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MMOWTF: How Do You Like Your PvP?

Weekly MMORPG.com columnist Dan Fortier takes a look a subject near and dear to his heart... PvP.

How Do You Like Your PvP?

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Dan Fortier. The column is called "MMOWTF" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Fotier. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

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Instead of just finding a way to work PvP into my normal article, I figured I'd stop beating around the bush and make it the focus of this week's piece. After all, what better way to stir up some good ol-fashioned animosity than to throw about some stereotypes with reckless abandon? It occurred to me while talking to a few gamers who prefer PvE (I use the word loosely in this case), that their notion of a hardcore PvPer was someone who wished he could kill anyone at any time without consequences. While that might be true of my real life sometimes, FFA PvP is not what I would envision as my 'ideal' PvP system. This week is going to look at the difference between structured and Free-for-all PvP systems.

Technically, free-for-all PvP is just a system that allows conflict between anyone, even between players in the same faction or group. Its definition can change depending on whom you ask, however, some people feel it also describes any PvP system that has no artificial safe zones or has little restriction on the level of players that you can kill without a penalty. Since no one will really ever completely agree on exactly what FFA PvP really includes, it's good enough for our purposes to go with the most common perception.

The real strength of a more open PvP system is that it allows players to choose their allies and enemies by their actions and whom they associate with. In the majority of PvP servers the Guild is the only faction that matters and who you fight and who you don't is up to you. Removing the barriers that prevent inter-faction fighting really plays toward the dynamic that makes multi-player games fun. Never being safe, even from your own teammates, creates an atmosphere where you have to be really careful whom you call a friend and are more suited to players that aren't frequently AFK or have unstable network connections. One man's fun is another's heart attack and this style can be too unpredictable for some and being repeatedly killed by your supposed allies can wear even a hardcore player thin.

Unfortunately, many of the games that have had or promised a truly dynamic PvP system have been less than stellar once they were released. Some continue to be pushed back because of unrealistic feature lists, coupled with shaky funding and understaffed development teams. It is hard to say what makes this type of game so prone to problems, but the fact that this type of games usually draws a smaller audience could definitely factor into the equation. It must be hard to sell a game to a publisher if your game design only caters to an admittedly elitist section of gamers.

Most of the more successful MMOs with strong PvP elements use a structured PvP system that either forced the player into pre-made factions at the character creation screen or shortly thereafter. While this restriction was lifted for the most part in the pure PvP servers, the majority of players spent their entire career grouping with people they couldn't ever attack under any circumstance. While the more radical camps see this as a weakness, it also promotes some kind of order into the way that teams are designed and makes it easier to identify the strengths and weakness of your opponents.

A large part of the reason we see this type of structured PvP in the mainstream titles is simple: It's easier to manage. When you set predefined allies, it makes the job of balancing sets of special abilities much less of a chore. While I'm not a fan of simplistic design used to cut corners at the cost of depth, a structured system can be an excellent tool in the hands of a talented team. WAR is a great example of very structured PvP system that adds incentive for team play while allowing individual players rewards for exceptional accomplishments. When done properly, a little organization can actually enhance the fun of PvP rather than becoming an artificial barrier.

Even the most ardent FFA purist would scoff at a game that allowed players to kill each other anywhere, right off the bat, with no consequence. That would be less a game and more of a virtual carnival game and most folks that want to invest their time in-game expect at least some level of protection from players they have no chance to beat. At a certain basic level the only real difference between a completely handcuffed PvP arena game and the ultimate no holds barred FFA game is simply the level of protection that is provided and which players you can hit for damage and where you can do it.

Some games attempt to provide players with different levels of risk vs. reward by moving the most valuable commodities, mobs and loot into the more open PvP areas of the game. In this kind of tiered system, a player can opt to avoid PvP entirely, but in doing so sacrifices access to the highest level content in the game (this kind of trade-off works best if there are several levels of risk vs. reward that are available to choose from). While this hybrid system has its merits, it still draws fire from the carebears who don't feel that they should have to put themselves in mortal danger just to do everything in the game, but of course, no system will make everyone happy... especially ones that focus on PvP content.

I'm going to let this simmer in the pot for a bit so I'll hand off the apron and ladle to my rabid audience. Make sure to keep the fire hot and please don't stop stirring or it will spoil. I'm off to grab some more virtual vinegar for next week's recipe. I'll be back next Friday with another spicy dish. Au revoir!