Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pressure vs spike

Pressure and spike are the Yin and the Yang of the best tactical PvP games. They are two opposing tactics in gameplay, working with and against each other. Knowing when to use one or the other and when to switch is the hallmark of a good player, and having such decisions as a natural part of a game is the hallmark of a clever PvP design.

What do these concepts mean?

Pressure: Literally, putting pressure on the opposing team. You probably won't win/score directly by applying pressure, but you will decrease their margin for error. This sets you up to be able to...

Spike: A co-ordinated effort to win/score.

I'll use Left 4 Dead as a nice example. The Infected team must continually harass the Survivors (pressure), and eventually must co-ordinate an assault to really lay the hurt on the Survivors and hopefully incapacitate someone (spike).

Now consider this - the higher the life totals of the Survivors, the less likely that a given spike will be successful. Hence the need to pressure the Survivors down - you need to take action that may not immediately secure your victory, but will instead enable you to achieve a spike in the future that will.

For example, imagine you are faced with attacking a target with low health or a target with high health, who are both separated a little from the group. This will happen roughly a bajillion times per match. If you attack the high health target, you reduce his health lower which increases the chances of a future spike incapacitating him and hence achieving the ever-juicy team wipe. If you attack the low health target, you may incapacitate him right now (taking him out of the equation), but if your team-mates aren't around and ready to take advantage of the situation, he will just be helped back up and healed. Plus, he was probably going to get healed soon anyway (his health was low).

So, you need to pressure to be able to spike, and you need to spike to avoid all your pressure being invalidated. The Yin, and the Yang.

Another example of a game that revolves around this concept is Guild Wars. The preferred build of the top guilds is the so-called "balanced" build. Warriors will chase squishy targets around and hit them to build their spiking skills, Mesmers will attempt to lock out key skills to facilitate damage, Monks will protect targets that look like they may be subject to a future spike, Rangers will spread debilitating conditions and DoT effects, etc. Soon, everyone's health and energy starts to get a little low (pressure). The lower a player's health, the less the margin of error that the Monks (healer characters) have in order to save them when the inevitable spike occurs.

The beauty of Guild Wars is that the more you are pressuring the other team, the more disruptive you are to them, and so the less their ability to spike you. In this way the best defense can be a good offense. But, if you pressure them too aggressively, you may find yourself overextending or not having enough energy to overcome the enemy's next spike. It's always a trade-off, this Yin and Yang of competitive PvP.

This idea applies to sporting games and I suspect pretty much any endeavour that pits two or more human competitors against each other.


mbp said...

Nicely explained Melf. Sometimes in GW you come across a team that is described as a "Pressure Build" and I have often wondered how that was supposed to work because pressure on its own doesn't yield victories. Having read your piece and thought about it I assume that a "pressure build" still uses some kind of spike at the end to finish opponents off.

Tesh said...

Mmm... volleyball.

Wait, we're talking PvP in MMOs? Oops.

Crimson Starfire said...

That's a really good explanation of pressure vs spike, but I think it would be difficult to truly understand unless you've actually played Guild Wars GvG or Hall of Heroes. I do believe that pressure/spike builds are the heart of Guild Wars PvP. You just won't find them in any other MMO.

Ahhh, I still remember my first Ranger Spike group in Hall of Heroes... I learnt two valuable lessons that day:
1. Continuous co-ordinated spike attacks = win
2. There is a reason why you don't join a PUG group in Halls.

Melf_Himself said...

Yep, "pressure builds" will use spikes to finish people off mbp. For example back in the day people used to run Thumpers (rangers with hammers and pets) on particular maps because it was difficult for the other team to tactically manoeuvre on those maps. The Thumpers were able to output so much pressure that it was very easy to spike people down.

I think that's part of why they call the "balanced" build balanced... it features a healthy combination of the two modes. Whenever a build comes along that requires mostly "pressure" or mostly "spike", if that build is beating the top guilds who are playing the "balanced" builds, the new build will probably be nerfed.

Of course, it's also called "balanced" because it features a variety of skills and classes and so has lots of tactical options available at any one time.

You know what, volleyball is a pretty good example too Tesh... create opening, create opening, create opening -> spike (or, possibly, continue attempting to create openings for too long, and then getting spiked yourself).

I think people can pretty much appreciate the concept from (eg sports) games in general Crimson. Though you're right, thinking about other MMO's, they really don't have that dynamic. I think that's part of the reason I could never become interested in their PvP.

Yet another reason why I heartily recommend that anyone interested in MMO's and game design should definitely take a several months long detour through Guild Wars.

Tesh said...

Heh, I can be too oblique at times.

Yes, I think that the tactics of volleyball lend themselves well to the sort of "jockey a bit with pressure, hammer it home with a spike" ethos. It's even defensively relevant; if your spike is either blocked (timely protection) or dug (well-timed heal), its impact is significantly blunted, and indeed, may have overextended your offense to the point where a quick rebuttal can be devastating. (Yes, I love volleyball.)

I think such is the nature of pretty much any good PvP design. You could extend the metaphor to boxing, martial arts, even chess. Pressure the opponent (or the opposing team) until they slip up a bit (or you find the weak link), then hammer home the advantage with a well-timed and well-placed spike. Sometimes a single masterstroke is all that's needed, say in a Musashi duel, sometimes repeated strikes are necessary. Either way, the pressure/spike concept is the backbone of PvP offense.

...if we're not seeing this sort of PvP design in other games, perhaps something is wrong with their design?

Melf_Himself said...

"...if we're not seeing this sort of PvP design in other games, perhaps something is wrong with their design?"

Amen to that... welcome to the world of (most) MMO PvP.