16 September, 2015
I’ve worked on a number of competitive Player vs. Player (PvP) games. Meridian 59 is notorious as a hard-core PvP game that had passionate fans. To be honest, I found the PvE aspects of the game to be very lackluster, but the PvP fights? Intense and unforgettable. What makes a competitive game so much more interesting?
Competition as dynamic gameplay
Some people will say that competition makes for more interesting gameplay automatically. Fighting against other players gives you a thrill that fighting against even the most challenging AI-controlled monster can’t match. People will say that the unpredictability of how a player will react is more interesting. (On the other hand, I think it’s also important to realize that for some people, the predictability of monster AI in combat is exactly what they want.)
I can certainly understand this. In PvE content, I prefer content where strategy and reacting to changing events is important. For example, in Final Fantasy XIV I often play a summoner, which gets an in-combat resurrection spell. I like having the option to react to a bad situation (such as the healer or tank dying) and be able to save the day. But it’s not something you really plan on, in fact for a really good group you might plan on NOT using that ability because people won’t die.
In a PvP game, you want the game to be dynamic. Let players interact in meaningful ways. Let one side set up an ambush, the other side avoid an ambush, and generally let play happen in ways that may not be anticipated. The more opportunity for non-standard encounters, the better.
The other important thing is to give the player information. A battle where the player feels that they have no meaningful influence on the outcome is frustrating. A good PvPer wants to feel clever about reading the signs, anticipating their opponent, and outplaying that opponent. Giving good information and ways to gather that information is important.
Competition as control
Bartle’s definition of a Killer archetype, usually identified as the primary PvP motivation, is someone who wants to act upon other players. The goal was to dominate others, or at least exert a measure of control. Defeating another player is the ultimate in being in control of the situation. In traditional sports, we often look at people who are in control of the direction of the game as people most likely to win. A competitor who has an advantage and who can control the flow of the game is often the one who will conquer the opponent.
Taken to extreme this Killer’s desire to control can come across as griefing behavior, where one person harasses another in ways that go beyond the scope of the game. This is another form of control, sometimes used when the gameplay doesn’t allow direct control via combat or other forms of gameplay. If you don’t provide a gameplay system for people to compete and gain control over others, players will take control for themselves.
In a PvP game, you want to give players a feeling of control, but not so much control that the game loses the dynamic feel. The trick is that you want to give it to both sides equally. Letting one player dominate another makes one person happy, but will discourage the other. But, this control doesn’t have to be symmetric. For example, a good cat-and-mouse chase can be interesting for both involved, particularly if there’s a reason for the mouse to delay the cat to let others accomplish some goal. In most competitions, you want the loser to feel that their loss was something they had a hand in, where they could improve their play and come back better next time.
It’s interesting to contrast the Killer motivation with Achievers, who want to act upon the game world. Since the game world is ultimately controlled by the developers, the Achiever can’t control the world, rather most demonstrate mastery of the world for others to appreciate. The Achiever wants other players as audience rather than as targets.
Competition as action and reaction
The most interesting competitive games are the ones where there is a lot of interaction. Take poker as an example; just flipping up cards to see what hands people randomly get is not as interesting as when the cards are hidden and people make bets. The popularity of of the Texas Hold ‘Em variation of poker most likely comes from the fact that there’s a lot of interaction; the community cards are shared by everyone, and gives people information in which to judge the value of other people’s hands.
The old chestnut about gameplay being a series of interesting decisions is important here. How you act, how your opponent reacts, and how you react to that reaction is important. Playing many steps ahead should be a vital element for obtaining victory.
Just like the feeling of control, you want actions and reactions to be shared on all sides. The most frustrating thing is when something happens that you can’t prevent and can’t react to. A classic example is the “stunlock”, particularly by rogue characters that lock down an opponent right out of stealth. It can be a fun thrill for the rogue even if there is a lot of skill involved, but it’s frustrating to the target because they have no chance to react.
When a reaction is a hard choice, this is what makes for interesting gameplay. In Meridian 59, there was a spell called Killing Fields that increased damage of everyone in the area. If an enemy group cast this, you could let it stand and hope that your group benefits from it at least as much. Or, you could spend resources to remove it; this might be important if you have more spellcasters than melee fighters. The goal is to provoke your enemy to react in a way that they think makes them stronger, but in a way that actually makes them weaker.
Another example of provoking a reaction is a feint. For example, maybe you cast a particular spell that has a well-known counter. Your goal might be to only cast the spell once and provoke your opponents into using the counter instead of focusing on offense, giving you an advantage. The goal is to make your opponent waste limited resources (time, spell reagents, etc.) preparing for an attack that isn’t coming.
Note that this is not quite the same as ‘rock, paper, scissors’ type balance. When you’re the paper class, there’s not much you can do against a scissors class except to bring along some rock class. It’s more interesting when the individual players have the tools to react to opponents.
Getting the balance right
The biggest player fear in PvP MMOs is the “I win” button. The one ability or action that makes the ending a foregone conclusion. Of course, making the player feel powerful is a significant goal in many PvE games, but in PvP you want to have that power counterbalanced by another. Making an ability that makes players cackle with glee when used is all well and good, but if the target of that ability feels helpless, then the victim’s rage might be greater than the attacker’s glee. In the end, the frustrated player is likely to leave, and the other player loses an opponent who makes the game interesting.
The “I win” button makes things too predictable. Again, many PvP fans are looking for a bit of chaos in their games, rather than the synchronized dance of a raid execution. But, that doesn’t mean they want to feel helpless in a sea of chaos.
The “I win” button will take control away from a player. The infinite stun combo makes the player who couldn’t possibly anticipate it frustrated by the game removing control, and removing any ability to react meaningfully. They can’t make a right or wrong decision, only watch as they get obliterated.
These are the issues I keep in mind as I design competitive games.