The Soapbox: PvP MMOs desperately need PvE-style feedback loops

I'm on an angry.

As I settled into my captain’s chair for my evening visit to World of Warships the other night, I had an interesting experience. In a game of domination (capture/hold three map points as long as possible to accumulate points), I was steaming toward a capture point in my brand-new Bismarck, supported by a pair of cruisers, when we spotted the enemy staring back at us from the far side of the point. This particular map presented a disadvantageous situation to my side, which was in open water. The enemy team’s side of the map was blessed with several islands that can be used for cover and to break our line of sight, causing us to lose contact with them periodically.

As I assessed the situation, I knew that charging into the point would cause me to be overmatched. The enemy battleship was the mighty Kremlin, a tier 10 Russian behemoth with deadly accurate cannons. She was flanked by at least two high-explosive (HE) spamming cruisers and a destroyer. As much as I like the Bismarck, at tier 8, it’s no match for a Kremlin one-on-one. When that Kremlin is supported by two island-covered HE spammers, the chances of survival are even slimmer. The term “Russian bias” is bandied about liberally within the World of Warships community, and for good reason. Russian ships, while mostly based on blueprints and not real-world counterparts, are some of the most dangerous in the game.

So, I decided to slow down and wait. Maybe one of the enemy cruisers would get impatient and make a mistake, showing me a full broadside that I could punish with strong armor-penetrating shells. As I waited, I noticed a friendly battleship approaching my stern. A Jean Bart! A boat so broken (in a good way) that Wargaming recently removed it from the armory for purchase. I throttled forward, thinking that with the support of the Jean Bart and my two cruisers, we had a better chance to push. But as I moved forward, the Jean Bart took a turn to starboard and went behind me 90 degrees. Then he kept going. Then he completely turned around, fleeing from the point.

By now, one of my supporting cruisers had been destroyed attempting to engage the enemy. I had to make a decision: push forward to certain heroic death or back out and follow the Jean Bart, perhaps regrouping with the rest of the fleet in time to roll back towards our initial objective. I chose the latter, slowly backing away to keep my thickest armor pointed towards the enemy fire. At this point, I was feeling pretty good about my performance. Yeah, I hadn’t done any damage to speak of, but I also hadn’t YOLO-ed into the point and gotten myself burned down for nothing. As I headed back toward the rest of the fleet, the Siegfried, the cruiser that had supported my side and was now heading back with me, torpedoed me. There was no enemy in sight, so the message was clear. He was upset with me.

Confused, I resorted to team chat. “Siggy, what did I do? Genuinely looking for some feedback.”

The Siegfried did not respond. In fact, Siggy decided to launch his second salvo of torpedoes toward the Jean Bart. He missed.

“Look out, JB, the Siggy is torping his teammates!” I hollered to the chat.

Still no response from the Siegfried. Lacking any other information, I was left to assume that, based on the fact that he was attacking multiple teammates, the cruiser captain was a griefer. So, I used my only recourse against such activity: I reported him for griefing.

Now, it’s not really a big deal to report someone in WoWS. By my observances, the karma system is not tied to reward or repercussion. It also does not require a detailed explanation of why somebody is being reported, so it is not a reliable feedback mechanism. In fact, I could probably write another thousand-word post on how useless the WoWS karma system is.

But to make a long story short, I died. I did eventually get burned down by the HE spammers pushing through our point because as a big, slow battleship I was the easiest one to spot and target, even as I fled. Taking a friendly torpedo from an apparent griefer certainly didn’t slow my imminent demise. I decided to spectate the remainder of the match to see if our other flank could pull off a surprise victory, but it was not meant to be. Just as the match was ending, I placed one last message in the chat: “I guess I’m not going to get any feedback, then?” It was the last message to show up in chat before the match ended.

Back at port, I was getting ready to select a ship for my next match when I was surprised by a barrage of personal messages from the captain of the Siegfried. He started off by apologizing for being a jerk. Well, really he started off by saying, “I didn’t mean to be a jerk, but…” which isn’t really an apology, I suppose. Then he admitted he was reported twice for that match. He had no way to know for certain it was me who reported him, but I’m sure sure he could probably deduce that it was the two teammates he’d torpedoed. He continued by explaining what he had expected of me as a mid-to-close range battleship with thick armor attempting to push into a capture point: He said that the Jean Bart and I were the reason our team lost (debatable) and that I needed to “play the Bismarck like a Bismarck” (a fair point that I’ll concede).

I had to fight the urge to get defensive. As explained above, I did have reasons for playing that match the way I did, and I didn’t deserve to be teamkilled by my own side even if I were a terrible player. But all things considered, I also did appreciate that he took the time to reach out and explain his side of things to me. A quick look at his stats showed that he must have known what he was talking about. His win rate was far superior to mine.

As I reflected on the exchange, it occurred to me that this was the first valuable evaluation of my play that I had received in over 2,000 random matches. Besides the sporadic salty comment in chat, I mean. That led me to another question: How are people supposed to improve in PvP-centric or competitive games like WoWS?

There seems to be ample opportunity for feedback and improvement in PvE games, as the games themselves are usually designed with a logical learning progression, as well as with mechanics that build upon one another. Every time I’ve previewed an Elder Scrolls Online dungeon tour with ZeniMax’s Mike Finnegan, he’s pointed out certain design features the team has incorporated to “get players ready” for an upcoming boss fight or puzzle mechanic. Boss fights themselves allow for self-education as they operate within a specific, somewhat predictable set of skills and maneuvers. Repetition expedites learning.

But humans are unpredictable. A game with both human allies and adversaries is exponentially unpredictable. That’s part of the appeal, I understand, but it also makes learning strengths, strategies, and weaknesses endlessly more difficult. How do I know that the destroyer who just pushed into the point and sat in a smokescreen was making a mistake if he actually gets away with it and captures the point in the process? How am I to deduce that the Bismarck who pushed deep into the enemy flank and got burned down was actually playing the way he was supposed to but ended up at the bottom of the sea because his/her cruisers failed to support the advance? On the surface, one of these looks like a good move and one looks like a mistake when in reality they are reversed. I wouldn’t describe WoWS’ learning curve as especially steep. It’s more like a long, gradual climb that can take months, even years, to ascend.

I’ve read all of the Reddit suggestions. I watch the YouTube videos and streamers. The problem is, those content creators, while they try to explain their thought process in some cases, do so many little things that the casual player won’t notice. For them, checking the minimap and understanding the capabilities of the opposing ships is like checking the rearview mirrors for longtime drivers. It happens without forethought, and to point it out to a student driver every time it happens wouldn’t even occur to the experienced driver. So, while some tips can be garnered from online sources, the only way I’ve found to get better is to simply play the game, over and over and over. It certainly takes a lot of work, dedication, and in some cases, thick skin to get to a point in this type of game where your contributions are felt.

I don’t know what the best answer is, but I know that PvP MMOs desperately need PvE-style feedback loops of some form or another. For WoWS, I’ll probably continue down my current path, ingesting online content as much as possible and attempting to carry any lessons from my play sessions forward. It’s become obvious that the game itself does not provide any tools to speak of that focus on player improvement. So, to those teammates who I irritate along the way, please go easy on me, perhaps provide some constructive tidbits, and I’ll do my best to continue to improve. But please, keep your torpedoes in their tubes!

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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