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Age of Conan: Unchained General Article: Game Designers Address Misconceptions About PvP

By Guest Writer on August 02, 2010

“There is a common misconception that each encounter starts on a level playing field and that the balance of power is determined by skillful play”

The knockback trap is in place to protect from a frontal attack. The ranger marks the target - a barbarian at the edge of the ranged-attack zone. Just as the first arrow is loosed, the barbarian is in motion, closing on the ranger with incredible speed, blowing through the trap and hammering the bow-wielder.

The ranger is stunned and unable to counter as the barbarian’s axe begins its deadly dance. Just as the effects of the stun begin to wear off, the barbarian nails the ranger with a staggering punch, again rendering the ranger incapable of responding to the barrage of blows. The ranger’s health bar diminishes quickly. One arrow is finally fired at close range, turned aside, and then the barbarian finishes the task.

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Standing on the receiving end of a brutal, well-orchestrated beat-down in PvP (player-versus-player) can be a frustrating experience. Ask those who prefer not to partake in PvP and that is the main reason likely to be voiced. For some, it is the fear of failure that sparks decisions not to indulge in that particular aspect of MMOs.

Perhaps ‘fear’ is not the right word, and it could come down to general perceptions, or misconceptions, about the combat that factor into decisions about whether to indulge in PvP scenarios or not.

PvP can be a ‘hot’ topic in MMOs – there are those who rabidly approach the setting and others that shy away from it. While players air opinions and feelings through rants and forum posts, those on the development side don’t often share their thoughts on the topic. Weighing in on the discussion are Craig Morrison, executive producer and game director at Funcom; Jared “Kelsan” Pruett, associate systems designer with Turbine; Jon Belliss, product manager for Perfect World International; and EJ Moreland, lead designer on All Points Bulletin at Realtime Worlds.

“In terms of misconceptions I think it depends on the game in terms of the specifics,” said Morrison. “Games get a reputation and they are often not that bad in reality. I have played EVE online for four years, albeit largely as a trader in Empire space, never really combat focused, and have had a pirate attack me all of twice in all that time. Yet the perception of that game is often that you will die and lose everything all the time to the point it is no fun. The truth is rarely as cut and dried as the stories people tell of any specific game. That goes for any game with well established PVP or more open servers.

“Much of that stems from the fact that we, as players, tend to relate the stories of those exceptional events more often than we do the normal ones. Whether it is a WoW players telling of his nasty PVP encounter with the opposing faction while out questing and minding his own business, the EVE player relating the tale of the time he was podded by pirates, or the Conan player bemoaning the player who stalked him in one of the earlier PvP areas like White Sands (where veteran alts often prey on new comers). These stories resonate with us because they are exceptional, and sometimes we lose sight of the fact they are just that, the exception, and by and large the game isn’t like that all the time.

“I think people’s biggest fear is that they won’t be able to keep up, won’t be good enough. You know, the kind of ‘well I will lose anyway so I may as well not bother’ mindset. There is also no denying that at the beginning that can very much be true, but once you start to learn more I think a great PVP experience can be more memorable than a great raid or instance run. However, the main factor that adds the fun and drama, the human factor, is also the factor that makes it more challenging for developers to balance and get right.”

“There is a common misconception that each encounter starts on a level playing field and that the balance of power is determined by skillful play,” Pruett said. “This is an unrealistic scenario as the majority of current generation MMOs are not skill-based, in the sense of an FPS, and are extremely gear dependant. The classes may be well balanced, but the outcome is determined by the numbers, the numbers are granted by items and thus the player with the best items has an edge. This, of course, feeds into the player’s concern for balance, as a slight advantage is often misconstrued as a drastic imbalance. For example, take LotRO’s monster-play which was designed with a level of asymmetry because monster-players need to be balanced for combat against players of level 40-65. Instead of a dependency on level and items, monster-players increase their effectiveness by gaining PvP ranks. With increased rank, monster-players are able to acquire new skills, cosmetics, and traits, which compensate for their lack of items and enable them to craft their avatar to suit their play style.

“In addition to differing advancement paths, each side utilizes unique tactics on the battlefield. Monster-players have more access to damage-over-time skills that allow them to harass and weaken multiple targets, while players excel at single-target-burst-damage. This dichotomy enables lower rank monster-players to provide a fair challenge for lower level players while still being viable in battles against players of equal level.”

“Players who are new to PvP tend to be anxious and think that they are going to be player killed right out of the gate,” said Belliss, “which is one of the biggest misconceptions of PvP. It’s very important for everyone to have fun in PvP, which usually only happens when all parties are willing or acknowledged participants.”

“The biggest misconception about PvP combat is that it’s about anti-social players running around in packs killing everything in sight,” stated Moreland. “That’s still the biggest stigma attached to PvP Combat. In today’s market, many games offer much more consensual experiences such as instanced battlegrounds or rule-sets that have structured PvP experiences. Those kinds of experiences offer much broader entertainment. That said, the biggest shift in thinking from PvE to PvP is that, with the exception of raid or high-end situations, it is pretty tough to ‘lose’ at PvE in most products today – whereas PvP always has a winner and a loser. It’s a tough adjustment to make for much of the broader market.”

Of course, weapons, armor and skill upgrades do have a bearing on the combat, but the group was asked what they thought were the biggest attributes players could bring to the PvP battlefield.

“The human mind is obviously the most potent tool anyone has at their disposal,” Morrison said. “I have found down the years that the best PvP players are those who want to learn, and learn how to master the systems available. So rather than nerd-rage when they get destroyed by another player, and presume some hacks were at play, they immediately want to learn how the player did that to them. Both so they can understand how to counter it in the future, and possibly learn to do it themselves. Human ingenuity is almost limitless, and the best PvP players take advantage of that, learning how they can tempt opponents into foolish moves, or traps, and learn how to time their attacks to their maximum advantage.

“Watch those who are good at PvP carefully, learn from them, and don’t be afraid to ask questions and be willing learn.”

“Before you attempt to know your enemy, you must first know yourself,” Belliss added. “Having a deep understanding of your character/class and how its mechanics interact with your target’s is a critical piece in any PvP puzzle.”

“Teamwork and communication,” Pruett added. “These two factors are vitally important in group and objective based PvP. PvP is very much a game of resource management in which every player has an intrinsic value or purpose whether it is frontline offense, playing pocket healer, or scouting enemy movement. When those resources are mismanaged the flow of the game devolves into chaos as players aimlessly run about getting into minor skirmishes. Organized groups will capitalize on this chaos to secure a speedy victory.

“When players communicate and are willing to forgo personal acclaim, by performing the less glamorous support roles, the game takes on a more strategic form in which skillful play and wise decisions lead to victory. This can be seen on a regular basis in Ettenmoors, where raids that utilize our built-in voice chat or Ventrillo along with the raid assist UI are able to sweep across the zone, dismantling the less organized opposing raids through the dissemination of information and coordinated strikes on key targets. Utilizing the open raid system, players easily can join raids, already patrolling the Ettenmoors, via the Social Panel.”

“The biggest attributes that players can bring to a PvP setting are teamwork, situational awareness, and tactical analysis,” said Moreland, “and, of course, fast reactions. These aren’t ordered by importance, and it depends on whether the participant is playing solo or with others.

“In any PvP setting that allows grouping – the ability for that group to work together and coordinate their tactics (especially using voice chat) is almost always the deciding factor in a match against groups who are not as well coordinated. Situational awareness is critical, especially in more open or free-form PvP settings – knowing who and what is around you at all times is crucial. This is much more crucial for the solo player as they have no one else to rely on for advanced notice of any threat or situation.

“Tactical analysis represents the ability to understand what your opponent is going to do, based on the variables within that PvP setting. What abilities would they have? Have you fought them before, what is their usual method of operation/attack? What weaknesses are apparent based on various attributes – character class, equipment, etc? Being able to understand and plan in a split-second to counter and win against a skilled opponent is crucial both in solo and team play.

“Last but not least – reaction speed. You can be the best tactician and team player, but if a player can’t react quickly enough it’s unlikely they’ll come out on top. Although team play can mitigate your individual needs for reaction to some extent.”

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