Any discussion about World of Warcraft PvP nowadays inevitably involves Arenas. With the onset of Season 4 and its new rules and requirements, Arena play is getting more intense than ever. Of course, as the competition heats up, the cries of an imbalanced contest grow louder than ever. Blizzard seems to be aware of the issues and have taken some steps in the development of the Wrath of the Lich King to address class and spec viability.
During the panel on "PvP Game Systems", however, lead designers Tom Chilton and Corey Stockton devoted most of their Arena discussion to the new maps rather than the hairy, and probably inconclusive, issue of class balance and representation. The new Arena maps follow Blizzard's philosophy of keeping things simple yet have room for innovation; having dynamic points of interest; having conceptually different starting areas; and leave allowance to make adjustments during development.
The design principles that Blizzard used in designing the new Arenas have been tempered with experience gained from the current maps and how they affect the dynamics of matches. Keeping the map simple is important to keeping matches short. Large, sprawling mazes would have extended matches unnecessarily, so the idea behind the current and new maps is to have players find their opponents quickly, get into battle, and finish it.
The curious thing about the other design principle -- "dynamic points of interest" -- seems counter to the idea of keeping things simple. In previous interviews, Blizzard admitted that map gimmicks such as a random Cyclone that used to spawn in Nagrand Arena about 1 minute into the match, detracted from the fight itself, removing the feature in Patch 2.1. On the other hand, the proposed features in the two new maps of Dalaran and Orgrimmar seem to me very much like gimmicks. Moving objects add more randomness to fights, and even the idea of damaging environments seem counter-intuitive to a balanced eSport map.
Throwing up the starting areas could either be a stroke of genius or a boneheaded move on the part of Blizzard. With only 10 meters separating players at the beginning of a match, a Frost Nova rush seems like an obvious strategy to start the encounter. This immediate proximity might tip the scales in favor of players with AoE snares. Or it could result in an untimely death due to overextension. On the other hand, the mechanic of forcing players -- or spitting them out -- into the Arena was met by cheers from the audience. Anyone who has played Arenas know the annoying instances of turtling in the starting area, particularly in the Ruins of Lordaeron. The concepts were all pretty rough when they showed them, so there're bound to be changes to the maps and how they work before the expansion actually goes live.
When Dalaran flew off to Northrend, it took a chunk of the ground with it. Dalaran Arena is set in the sewer system of Dalaran, with a fairly simple equilateral lay-out and a sewage pipe jutting from the ceiling in the middle. The twist is that the sewage pipe expels a stream of line-of-sight-breaking sludge into grates on the floor at (random?) periodic intervals. There's a raised platform in the center of the room and small, permanent crates where people can stand and hide to abuse LOS. Opposing teams start on opposite sides of the map nested in sewage pipes and getting spewed onto the Arena floor by a stream of... sewage, presumably.
The size of the Arena looks to be small, judging from the presentation, which creates some apprehension for kite-dependent classes such as Hunters and Mages. The dynamic line of sight is an interesting, if questionable, mechanic. It adds more randomness to maps, allowing for strategy, yes, but also introduces a luck factor that might not be welcome in competitive play. The Arena is fairly small, with specific entry points that enable access to the central platform. Although I haven't examined the map in detail, it seems to me like a Line of Sight nightmare, with two separate levels and a random pillar of LOS-breaking sludge in the middle.
There's a curious area in the Valley of Honor called the Ring of Valor, which is an empty arena that players cannot enter -- there's an invisible wall that prevents jumping in. The new Orgrimmar Arena is theoretically this arena, but Blizzard's description of elevators and rising pillars and spikes is a novel concept. Similar to the Dalaran Arena, the Stockton explains that the starting areas will provide a new dynamic to each match by having both teams start very near one another, atop elevators rising from beneath the ground.
The rising pillars will work off a specific timer, signified by moving gears prior to its descent or ascent. A wall of spikes may or may not be tied in to the pillar rotation, and players will be able to get across the obstacle but will take some damage. Chilton explained how this could lead to some interesting choices in strategy, like getting a HoT before moving across the spikes. The rising pillar can create interesting strategies for players who would like to get out of melee range, positioning themselves atop the pillar just as it rises, enabling presumably unmitigated sniping. It is also interesting to note that Orgrimmar Arena is proposed to have NPC spectators who are reactive to the players, cheering bloodthirstily, for example, if a player's health becomes dangerously low.
The new Arena maps are a long ways off. There's no way to tell how much of what was presented will actually make it to the release. However, a quick glance at the maps for me indicate too many random factors to make for a reliable match area. An ideal Arena would be one where the better team will win each time. A map with mobile structures or, worse, deals environmental damage, can create situations of luck. In a balanced map, you try to eliminate randomness as much as you can. On the other hand, Blizzard has admitted to liking a bit of randomness in PvE encounters (e.g. Prince Malchezaar) and perhaps wanted to apply a similar philosophy to Arena PvP.
From what we've seen so far, the new maps employ the very gimmicks that Blizzard felt didn't contribute to the match. It's just as random as a cyclone in the middle of the map. Worse than having a killing blow dodged or resisted is having a pillar pop up to break LOS just as you're about to deliver the strike. With map design like this, it almost feels like Blizzard is taking the fight away from the players and giving the environment a hand in dictating the match. In my mind, an Arena map should be simple (they said that) and allow the most straightforward encounters while still allowing for creative -- and not random -- movement in kiting and counter-kiting.
While the size of the Dalaran map causes concern for some ranged classes at first glance, what struck me was Blizzard's audacity to actually create such a close quarters map. To me, this indicates a possible mindset -- that Blizzard understands the difficulty that some classes, Hunters in particular, have in small format PvP. Instead of fixing the map, however, they will be making changes to the class to allow it to be viable within strict confines. We may yet see it happen, given their close attention and responsiveness to making underrepresented specs more Arena-viable (Dire Cat Form, perhaps?).
The Arena maps are clearly a work in progress, and it's far too soon to make any worthwhile analysis. My fears about the randomness of maps remain, however. LOS issues plague the current maps, but dynamic LOS might not be the right answer. On the other hand, pillars moving up and down and damaging spikes make me a bit nostalgic. To heck with balance. Let's have some fun!
[Ed. note: Check out Zach's analysis of Lake Wintergrasp, the Wrath outdoor PvP zone, as well!]