Monday, July 29, 2013

CFC Victorious in the Largest Online Battle in MMO History

As stated in an earlier post I am a big fan of the player driven conflict and emergent story unfolding on EVE Online between the forces of CFC and TEST. Surfing through the forums and various blogs I got wind of a massive conflict building in 6VDT-H and tuned in to Mad Ani's Live Twitch stream. I went to bed as CFC forces began to muster in the system, and woke up to see the battle in full swing on the stream. For the next 4-5 hours I watched as CFC overwhelmed the TEST forces, who in the eyes of this neophyte appeared outnumbered and outgunned, but seemed determined to fight to the last ship. CFC has prevailed in the largest online battle in the history of EVE, and perhaps in the history of gaming. At its peak there were over 4000 players in the system, and this number stayed consistently in the high 3000s for most of the battle. This figure only reflects the number of players within the system during the battle - it did not count reinforcements or players waiting outside the system waiting to get into the fight. According to the EVE Battle Summary Doctor (dog-net.org), 5754 players took part in the battle, with CFC losing 283 ships and TEST 1349.

As a spectacle it left much to be desired - to the uninitiated it comprised of a bunch of orange dots surrounded by a swarm of angry red dots moving in super slow motion thanks to time dilation. I didn't watch the stream as much as I just left it to play out in the background, occasionally checking in to see if there were any changes to the distribution of the dots. Slowly but surely all the red dots began to disappear, and it became clear that this was an overwhelming CFC victory. The historical analogy that came to my mind was the US fleet steaming to Okinawa and the Japanese throwing their ragtag and makeshift kokusai squadrons (kamikazes) at them in a desperate but ultimately futile gesture. Gevlon from TEST stated that there were 1400 Test pilots in the system with more on the sidelines waiting to bridge in (but unable to due to the system cap), which presumably meant 2600 pilots for the CFC. He made the comment that CFC bridging in first was decisive, as it prevented TEST from ever engaging the CFC fleet on a one on one basis. This was borne out by my observation of the events - last night I watched the CFC fleet massing around the station, then woke up this morning to see TEST warp in fleet after fleet and get ground to dust. The CFC forces were prepared and organised and already in formation by the time TEST began their attack, and they repelled TEST's attacks fairly comfortably. When the battle was clearly lost TEST regrouped for one more final suicide charge, much to the surprise of CFC (an account written by Vily, a Megathron CFC FC can be found here) but not to those gallant folk at TEST, who had come here to make a statement - the battle for Fountain was lost, but they were going to make a stand anyway.

Mad Ani's live stream on Twitch.
TEST are pulling out of their staging area in Karan and relocating back to NOL in Delve. CFC has won the battle for Fountain. I feel sympathy for TEST - the last month has seen them deserted by their allies and ripped off from within by one of their own. Nonetheless that's the nature of the game, and they have to be given kudos for showing up in such numbers and going out the way they did. Whether or not EVE is your cup of tea this battle is a milestone in the history of MMOs. As for CFC, they appear well led, super organised and on top of the meta game. No one will probably know the full details of the behind the scene machinations, but the way the campaign was conducted seemed like a classic case of divide and conquer. They were surprised by the massive dogpile which greeted them when they first rolled into Fountain, but recovered well and were able to isolate TEST from their allies who stood with them in the opening battle of the Fountain War. At the beginning of the war TEST stood with Black Legion, Pandemic Legion and NC3 coalition, and it seemed like this would become the mother of all EVE wars. However since then so many things have occurred which favour the CFC that you start to wonder whether they are the luckiest coalition in this war, or perhaps the most adept at back room dealing. They secured their northern border by paying off the Black Legion. Black Legion then turned on Pandemic Legion by ambushing a fleet of super carriers with the help of an insider. The N3 coalition, by far the biggest equaliser in TEST's corner due to their powerful capital fleet, was distracted by another act of corporate espionage which led to S2N and Nulli Legio (members of N3) being disbanded and the theft of 250-400 billion ISK. N3 made an amazing recovery in recovering the vast majority of the lost systems within 24 hours, but was then forced to choose between two fronts this month as Solar Fleet (a.k.a. the Russians - I love how this game creates blocs along national lines) rumbled in from the east. In the end N3 withdrew their capital ships, and this proved decisive as system after system tumbled to the CFC advance. Finally there was also the theft of 130 billion ISK worth of logistics by a disgruntled TEST director only a few days ago, and all in all, all these things taken together represent a litany of woes for TEST. Whether or not CFC have had a hand in all these developments will remain a mystery I suppose, but it's important to note that while TEST and its allies have had their hands full during this whole war, CFC has remained solid, free from drama and quite formidable.

The war in Fountain has been an amazing spectacle, and for me it illustrates MMO world PvP at its best. Not the battles themselves as such, which quite frankly appeared slow and unresponsive and about as exciting as watching paint dry, but the meta-game elements which do much to influence the outcome of these battles before the factions come to grips with one another. I enjoy reading the blogs, keeping up to date with major developments, watching/listening to Mad Ani's stream, and looking at the changing map of New Eden. It's a great story too, and I applaud all the members of TEST for showing up and breaking records and showing everyone that MMORPGs are not always about winning. I was rooting for TEST chiefly because they were the underdogs, and because they were so badly outmanoeuvred in the meta-game, losing all their allies like dominoes to one crisis after another. Alas it was not to be, but the good thing is that it's not over - TEST will retreat and reorganise and hopefully come back stronger than ever. As a consolation to TEST some hours after the battle they were able to chance on a lax CFC Titan in 6VDT-H (calculated to command a price tag in excess of 120 billion ISK or $7600 US in real money terms in 2010) and destroy it, much to the astonishment of the folks watching the live stream at the time. While it probably won't equal the amount of ISK destroyed by CFC in today's battle, it will go a long way towards balancing the ledger, and also provide some cold comfort in the hearts of some embittered TEST pilots. I'm also looking forward to seeing the developments in null sec politics given that N3 in their State of the Coalition dated July 11 stated quite explicitly that the purpose of their coalition was to fight the CFC. The CFC remains the leading hegemony in null sec, and based on how clinically they won the battle for Fountain looks poised to maintain their dominance for a long time to come.



Friday, July 26, 2013

The Quest For Meaningful World PvP, Part I - Eve Online and WoW

The war in Fountain continues to rage, and as part of my daily blog consumption I avidly pore over the usual sites looking for news of the latest developments. I read posts written by representatives of all the big players - CFC, TEST and N3 - as well as commentary provided by "neutral" observers. I watch Mad Ani's live stream on Twitch when I hear of big battles taking place, and surf YouTube looking for footage of major events. The amount of flame wars and creative output generated by this conflict is staggering. This is quite remarkable given that Fountain isn't even a real place, nor do I play EVE, the MMORPG which hosts the virtual world of New Eden where Fountain is located. I've played the trial twice, subscribed once, unsubscribed after a couple of months and haven't been back since. Nonetheless, the amount of human participation and buy-in into what amounts to a virtual consensual conflict really fascinates me. It sounds ridiculous - I tried to communicate this to friends of mine who don't play games and all I got for my efforts were indulgent smiles ("Oh, that's nice...") and looks of baffled incomprehension ("What the hell is he talking about now?"). EVE interests me because it appears to me - as an outsider looking in - as meaningful world PvP done right.




Simple PvP

I classify PvP into three categories - simple PvP which consists of the core game mechanics, followed by ladder/tournament PvP, and finally open world PvP. Simple, ladder/tournament, world - that's the typology I am going to run with today. I also make the analogy that simple PvP is similar to duels, ladder PvP is like sport, and world PvP is akin to war. The first two categories require fairness as an absolute requirement - the latter does not.

Simple PvP is a very broad definition, and encompasses almost any game that involves you and a human opponent. The key thing about simple PvP is that it is chiefly concerned with the core mechanics of the game which come into play when playing against another player. These mechanics are easy to identify in games which are completely PvP orientated- in games which encompass PvE and PvP elements however, only the PvP elements matter. In WoW Lay On Hands is irrelevant to me as a paladin healer because I am unable to use it in Arenas or Rated BGs. Same with Army of the Dead for a DK, for the same reasons. For many people the core game is enough. People can and will play games for the sake of the game itself, without any need to frame PvP in a deeper context. Thousands of books have been written about the elegance of chess, and numerous analyses have been written on opening, midgame and endgame tactics. People spend hours playing Counterstrike, Team Fortress 2 and numerous other shooters over and over again against random strangers. Jamie Madigan writes that games satisfy three psychological needs, namely competence, autonomy and relatedness. Whatever reason people have for doing so is irrelevant - the empirical data is there that for some people, the core game is enough to satisfy them without imposing further meta-gaming elements.

Speaking for myself personally, however, such activity becomes repetitive and meaningless over time - I cannot play Chivalry and Team Fortress 2 for more than an hour or two without getting bored. It should also be noted that core game mechanics can be shallow or deep, and I find that my attention span is held longer by strategy titles as opposed to FPS shooters. I have nothing against FPS games, it is just a personal preference. With any type of game, however, I will eventually need to go out and measure myself against the player pool, and that means playing ranked games in ladder PvP.


Ladder/Tournament PvP

I'm a big fan of ladder-based PvP. I'm an avid Starcraft 2 player, and I play Arenas and Rated BGs almost exclusively in WoW. My current goal in both formats is to eventually break the 2k plateau, and I'm pleased with my progress from a 1300+ newbie in Season 10 to a relative veteran at 1900+ in Season 13. Recently however I have found that ladder-based PvP is losing its luster for me. I have not played Rated BGs at all for the last three weeks. Part of that is simple burn-out - our team goal in Season 13 was 1900+, and we blitzed to that in the early days of the season. Since that time we have been banging our heads at the 2k wall, and slowly losing players to attrition as other things begin to occupy their time. It is slowly dawning on me that this might be as good as I get, and if so, then it might be worthwhile to move on to other things. I also end up being raid leader in most Rateds I organize (simply because nobody else wants the responsibility) and it takes a toll over time. Give me an objective to do and I'll do my utmost to complete it. Sometimes that's all I want to do, and that's not what I usually end up doing most nights we play. 


Aside from burn-out I have also come to a more fundamental conclusion that ladder PvP is not the best way to implement PvP in an MMO because it fails to take advantage of the unique opportunities that MMOs can offer. Ladder competition is competitive and fun, and it can be a great adjunct to the MMO if implemented well - it's just that the MMO part is completely irrelevant. The persistent world might as well not be there for all the impact it has on the players who are only interested in PvP. As long as the core game is good there is no need to anchor it to a persistent world to make it work. The only real relevance the world has is how it affects performance within the actual core PvP game itself. The only times you will see a hardcore PvPer play PvE in WoW is when theorycrafting has illustrated that a particular raid weapon or trinket will provide a significant boost in PvP performance. Then you will see them move heaven and earth trying to acquire that particular item (feral druids and rogues raiding to acquire the Vial of Shadows during Cataclysm comes to mind). In addition PvPers still need to enchant and gem their gear, and this keeps them somewhat connected to the persistent world. There are people on the Battlenet forums petitioning for gems and enchants to become purchasable by Honor. If this was implemented this would be the final disconnect between PvP and PvE in WoW - you would no longer ever need to set foot in Azeroth ever again.

You could make the argument that the history of WoW since the introduction of Arenas has been an attempt to balance these two inherently irreconcilable aspects of PvE and PvP. Back in 2009 Rob Pardo of Blizzard stated that the introduction of Arenas was the single biggest mistake in WoW's history, and with good reason. Ladder PvP has taken on a life of its own, however, and Blizzard have made the best out of a bad job by creating a fairly robust, fast paced and enjoyable competition in both the Arena and Rated BG formats. Regardless of this, there are now two separate types of gear, two separate types of gear progression, and constant rebalancing is required to make sure that class abilities do not end up becoming overpowered in either PvE or PvP. PvE and ladder PvP are completely disconnected in WoW - whatever linkages exist are completely artificial and are placed there by developers in a vain attempt to keep the game cohesive. Because ladder PvP is so disconnected from the world it purportedly inhabits I have found myself growing further and further apart from the MMO world which spawned my avatar. Most of my time online in spent inside the OQueue add-on interface looking for teams and players to queue with for Rated BGs. I don't need my guild - I don't even need my realm, especially with cross-realm Arenas being implemented in 5.4 - more importantly, I don't need the land of Azeroth anymore. You could split the game into two and me and all the PvPers I know would quite happily continue playing the ladder PvP game, which would become a type of MOBA (Massive Online Battle Arena) in the same category as League of Legends and DOTA 2.


World PvP

There is a better way to anchor PvP to the persistent world, and that is by taking advantage of the unique opportunities MMOs offer for a type of PvP which is not grounded in the conventions of traditional gameplay. World PvP is a completely different entity from ladder-based or tournament style PvP, with the foremost difference being that while it is absolutely essential that ladder tournaments are as fair as possible, world PvP does not have to be. World PvP is not fair - ganking or being double or triple teamed, even dogpiled, are acceptable hazards, and rather than complaining about it, the onus is on you to obtain strategic advantages to avoid being put in these types of situations or to withdraw if the odds are not in your favor. Ladder PvP, on the other hand, tries to pit equal teams against each other in order to advance in the rankings. World PvP is continuous, around the clock and can occur anywhere, while ladder PvP is separated into discrete matches of fixed duration which are held in specially "balanced" venues. Ladder PvP is a zero sum game - there are clear winners and losers, and the relative standings of all involved can be easily ascertained by looking at the rankings. World PvP is not a zero sum game - players can form coalitions for mutual gain, and winning and losing is quantified not by individual player achievements but rather by strategic gains made by factions/coalitions. It is also difficult to find an accurate metric to measure player performance in world PvP. Achievements in ladder PvP are easily measurable because they occur in balanced environments. Fights in world PvP, however, are subject to a host of wildly fluctuating variables which significantly affect the outcome. I don't care if you are a Gladiator (top 0.5% of the bell curve) in WoW, if I find you with my hunter when all your CDs are down and mine are up, you are going to go down. Especially if I have two of my buddies with me. If I met the same Gladiator in an Arena match up in a 3s match, however, he/she would undoubtedly stomp our merry band into the turf. Trying to measure performance in world PvP is akin to boxing afficianados comparing fighters from different eras - unless there was a way for get them in the ring and duke it out the result will always be hypothetical. The point is, world PvP will never be fair the way ladder/tournament PvP should be.

Traditional PvP appeals to the part of all of us which believes in the chivalric ideal of equal combat, and translates well into e-sports. They appeal to the part of our ego which states that all things being equal, I can take you (regardless of all evidence to the contrary!). World PvP is more like the real world, which can be cruel and unforgiving and where the industrial might of large impersonal alliances can grind down even the most skilled of players through sheer weight of numbers and material. Clearly there are big differences between world PvP and ladder PvP, and it is important to always keep in mind these distinctions when discussing both types of gameplay. Gevlon's declaration that "Eve can be won" with the One Empire is an attempt to postulate a zero sum solution to non-zero sum equation. Similarly, Gevlon's manipulation of kill mail in EVE shows the difficulty in finding an impartial and accurate metric of measuring player performance in world PvP. Both these cases illustrate a confusion in levels, an attempt to impose aspects of ladder-based PvP gameplay which don't need to exist in world PvP. Only the big picture matters.

Clearly world PvP as defined above is not for everyone and there are different skill sets at work. In ladder-based PvP you have to be good at the core game to excel - in world PvP it is the meta-game which is important. The ability to organize large networks of like-minded players is arguably more important than individual player ability when it comes to world PvP. Tobold argues that non-consensual PvP is a niche market and I don't disagree. I disagree, however, with the assertion that world PvP has to be fair to be enjoyable. The best world PvP I ever played was with the browser game called Evony. Evony is notorious for its dodgy advertisements, is a poor clone of better empire building games, and is blatantly pay to win. I had no intention of playing it long term, except for the fact that my little fledgling empire was repeatedly plundered over and over again by a guy called dragRe. Being the stubborn little shit that I am, I refused to move, endured plunder after plunder and reached out to other people around my area. To cut a long story short, we formed a coalition, helped each other become strong, and eventually drove dragRe out of the region. We became the dominant alliance and many a battle was fought as we strove to expand and defend our territories. We learned the value of diplomacy and espionage. We also fell in a heap when we took on a coalition too powerful for us. In the end it didn't matter - in the process we created social bonds the likes of which I have not replicated in WoW. We trusted each other to watch each other's empires while we were offline. It is strange to think that I learned to trust strangers on the Internet enough to give them my login and password so that they could defend my territories if attacked, and vice versa. I no longer play Evony, but if these guys are out there - Aotearoa, ShortSleeves, mrkanthony, stoma and co. - I salute you and wish you well.


Open world PvP opens up so many gaming elements which cannot be found in the traditional or the ladder based format precisely because it isn't fair. If you have to be fair, then you have to fight your own battles. If you have to be fair, you can't negotiate settlements or compromises, or form coalitions to dominate or avoid being dominated by other players or factions. If you have to be fair, you cannot employ underhanded tactics like espionage and sedition and infiltrate enemy alliances. If you have to be fair, you can't run away to fight another day, because the issue has to be decided right now. If you have to be fair, you can't be a bully - conversely, you are also not given the chance to stand up to bullies. Most importantly, however, is that If you have to be fair, then your friends don't matter at all, because they can never help you. The biggest regret I have with becoming a hardcore WoW PvPer is that it made my guildies and the persistent world irrelevant. In the early days of BC I would quite happily run around with my guildies to defend the honour of the Alliance wherever we could. Nowadays it's all about minimum Arena achievements, current rating and what role you bring to the Rated BG team. Because many people I grew up in WoW with were just casual PvPers at best, I grew more and more alienated from them the more I became immersed in ladder PvP. Pushing for rating and playing with friends only works if everyone is at the same level - otherwise someone is going to get left behind. In world PvP, however, your friends become more important than ever, simply because quantity is a tangible advantage in "unfair" environments. It is for this reason that world PvP is more social than traditional PvP, because everyone matters, not just the purported "elite". Traditional PvP is about "I", while world PvP should be about "we".


Meaningful World PvP

Many people will disagree with my definition of world PvP. It is more my definition of what world PvP should be about, rather than a description of what actually constitutes world PvP in existing games. For me meaningful world PvP is player versus player activity which has lasting repercussions for the players and the persistent virtual world in which they inhabit. EVE Online displays many characteristics which I consider to be essential for a good world PvP game. My major problem with WoW world PvP is that while world PvP does have an impact on player behaviour, it has no significant effect on Azeroth itself. Azeroth is completely oblivious to the conflict between the Alliance and Horde, regardless of what the lore says, and any kind of alteration to the landscape comes in the form of deus ex machina intervention by the developers. Stormwind remains perpetually owned by the Alliance regardless of how many times the Horde come pillaging through. You can never "kill" the leaders of the Horde - they're only mostly dead, and they'll shake it off and come back after a short interval. The final raid of the Pandaria expansion will be a raid on Orgrimmar itself. I have news for you, Blizzard - we've already raided Orgrimmar a number of times and "killed" Garrosh. The bastard just won't stay down for some reason.

WoW has tried to make world PvP more significant by adding strategic objectives which confer some type of benefit to the faction holding them. So far to date however these strategic overlays have been superficial (in the form of region wide buffs), counterintuitive (i.e. the reward for controlling Wintergrasp and Tol Barad is the opportunity to do PvE in the form of more dailies and/or raids) and fleeting (the objectives in Silithus and the Eastern Plaguelands have long since been forgotten). EVE Online by contrast has an amazingly rich meta-game which can be attested to by the significant number of player generated content emerging from it. The battle for Fountain is tremendously interesting, and is made more so because sovereignty can change hands. The landscape of New Eden is constantly being fought over and reshaped by the players themselves, not by developers who think that an earth-shattering dragon would make a cool end game boss. World PvP is meaningful in EVE. By contrast, no one (except the players involved) gives a rats arse about what happens in the wilds of Azeroth. Regardless of what the players do, that world remains changeless, immutable and ultimately meaningless.

I started playing WoW with a tight circle of friends and family, and this circle expanded to include online friends and guildies. Their continued presence in Azeroth was the main reason I played WoW. Sometime during my hunt for higher and higher ratings I lost sight of that. My sister loves PvP as much as I do, but the day she said I should find another partner because she wasn't good enough to compete at the bracket we were playing in was the day I realized that I had started playing for the wrong reasons. Meaningful in games is not the same as meaningful in real life. So nowadays I want to be able to play a MMO PvP game which can include everyone regardless of ability, where everyone's contribution, regardless of size, is important. I want to identify ourselves with a faction of our choosing, and fight the good fight against all comers. I want our tribe to alter the persistent world, and for our skirmishes to matter for our faction and for our enemies. I want to know my enemy and build rivalries and vendettas, and then one day laugh and reminisce about it on shared forums. I want to indulge in skullduggery and diplomacy. I want to be able to rejoice in our shared victories, and commiserate with each other in our bitterest defeats. I want big fights, small fights, overwhelming victories and doomed last stands. In short, I want meaningful world PvP.