Desert Oasis: A post-mortem examination of Black Desert’s defunct Shadow Arena

    
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Last week was such an intense week for Black Desert. The community took a blow when news broke out regarding Black Desert’s second major loss in the past few months: a rock. As far as I know, it was the most controversial thing to happen in MMOs that week. Nope, can’t think of anything else as bad as this. It’s too early to tell what implications that rock’s loss will hold, but we can at least look at the other thing this game recently lost: its battle royale mode, Shadow Arena. Today, we’ll conduct a post-mortem on the mode and discuss the lessons learned from its missteps.

Generally speaking, I’m not into battle royale as a genre, even though one of my favorite books of all time is Battle Royale. I don’t hate the genre; I’m just a picky gamer. As someone who cut his teeth on Quake 2 and Quake 3, I prefer my PvP experiences tight and fast. But when Pearl Abyss and Kakao added Shadow Arena to Black Desert, I was excited. A battle royale in my favorite game? Sign me up! I was long overdue to try the genre out anyway so it was a good opportunity. If anything, the loot was good.

Here’s some background on how it all worked: In Shadow Arena, players were black spirits. After the initial “air drop” sequence, the players needed to find and possess one of the classes. In order to gear up, players had to open chests and slay monsters. As time went by, the arena got smaller and smaller until players were forced to fight it out in a tiny space. Top players received prizes that were usable in the main game, particularly memory fragments.

A step in the right direction

The ironic thing about Black Desert, a game centered around PvP, is how it’s gone so long without a structured PvP for everyone. The current PvP content requires players to gear up first or be slaughtered. Also, most of the modes are not just something players can jump in and play a few rounds of and leave.

The answer to that problem was Shadow Arena. Finally, players could just play some quick PvP matches. The matches weren’t long, people didn’t need to walk somewhere to participate, and gearscore didn’t matter. This mode was a breath of fresh air since we could focus on just the game’s combat and kicking each other in the patootie.

For my part, I finally had a chance to actually practice encounters with the various classes with minimal preparation. I just logged in and played. Kakao and and Pearl Abyss also made it worthwhile for the playerbase since winnings carried over to the main game. To top it off, players really didn’t need to be the top player to get a hefty reward too. This mode was lucrative.

Maybe too lucrative.

A victim of its own success

Black Desert has always had a hacking problem; most folks know that cheaters use a speed hack to get to places faster. You know how it was handled? Bans, lots and lots of bans. Pearl Abyss went with the most straightforward approach. But the procedure was too reactive. It was a band-aid covering deeper problems. There were no deterrents to prevent hacking. Sure, other MMOs have issues with hacking too, but the missteps in promoting the mode and handling the consequences differentiated this incident from others.

Here’s what I mean: To promote the mode, Pearl Abyss ran an event. Players who slew five opponents in Shadow Arena won a free copy of the game. As far as I know, there was no required minimum play time to receive the rewards earned in Shadow Arena. Do you see where I’m going with this? For two weeks, it was too easy to create a new account for the sole purpose of cheating with it. If the cheater got banned, who cared, right? They could fire up a VPN, make another account, and cheat some more.

I guess you can say there was no “account-ability” for cheaters.

The cheating quickly took over the mode. Players were not happy, posting their rage and negative experiences on the forums and Reddit. To combat the cheaters, Pearl Abyss grabbed the metaphorical TET (+19): Ban Hammer and swung it. It did not go well. Innocent people were banned. In the last article, I joked about how getting banned became an RNG event. It was a legitimate concern. Players were getting wrongfully banned from various false positives. And what was particularly interesting was how quiet the Calpheon server’s roleplay chat became in the days following — apparently, players got banned for running texture mods too. One player claimed that he got banned for playing on GeForce Now! That hit pretty close to home because I personally play Black Desert on a Shadow virtual PC.

To add salt to the wound, it quickly became clear the banwave did not work. There were still cheaters playing.

MassivelyOP kept track of the story as it developed, and even we noted that it seemed that a majority agreed on how to handle the situation: start over. And in a way, Pearl Abyss did just that, though in a more drastic way than folks probably wanted: It closed down the entire game mode all together and reversed a majority of the bans.

The big takeaway

This is a cautionary tale on best practices for implementing new modes. Shadow Arena was a great idea and was worth playing. But it was a rushed mess. Pearl Abyss was not prepared to handle the implications. It was a good time to attempt battle royale, but this was not a good time for Pearl Abyss and Kakao to learn the intricacies of their game’s PvP balanced against managing hackers. At the very least, procedures to discourage and prevent hacking should have been in place first.

Even had there been no hacking, Shadow Arena was a major challenge to balance. The Musa, a samurai-type class, was the most powerful class in Shadow Arena. In order for PA to line this class up with everyone else, balancing it would break something else. And this was only the beginning; the mode hadn’t introduced awakening weapons for any of the classes yet. Had PA not closed Shadow Arena, that would have become a major challenge to balance in the future too.

Moving forward, I hope Pearl Abyss and Kakao learned something. It’s good they’re going back to the drawing board, and I really hope anti-hacking measures are considered. This is also a great opportunity to start rebuilding toward Shadow Arena again. Personally, I still would love to see a small-scale, tightly paced, jump-in-jump-out PvP mode. I think that’s a good jumping off point, and it’s not too late to start.

The Great Valencian Black Desert is a dangerous place, but thankfully there’s always a chance for respite. Join Massively OP’s Carlo Lacsina every other week for just that in Desert Oasis, our Black Desert column! And don’t worry; he promises he won’t PK you. Got questions or comments? Please don’t hesitate to send a message!

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Sean Smith

The problem with SA came from the speed with which it was developed: from an internal game jam in early December, to worldwide release in January. I can understand why PA moved so fast, but no-one can be surprised that the code was rubbish, given the time from first prototype to worldwide launch. Cancelling it was one of the best decisions PA have made in recent months, and gives me hope that their producers are thinking about the longer-term good of the game, not just the short term profit.

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Fervor Bliss

The hacking/mods of BDO are so bad if I did not have friends in BDO I would have left. But where can you go? Will just try to keep ignoring it I guess.