live.

Difficulties

Decoupling from the Regular Update

Right now, balance updates only happen when a build for the entire game goes live. To have the right level of agility, and the accompanying strength to change things in response to the meta’s shifts, this needs to change.

The PvP team needs to have the leverage to push balance updates out at a more regular clip than the wider team at ArenaNet. There’s a good chance that the PvP team would never need to use that leverage (especially with 2 week updates), but responding quickly where it makes sense needs to be an option available.

Spending the Extra Manpower Resources

I don’t know how many people are working on the PvP team directly right now, but based on the pace of updates across the game’s existence, to properly implement a three-type paradigm will require more.

Most obviously, it will require more data analysis of the gathered metrics. What skills are prevalent, which build options are never seen, those sorts of questions need to be regularly evaluated at a faster pace than the existing update rate currently implies.

But also, it will take more interaction with the player base that is actively utilizing the changes*. Metrics only tell part of the story, and the player base can point to root causes, unhealthy trends, or difficult/nonexistent counterplay.

*Honorable and well-deserved mention again to Justin O’Dell, for doing exactly this.

Toughing through the Doubt

Perhaps the hardest thing about changing the balancing paradigm is how little people will believe ArenaNet at first. No number of “big changes coming” blog posts is going to replace simply doing the changes. And only consistent changes will steadily remove the doubt.

Changing the paradigm is a long-term decision, but one that aims toward the health of the game mode, the player base, and the developers who won’t have to listen to or read as much vitriol.

Further than that, it’s one that will set the stage for the balance upset that specializations will create, and keep it set for additional specializations when they get added.

And most importantly for ArenaNet’s bottom line and high-level goals, it will put Guild Wars 2 on the path of rightfully taking advantage of its combat system in the eSports arena.

Conclusion

Structured PvP needs more regular balance updates than it presently gets, and in multiple levels of scope to ultimately achieve a relative (though not perfect) balance befitting a eSports-capable title.

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