Issues in MMOs: PVP Systems

January 14, 2008

PVP has long been a derisive issue within the MMO genre. This has caused stratification within the player base to the point that different servers (PVP, and “normal” in WOW terms) have been created to address the issue. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but largely a product of a rather diverse player base.

Though a generalization, the majority of users within an MMO will come from two backgrounds.

  • Classic FPS, action oriented game play (leaning heavily towards online FPS games I’d guess)
  • RPG, adventure, and classic table top type games.

The first are typically more interested in fast, “twitchy” gameplay. Being suddenly ambushed by an enemy, and more aptly, ambushing a victim are activities that are seen as quite enjoyable to this group. At the same time, some typically can become bored in a classic MMO raid context. This can cause trouble for some when a high degree of organization is called for.

The second group lean to a slower style. Instead of relying on twitch behavior (regardless of ability), this user would rather deal with encounters that require thinking and planning to overcome. However, when mixed in an unprotected environment with the latter group, this can become a problem. Instead of enjoying this fast paced environment, they can become easily frustrated, and indeed stop playing all together.

The question then is this: How can developers design a game that is equally appealing to both crowds? There are a few different options.

1. Don’t.

Not attempting to appease both player bases can be quite an appealing option for some developers. Instead of splitting your resources to attack a multifaceted problem, instead develop your world around one in which PVP exist. Very good games can be made using this philosophy. However, the recent history of MMO’s questions seems to suggest that this may not be a viable solution, as the player base has traditionally been quite small. Shadowbane an extreme example of this. A very loyal group of players that is also quite small. This is largely because moral boundaries which keep violence in check are suspended in a virtual world. Random murders are not just common, but the norm in this type of game.

Some studios (Mythic in particular) have attempted to augment this and present it in a more novice friendly form. RvR takes the most difficult part of starting a new PVP game (finding that initial group/community which one can more safely experience the game) out of the control of the player. This security blanket provides much needed comfort for the average player and as such appeals more to the mass market. Dark Age of Camelot was successful in this approach. World of Warcraft, however, has changed the bar for success with which publisher will judge MMOs. Because of this, it will be interesting to see if Mythic’s new title (Warhammer: Age of Reckoning) will fare any better than its architectural predecessor DAoC.

2. Make Two Games

Another solution for this problem is to separate the two sets of gamers. While this can be done in a multitude of ways, the first real attempt at this was the creation of PVP servers. In terms of public relations, this was a great idea. Instead of taking the risk of frustrating a portion of your customers, force the customer to make the choice of play style. In this case, no complaints can be directed at the designers. Sadly, this is a somewhat half-baked idea. Usually the game is created with one ruleset in mind, and then the new one is tacked on without regard to the current rules, resulting in less than stellar final product. (I’d love feed back on what game originally had PVP and Normal servers, as the first I encountered it was EQ1).

World of Warcraft has provided a few interesting twists on this dynamic. At launch, they provided both “Normal” and “PVP” servers. However, instead of being a true PVP server these were, in everything but name, RVR servers. As the game evolved, Blizzard added another wrinkle into the “Make two games” design philosophy with the creation of battlegrounds. With this, Blizzard had basically created two distinct end games, that for the PVP player, and that for the PVE player. With this change, the delineation between PVP severs and Normal servers became significantly muted, as the majority of PVP in the game moved to the instanced battlegrounds.

Furthermore, an additional problem was introduced, that of balance. Now, don’t get me wrong, balance is a very large and delicate issue in any MMO. With the introduction of battlegrounds however, Blizzard paved a very tricky path to walk down. See, by adding these battlegrounds, as well as rewards for participating in them, the WoW designers for all intent and purpose said “PVP is a valid stand alone endgame activity”. It is the equalivent of raiding for the avid PVPer, and it should be balanced as such. Now Blizzard is faced with the quandary of balancing classes on not on one axis, but two. Any seasoned veteran can attest to the fact that this is one of the largest on going struggles for the developers.

3. Law And Order

The third and final way of instituting PVP is through the rule of law. Either designer mandated or player controlled, this method seeks to artificially create a moral design for players in the virtual world through punishment. The basic premise is to have a punishment for killing a player severe enough that a user will actively think about their actions before committing them. To my knowledge, I am unaware of any mainstream MMO that has implemented this system. I would, however, enjoy the chance to see it in action, as I believe it would be an interesting social experiment if nothing else.

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