Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tol Barad is Really Really Broken

The keep is broken too, but that's not what the headline meant.

This headline is not really news, I'm afraid. Ever since players began hitting level 85 and dropping by for a visit, the flaws in this place have been very apparent. What's kind of amazing to me has been Blizzard's response to it.

A fast summary:

Tol Barad was billed as Wintergrasp 2.0. However, that was really not the case. If it was 2.0 of anything, it was the "Isle of Quel'Danas 2.0." Although they combined some aspects of Wintergrasp into the design, and then made some new mechanics by enabling additional daily quests if your faction controls the keep.  The main fallacy here is that most players expected to portal onto the island and become immediately flagged for PvP, thus opening up the possibilities of being ganked, and all the problems that come with that. But, for the most part, you can run around Tol Barad all you want and not participate in any PvP whatsoever.  There is a battle every 2.5 hours, but you are not compelled to participate in it. The faction rewards from the Baradin Wardens and the Hellscream's Reach are all primarily PvE oriented as well, making reputation grinding there attractive, if not necessary.

The battle itself, has never worked.

One faction can only bring as many players as the other faction, which generally means that not as many players can enter the zone as would like to. But then, considering the failure to balance for personnel in Wintergrasp, this was really the only logical route to go.

The objectives of the battler are not very well planned. The "Attacking" team must capture three areas surrounding the keep. However, if the defending team breaks the hold on any one of these, then the "Defense" can win. To capture these areas is simply a matter of bringing more players to that area  than the other side, however. So, the standard defense strategy is to let the attackers spread out among the three different nodes and then zerg any one of them all at once. The numerical superiority of a zerg defense quickly breaks the attackers' hold on that node.

There are three additional towers in Tol Barad, controlled by the defenders. Successfully destroying a tower grants the attacking team a time extension they can use to try and gain control of the other three main nodes. This is not considered terribly important however. Defenders almost never make any attempt to defend these towers. Attackers kill the towers, but it has relatively little impact on the battle itself, other than to draw out the time it takes for them to feel defeat.

The graveyard system in Tol Barad only makes it even easier for the defense. If "attackers" who are trying to hold a node manage to kill a couple of players in the defense zerg, those defenders go to a graveyard in the very center of the zone, which leaves them positioned perfectly to begin a zerg on the next node in the zone.

The results are that it is extremely difficult to capture Tol Barad Keep away from the defending faction. On many servers, control was traded only once or twice throughout the first few weeks of the expansion.

There is also something known as "The Bridge Exploit." It is apparently possible to get the honor for a Tol Barad victory just by hanging out on the bridge providing entrance to the battle zone, even if you really didn't participate in the battle at all. Blizzard claims to be working on this.

With this imbalance in the battle zone, players very quickly just tuned the whole thing out. Participating in a loss on Tol Barad has no compensation rewards, and with the relatively long time for play, combined with the odds against winning, honor farmers quickly went elsewhere for their fixes.

Just before Christmas, however, Blizzard changed that up: They changed the rewards.  An "attacking" victory became worth 1800 honor, while a "defense" victory remained worth 180 honor.  The factions very quickly worked out how to exploit this: For about a week, it became standard for Tol Barad to be traded between factions just about every time the battle took place. An attacking player could get 1800 for a win, cede victory to the other faction, and then get another 1800 several times more, later in the day.

This solved the access problems on most servers, however, it sort of created a PvP abomination: Tol Barad was a battle with no meaning whatsoever. There was actually a kind of gentleman's agreement between factions that allowed the trade, just to get the easy honor. 1800 honor is a ton of it. Lots of players geared their characters for PvP in no time flat these past few weeks.

But, as the new year started, Blizzard undid this honor change, reducing an attack win to 360 honor, realizing that "the spirit of PvP was violated."  This brings us back to reduced incentive to even bother to show up.

What has not happened, is any change to the zone that might make the battle more balanced. The imbalance of the objectives remains the same as it did from day one. Nothing has been changed in terms of the useless towers, the placement of graveyards, or anything else.

The strange thing is that I read commentaries all over the web about Tol Barad, along with suggestions as to how the place might be fixed and that "Blizzard will surely announce changes any day now." And yet, there has really been no word at all from Blizzard about what they are doing.  They announced the changes to the honor rewards, and that they are working on the Bridge exploit. But nothing about correcting the problems of the battle itself.

To be honest, also. I think most of Blizzard has been on vacation for the month of December. I thought it was really telling that for the launch events surrounding Dec. 7,  most of the key developers appeared at stores-- in Europe. I'm betting they stayed there for some extended vacation. With the exception of one key Holy Paladin nerf I can think of, (that was announced by community managers, not The Ghostcrawler), the long list of game changes have almost entirely been fixes to major problems rather than development shifts.

Let's see what happens in the next few weeks, as things should get back to normal.

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