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Occam's Hellrazor

These are exceedingly average dabblings in the daft art of theorycrafting. Made from scratch pad. Enter at someone else's risk.

Author: Speely

The Viability of Virtually Realistic Violence

Posted by Speely Saturday November 30 2013 at 12:35PM
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These are some thoughts on the viability of unrestricted PvP, full-loot, virtual world MMORPGs with player-driven economies in fantasy settings. Some would just say "sandbox," but this term has come to mean many different things to many different players, so I will instead use terms that are less mechanically ambiguous. Whether such games should exist or whether games that currently attempt this are good or bad is not the focus here. This is an attempt to look at this model conceptually and try to make sense of it realistically.

Also, I am assuming that the "RP" in "MMORPG" is a part of the acronym that means what the words mean rather than being a mere indicator of a theme or a progression-based model of gameplay, etc.

Some of the staples of the hardcore PvP crowd's outlook, such as full loot, unrestricted PvP, and very harsh death penalties, are polarizing issues among MMORPG players. Detractors cite, among other things, the financial failure of games that have included said gameplay mechanics and the type of community they attract as reasons why the implementation of such systems is inherently flawed.

And they have a point. A few, in fact, and many of them are good ones.

The fact remains, however, that a market continues to exist for games that attempt to capture the harsh risk vs reward gameplay that full loot, open-world PvP potentially offers. That this market seems small and fickle only stands to reason. Oftentimes, the only thing these games offer is the freedom to kill, and there aren't an abundance of role-playing or storytelling options to compliment this aspect of gameplay. Even worlds with robust crafting systems and deep lore are quickly abandoned when players get frustrated by the seemingly meaningless and relentless attacks they endure from other players who seek only to explore the competitive combat elements of a game world.

Are these "PKers" to blame? Not really. They are just playing the game as they want to play it with the tools provided by the developer. They are no more or less mature than anyone else merely because of their affinity for such gameplay.

Are the complainers just crybabies who can't handle big boy PvP? Not likely, else they wouldn't be playing such games in the first place. Many of them want the freedom and risk vs reward gameplay of an open, dangerous world, but they want it to mean something. They don't want a world governed by artificial, invisible walls or hand-holding, but they want a RPG that actually supports role-playing.

Now, when I say "role-playing," I am not talking about standing around chatting about things your character obviously isn't doing. That is chatting in-character. I am talking about playing a role in a virtual world that doesn't necessarily HAVE to be that of a murderer (though it can be, presumably.) Role-playing can be an involvement in the lore and thematic direction of a world through actions AND words with other players; it doesn't have to exist in a void, separated from gameplay mechanics like the guest at the party no one invited. A game has to provide not only the mechanics to facilitate this, but give players reasons to do it.

All of this is merely academic if the fundamental issue still persists: How to include realistic PvP freedom while also allowing for multifaceted gameplay experiences. Let's address the concept of "realistic PvP freedom" to begin with, as it is the fundamental element from which all other gameplay dynamics must be seen to emerge in a game that allows for it by virtue of its immediacy and player focus. Note that I am referring to "realistic PvP" in regard to its availability in the game world, not as it pertains to combat mechanics. That is for another post.

The concept of realism in PvP is somewhat of an agreed-upon set of criteria that take into account that one is still playing a game, and as such can only offer a certain amount of realism. Generally, "virtual realism" in PvP is, in a situational sense, regarded as the ability to attack anyone at any time. And that's fair. However, in order for that freedom to be virtually realistic, at least two other forms of virtual realism must be addressed: consequence and nerve.

Consequence has been debated countless times in regard to FFA PvP. Bounties. Guards and crime systems. Flags of all sorts. Generally a bevy of system-based mechanics that distract from player-centric gameplay by using NPCs or non-immersive elements to regulate a virtual world's interactions. This is not conducive to the flourishing of open world mechanics. The more the game steps in and directs behavior in an unrealistic or NPC-driven way, the more of a game and less of a world it becomes. The concept of guards in a city or keep/outpost is a realistic thing, however, and so those consequences become a necessary "evil" in this sense, and as long as they are not over-utilized, can potentially work to dissuade unrelenting, non-stop massacre.

Another thing to consider when discussing the worth of guards and other protective NPCs is that players have to log off sometime. Being able to loot someone's possessions just because they aren't playing while you are is not good design by most standards. Systems that provide ways to make this less prevalent can be said to have worth even in a virtual world allowing for unrestricted PvP. That said, guards are generally jokes for hardcore PvPers and as such offer limited utility in this fashion. Perhaps the artificial solution of system-regulated non-access to the goods of logged-off players is the only solution here?

Other consequences like bounties and flags are imperfect solutions by virtue of their artificial nature and the needlessly problematic implementation of such systems. Though arguments could be made to the contrary, and would have merit, it is not my intent to explore these mechanics today.

Consequence in a realistic sense then relies upon the risk of combat. Perma-death solves this but in an oft-misguided and generally un-fun fashion, so for the sake of argument, we will put that aside for another time. Let's look at lore instead.

Lore matters in a virtual world. That can be safely said to be a MMORPG maxim. It is also the perfect way to responsibly and cohesively introduce gameplay mechanics that don't feel arbitrary or artificial. A morality system based on the setting's lore that affects a murderer directly could be one way to implement consequence. An afterlife that looks unkindly on the wicked could be a powerful thing. Note that this is a system-driven consequence model as well, but one that is at least cohesive with the process of life, death, and rebirth in a world where the latter two happen regularly. It also makes the lore of a world part of the gameplay, which is very conducive to the encouragement of role-playing. Everyone cares about lore when it affects their gameplay.

Ghosts and haunting present another set of consequence-based options, and player-driven to boot. This is a promising approach I expect to see used well soon. Allowing players to become ghosts and haunt their killers or even seek avengers for their deaths (Ghost-buffed avenger, anyone? Who you gonna call?) could be effective AND provide for diverse gameplay. The bottom line is that lore can be used for consequences without undermining the cohesiveness of living in a virtual world.

Now for the second form of virtual realism that should be considered in relation to free for all assault: nerve. Killing takes nerve, and to assume that anyone is equally capable of it at any given time is unrealistic. Now, I realize that we are talking about a game here, but we are also talking about role-playing. The nerve to murder outside wartime conditions could be partially stat-based just like any other ability. Looking for a way to make PKers commit to being total aggressors? Make them stat for it. If we want an approximation of real freedom to act, then it only stands to reason that we address what it takes for a character in a virtual world to actually do so. Nerve can be a gameplay mechanic and require effort on a player's part to "build up" or otherwise possess. The specifics of this could vary widely from model to model, but in action it could introduce a kind of resource management to player-killer gameplay at the very least. Safe zones are not conducive to creating a living virtual world, but neither are fragfests.

So now that we have touched on the role of approximate realism in PvP, let's address why it is so important to HAVE it in the first place.

Let's assume that player to player interaction (of all kinds, not just combat) will always be more complex and meaningful than player to system interaction in a virtual world. If that assumption does not sit well with you, then neither will the rest of this post, and I apologize for wasting your time thus far. If you agree, however, then we can look at the ways in which unrestricted PvP is so important to the flourishing of meaningful player to player interaction in a virtual world. Note that by PvP, I don't mean just combat. Two crafters in the same field in the same market are engaging in PvP. Two harvesters in the same region are as well, unless they team up.

Any economic model that attempts to make real sense collapses when you restrict conflict. This means that crafting becomes less meaningful when crafters can just craft away all day and make lots of money safely invisi-walled away from those mean PKers.

Imagine a truly open PvP world. Two crafters live in the same village, a woman and man. The woman works hard and gets to know the locals, befriending combatants and maybe cutting them deals to establish business relationships. When trouble arrives, she might get the heads up and be able to get away, or even get protected. At the least, she will know more people to ask for help from than the other guy...

... who just likes to craft and isn't very social. He works at his craft and looks for auction houses or chats in city chat when he is selling something. He just wanted to craft because that's how he likes to play.

When trouble comes, this guy nine times out of ten gets it worse than our lady crafter. As such, she excels and sees better profits and gains a reputation. This is encouraging player to player interaction. Note that this is also PvP between two crafters. She won.

Now give them both artificial protection. What does this encourage? Our lady crafter is now just anybody with the time to spend grinding away and spamming her wares. She is now on equal footing with Mr. Target. Neither of them are encouraged to develop meaningful relationships with others because the system protects them. This is not role-playing. It is the opposite. In addition, now the value of their products drop immensely because of their abundance. Guilds just have alts sitting around leveling up their crafts. No one really cares who they are dealing with because it doesn't matter, and our lady of aspiring crafting excellence gets her role-playing thrills by chatting with other system-protected players who talk about all the stuff they aren't doing.

While we are talking economy: full looting. In order for the economy we are trying so desperately to make meaningful to be dynamic, there needs to be the possibility that AllYourStuff™ might get taken, whether it's from you or from your hidden stash. Material goods and wealth that are semi-permanent (allowing for item decay) by virtue of being artificially immune to theft and banditry discourage player to player gameplay. Crafters and fighters become intermittent acquaintances and have little reason to develop relationships, further making the crafters of the world faceless gear bots. Assault becomes fickle because attackers are killing either for fun or for the experience points, both of which are unrealistic motivations outside the realm of psychopathic behavior.

However, full looting should carry the weight of carrying the weight. One person carrying another's full set of armor, weapons, and other items away is just silly. There should be strict limits on what one can carry if we are adhering to our virtual fantasy world realism. Pack horses and magical solutions could help, perhaps, but by default, Bags of Holding should not be universal in a full loot system. Additionally, gear, materials, and currency should have to be physically transported in an at-risk state in this proposed model of virtual realism.

The above thoughts on full looting make more sense when gear is balanced effectively with character ability. Making gear effective but in a complimentary rather than primary sense would be key here. Keeping crafters relevant and in business while not completely neutering those who fall in battle seems a tricky balancing act, but it is one worth realizing. Erring on the side of character abilities being substantially more relevant to overall effectiveness than gear seems the safest solution here. Balance in this regard can always be adjusted.

I believe all of this is possible if the realistic application of full PvP is seen through on both sides. Freedom to act is important to making a world feel alive, but when that freedom is offered while not considering its impact on role-playing, or indeed role-playing's impact on it, then both sides lose if the goal is to create a virtual world that is player-driven.