Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

4 March, 2009

The problem with PvP (spoiler: it’s the community)
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:35 AM

Over at the official Darkfall blog… wait, I meant Scott Jennings’ site (easy mistake to make these days), he’s been sounding off about the problems surrounding the game’s launch.

If you’ve been living in a cave and don’t know what Darkfall is, it’s the new heir apparent to the MMO PvP throne. That is, if the game can stay online long enough to actually get played. That’s right, once again, it seems like we’re going to get a game that’s full of technical problems that won’t let the design flaws shine through. Although that sounds completely snarky, there’s a kernel of truth in it: I’d love to see a game make some honest mistakes that we could honestly critique, instead of everyone having to look back a decade and talk about Ultima Online or Meridian 59 when we talk about PvP-focused games.

But, the problem is that PvP games suffer from a lot of deeper issues beyond technical instability and insane design decisions. The core problem with these games, in two words: the community.

First, I have to admit some feelings of schadenfreude while reading the stories on Scott’s site, the same feeling I felt while reading initial Shadowbane stories. When someone makes big noises about coming into your niche and “showing those idiots how it’s done!” it’s nice to see them get a little (or really huge) dose of humility. It’s not like they couldn’t have found someone with some experience to point out some pitfalls they were going to run into. Of course, even if they do, that’s no guarantee that individuals can somehow stop a train wreck in progress. The first step is admitting you have a problem; few people take that first step.

It’s the community, stupid!

By this, I don’t mean that the PvP community is simply full of sociopaths and misanthropes; some of the friendliest people I’ve met online I met in Meridian 59. Of course, you have the sociopaths and misanthropes represented in PvP games. The primary, unfortunate truth is that people are fuckwads online. But, it’s not who makes up the community, but who ends up influencing the community. Let’s take a look at the role the fuckwads are allowed in different games.

In most PvE-focused games, there have been many steps taken to insulate the masses from the real obnoxious people. Ignore lists, instancing, harassment reporting tools, etc. The most influential people are either Socializers who make a lot of connections, or Achievers (or occasionally Explorers) who know how to play the game most effectively. But, with games becoming more solo-friendly, the social fabric has become less important to the game, so the effect of the more influential people is diminished. It’s possible to get online and play the game with your friends and never have to deal with a guild leader shouting “FIFTY DKP MINUS!” at you in voice chat on the newer games.

But, now take a look at PvP games. The most influential people tend to be people who are the most adept at playing the game and those who have the burning desire to dominate the game. It’s no secret that these players aren’t always the nicest people on the game. These are usually the people willing to go to just about any lengths, even stooping to cheating, in order to win. Frankly, these people are toxic to your game.

Protecting players from others (and themselves)

Now let’s look at the systems we put in place in PvP games to insulate the decent people from the assholes: oh, that’s right, it’s usually NONE. Why? Because PvP games are about contests between the players. Interfering with the contests by putting in rules to hold back the assholes is counter to the spirit of the game. Unfortunately, even the good people don’t want you to interfere with the game because it goes counter to the spirit of the game. By the time the players want the admins to step in, they’ve either gotten desperate or are trying to play a metagame of “get the admins to favor us against our enemies”.

Of course, you often don’t want to put in a lot of tools for people to use, because the same tools that the “good” players can use to punish the bad are the ones that the bad ones can use to punish anyone they want. Direct interference is generally a no-no, because that smacks of favoritism, which nobody in a PvP game likes. As soon as it appears that an administrator has taken a liking to someone, the speculation flies about who has been getting administrator help; it becomes the new favorite game after “guess who is using a hack program to win supposedly impossible battles?”

Let me give an example. Two good friends of mine, a husband and wife, started playing Meridian 59. They had an interest in game development through text MUDs, and they were interested in my game. They had really started to enjoy the game and take to it. Then one day, one of their guild mates betrayed them and made them lose their guild hall. Not only did they lose prestige, but they also lost a lot of stored items. It was a devastating loss that eventually meant the end of their guild and them leaving the game. They were upset at me about the fact that they were betrayed.

It was a tough position for me to be in. The same thing that makes for fascinating reading above EVE turns into uncomfortable discussions when you’ve been invited over for dinner. It was hard to both sympathize with them while trying to defend that there wasn’t really anything fundamentally wrong with the system: they had chosen who to promote in their guild and give power to, and that turned out to be an error in judgment. The game provided tools for them to limit the damage people could do. I believe they understood the risks, but that doesn’t mean they liked it when the negative aspects hit them full force. In a PvE game, if they had wiped too many times in a raid situation, the proper response isn’t for the admins to help but for them to learn from their mistakes and do better next time. In the end, they stopped playing M59 and the game was poorer for it.

The expensive learning curve

The problem is, of course, that mistakes can be costly in a PvP game. PvE games have had a trend of working to reduce the negative impact of mistakes. In the original EQ, inviting an incompetent raider along meant that there was a chance you might lose all your equipment if you couldn’t get your corpse back from a wipe. Inviting an idiot along in WoW raids means that you don’t invite the idiot back next week, unless you really, really need to fill that last slot. PvP games seem to solidly embrace the opposite approach, where you win big or lose big in a competition.

Of course, this is what the most vocal people claim they want in these games. Once again, we come to the Catch-22 of giving the players what they want and having the game fail, or ignoring the players and having them complain and potentially leave. The players say want the opportunity to win big, which means they also have to have the chance to lose it all if they are fighting against other players. This ties back into the issue people often mention that players fantasize that they’ll always be on top, winning all the battles and getting all the great rewards. They never want to think about the times when they’re the underdog, coming back naked after being completely looted and having nothing left in the vaults to fall back on. So, it’s not just a matter of making the mistakes less costly.

Even if you have good people who can stomach a few (major) setbacks and still play the game, it becomes a question of endurance at that point. If you’re struggling to keep some asshole from ruining the game, it can start to really feel like a chore. The asshole, on the other hand, knows that if he keeps at it he’ll eventually wear the other person down. It’s really hard to be the moral stronghold others look to, and when you’re paying for a game and just want to have fun, you start to consider why you’re paying your monthly subscription fee for this thankless task.

Are we really doomed?

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to create a good community in a PvP game, just that the cards are stacked against you, especially if you’re a small indie type company. Meridian 59 had a strong server back in the 3DO days where they let a guild of trusted people get established before others came along. That guild was strong and was able to keep the server fairly well regulated. But, that was as much luck as planning, because the guild could have gotten bored or burnt out and fallen apart and left a power vacuum on the server. I know, because that’s what I tried to do on our servers during the early days.

EVE Online also seems to have a strong community despite a PvP focus. I suspect that initial unfavorable reports (lol @ playing a spreadsheet!) made the game unappealing to the typical PvP crowd. Once the spreadsheet fans were established and started playing around with PvP, and as the game improved over the years, the audience started to expand. However, I’m not sure the game appeals to the hardcore PvPer that are flocking to Darkfall today.

In the end, the technical and game design problems don’t really matter much to a PvP game, even though that’s what people focus on. They’ll make mistakes that “this game didn’t do it right” or “didn’t focus on the important things”. Yet, the issue remains that the core problem is one with the community, and that isn’t something you can change by making a better game design. It’s something that MMO developers are not all that good at. And, even if you are good, you’re still relying on other people and hoping they don’t fail you. Just like with security issues, the weakest links here seem to involve the human element.

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  1. Interesting. Was referred here from Broken Toys.

    “Yet, the issue remains that the core problem is one with the community, and that isn’t something you can change by making a better game design. It’s something that MMO developers are not all that good at. And, even if you are good, you’re still relying on other people and hoping they don’t fail you. Just like with security issues, the weakest links here seem to involve the human element.”
    This has been my exact point for a very long time.
    But the Community is NOT (primarily) part of the game design {Although you can make a game that will attract certain types of people and influence the way they play}

    MMO communities form well before the game releases – on forums.
    So good Community management there will pay off in the long term.

    If you allow your community (pre-release) to be dominated by a bunch of foul mouthed, flaming, trash talking fuckwads (even if they are Fanbois too) then can you really be surprised when your game community (post release) is dominated by the very same people?
    And post release, in-game, do you think fuckwads are the type of player who will play the game ‘in the spirit intended’?

    Comment by gyrus — 4 March, 2009 @ 6:17 AM

  2. Correct.

    In fact I said as much this time last year. Not that I’m claiming firsties on this piercing insight or anything mind you.

    Comment by IainC — 4 March, 2009 @ 6:27 AM

  3. Yes, and thank you. Great read.

    I wish more people would just admit that the really loud and really persistent players are always the ones that get the most attention. To me, raiders and pvp’ers share that trait.

    Oh well, I wish new games well, but if they are being developed for years and years and still come out buggy, then that is no ones fault but the game.


    Comment by Beau — 4 March, 2009 @ 6:51 AM

  4. Great article, and thanks for the food for thought. As an aside, I have a couple of friends I met in my Asheron’s Call days who used to reminisce very fondly (and still do) about Meridian 59. ;)

    Comment by Ysharros — 4 March, 2009 @ 7:41 AM

  5. I completely agree, after being there at release with Shadowbane and EvE I think you hit the mark on a couple of points but most important in my eyes, that gamers have no idea what they want. As a game developer I can only imagine this has to be the most frustrating aspect of mmorpg design.

    There are a ton gamers who believe themselves to be more hardcore than they really are (the “Morded Effect”), and I think this screws around with the community preception skew. It seems like the community wants, what in the long run, they won’t enjoy. I believe EvE only works for your “spreadsheet” reason, and the fact that true pvp happens so few and far between that loses can quickly be recouped if played correctly. The same idea of “diversifying your assists to limit risk” model doesn’t work as well in a non space mmorpg like DF though.

    One of the most interesting pvp experiences (even more so than DAoC, there I said it ><) I’ve had was actually in Lineage 2. They have a wonderful system of true risk versus reward, with consequences dished out on a global, more abstract scale. You imagine WoW where each zone can be controlled by a guild which collects a tax each mob, quest, or even dungeon located in that zone? Guilds would battle each other constantly for certain zone dominance, while other zones would be around to allow smaller guilds room to grow.

    While not the same as L2, it is an example of a type of balance that could be struck n future games to make pvp meaningful (which gamers are really asking for) yet inconsequential enough to do it repeatably over long periods of time. The idea of miimzing personal conquence and instead flitering it out to the community would reduce frustration which, in my oppinion, is the major cause of poor pvp communities.

    I guess in that respect I believe bad communities can be designed around, though overall great post!.


    Comment by D^t — 4 March, 2009 @ 9:33 AM

  6. Excellent post. People play games in order to get joy. PvE is fine because it isn’t a zero-sum game. The computer does not get frustrated when the dungeon raid succeeds. PvP however, is going to have losers who get little or no joy. And then of course there is the problem of PvP attracting Bartle-Type Killers, who tend not to be good sports, to put it mildly.

    What to do? I’m curious about Lineage 2 now…

    It seems like another possible course of action is to reduce the importance of persistent/accumulated ‘wealth’ in-game, while not lowering the literal stakes of PvP itself. For example, if the game resets every week, nobody is going to be too upset if they lost everything in a questionable interaction on Thursday. Maybe some state resets (score, equipment) and some doesn’t (level, titles). Everyone can see who the best players are, but people don’t ever feel like they’ve ‘lost everything’, and everyone gets the thrill of winning at least once in a while. Warcraft/Starcraft Ladder play is maybe a good example of this, although not really an MMO.

    Comment by Bret — 4 March, 2009 @ 10:06 AM

  7. Neat article.

    I do have to wonder why it is that losers of PvP in an MMO game don’t get to have fun, when they do get to have fun when losing in every other type of game out there. I mean, you don’t win every round of TF2, but you still have fun regardless of the outcome of the match. Why is it any different on the MMO scale?

    I suppose it could be the persistant nature of MMORPGs that make the loss sting longer and harder than in TF2 where the game resets every round. But I have a feeling it has more to do with the nature of the people who play MMO games compared to people who play other competitive multiplayer games. I think that non-MMO multiplayer gamers tend to embrace a spirit of healthy competition (as the games themselves are made that way), and being a good sport is a part of that. MMO players, frankly, not so much. In MMOs competition isn’t explicitly part of the game, so when someone kills you he must be a jerkface instead of a competitor that you say “good game” to after you fight.

    Or maybe I’m wrong. I’m probably wrong.

    Comment by Handshakes — 4 March, 2009 @ 1:22 PM

  8. The core problem with establishing balance is the level of commitment required on each side of the fence in PvP. This was always my problem in M59 and while I persisted with it back in the 3do days I could understand exactly why so many others did not.

    The PK level of commitment is tiny. You log on, you run about, find a victim and PK them. Its a fast action event. This is both by design – its a simple action – and by necessity – you want to get your kicks n giggles before you are spotted and closed out by Hunters.

    On the other hand the Hunter’s level of commitment is vast. You need to be vigilant constantly, spotting the PKs come online, you have to predict their movement, you have to locate them then you have to wait. And wait, and wait. In M59 this was exacerbated by the instant log but similar mechanics exist elsewhere.

    This imbalance of time commitment would destroy any game even if you had a 50:50 mix of Hunters and PKs but as you say, there isn’t an even mix, the game attracts the PK far more than the Hunter. Or the Hunter oriented person is just less common.

    I don’t believe this will ever be overcome. Nothing any subsequent game has implemented has done so.


    Comment by Eduin — 5 March, 2009 @ 2:09 PM

  9. Handshakes, that sense of “investment” that MMORPGs use is indeed a huge part of the problem, methinketh. Going into a round of Counterstrike or Smash Brothers, you expect to die, perhaps horribly, and it’s all up to your skill to avoid it. MMORPGs thrive on a “time=progress” model with little in the way of skill, and a lot in the way of emotional investment.

    Maybe some sort of Elysian Fields or Valhalla MMORPG, where “progress” is simply tied to an avatar or account with no gear reliance and no death penalty (other than the inconvenience of a corpse run or something) would work… but then, the griefers wouldn’t get their thrills from annoying people.

    People want to be hardcore until it hurts them. There’s little way around that.

    Comment by Tesh — 5 March, 2009 @ 4:58 PM

  10. Sorry for the double post, but what about that sort of Valhalla game? Griefers want to hurt other players, destroying the things that they value. Would a game where that is impossible (all progress is simply tied to the account, like skills that get unlocked after so many kills, and there is no gear factor) actually work? Say, a fantasy-themed “MMO shell” on top of a Counterstrike core mechanic, where personal performance is kept track of (persistent progress), but all of the typical trappings of MMO success (levels and loot) are entirely irrelevant, not because they keep getting stolen, but because they really are irrelevant? Players always have access to whatever weapon they want, at no cost. They can switch weapon/build (maybe class, too) whenever they feel like it (maybe just at respawn).

    Such a game would be all about the killing fields, pure action and player skill, but have the persistent achievement trappings of an RPG.


    Comment by Tesh — 5 March, 2009 @ 5:04 PM

  11. For a brief time in EvE I tried my hand at player bounty hunting and I ran into the same exact problem as Eduin described. As much as we all would want a true world where players enforced the law, I don’t think even with the right reward structure it would happen. Acting like an a$$-hat is just too easy, requires a low skill level, and much lower time invested.

    Another example is during vanilla wow, I was the guild leader of the second largest raiding guild on the server. I was great friends with the other guild leaders, and had many friends on alliance. One day while holding an tiny guild vs. guild pvp tourney with an alliance guild, a group of players of my faction began ganking the opposing guild mid duel.

    After politely asking them to stop “PK-ing” so we could continue our tournament, I took matters to a much drastic level telling them that I could personally ensure they never even entertain the thought of joining any major raiding guild on the server ever again. After random name calling I followed through on my threat and was able to keep them out of even the most basic of raiding guild for the next year (even after I left the server).

    Even though I was able to “prosecute” them ingame for their transgression, the amount of time and level of commitment to acquire enough server influence to systematically keep them out of every guild far exceeded them simply logging on, running up to someone of the opposing faction, and ganking em.

    To that end Brian I concede that ingame mechanics can’t stop all bad apples, it is up to the leaders of the community to clean up their game. BUT I will add, it is up to the developers to design game mechanics that instill pride in a community (my like DAoC did) instead of the individual, enough so the leaders have a legitimate reason to care to enforce their community.


    Comment by D^t — 5 March, 2009 @ 5:19 PM

  12. PvP, the community and nerd rage (part 1)

    [...] or technology will develop. Over on his blog, Brian Green wrote an interesting article about why PvP-games’ core problem is their community, calling it a deeper problem than “technical instability and insane design decisions”, [...]

    Pingback by Don’t Fear the Mutant — 5 March, 2009 @ 6:56 PM

  13. Something I want to add.

    Take a theoretical game. It gets everythign right in terms of PK vs Hunter balance, the time commitment, the character investment, it even attracts the right balance of PKs and Hunters. It doesn’t put a foor wrong.

    Even this game is doomed to fail because one overwhelming factor comes into play. The “I quit” decision instantly removes almost the entire investment in character that has been made and removes the cost or loss that might be associated with actions. All the designed checks and balances to keep PK and Hunter in line is suddenly gone because the player is quitting and no consequences for action now apply.

    And I see no way this can be accounted for. You can’t balance the environment around the loss for the “I quit” because its too hard on the continuing players and by balancing for the continuing players, the “I quit” destroys your game.


    Comment by Eduin — 6 March, 2009 @ 4:42 AM

  14. but all of the typical trappings of MMO success (levels and loot) are entirely irrelevant, not because they keep getting stolen, but because they really are irrelevant? Players always have access to whatever weapon they want, at no cost. They can switch weapon/build (maybe class, too) whenever they feel like it (maybe just at respawn)

    Guild Wars PvP is separate from PvE, has no consequences, and maximum level characters with maximum stat items are easy and free to create. It suffers from stale gameplay and a reduction in playerbase (GW moved from PvP to PvE focus a few years ago), but you could learn alot by studying the sport-like nature of Guild Wars PvP.

    Comment by Shaun N — 8 March, 2009 @ 2:52 AM

  15. I’m really interested now in the mechanics of self-policing worlds. I didn’t think about this -too- hard, but I wanted to toss it out and see if and where people think it would fail.

    Suppose you have a world where the right to restrict another avatar’s functionality (say, mute them globally for 30 minutes or boot them to a random newbie area) is something that can somehow be purchased, won, or looted. The price isn’t cheap.. say 1-2% of the world’s population will ever get it (difficulty scales with local level inflation, or total number of bonuses in existence is capped at a % of server population). But once you’ve got it, it’s easy to work with, and has a quickish refresh (minutes?), though the power is non-transferable, and expires after a certain amount of time (say a week or two).

    I’m thinking mainly that the ease of use is both attractive as a Macguffin, and helps maintain social order. The expiration and high price discourage ebaying or casual abuse. The dispersal guards against ‘I quit’ craters.

    Comment by Bret — 9 March, 2009 @ 12:59 PM

  16. While reading this I got an idea for a PvP MMO game based on the Valhalla concept Tesh suggested above.

    Here’s how it would work. Characters would be built based on point values. Levels would require progressively more xp to reach the next one, and users would get visual rewards they could show off (colors, armor, other costume pieces, glowing halo, whatever show offy look they wanted) as level up rewards.

    The player would build their initial character based on 100 pts. When they lost, they’d get extra character build points to add power. When they win, they get xp and have to take away character build points. XP is greater for a win made with fewer character points. So more skilled players would level up faster using characters built with fewer points.

    There would be two forms of arenas to spawn into. One would be a team vs team event with a goal (variety of goals available, randomly selected or if player is high enough level, they can choose the one they want). The other is a free for all.

    You can choose to team up and be assigned into a team side with friends, but can’t choose your opponents.

    When the game is over, your win/loss is calculated and xp is awarded if a win, point loss is set up and you remove stat from your character before you can respawn; or point adds are awarded and you must add them to your character stat before joining a new arena battle.

    Now that’s a pvp game with natural ebb and flow, where veterans show off status and are handicapped vs new players or the slow reflexed who can still progress, just much more slowly. Over time everyone should reach an equilibrium where they win and lose in about equal amounts, the more highly skilled simply gaining more reward (xp) for each win as reward for being skilful.

    Comment by Dee — 10 March, 2009 @ 11:24 AM

  17. The Valhalla concept MMOG that you suggest i see it way too shallow for an MMO. Maybe for a FPS or a strategy, but not for an MMO. My idea is that growing is “breadth not depth”. What ive mean is that a older palyer should have more shinby toys, but they shouldnt be better toys. And in DarkFall, despite their community crawled out straight of Kotaku and SA you arent hearing anything about ovewrpowered abilities (so far, correct me if im wrong).

    And about Scott Jennings….he is still rubbed wrong for having experienced the UO experience at its fullest. You can feel it in his posts of the subject.

    Comment by Gx1080 — 3 April, 2009 @ 7:42 PM

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