With the arrival of World of Warcraft patch 1.5 in June, players got their first taste of game's PvP Battlegrounds; a major feature that was noticeably absent when WoW was released in late 2004. Battlegrounds are instanced play areas that allow Alliance and Horde to fight it out in a relatively balanced contest. They are essentially games within the game, complete with their own objectives, quests, NPCs, and so on. Here's a look at how the first 2 Battlegrounds play out, and a glimpse at what the future has in store.
The Dreaded Queue
Obviously, it would defeat the purpose of Battlegrounds to start them without a certain number of players on each side, so a queue system is used to organize matches. You join the queue by going into the Battleground entrance or by talking to a Battlemaster in one of cities. When there are enough players, a Battleground instance will begin, and you can go about other business in the world while you're sitting in the queue.
Unfortunately, in practice, there are a few bumps on this road. Because the initial enthusiasm with which BGs were received by the player base has cooled off a little, the wait to get into a match is sometimes a very long one. You are presented with an estimated wait time, but it can be off by hours, so it isn't much help. Contributing to this issue is that there is clearly a significant faction imbalance on many servers. Typically there seem to be enough Alliance waiting to start several instances, but only enough Horde around for 1 or 2.
Ideally, the queue would have an interface more like a lobby, where you could see who was waiting on both sides, just to give you some clue what was going on. There is talk of finding a way to let Battlegrounds accept players from different servers, which might help alleviate some of the problems.
Warsong Gulch is a fast-paced 10 on 10 capture-the-flag scenario. The objective is to get into the enemy's base, steal their flag, and bring it back to your flag. The winner is the first team to score 3 flag captures. This is a common type of gameplay many gamers are familiar with from multiplayer shooters.
Looting a corpse grants you a little coin and prevents the dead player from being resurrected or revived on the spot. Dead players must then respawn in the graveyard, where a Spirit Guide brings players back to life at set intervals.
Each Warsong Gulch instance has a level range, so you don't have to struggle against characters that are double your level. Depending on your own level, you'll be fighting with players of level 21-30, 31-40, 41-50, or 51-60. There have been calls to restrict 60s to their own Warsong Gulch Battlegrounds, as they tend to be far more well-equipped than characters in their 50s. It's a good idea, with the only potential drawback being that it might make the wait longer for high level players.
Any doubts I had about whether this concept was viable in an RPG were put to rest quickly enough. Following the flag carrier across the field as one team furiously casts roots and stuns, while the other team is healing and buffing the same player to beat hell, is so much fun it's sick. The latency is minimal with only 20 players, and as long as both sides have a full team, you can expect a somewhat balanced contest. It usually takes 40 minutes to an hour to resolve, which makes it a great way to get a bit of PvP into a short game session.
Things can get ugly when you find your team outnumbered by 2 or 3 players, and there is no way to guarantee that characters on the 2 teams will have the same average level. Nevertheless, the group play makes up for some of the class imbalances in the game, and it's a welcome change from the ganking, dueling, and zerg raids that dominated PvP before Battlegrounds.