Diziet: everyone knows who Greg Street is, he is one of the two lead designers at blizzard and has been around as a public figure for a long time. But Brian, you're new -- why don't you tell us just a little bit about yourself?
Brian Holinka: Hi, I joined Blizzard around August of 2012 and I was brought on to focus on PvP. My goal is to find out all the things that the PvP community wants, to try to reinvigorate the PvP as much as possible, keep it exciting, keep it fresh and so far it's been really exciting.
Diziet's note: Brian focuses exclusively on the World of Warcraft PvP experience. Brian Holinka worked on the multiplayer components of Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, Homefront, and Frontlines: Fuel of War. Holinka got his start in the game industry moonlighting on the “Desert Combat” mod for Battlefield 1942 while serving as a Captain in the United States Air Force.
Vanguards: 5.2 is being released soon. This patch features a lot of class balance changes for PvP. What were some of the main goals in terms of class balancing for this patch? Monks, for example, were very weak in PvP and there are a lot of changes for them.
Greg Street: Just a few off top of my head: The big 3 we were trying to hit were lowering the overall power and maybe representation of say, Frost Mage, Arms Warrior for sure, Shadow Priest and Hunter a little bit -- and on the low end we felt like Disc Priest had vanished from high end PvP which was a real shame from where they'd been before. We also had the new class the monk that just wasn't represented very well as either damage dealer or a healer. So those were the main goals. And then we had a lot of systems level stuff where we increased the healing of the damage dealers that also had a healing spec and tried to look at some of the things that we always try to look at : diminishing returns, and we also focused a lot on silences.
Brian Holinka: And you also saw changes to Rogues, which had pretty good representation in PvP in the past. I think they were kind of a victim of the talent reconfiguration, and so we've gone back and given them a lot of buffs for 5.2 as well.
Vanguards: PvP has always been a fine balancing act from the day PvP came out. Some say WoW PvP can never truly be balanced. What do you guys think about that?
Greg Street: You know, to be honest -- thats probably pretty fair. We just have such a diverse community -- super high end players who have a very different experience in PvP than a lot of our more casual or even intermediate players. There's everything from RBGs to random battlegrounds, 2s, 3s, 5s -- to even World PvP and dueling. Players understandably will have a very high expectation that things will be fair for them. We try our hardest to address concerns when things come up and try to keep everything feeling fun.
Diziet: If there was an ideal balance point WoW PvP can reach, where do you think that would be?
Greg Street: That's a great question. One of the things we struggle a lot is with is that there is a community, probably more of the high end guys... so there is a community of players who would be perfectly happy if there were 6-7 specs that they had to worry about. And those were really well balanced and had a lot of synergy going on -- and they wouldn't have to worry a lot about all the others. And then there are these other players, who say: "I've been a Ret Paladin all my life. That's who I want to be in PvP, I don't want to be a healer, I don't want to want to switch to rogue. Or I'm a Balance Druid, or a Mistweaver Monk." So on the one hand we can have very tight focus and probably deliver very balanced game of relatively few specs. On the other hands, we can get all 34 in there, and everyone can have some representation, but it would be a lot harder to deliver on really cool class synergy and be able to predict on what everyone is going to do.
Brian Holinka: This also is just depends on what you consider as viability. There are many different opinions on what viable means in the PvP community. Whether viable means at the very high end, competing in tournaments, vs it means on where we feel that a highly skilled player can take almost any spec and do very well with it, especially if they find a comp that works very well for them. And quite honestly, Sam, you're a good case of that. People felt that enh shamans and ret paladins were not exactly competitive, and you continue to compete on them. So I think there is certainly like Greg said times where some classes are stronger than others, but we try to make sure that everyone can compete at some level. It's going to always be challenging, because there's always change -- different players and classes want different things in PvE and in PvP and RBGs and all the different formats, it's definitely a very big challenge.
Vanguards: RBGs are currently still filled with exploiters. Is there a chance to have this fixed before the Hero of the Alliance / Hero of the Horde RBG titles are given out?
Brian Holinka: Well, you know -- there's a week between when the season ends and when the rewards are given, and we spend a lot of time in that week looking at all the Gladiators/Hero of the Alliance/Horde and determining exactly if everything they did is fair. And it's a lot easier for us to do that with Arena. It's a smaller pool of people. So they will be under the Eye of Sauron, as I'd like to say - because there is going to be a lot of attention put on those guys. We are spending a lot of time looking at all the things that exploiters do in RBGs and Arenas. I think this season we found two very big exploits with MMR that people were abusing. We saw it mid season when we recapped it to 2200, and with RBGs we had some closer to the end of the season. There was a lot more noise in the RBG data about who was exploiting and who wasn't, and it became more difficult. But as far as handing out Hero of the Alliance/Horde and Gladiator, we always heavily scrutinize those and will continue to do so.
Vanguards: There has been talk of the “legendary PvP gem.” How will PvPers go about to attaining that?
Brian Holinka: I think there was some confusion about it when it came out. It was released, and it was made a legendary at first. But in terms of PvP metagem, specifically, it wasn't a legendary PvP Gem. Basically, we were coming out with all these metagems in PvE and we were concerned. The PvP community has been loud and clear that the best things for PvP should come from PvP. So what we wanted to make sure that we introduced a meta gem that was competitive statistically with those metagems, but in the same time we also adjusted both the PvE meta-gems and the very powerful trinkets this tier to be not as effective against players. So they might have a much lower proc rate for a lot of the on-proc effects against players. So we've taken steps to ensure that if you want the best PvP items you can achieve them from PvP. Also, looking at the delta of what is competitive and what is not competitive, I feel confident that you can get stuff all from PvP that will allow you to compete at the highest level. Maybe for some certain class/specs with certain class compositions there might be a trinket or a metagem that really benefits them, but I don't feel like that will be the norm across the game. And that's what's important to us.
Diziet: This is one of the few points in the game where the mechanics in PvE and PvP work different -- we've had warriors with Colossus Smash before, and we have damage and healing reduction in PvP. What's your long term goal in keeping the game systems separated or similar between the PvP and PvE rule-sets.
Greg Street: That's something we struggle with all the time and I wish I could say that we've had a vision for it: a way it should always work -- but we go back and forth on it a lot. I know a lot of players think that this is the big fix, that once we have a PvP version and PvE version of every spell that balance will be perfect. We don't really buy that. I think you'll see the same number of requests for "buff this, nerf this" now that they knew that we could just tweak the data whenever we wanted to. It is confusing, definitely- with the new talent system there is already a lot that players have to track of in PvP, you can't assume that everyone has this type of CC anymore, they could have any one of the three different talents. Imagine on top of that every one of those three talents works in two different ways between PvE and PvP. So I think for the immediate future we're going to keep on with this model: We'll make them work as similarly as long as we can, but if we hit a point like with things like Colossus Smash where one set of numbers won't work, then we'll go ahead and fork it rather than spend weeks and weeks of our time trying to come up with a perfect solution that keeps things in balance in both systems.
Vanguards: Do you think there is any chance on making the “cross realm” queue system work faster for arenas? Currently from my experience you can’t really get cross realm queues without one side being past the 5 to 6 minute waiting mark, and 5 to 6 minute is a pretty long period and for players at higher tier ratings and that waiting can get pretty boring.
Brian: We're really looking at that problem now. The BG system when it was made for WoW, WoW was in a different place. There were a lot of technical reasons. We're really looking at that -- we know Greg tweeted about this recently, we're really looking at finding ways to get all the players competing and getting those queue times down. I think if you're on BG9 and you're going to be facing a lot of the Tich guys, and a lot of the other big BGS it's okay, but if you're on a smaller BG it becomes an big problem that your queues are very long. It's something we're definitely conscious of and I think pooling people together is the right idea. All I can say is that we're really looking at it, and I think you guys will be pleased with what we come up with.
Diziet: I want to get back to class balance for just a bit. Going back through the history of PvP in WoW, I'd say Warlocks were one of those classes that were strong and balanced throughout the game's history. If you had to choose one class that you feel is well balanced in the game right now, in Mists, which one would it be and what do you think made it balanced?
Brian Holinka: hmm..
Greg Street: Is there a balanced class? [laughter].
Brian Holinka: I think a lot of times when we look at class balance -- for instance, I know you guys just posted an article about arena representation at Gladiator on AJ, and a lot of people look at that and they determine, "Oh, who's got the biggest bar -- they are the most overpowered, who's got the smallest one, they're the least overpowered and who is in the middle.." On that graph you might see DK or Warlock in the middle, and I don't think DKs and Warlocks are like "Yeah, we're perfectly balanced!". I think it's a matter of across all the ratings, is there a way for you to find people that you can compete with in Arena and not fall flat -- that's the biggest thing for us. And we try to keep an eye on outliers where certain classes are just outperforming everybody pretty clearly. If you look at warriors in 5.0 and 5.1 and you look at all the changes we'd made to them in 5.2 we're taking a very clear approach at trying to make sure that those outliers come down. Same thing with what we talked about earlier, Monks and Rogues -- finding those classes that aren't competing and buffing. Finding those classes that are very powerful and bringing them down. If there's a class that's in the middle in the pack, it's not so much that we can say "they need to be 2% better...", no they're competing. I think that's good. I don't know if it's a good idea for us to say this class is perfectly balanced. [laughter]
Greg Street: Well.. I know we'll probably get flaked for this, but if you look at something like the DK, they're kind of in the middle where they didn't get a whole ton of changes in 5.2. A lot of other classes had buffs or nerfs, and except for some of the things like Strangulate/Asphyxiate stuff they didn't change that much. That's probably a pretty good indication of what we're going for. But again, as Brian said, representation is so dependent on your synergy with other classes which is so dependent on the way their DRs work and things like that that I don't know if every one's representation being even means that now we're suddenly at perfect balance.
Brian Holinka: Also just because representation of the classes that players choose isn't uniform either. So, you know, there's a lot of talk on AJ and other sites, like Hildegarde's site, about "Oh, hey, if you compare gladiator to global percentages or if we look at Arena graphs and you see the global numbers compared to the numbers above 2200 and the percentages..." We look at those numbers, we look at our own numbers and we definitely try to balance accordingly. But representation is kind of a self-serving and self predicting prophecy. If everyone sees Warrior is doing really well everyone is going to say "I'm going to roll Warrior" and now you have a lot of good players playing Warrior and it kind of balloons a little bit bigger than it really is.
Diziet: It's good to hear that you guys are balancing at looking at the outliers, etc. From a more theoretical perspective, too, in terms of a class being balanced and fun to play, there are two ways of doing it -- you can tweak the coefficients on their main spells and abilities, and all of a sudden they do a lot more damage, or you can introduce different mechanics, kind of how we've seen with the talent system. What do you think the trade off between one kind of turning is?
Greg Street: It's not only more difficult for us, its also more difficult for players where now all of a sudden someone who doesn't scrutinize the patch notes, jumps into arena and people are like "Wait, what's this ability that just hit me... I didn't know they could do that now!", or "I just dispelled this this that I always dispelled and some backlash hit me that I didn't know about". It causes a lot of relearning from players too. The high end guys are so in touch with what we're doing that it won't surprise them, but they are still a minority of people even participating in PvP. On the other hand if we tweak damage numbers too much we can get to be the same thing if we buffed say, Shadow DoTs to where they would just be going around dotting everyone and never had to cast mind blast or mind flay, then it'd have a similar effect where people would be like: "Why don't these Shadow Priests ever stop moving, they're just running around tossing dots everywhere". There could be re-learning involved no matter what we do.
Vanguards: How do you feel about the balance of PvP in terms of map choices? How do you feel about the balance of PvP in terms of map choices? Some maps greatly help certain compositions such as Warlocks on Blade’s Edge -- they can jump down, port up, and with a Druid on the team they can both do that and knock people off.
Brian Holinka: I think Blade's edge and Dalaran Arena were made in a time when knock-offs didn't exist. So, all I can say is that we're aware of that and changes are forthcoming this season.
Vanguards: Will there be a chance of featuring map bans for Arenas similar to RBGs?
Brian Holinka: Yes, we've certainly talked about that. Kind of like when you go into Arena, down voting an arena. I know Tom Chilton in an interview with you guys even mentioned that. It's on the list of things that we're looking at! Not announcing it's coming, but we certainly think it's a good idea.
Vanguards: Is there any chance for a permanent tournament realm in WoW? A lot of players always say, I'd like to try this class out, try this spec out, but a lot of players are locked to their own class because of leveling, and a lot of players want to PvP.
Brian Holinka: I feel like it's tough, because this an RPG and one of the things that makes people's attachment to WoW so critical is that you have a character and you've invested time into that character, you earned gear for him, you've picked his look and his name and all those things. It's one of our really strong and valuable things. I know a lot of PvPers feel "oh, if we could just switch classes the way DOTA or MOBA players switch champions.." but that's really not what is the core strength of WoW. We have the Arena Realm, it's coming... I think the next one is coming soon, in Blizzard speak. For the people who like to participate in that it's there and they'll be able to play it. But that idea is so foreign to what is core and critical to WoW that, so I don't know if it would be the best thing for the game.
Diziet: I get your point of attachment to characters -- I started playing this game when it came out, went through all the stages of Raiding. I sometimes look at my bank and go through the items that I've had, and still see level 60 items, helms with 24 stamina that were good back then... There's definitely a lot of nostalgia there.
Brian Holinka: And transmog really helps with that, not only is it that I've got a lot of cool things I can transmog to but it also helps players customize their character in a way that you never really had an option to beforehand, to customize the look of it. I think it's made that attachment stronger, the reason players are passionate about asking for buffs or nerfs for their class is because you really have a strong attachment to that class and character. You just want to be able to compete and we understand that and appreciate that.
Vanguards: What about adding more incentives for arena as a whole, such as a tier to tier progression (1600, 1800, 2000). An example is that I'm not a big PvE'er and even I got a group together to do the gold challenge mode set just to get the better visual effects. I feel that if there was more of this in PvP, it would increase activity as well as rewarding players.
Brian Holinka: That was certainly something we took to heart when we made the transition from the old 2200 rating requirement on elite gear, to the new conquest earned requirement. We wanted to break down the 2200 rating requirement and allow everybody access if they were committed and skilled. We do understand that rating is the biggest factor when it comes to rated PvP, but we are definitely looking at much more ways to leverage this further down the line. We have certain things in place, but we want to get more. We agree it would increase participation, but also to have players strive to become better.
Diziet: What kind of plans do you have for improving PvP participation and ensuring that players are queuing for Arena or RBG? There is the rating inflation, but is there anything else? Something that stands out is that in previous seasons teams have go to that rank 1 spot in the first week and then it has taken the entire season for some other team to even get close just because of how much further ahead they were of everybody else, to the point that in some seasons the teams that got rank 1 in the first week actually ended up walking away with rank 1 titles. Could you talk about the rating inflation and your thoughts behind it?
Brian Holinka: Yea, one of the things that players often do is cry out en-mess when they want something and this has been one of the common things that has been asked for. A lot of times you see players asking for punishment, "fix this bad behavior that I don't like and punish it!!". Rating decay was one thing that came up time and time again, but it's Blizzard design tenant to make everything a bonus as much as possible, as we spoke to the SC2 guys, D3 guys and quite a lot of high rated players and we thought it would feel better to everyone if your rating accurately represented your skill set. Playing during the first week you're going to have one set of gear, however during the final week you're going to have a completely different set of gear and the play style could be completely different. This is where the Arena rating inflation comes in, not only at the high end that we know a lot of AJ are interested in, but also at the low end where they're going to see their rating increase over time and we believe this will help to increase participation by not saying "you are a 1600 player, you will always be at 1600".
Diziet: What other plans do you have on improving PvP?
Brian Holinka: Yea, I think Greg recently brought up what role teams actually play in arena. They can sometimes act as a barrier to prevent people from playing, rather than encouraging and this was never the design intent. There's a good thing about it because you have your team mates, your 'core guys' and you are altogether and pushing for a group goal (rating), so we don't want to lose the idea of the 3 of us are in it together and we're going to push ourselves to aim for a rating or title. On the other hand, it's kind of dumb that if you have 2 guys on-line and you want to play with a 3rd guy that you can't play. So we're looking at what would be the right way to do this, to allow you to participate more in the right way. Then it comes back to rewards, what can we do to really entice people to play RBG and Arena's.
World of Warcraft at the BWC
Vanguards: So what about WoW as an eSport? A lot of us can remember to 2/3 years ago when WoW was big on the scene with MLG, NAO, AJ Tournament, ESL and Blizzard run tournaments. Do you feel WoW PvP has potential for a better esports scene than it does now?
Brian Holinka: I think the biggest problem with PvP in WoW at the moment is the complexity of the classes and specs. Having 34 specs with 34 different spells, that's over 1,100 different spells that the spectator may need to know about. I think the ArenaLive add-on really opened our eyes to where we were going wrong and the areas that we can improve, so props to the guys that put that together. The spell queue is really valuable and has really educated us. It's one of these things that we are constantly evaluating, SC2 is one of the biggest esports in the world, it's just a decision as to whether we want to commit to this and spend a lot of resources on.
Big thanks to Brian & Greg for talking to us about this!