4 March, 2009
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.