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Stealth Design Philosophy

Stealth in PvP MMOs has always had a bad rap. Either it’s useless because there’s too many counters, or overpowered because there’s too few. On the one hand, people who would like to play stealth can’t without being the constant underdog, and on the other people have to deal with stealth being overly difficult to deal with.

Part of the blame rests on poor balancing around what stealth can do, and I’m sure that’ll be a post in its own right.

But the part I’m going to address in this post rests on how stealth is implemented by game developers, the overarching philosophy if you will. Each philosophy has its own non-stealthed “counter.”

Avoidance

Avoidance is using stealth to stay out of combat, to stay undetected while being able to observe. For the gamut of single player stealth-based games, this is the prime philosophy driving it all. Single player games go so far as to make you almost useless outside of stealth, your ability to catch enemies unawares the only trick you’ve got.

In PvP, avoidance doesn’t exist in arenas, or closed game modes. It’s only useful in the large, open-world encounters the Crowfall is built entirely of. (It’s also called “Realm vs. Realm” after Dark Age of Camelot’s vaunted implementation of it)

But why is avoidance useful? It doesn’t allow anyone to actually fight. If anything, it makes those hiding in the shadows sitting ducks if an errant fireball smacks them in the face, or a tracker hunts them down.

In the larger war of objective-based PvP, avoidance is the best way to…

  • Scout: assessing enemy strength, movements, victories and defeats against others
  • Sentry: providing a scout of one’s own areas, without revealing to the enemy you’re watching
  • Reposition: If avoidance allows movement within stealth, changing one’s location can catch others unawares
  • Recover: If barely alive, avoidance gives someone time to get their health and resources back without being obvious

The biggest advantage of avoidance as a philosophy is that it doesn’t provide direct combat advantages. You’re either in stealth, or not. Rarely is getting into stealth “fast,” and sometimes getting damaged while phasing in will stop it from happening. Once it drops, you’re stuck.

Because of the general nature of what avoidance enables, anyone, regardless of class or skilling, could potentially use it. Since it doesn’t provide advantages coming out of stealth, it’s also simpler to balance around.

The Counter: Tracking and Detection

Since avoidance is all about not being seen, the counter system is tracking and detecting those in stealth. How this is implemented has varied quite a bit in stealth history. For example, random die rolls against a stealth skill level, stealth level vs. detection level, etc.

The common element to tracking has been a secondary skill set specific to finding not just stealthed players, but visible ones as well. (Side note, this also makes trackers excellent scouts and sentries) Trackers don’t just get a line of sight “free reveal” on stealthed players, but have to track them down and get close.

This creates a fun cat and mouse game of trackers seeking stealthed players, and stealthed players having to be on the lookout for trackers on the hunt. Trackers have the advantage of movement and blending in with the crowd, while stealthed players have the advantage of being invisible, their precise location unknown until the moment of discovery.

First Strike

First strike is the backstab, that one gigantic burst of damage that is then followed up by comparatively pathetic damage numbers. Whether it’s an actual backstab, or simply a major boost to the first attack on leaving stealth doesn’t matter.

Most stealth implementations in PvP MMOs have been first strike-based, with most of the outcry being in a stealther’s ability to instagib someone with no way to counter. Frankly, that’s a balancing problem, and in no way means that first strike is a bad philosophy to implement.

In its own way, first strike forces a stealth player to utilize stealth to close the distance, line up the strike, and execute, especially if damage outside of stealth is terrible. If a stealth player doesn’t use first strike, they’re at an inherent disadvantage against someone who’s unstealthed and suffers no handicap in their damage output.

Just like avoidance, first strike must make it difficult to re-stealth, especially if taking damage. For the advantage of utter surprise, a stealth player must make that shot count, or in a fight they’re hosed.

The Counter: Inherent Disadvantage

I already went over this in the previous section, but the best counter to first strike is to gimp all other damage output that isn’t the first strike. This can either be a timed debuff triggered by the first strike, or non-empowered skills simply being that crummy.

With a debuff, potentially all classes could use first strike, though that could create its own balancing problems. Imagine a fully-loaded confessor given all the time to drop a nuke on a group…undetected.

With non-empowered skills, it requires specific classes built specifically around stealth and first strike. This could be the case for specialist classes like duelist, ranger, and assassin, where a prime part of their identity is stealth. The reverse on this is that these classes have to be played stealth, or they suck.

Just like avoidance vs. tracking, first strike vs. inherent disadvantage creates a cat and mouse game against unstealthed players. Can the stealthed player land the blow in time? Can they survive after their first hit is exhausted and their target still has health remaining? Can the unstealthed player predict the blow and dodge out of it? Can they use a tracker to know someone is coming and drop AoE on top of them? Can they recover from the strike and doom the sneaky assassin to the grave?

Combat Manipulation

Combat manipulation is jumping in and out of stealth in the middle of a fight, using the shadows as a repositioning tool and making it hard to predict the next move. While most well known in Guild Wars 2, combat manipulation stealth traces its roots to D&D and other pencil-and-paper RPGs.

Because of the unpredictability of being “anywhere” while stealthed, the thief in Guild Wars 2 was a glass cannon. For being able to reposition without detection, it paid for it in being really easy to kill.

The core problem of combat manipulation is that it created a skill floor/skill ceiling dichotomy. Bad thieves just died, because they couldn’t use their skills to advantage compared to someone else just laying down the AoE pain. Good thieves were untouchable monsters that out-rotated and out-positioned everyone. Somewhere in between was the cat and mouse game one would expect from stealth.

Combat manipulation’s biggest enemy is how impossible it is to truly balance. Balance around the very best players of a class built on it, and anyone of lower skill is crippled. Balance around the middle, and every other class is now crippled against the stealther. Limit stealth use too much, and it might as well not be a stealth class.

The Counter: None Exists…Yet

While combat manipulation sounds cool on its face, and could be a cat and mouse game, the variance between extremely skilled, fast-pace play of the class and just starting out newcomers is too great, and balancing around the top 1% of a player base has rarely resulted in a thriving meta. Either unstealthed players are laughing their way to the kill bank, or pulling their hair out at how much they can’t do.

There’s possibly a way to craft in-combat stealth to be more balanced, to have more “windows of opportunity” for unstealthed players to gain an advantage, but it will take a lot of work. With the plethora of other classes needing synergy, play, and counterplay, Crowfall should not be the game that tries to “fix” the problems that have assailed manipulation in the past.

More Philosophies?

While I’ve overviewed three popular philosophies of stealth, I’m sure there are others. Tell me in the comments, and I’ll look at adding it in.

Tacktix

Tacktix, also known as D. Emery Bunn, is an author, engineer, and erstwhile game critic and theorist.

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