PvP in MMOs

I was thinking about PvP the other day and how it’s implemented in MMOs in comparison to other gaming genres and what that means for the upcoming PvP focused MMOs. I wanted to share my thoughts just to get some feedback and because, y’know, I have this blog here. Now, this is by no means an in-depth look at the PvP concept, as my pondering about it only lasted for a day or so, but I still think it’s an interesting subject and certainly one that’s intriguing to many WAR players.

Common features of PvP games

There are a few basic components that comprise a good PvP game:

  1. Competitiveness
  2. Variety
  3. Balance

Before you start going double-u-tee-ef-mate, let me explain.

Competitiveness naturally has to be a part of any PvP, but it’s not that simple of a concept. You might think a game doesn’t need to influence the player’s desire to beat another player, since that’s supposed to come naturally to any PvPer, right? Wrong. A good game finds ways to rev up the competitiveness and really make you want to kick the crap out of the opposition. It’s usually done through rewarding success and shunning failure, an assortment of visual “feel good” cues that trigger upon success, awarding bragging rights, having a good community that perpetuates competition and most importantly, offering different and unique ways to compete in.

No, I haven’t gotten it wrong, different ways of competing isn’t just for varieties’ sake. I’m sure you’ve played a racing game on the wii or similar against a friend before, and just when you both got a bit bored of it and the feeling of wanting to beat the other guy dissipated, you discovered a new game mode. “I’m totally gonna kick your ass in this!” and you’re back at it like you haven’t just spent the last hour doing exactly that. Make no mistake; challenges in the form of different game modes, maps or weapons sustain competitiveness not only because they invigorate the player through variety (see next paragraph), but also because of the player’s desire to conquer the opposition in every way possible.

You may think I’ve gone over Variety in the previous two paragraphs, but that’s not entirely true, there’s more to it than mentioned above. Defining it I’d say that the different ways of competing, the different environments, weapons and ways of playing the game all fall under this category.

There are people who will try to dispute varieties’ place among the components of PvP games, with something along the lines of “a true PvPer is happy enough with simply beating other players”. In that case, imagine a two player game where each player is given a knife and put on a certain map. The goal of the game is to defeat the opponent by stabbing him and whichever player gets 10 kills first, wins. There’s not much variety in there and I’m not sure how long even a die-hard fan of stabbing games would be able to play it. The concept of PvP for PvP’s sake is sound, but it’s not something that can sustain a game. Variety can and does.

Balance is on the list for obvious reasons. An imbalanced game isn’t fun to play and compete in. Such a game simply won’t do well, no matter which part of the game is imbalanced (providing the part is big enough). Be it the actual imbalance between different avatars the players can control, weapons, maps or the imbalance of encounters between players of different skill levels or group sizes. Imbalance is rarely welcome or actively sought.

Screenshot of Guild Wars 2.

Please Mr. Pissed-off Charr, don't let Guild Wars 2 suck!

Applying PvP components to MMOs

There are MMO games out there who claim to have decent PvP features or even revolve completely around PvP. In my eyes though, there seems to be a bit of a design conflict between the two.

  • MMOs in general are casual games for the masses (they want to retain as many subscribers as possible), that try to cater to the broadest audience as possible. As such they can’t afford to punish failure, unless they want to drive off the casual part of the playerbase, which then destroys the rewarding/punishing concept that sustains competition. An example are the instanced battles most MMOs feature. The rewards for losing are usually almost as good as for winning, which means that the attitude of doing your best gets shot in the face.
  • Due to the massive scope of such games a victory over your enemy usually doesn’t have any tangible results. Sure, you might see him keel over but he’ll be respawning in the next few seconds and all you have to show for it are a few numbers (or not even that). Which would be fine if a number of wins such as this on a larger scale would result in a tangible reward, such as conquering an area, taking over a keep, depriving the opponents from a resource and see them starve for it. This will almost never be the case, which makes most victories meaningless.
  • MMOs specialise in two areas of gameplay – one of them exciting, but demanding and the other mindless, rhythmical and mostly effortless. The content is divided so the players can enjoy whichever they fancy at that particular moment, exciting but draining (think end-game dungeons in PvE games) or dull but relaxing (grinding daily quests). The problem is that whenever you trivialise PvP (in order to provide relaxing PvP – an oxymoron) by turning it into effortless grinding, it stops being competitive. No one really cares about losing. It’s just another part of the game you need to grind out and even if you were to pour all your effort into it, you’re bound to run out of steam, because the PvP content is designed to hold the playerbase first (a treadmill) and provide exciting gameplay or promote competition second. There are exceptions to this, but that’s exactly what they are, exceptions.
  • Turning PvP into content that sustains the playerbase by quantity (of playthroughs, not environments) also runs into the problem of destroying variety. Something that is supposed to be ground out will inevitably clash with variety, mostly because it takes more effort on the player’s part but also because it takes more time and money to develop (as opposed to simply ramping up the time it takes to progress).
  • Many MMOs revolve around levels as the core design to hold player interest, either in the PvE sense or the PvP one. They are an integral part of the genre, but one that doesn’t mesh well with the nature of PvP because it introduces imbalance. Whenever you have players of differing levels PvPing you need to segment them in order to balance the encounters. This works on a smaller scale, but when you want to introduce large-scale PvP into your game (to provide variety) a segmenting approach fails. There simply is not other solution than to remove levels and make the player avatars be relatively equal in power, which goes against the principle of “progression is king” many MMOs build on in order to sustain the playerbase.

As an aside, there’s an aspect of MMO combat that takes away from PvP, which is the click and autoattack system, with selecting skills at appropriate times. It diminishes reflexes, doesn’t feature a skill other competitive games require (aim, multitasking, tactical movement, counting cards and similar) and basically turns PvP into a glorified game of rock-paper-scissors (I use this, you use that, so I use this and then you use that, etc.). There is much to be said about the “click to swing” system that has been attempted by quite a few MMOs, but with the exception of Planetside no game has managed to perfect a system that could best the autoattack one at intuitivity and technical feasibility (lag). I’m afraid that until such a system is developed MMO PvP will always be seen as inferior to other forms of PvP.

Planetside 2 screenshot.

Please Mr. TR Soldier, don't let Planetside 2 suck!

I’m sure there are more examples of MMO design principles clashing with the PvP ones, but I haven’t managed to think of any more.

What does it mean?

Reading all of the above you’ll understand why I’m so concerned about upcoming PvP MMOs. Certainly there have been quite a few developers in the past, that have managed to design a game in such a way that it bypasses most of the problems PvP faces in massive online games (DAoC, Planetside, Guild Wars all up to a point), but lately there haven’t been any successful titles. Perhaps the formula is now too old and needs to be reinvented, or perhaps it already has been and the PvP content we see in WAR, Rift, WoW and the likes is the next step of evolution. I dread the thought and am hoping that Planetside 2 and Guild Wars 2 will do things the right way. We want some decent PvP, damnit!

Screenshot of SWTOR.

Please Mr. Jedi, don't le... Nevermind.

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4 thoughts on “PvP in MMOs

  1. Awesome breakdown of what I consider to be quite the sad state of PvP in MMO titles. I had played WAR for a while and I enjoyed the PvP system up to a point, until it became just another grind.

    I also see a huge problem where you mention that the losers are rewarded just as much as the winners. I believe the only way to make it out of that slump is to take gear out of the equation when doing PvP, or at least match your players based on an average gear level. When you have one side of the conflict decked out in the best PvP gear and the other side with gear a few levels below, it’s becoming no contest. Not even the best tactics can beat a better equipped team in most of these games.

    • First of all, thank you.

      Second of all, I believe that a team that works together well (and has a good setup) will beat an unorganised, but better geared team. That’s not the point though, you’re right, part of the imbalance that stems from levels is the gear. Gear is fine as long as it comprises only a small part of what decides fights, sort of how it was in GW or in Planetside (non-existant), which have also been the two most successful PvP MMOs imo.

      I probably should have mentioned gear where I wrote about imbalance as a result of a leveling system, as it’s nearly the same thing, albeit in gear levels not PvE/PvP ones.

      • The gear “problem” is integral to any MMO, or any game hoping to emulate the success of the MMO genre, because developing a character means making them stronger over time. Doing this by increasing the variety of their skills (and thereby their advantages in PvP vs. those with fewer skills) or the variety of their appearance is the CORE reason most people play an MMO. To bring this variety you will inevitably create some imbalance in PvP when some people have simply put more time into their character than others. And people WANT to be the stronger character, that’s the whole point.

        Maybe instead of nearly equal rewards for the losing side in a PvP match they should get detailed info on their opponents gear, builds, skills used, etc. Knowledge IS power after all.

        Great article Blaq. Since you’re not a fan of the auto-attack system I thought you might have a better outlook on Star Wars: The Old Republic, since they won’t have AAs in their system, just active skills. There’s no Collision Detection, and I was bummed about that at first, but it’s not a deal breaker for me by any means. Maybe a follow-up article is necessary on why you’re looking forward, or not, to the games coming out soon. :)

      • The gear problem is integral for any MMO because the developers choose so. Opting to follow the tried approach that gives the advantage in PvP to the one with better gear/power level is the only thing holding the PvP MMO genre back.

        Imo games like Wrath of Heroes and GW2 (structured PvP) will do just fine despite providing a completely balanced “gearless” experience.

        And yeah the RPG mechanic is why people play MMORPGs, but the same mechanic is hindering PvP. Which is why I think it’s right PvP MMOs are moving away from the RPG mechanics. Leave that to the PvE focused MMOs imo.

        On the subject of SWTOR, I’m not that thrilled about it. It’s focus is narrative, which usually denotes PvE. From what I’ve seen it really is PvE focused and I’m not really a fan of the IP either. So I’ll probably pass on it.

        The game I am looking forward to is Guild Wars 2. And there already is an article on why I’m itching to play it.

        Thanks for the compliment. :)

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