Unbalanceable Problems: Why The Server System Cannot Work (Part 2)

World vs. World has rarely, if ever, been balanced. At present, the only exception to the rules is Tier 1 of North America, where a consistent detente of sorts has reigned for years. This lack of balance is the result of the server system.

Servers are an approximation of a massed fighting force, with the ability for any number of timezones to be represented by people. And while this approximation was very useful early in the life of Guild Wars 2, its use has been outlasted by its weaknesses.

Population Shifts

The core weakness of servers is how prone they are to wild, inconsistent changes in population. This manifests in three, interrelated ways.

Fairweathering

MMO players like to be rewarded for their effort. They really like to be extremely rewarded for their effort. For some, that means that when their server is winning, they show up in droves to secure the victory.

Conversely, if their server is losing, other things become more worth a player’s time. Put simply, if the match is going badly, it is near-assured to stay going badly as fairweathering takes hold on both winning and losing sides.

This is most clearly seen in the extreme rarity of last-second comeback victories. Oftentimes, the weekend alone decides the victor, because fairweathering cements the population and strategic advantages even further.

Designated Victor

DISCLAIMER: I did not participate in the third tournament. I was on hiatus from the game at the time.

For both the first and second WvW tournaments, silver and bronze leagues’ winners were known before the season began. When the lockdown period neared, players wanting to win evaluated the strongest-looking servers, and transferred to the best one.

With piles of additional bodies at all hours willing to overwhelm the lesser-populated opponents, victory went from “good chance” to “absolutely guaranteed.”

This was made even worse for the second tournament, when in an effort to “balance out” the various tiers, servers ranked 13-15 were made free transfer just before it. The 13th place server, Henge of Denravi, got dogpiled by so many people that those already on the server ended up complaining about how little WvW they got to do on account of queues. Spoiler alert: Henge of Denravi won silver league by a monumental landslide.

The Transfer Meta

Because of the relative ease of transferring, the most common answer to the question “my server’s WvW is dying, what can I do?” is “transfer to another server.”

And players and guilds do, with regularity. Server movements among the tiers are rarely because of vast improvements in strategy, or tactical skill. More typically, one server gets a lot of transfers at the expense of other servers, and moves up with stronger coverage.

The transfer meta has become more and more ingrained over time. At launch, free transfers caused ludicrous mass bandwagons, but now, players and guilds will build up a warchest of gold to transfer over to somewhere else whenever the fights become less appealing, or the server starts to look dead.

Combine all three of these, and servers aren’t working as semi-stable communities to gather together in the valiant cause of server glory. They are a gems-gated place where players and guilds happen to be at the time. Even the “ideal WvW” North American Tier 1 took 2 years to reach enough stability, most of it based around the idea of simply being how WvW is meant to be played*.

*I’m not commenting one way or the other about if they’re right, but that is their intent. Also, this stability recently changed by, you guessed it, guilds transferring off of Blackgate and onto Yaks’ Bend.

PPT vs. Fights

Another spanner thrown into the works is the chief division in strategic approach. On the one hand, some players who want to win in world score focus on Points Per Tick, the lion’s share of points gained. On the other, some players want to pit themselves against all manner of situations and see if they can succeed against all odds.

And they rarely, if ever, agree on the right way to WvW*. But one thing they have in common is this:

*Necessary caveat: some players PPT (as in, defend and attack objectives) purely to create fight situations, but both hardcore PPTers and hardcore fighters would say they’re “not playing the best way.”

The Nightcap Nightmare

In a 24/7, weeklong war, it’s a given that “nightcapping” is going to happen. People play at all hours, but not the same number of people play at every timezone. Thus, in non-peak times, whoever has more people gets a disproportionately larger slice of the pie.

While it can be argued* that the scoring system could do with some tweaking to better match player effort to their score impact, the strength of off-peak population drives a need to consider PPT at all times. Sometimes, this is to “make up for” a weak coverage area, and others it’s to beef up the lead even harder just in case coverage fails.

*And I and many others have in the past.

This grates on PPT players because in a very real sense, some players are more important than others purely because of what time they play, not because of any strategic or tactical skill they possess. It especially grates on people who want to win on score, as their efforts to siege, defend, and upgrade are more or less erased if they don’t also have a coverage advantage.

This also grates on players who want to pick a good, fun fight because over time, the coverage advantage becomes a stacked deck. Enemy structures are always fortified, and siege lines are always better developed on the opposing side. And oftentimes the joy of victory is erased by the fact that nothing comes of it.

“Just for the Fights”

Taking advantage of the massive combat that WvW regularly provides by seeking great fights seems like a good thing. But with the importance that scoring places on PPT, and thus on ranking, pursuing a “just for the fights” mentality alienates those who feel like they do the drudgework of defending, upgrading, and scouting.

Ultimately, this breaks the server, as people there “for the fights” eventually tire of others raining on their parade, and leave for elsewhere*.

*Consider both Sanctum of Rall before the Season 1 tournament, and Maguuma before Season 3’s.

In the present server-based system, both PPTers and fighters have to attempt to coexist, even when their approach to the game mode drastically differs. The tension of those aiming for a good brawl against those wanting victory in score never stops. And either people quit playing WvW, or transfer elsewhere.

Failing Pride

Despite all these problems, the myth of “server pride” persists. That the massive changes in population caused by transfers, fairweathers, disagreements in how the mode should be played, etc., are somehow staved off by a name. But discarding these, server pride has its own problems.

Servers are Meaningless

First and foremost, megaservers erased the backbone of PvX players who could potentially be recruited to “the war effort.” Add in the transfer meta, and servers as a fixed identity to take pride in doesn’t make sense.

When a player logs out of WvW, they go back to a hodgepodge of everyone, not only their server. Beyond WvW alone, the server is meaningless to the player. Often, servers are chosen not because of their history, but because of their position on the ladder.

Victory is Meaningless

Rewards for winning in WvW are terrible. They’ve never been good, even when unbridled karma training is encouraged*. And while it could be argued that mediocre rewards are to prevent people abusing the system for their own gain, that in no way justifies a terrible reward system that almost ignores who won and who lost.

*Here’s looking at you, Golem Event.

Knowing that the only reward is the temporary bragging rights of “we won” excludes a lot of people who would otherwise enjoy the game mode. Rewards matter, recognition matters, having something to show for the effort matters. And at present, none of those really exist for WvW.

Defending is Meaningless

Rewards for defending is even more nonexistent than capturing objectives. So at the very start, players have to weigh “pride” and intrinsic reward against the absolute lack of anything tangible. This is already a tough bar to meet for most players.

Because of the sheer strength of coverage, and the relative ease of doing Player vs. Door in off-peak times, the equation slips even further into the “don’t bother defending” side of things. Knowing that all of the hard work and effort will be removed as soon as people log off all but assures people won’t care at all.

Weigh all of these problems, and how they are closely tied with the server system*, and it’s a huge, unbalanceable mess. Servers are at once too fluid and too fixed, with the overwhelming option when things get rough to leave for greener pastures. Philosophies on how to fight beat out the actual act of fighting. And what little remains of the server definition is undone by terrible rewards and the fact they mean nothing anywhere outside of WvW.

*Honorable mention to the scoring system, but fixing an algorithm isn’t going to change how crummy massive population shifts are for the players, nor the core disagreement on how to fight.

The Myth of Self-Balancing

Many times when server imbalances are brought up, the “solution” offered has been that players need to move around to balance out the tiers and increase competition.

On paper, this sounds great. But players tend to be selfish, even in their altruism. Consider the example of Season 2 Henge of Denravi. Three servers were made free to transfer as an incentive, but only one got stacked, and ended up in the same place post-season as it had been pre-season. People came for their rewards, and left upon acquiring them.

Self-balancing is a chicken and egg problem of wanting competition, but also not wanting to be outmanned by transferring to a less powerful server. Short of a cold reset, there is no way to offer the right incentives to shift people around on servers until most matches are balanced. Again, NA Tier 1 took 2 years to become reasonably stable, and even that changed recently.

Conclusion

Looking back at asymmetric balance, it’s clear that servers fail at both major aspects of it. Resources for some servers are very limited, while for others available in excess. And rather than there being many different options for everyone, the server with more resources dictates what options the other servers get with fully upgraded structures to defend and paper ones to attack.

Servers are not the heart of WvW, and never have been. Focusing all efforts to building a structure around servers, with all their myriad problems, is not the right answer. What should be looked at instead is what has always been the backbone of the game mode: guilds.

The Alliances Series

  1. Putting Guilds Back into Guild Wars: WvW Alliances
  2. Unbalanceable Problems: Why the Server System Cannot Work
  3. Heart and Soul: The Guilds of World vs. World
  4. The Case for WvW Alliances
  5. The Alliance Structure: Sidestepping the Problems
  6. The Pros and Cons of WvW Alliances
  7. Rewarding the Competition
  8. Implementing Alliances
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