WoW Mercenary Mode

In increasingly typical WoW fashion, Blizzard came up with an incredibly convoluted solution to a rather easily solved problem:

In an upcoming patch, we’ll be adding a feature that allows you to act as a mercenary for the opposite faction in PvP. Whenever your faction is experiencing a long wait time to get into Ashran or unrated Battlegrounds, agents of the enemy faction will appear in your base in Ashran (Stormshield for the Alliance, Warspear for the Horde). These agents will allow you to enter Ashran or Battlegrounds disguised as an enemy player, and actually fight as the opposite faction.

When you compete as a mercenary, you’ll still earn all the same rewards you would have by winning or losing as your own faction (with the exception of faction-specific achievements). You’ll also have your race automatically changed into one appropriate for the opposite faction while you’re still inside the Battleground or Ashran. Perhaps most importantly, however, you’ll experience much shorter queue times, as our matchmaking system will be able to fill up groups much quicker!

To understand exactly how convoluted Blizzard is being, just read this bit of “clarification”:

On racials: The current intention is that the system swaps your race entirely, including your racial ability. We recognize that that puts Humans in a weird spot, so we’re looking into some options there that aren’t “spend your Honor/Conquest on a Medallion.”

It is difficult to imagine a worse implementation, even if I can kinda-sorta-maybe see why Blizzard is going this route. I mean, for better or for worse (hint: the latter), race matters quite a bit in WoW – if you are fighting a Forsaken character, you know that Fear will be less useful against them, while snares will similarly be less useful against Gnomes. This state of affairs makes the easier solution of “stay the same race, but change the character model” largely impossible unsavory. At the same time, it is exactly because racials are so important that this Mercenary implimentation is unwieldy. Not just for Humans turning into anything else, but Night Elf Druids losing Shadowmeld means they’ll lose a roundabout Vanish that might have been an important component of their character strategy.

I was going to add a further example of Blood Elf Paladins losing Arcane Torrent and becoming crippled Paladins, but let’s face it, only Alliance will be getting the Merc option anytime soon.

All of which is terribly ironic given the state of affairs just a year ago. Remember back in May 2014 when Blizzard was offering free Faction Transfers from Horde to Alliance to assauge queue times in the other direction? It makes me wonder if it wasn’t necessarily the Human racial that imbalanced the factions per se, but rather the instant level 90 that came with Warlords that allowed those on-the-fence Horde to seek greener racial pastures without committing dollars to a faction transfer.

How the tables have turned.

Hmm… I wonder what was released in November 2014?

In any case, in that same post I offered what I consider the best solution to the faction imbalance dilemma: same faction BGs. They already exist for Rated BGs and Arenas, no convoluted mechanical changes necessary. And as I also suggested in that post, if the whole lore and feel of the game is paramount – despite Warlords throwing it away with time travel and alternate universes – there is still an easy solution: sub-factions. It’s not Alliance vs Alliance, it’s Alliance vs Scarlet Crusade. Or Horde vs Twilight Cultists. Would it be weird for Scarlet Crusaders to be defending Frostwolf structures in AV? Sure, maybe. Although it shouldn’t be much more weird than random Alliance characters being faction-changed and defending the same thing under the Merc system.

Incidentally, that sort of highlights why the Merc system isn’t likely to work all that well. More specifically, it’s an “other guy problem.” Queue times suck, no question. But as an Alliance player for more than half the game’s history, let me tell you that instant queues that lead to inevitable losses aren’t all that great either. As an individual, you are better off letting other people utilize the Merc system to give you faster auto-wins. Same faction BGs literally even the playing field, taking away all advantage you might have had based on faction strength.

I dunno. Overall, I am a bit sympathetic to Blizzard’s plight in this regard. The rational design approach would be to get rid of the two factions altogether, as the concept of mutually exclusive factions like Horde and Alliance are quite a bit outdated and inevitably imbalanced. At the same time, there is so much pondorous prescedent, that the potential blow-back from angry veterans would be extreme. Most people are joking when they talk about hatred for Gnomes or whatever, but others are serious insofar as faction identity goes. Blizzard has amped up the faction differences for years and years – remember the motorcycle competition not too long ago? – so complete integration would be a more obvious shark-jumping event.

These halfway solutions though? It’s bad design. Imagine a year from now if the faction balance has shifted back to Horde, and Horde Mercs are entering BGs as Humans. Do they keep their PvP trinkets? Do said trinkets automatically transform into something else?

There are really only three elegant solutions to this problem overall:

  1. Change the Human racial.
  2. Disable all racials in PvP.
  3. Same-faction BGs.

The first is something that’s going to need to happen eventually, wailing and gnashing of teeth aside. It could be changed to either be slightly worse than otherwise default PvP trinket (+15 second cooldown), or Blizzard could be more radical and give the ability to everyone and then come up with something new for Humans. Remember, the Human racial used to be a button that increased the ability to see through stealth; which was still better than the garbage Draenei have been stuck with since inception, but nevermind. The second option of disabling racials is more of the nuclear option. But only the third solution is likely to solve the queue-time issue on a permanent basis.

Mercenaries are a cool concept, but “becoming the opposite faction” is clunky to the extreme, and unlikely to solve the underlying issues to any great degree. I mean, if racials are the underlying issue, getting Alliance to temporarily turn into Horde isn’t going to do anything – Alliance will still win on the aggregate power of their racials. This might be a stopgap queue solution, but it’s development time better spent on something more long-term. Like same-faction BGs.

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Posted on July 17, 2015, in WoW and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Only no. 3 is a solution. In case of the other, the damage has already been done and it would require people to actually faction change back – unrealistic, to say the least.

    Even with perfect balance, people (especially “pro” players) will ALWAYS start to trickle on one side, if only because they want to play together.

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    • The problem is indeed a pernicious one, as Blizzard would almost have to tweak Horde racials to be better than Alliance, then try and nerf everything down in the middle of the migration in order to balance things. Which, needless to say, is a untenable solution. But so is doing nothing, as Alliance will simply continue to have the present skill advantage, which will in turn persist and endure going forward.

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  2. I would remove racials entirely. Bring the player, not the race.

    I would convert sides in each Battleground to their respective sub-faction. Either Alliance or Horde could play either, and they would be changed to a more proper race and automatically equipped with the proper tabard.

    Reframe Battlegrounds as a historical event where you go back and see things from either side of the battle.

    Achievements for playing both sides, etc.

    Add in a Betrayal quest ala Everquest II. It would be on par in length to recent Legendary chains, and allow in-game faction changes with an opposite faction race.

    Spend the next two expansions preparing for a more nuanced approach to the two faction system by breaking down its many walls and barriers.

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  3. I have this theory that Blizzard refuses to do anything that was proposed on the internet before they thought of it. Every time a problem like this arises, they seem to come out with something totally head-scratching despite numerous better ideas being out in the wild.

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    • Given the sort of changes they have been doing for this expansion, it would not surprise me that they’re just throwing darts at the Crazy Idea Board.

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  4. This comment is more just me throwing out the link I put in that last post..

    Cynwise’s post details well why this is at best a stop-gap that won’t do anything long term to address faction imbalance unless we go the way of removing all factions of any kind in random BG pvp.

    TL;DR

    My personal opinion is that the correct solution is to get rid of factions entirely from the random matchmaker. Every other solution keeps some type of imbalance which will inevitably cause a feedback loop to skew the balance one way or the other. Eliminating factions brings queue times back down while equalizing opportunity for victory. It solves the major complaints of both sides of the faction divide.

    Some other things pop to mind. Will there be a faction monitoring addon that trawls the player database that allows others to see who’s not on your faction but in a BG with you? Great opportunities for harassment. What happens if you are a decent pvper and have some amazing player playing with you that you’d love to do arenas or RBGs with but they are on the opposite faction? Might even make people more likely to change. I know I rolled a character in Wrath on the server where all the amazing premades came from, and found a guild there of people who had rerolled from my very server at the end of BC.

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    • While I agree with Cynwise’s overall analysis, I think same-faction PvP would go over a lot easier than no-Faction PvP. The same-faction solution doesn’t necessarily solve the overall issue – the majority of BGs will still be Alliance vs Horde – but it doesn’t necessarily require abandoning the game’s fiction or introducing new game tech (orcs appearing as humans, dynamically changing racials for every BG, etc).

      The funny/sad thing about this whole situation is how long it’s taken to become a problem Blizzard actually cares about. The game has been out for 10+ years, and imbalanced BG factions has been a problem pretty much from the beginning. Is Blizzard scrambling for a solution because queues are really so much worse than they were before? Or is it because they’re suddenly a lot more invested retention now that the subscriber numbers have dropped so low? Or perhaps Blizzard just knows that things like random BGs are going to be required to keep people playing this expansion after it takes 8+ months for the next one to come out?

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      • Maybe it’s because the shoe is on the other foot, what with Horde suffering instead of Alliance? Mostly tongue-in-cheek, but there is a kernel of truth to it. But it could very well be that pvpers are less likely to unsub than pvers, so keeping them engaged, and driving more players into pvp, might keep those subs up.

        Shintar pointed out that being a Merc is going to be a losing proposition for most Alliance players, which does nothing to break the Nash equilibrium state unless the person joining as a Merc is either guaranteed a BG bag, a bonus on honor/conquest, or some other LFD wanted-class bonus bag. Or, we force every player with a rating of 1800+ into the Merc que. The very fact that we’ve gone through this same process before in pve shows that they probably need to add some incentive outside short queue times. And even then it won’t really address the faction gearing feed-back issue that having unbalanced factions drives.

        For what it’s worth, the current pvp team seems very cautious and conservative with changes. To see them do something like this is somewhat momentous.

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  5. I think it sounded like a workable, if convoluted idea at first. I was sort of amused by the idea of Alliance players joining Horde teams in the battlegrounds while wearing one of those Halloween masks to pretend to be orcs and tauren. :P But this whole temporary race change for each match thing sounds incredibly weird.

    I suspect that like you said, it won’t work in the long term. In the short term, people will probably use it to some extent, but once they realise that they are queuing up to join the losing time, queue times will go right back up again.

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