20 February, 2007
Scott has an article on PvP over on his site where he talks about PvP in terms of “gang warfare”. An interesting topic where he pulls examples from multiple games.
Yeah, it’s a PvP article, so I have to respond. Don’t I?
The inspiration for Scott’s post was a PvP topic over on the lovably gothy f13 boards. The main thrust seems to be the fact that PvP either involves one group going after another, or one person going after another. Scott seems to interpret that people want something more, so he goes digging through previous games to evaluate how they do PvP and seeing what worked and what didn’t.
It’s interesting to note that most people in the original thread don’t seem to be too optimistic. Most people seem to take it for granted that gang warfare is the default mode for PvP. As the poster “lamaros” wrote, “What else can PvP be? This topic is silly.”
It’s interesting that Scott doesn’t mention what more it could be directly. In the past people talked about having an epic PvP encounter, something that would feel like a real war instead of a petty gang battle. Hundreds of people lined up across a battlefield, ready to charge at an instant’s notice. Watching the big battle from Braveheart gives you a good idea of what people had talked about in the past.
Of course, the problems here are twofold. The first problem is technology: a huge battle involving a few hundred people tends to make all the software involved cry in pain. Servers grind to a halt trying to manage all the calculations between the players while clients grind to a slideshow trying to show all the units and the pretty sparkly effects. The second problem is, as the name of Scott’s blog reminds us, people are broken.
And, the people are the core of the problem. Even if you had the hundreds of people lining up for a grand battle, the stealthers would sneak into enemy camps to one-shot sitting enemy casters then sneak away after re-stealthing. Hackers would teleport into the middle of the enemy camp and lay waste, probably remaining unscathed due to a speedhack cheat that makes them unbeatable. And the healers would sit around feeling useless since fights either don’t last long enough or drain mana so fast they become easy prey. And, of course, the global chat would be filled with people trying to figure out who has the “gayest mom” (thank you, Barrens chat, for that lovely phrase).
Scott points out that the more recent, successful PvP games have taken a step to remove this. DAoC removed communication between opposing realms, just as WoW has done. This eliminated the trash talking that become a routine part of the open PvP experience. Unfortunately, I think this also hinders the real possibility of PvP becoming anything more than gangs beating on each other. After all, what really separates a large war from a small-time gang fight? Politics. And without meaningful communication, politics falls flat.
(This isn’t to say that people didn’t communicate in these games. Scott points out that people communicate just fine after the fact on bulletin boards. And, while I was playing, there was a protocol for two sides getting together to farm realm points by engaging in a series of emotes. Fun times, fun times.)
Further, not every play experience is the same. For example, back when I played DAoC back in the olden days, we never went after relics. Most of our RvR activity was lining up near Emain Macha and standing just outside the FIREY DEATH RANGE of the NPC guards near the enemy strongholds. We’d taunt each other, trying to lure people just close enough to get a kill before the NPCs obliterated us. I’ve heard that a greater focus on relic raids later really helped change the nature of the game, but in the early days you really didn’t see much that was amazingly different than what you found in other games. It only required different tactics to avoid the safety measures intended to keep things from becoming a one-sided gankfest.
Perhaps it’ll be interesting to take a look at Meridian 59, a game that Scott doesn’t mention. Most people that enjoyed M59′s PvP assert it is one of the best systems (of course, this is not a unique claim among PvP fans, they tend to like a certain game enthusiastically). In the beginning, the game was open, unrestrained PvP. The developers learned quickly this was not a good idea, so they introduced protections for newbies and status to try to separate out the gankers from the decent folk. There was also a scenario that allowed people to focus their efforts into supporting specific political factions (organized nation states, if you will). Of course, the grudge kill was still the most popular activity.
Later we added more features to enhance the consensual nature of PvP: mutual guild wars, faction shield (a type of PvP switch with rewards), even a streamlining of the political faction rules. But, these systems proved not to be terribly popular with the players. They complained at the perceived increased punishment for murderers (those that have killed other innocents), indicating the popularity of the grudge fights. People avoided the consensual PvP scenarios because it was too dangerous to be a fair target, it was better to kill your target when the opportunity presented itself rather than face a “fair fight”.
And, I think this is another one of the main obstacles for having PvP that doesn’t feel like gang warfare. In our achiever-focused games, the goal is to gain every advantage possible before you engage an enemy. Gameplay aspects like having a higher level, jumping a weakened enemy, or using the latest BS power (scheduled to be nerfed in an upcoming patch once everyone starts using it) are routine. So, you won’t get Braveheart, you get the alternate scenario I outlined above.
Another interesting consequence of the M59 PvP system is that it heavily encouraged betrayal. I think this is one of the most disastrous effects of the game, because betrayal hits hard. Some people really hate betrayal (it’s one of the few things I’ll hold a grudge about in the offline world), and it still stings even if it is entirely in an online world. Some people accepted as part of the game, but other people stopped trusting new players, disrupting the social fabric which welcomed new players into the game. For some people, every new face was just another person that could betray them and their friends, so they were shunned. I saw a number of people quit the game due to the unfortunate choosing of a name that was too much like a rival’s name.
A friend of mine also mentioned the issue of the sting of death and how that affects PvP. Early games such as UO and M59 had pretty harsh penalties: losing your inventory and usually losing some statistics. The trend more recently has been to reduce death penalties as much as possible. The harsh death penalties of earlier games made the battles meaningful: winning or losing had grave consequences for your ability to play the game in many cases. Of course, this has a darker side, where it was easy for a character to get ruined after a string of bad luck or good enemies. It’s easier to manage PvP in a game like WoW, but the battles quickly become meaningless. Resurrecting and jumping back into the fray around Tarren Mill was mindless fun, but it dried up as soon as there were more structured PvP events with real rewards to earn.
So, focusing on the challenge Scott issues at the bottom, how can we change from ganking to something more sophisticated?
The simple answer is: something has to change. Unfortunately, not all changes are equally good.
I think one of the best changes would be to have people that aren’t completely self-absorbed and willing to do just about anything to win. The afternoon game of hoop is more fun than the game that decides your career in athletics. Of course, expecting your audience to change is just asking for crying.
I think that more structured PvP elements are more successful than unstructured elements. The different battlegrounds in WoW had significant popularity, at least when they were first released. I think that channeling the urge to destroy your opponents and rewarding the scenario is probably the best we can hope for. But, for most of the hard-core PvP fans, this isn’t enough. Unfortunately for the hard-core fans, their preferred style of gameplay tends to be less profitable.
I also think that, as designers, we need to take a look at what is rewarded in PvP scenarios. Sometimes people just want to win because they want the prize dangled before them. But, if we don’t reward the behavior, then you will not get as much beneficial participation. You’ll get griefers out there killing people just to hear the virtual screams. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do to discourage this behavior beyond putting layers upon layers of restrictions; and, in the end, this just makes the system more complicated and easier for someone to exploit. Blue healers, anyone?
What is your thoughts on PvP? Is it doomed to be gang warfare, or can we design more sophisticated systems?