Massively Overthinking: Crowd control in MMORPGs


Today’s Kickstarter-begotten Massively Overthinking question arrives from donor Ravenwynd, who writes,

I love control type characters in mmos. City of Heroes’ Mind Controller could lock down entire groups; EverQuest Enchanters mezzed and controlled entire groups and trains. But as devs have added PvP and tried to balance classes in their games across the genre, it seems this playstyle has gone away. You can’t have long control powers as the PvP has to be quicker, so the control powers are super short. Given the hassles of trying to balance classes for both PvP and PvE (and the nerfs to one side when balancing the other), do you think more games/studios should strive for trying to do one or the other to their best ability versus engaging in that constant balance fight?

I polled the MOP staffers for their opinions on Ravenwynd’s topic.

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): Crowd control mechanics are fairly difficult to balance as they essentially take one or more enemies out of the fight, which has very different effects in PvE versus PvP. If you’re being swarmed by large numbers of enemies in PvE, the ability to take a few of them out of the fight is just another form of damage mitigation and can be mechanically balanced against shielding or healing. But in PvP where you have an equal number of players on each side, you can break the enemy’s strategy by selectively crowd controlling one character. Each player is also so powerful that even locking one out of the fight indefinitely would turn the battle in your favour, so I can totally see the argument for reducing their effectiveness in PvP.

EVE Online is a great example of a game in which CC works well in PvP, mostly because you’ll rarely have equal sizes of forces facing off against each other. In an asymmetric fleet battle, electronic warfare essentially acts as a force multiplier and can let a smaller force hold the field against a larger opponent. That’s pretty important because a big part of the PvP in EVE is convincing your enemies that you’re a weaker target than you actually are so that they’ll engage in the first place, so often a small dedicated electronic warfare squad can make all the difference.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I love crowd control so very much. City of Heroes did it brilliantly. (That’s my beloved Earth/Storm troller in the pic up top!) But I don’t personally think control is being edged out by PvP; all the early games with great crowd control had PvP in some form or another. What I do think is that as technology advances, game designers are creating and implementing increasingly more intricate AI systems, and that, combined with a reduced focus on forced grouping, has diminished the need for crowd control (which is why a lot of newer MMO players believe the holy trinity has always been tank, healer, and DPS — nope!). The early games ramped up challenge simply by throwing more enemies at players, so a crowd control class was a necessity. Modern MMOs are capable of fights with significantly more finesse than “more mobs lawl,” and so it’s not longer quite so necessary to create a class whose job is to soften up or manage those huge mobs.

But to more directly answer the question, no: I define MMORPGs by their breadth, their catering to multiple playstyles, and that includes PvP, so I don’t think MMORPGs should cleave to one side or the other and limit themselves and their potential playerbases by giving up. Balance is hard, but do it anyway.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): PvP certainly doesn’t help matters when it comes to CC; developers believe, rather fairly, that just being locked in place and unable to do anything in PvP is kind of boring and not actually fun to the person being locked down. But some of it also comes down to the nature of players and what designers ask of players and combat encounters.

Even in City of Heroes, a game that loved control-style powers so much that it had two separate archetypes built around them, there was a tacit understanding that sufficiently powerful enemies would resist those control effects. That’s part of the nature of the beast. There are a lot of battles in Final Fantasy XIV that rely heavily around controlling the battlefield or being aware of what’s happening, not simply pounding on something, but dedicated control effects aren’t an active thing in the game. Making control effects too powerful makes them mandatory (and thus means that 80% of what an enemy is supposed to do will never happen and players will never deal with it), making them too weak or too limited results in them being burdensome or undesirable.

The ability to completely lock an enemy down is really neat and powerful, but it also means that the enemy isn’t doing anything beyond providing a punching bag for everyone else. Control effects haven’t been weakened just because of PvP; they’ve been weakened because while they’re fun to use in a sense of having absolute power, they make actual gameplay a fair bit more bland.

Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): I tend to agree with Mike here in that the fault lies not with PvP itself but with the relentless and ultimately unachievable pursuit of PvP balance. Balance is for MOBAs, shooters, and other game genres that are easier to make/maintain than the MMORPG. The real world is not balanced. Why should a virtual world be balanced? It shouldn’t be, but new school devs and players are all about gamification and simplification at the expense of virtual worlds. Balance always has been and always will be a joke in MMO PvP because it’s beyond the ability of developers to keep up with all the variables in a virtual world times hundreds of thousands of players. MMO PvPers will flock to whatever the best min/max build happens to be, so if that means that PvP in a given game is “unbalanced” and ultimately a bunch of rogues with XYZ talents versus another bunch of rogues with XYZ talents, who cares? Certainly not the majority of players who aren’t PvPing, which is why it’s unfortunate that devs have often chosen to bork the rest of a game to appease a minority.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): In my opinion, PvP is the worst thing that ever happened to the PvE game, and every time a “balance” patch comes out that nerfs a PvE skill in the name of making PvP better, I resent it deeply. Some games have figured out that you can program a skill to act differently in a PvP environment than a PvE one, but I guess that’s just too much work for most teams. You know what, devs? Suck it up. Put in the effort, give both sides their due attention, and stop trying to pound a square PvE skill into a triangle PvE slot.

Also, crowd control classes are so, so cool. Players hate to have control taken away from them, but it’s a lot of fun to mess with mobs — and why shouldn’t we? I love enchanting mobs so that they temporarily fight for my side!

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): The Mind Controller in City of Heroes was great. One of my favorite classes. But I don’t think PvP was the end of that level of crowd-control class. To be fair, you only have to spend about 10 seconds in Star Wars: The Old Republic PvP to realize that CC is not dead. In fact, I don’t think CC is dead, in general. Sure, it doesn’t look like the Mind Controller, but it’s there. There isn’t just one classes that handles CC anymore. Most of the time, CC is broken up among multiple classes. That said, I would really like to see a boss fight in a raid or maybe even a whole game that is built around having a CC class like the Mind Controller.

Mike Foster (@MikedotFoster, blog): It’s not PvP that’s the problem; it’s publishers or developers insisting that every game have some sort of competitive PvP mode. PvP doesn’t have to be balanced. Not in the slightest. Some classes can and should be better at it. But when there’s a “serious” mode involved, suddenly everyone has to be balanced around each other. Everyone needs a counter; everyone needs something to contribute. That’s what happened when World of Warcraft’s arenas debuted. PvP ended up getting balanced around this tiny little piece of the game, which ruined it for everyone who loved rolling PvP-centric characters and builds and then going out into the world to find trouble.

As long as there’s this idea that everyone should be equal at all things, CC will either be redundant, not present, or not terribly effective.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): While class balance is definitely the culprit in the loss, I wouldn’t blame PvP as much as the combination of the move to solo play and the “my cookie has to have the exact same number of chocolate chips!” syndrome that is so prevalent now. When you don’t want to depend on anyone else and want to do it all on your own, you certainly want things to be fair. Fair sounds reasonable, right? Then people mistakingly equate fair to same. Why should the class you play be at a disadvantage in anything? To be “balanced and fair” to the solo player, a game has to give you the ability to accomplish as much as everyone else can in the same amount of time. That completely destroys the concept of classes!

MMOs can (and in my opinion, should) be balanced without everyone having the same level of power. That’s what grouping is made for! You have different classes with different strengths and weaknesses coming together to compliment each other. Having a job be indispensable in a skill made playing particular classes meaningful. It made reputations meaningful. Can it suck to struggle in a particular dungeon because you don’t have a CCer online? Yes! But I think it also made people creative in how to accomplish things. Too much is lost — community, individual identity, class pride, even meaningful creative play — when you cater to the idea that no one should ever be different and people should be able to do everything they want whenever they want.

Your turn!



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