Despite the best intentions in terms of balancing a game, or of attempting to level the playing field, it is often the players that find the best ways to min-max characters and manipulate the system in place in an effort to gain that important upper hand in the PvP setting. Many years ago, in Turbine’s Asheron’s Call 2, there was a particular player on a PvP server that had multiple accounts and had created buff bots that would be tucked away, and then would power up his main character to attack zones and cities. It was certainly not against the rules of engagement, but rather this was a creative individual who understood the system and used it to advantage. Players today are more adept at using the elements in place to gain an edge.
Which brings up the question – do PvP servers or zones within the game concept act as they should, as was intended, or have players taken the concepts in another direction with ganking and spawn pad camping?
“If there is one thing we’ve learned to expect from our players at Perfect World Entertainment, it’s that they’ll find a way to use any game system in a way you never intended it to be used,” Belliss admitted. “Our worlds are built on a set of rules and constructed through a variety of intertwined systems. It makes sense that players become excited at the concept of learning the rules of these universes and then bending them to their own will.
“We’ve noticed that older players tend to take the system/feature you’ve provided them with, and use it as it was originally designed. Contrastingly, younger players have a stronger tendency to exploit rules and grief other players intentionally.”
“I think PvP servers and zones perform as intended,” countered Pruett, “which includes allowing players to take the game in new directions. For me, PvP zones are the antithesis of the core game zones; no rules, no etiquette, and danger around every corner. These zones are a no-man’s land where the only thing the player can hope for is a swift, painless death. With that said, the open nature of these zones allows players to create and maintain what is acceptable behavior, including ganking and camping. By doing so, players are able to change the face of the game and create a unique experience on the servers they call home. I’m not saying I condone spawn camping, but if the zone was designed without taking that into consideration, I can’t fault a player for taking advantage of it. But when that advantage distorts the balance, it’s up to the developers to impose limitations.”
“I believe the beauty of PvP is that it is real people competing against real people,” said Moreland, “there will always be emergent tactics that developers don’t expect. Unexpected locations that are unassailable, different combinations of abilities or equipment that have unexpected beneficial results, and so forth are the big things that developers have to react to. Unfortunately, this does lead to changing aspects of the game experience, which some players will say is ‘nerfing.’”
“I think again it really depends on the game to be honest,” said Moreland. “To be precise it depends on how you have implemented PVP in the first place. Players are nothing if not inventive, and given an opportunity to surprise you they will. So the more open a PVP system is I think the more likely you are to see some form of emergent gameplay, at least amongst the most serious minority. So, for example, in a game like EVE online you see many different varieties of that emergent gameplay, as the more serious PvP players refine their tactics within what is provided. Often they do so to try and get around as many of the loose restrictions as possible. Take, for example, the tactic of suicide ganking in high sec, defining a risk they are happy with (in that case the loss of their ship) in order to get past the protections offered to players in high sec. In an open setting the loose rules become almost a challenge to the dedicated PVP player…how far can they push them?
“On the other hand, if the design of your game is limited to more constructed and well defined forms of PVP (such as mini-games or arena systems with set rules) you tend to limit the possibilities for that kind of emergent gameplay to surface. The games that focus on strict rule-sets and locations (like the battlegrounds and arenas in World of Warcraft, or our own mini-games, or Warhammer Online’s scenarios, and you could argue elements of Aion’s Abyss, although the latter is more of a hybrid offering) are taking that approach so that they can in effect, limit those types of surprises in favor of a more structured offering. That is usually because it is inclusive of more players, and offers a more fun experience to the majority of users. That approach, though, often leaves the ‘sandbox’ fans and those veterans who yearn for something a little more open a little more disappointed.
“I think in general most developers presume that there will be those who wish to engage in anti-social PvP behavior like ganking and/or spawn camping. That should never be a surprise to a developer. Then you really just need to take a decision based on your game whether you want to allow that kind of behavior, or alter your design to try and mitigate its effect or not.
“However what you still have in either setting is the ability for players to take the mechanics you give them and build the optimal set-up for any given PvP scenario, and in MMOs in particular that I think is where players most commonly surprise developers. Given most games have a mix of PvE and PvP abilities, spells or actions you can be assured of one thing: even if you, as a designer, had segmented them mentally, the players will try each and every possible combination of those abilities just in case there is some use for them you haven’t thought of! I have lost count of the number of times, as a player, that I have seen an ability or spell that was clearly designed for PvE play being used to inventive effect in a PvP setting. Players will always find these ways to surprise you unless you check everything!
“For me the real core question of how players in the current generation approach PvP features in an MMO environment is often more to do with motivation and what drives them to play. What do I mean by that? Many veteran PvP players often claim they prefer the activity of PvP combat 'just because' (i.e. PvP combat in and of itself is worth doing because it is a game of skill against another experienced human foe). However, that doesn’t actually seem to be the case when you consider the average player in this day and age, and their prime driver and motivation (or de-motivation if not correctly done) turns out to be the rewards.
“If we, as developers, were to offer PvP without rewards and people would be left with a system that could, in theory, encourage great PvP encounters and an engaging experience ... in theory. In practice it doesn't seem to matter on most occasions even if it's fun if you stick to the rules, people also want progression, and not only do they want it, once it is there they will also start looking for the path of least resistance once it's there. That’s where the real design catch-22 comes in.
“So, on one hand, you have the players wanting modern features, and for many the old 'everyone is equal, there is no progression, just skill' isn't enough to attract a significant enough number of MMO players to that PvP feature. Yet on the other hand, if you entice them there with the incentive of those progression systems then it often motivates exactly the behavior that we, as designers, would want to avoid. It presents us with a unique challenge.
“So rather than players appreciating compelling game systems and environments for the joy of playing against human foes, in reality what you usually find is that the mindset is dominated by 'how to claim the rewards as fast as possible' and that presents the designers with their ultimate challenge – for many players it isn't actually the PvP experience they ultimately want, when there is a conflict that has a potential reward, they invariably tend towards mitigating the barriers between themselves and attaining those rewards ... even if that mitigation means subverting the system into something they don't actually want it to be. (anyone who has played on a server in World of Warcraft, for example, where the ‘standing agreement’ in Alterac Valley is that you don’t actually fight each other, but rush for the boss kill and don’t slow each other down has seen this first hand, and it happens in other games too, where players agree to let each other win or kill each other in rotations, because that is faster than actually playing the content the way it was intended). That means we spend a lot of time designing around that challenge in order to try and make a PVP experience compelling to as many players as possible.
“So far the solution that most MMO developers have ended up with is taking the approach of having the clearly defined and constructed rule-set of mini-games, or another similar type of ‘closed’ PVP systems. It gives us a degree of control that is harder to exert with more open systems.”