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PvP Fail: How PvP Can Break Your Game

Scott Jennings Posted:
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Nothing starts more arguments on MMORPG-focused message boards and blog postings than the topic of Player vs. Player. Call it PvP, RvR, PK, whatever you like, it is the subject that will rouse more passions than any other, bar none. For some reason, some people really like killing other people. And other people really don't like being killed. Go figure!

I've written several blog postings about it myself, as has anyone who's written about MMORPGs for more than fifteen seconds. Invoking PvP is the Godwin's Law of gaming discussions - in any discussion of game design, the longer the thread, the probability that someone will introduce PvP as either the reason for its subject's success or failure approaches 100%.

While this makes message boards alternately interesting and tedious, it does make for interesting considerations from the production side of the fence. So this week, I'll touch specifically on two fairly obvious ways that Player vs. Player can break your game on the wheel of pain, from a game development point of view:

We're Going To Make The Best Damned MMORPG Ever, Because Everyone Else Who Ever Made A MMORPG Is Dumb

A poorly kept secret of game development, as I've mentioned before here, is that game developers usually are game players as well. Not only that, they tend to be fairly hardcore game players. I mean, if they've made game development a career, chances are good they're hardcore by definition. Hardcore players tend to be attracted to player vs. player as a game style, because it's one of the "endgame" play styles in MMORPGs and attractive to players who are bored with AI opponents.

So, you know those message board threads, where the guy who runs a PvPer guild posts all the time, sick about how game developers are clueless zeroes who could never understand the purity of his vision? Yeah, sometimes they make games.

Those games are usually train wrecks, because the developers are so passionate and so sure about their vision that they have no perspective whatsoever. Shadowbane was the primary proof of this concept - a group of developers who cut their teeth on a hardcore PK mud, and spent years bringing that vision to life, in short bursts between postings on message boards about "not playing games to bake bread, but playing them to CRUSH!" (a direct quote from the game's art director, later memorialized in the game's marketing). When Shadowbane finally launched, it was an innovative sandbox-PvP design that was crippled by game-killing bugs, tedious leveling, and exploit-ridden combat. (In a footnote that cannot be touched for irony, most of the founding developers of Shadowbane later moved on to KingsIsle, and the successful tween-friendly and not at all dark and hardcore MMO Wizard 101.) Other games such as Fury and (to a degree that approached self-parody) and Darkfall had similar trajectories - developers affected a boisterous swagger, egged on by manic fans, in postings and interviews which quickly ebbed once the game was released. Surprisingly, the uncompromising purity of vision doesn't survive long when you actually have to deliver on the vision and discover that many of those derided compromises had rationales.

The best way to avoid this is to avoid tunnel vision. Sure, you and your friends that helped found your company may be True Believers, but hire the experienced, shell-shocked, twitchy guy who's worked on a competing PvP game, and listen to his war stories. Experience is out there, and can be learned from. Failing to learn from that means you will most likely make the same mistakes, yet again.

Of course, refusing to compromise on your vision isn't always a disaster. The poster child for this is EVE, a game which has always embraced its calling as the game that defines hardcore space combat PvP. The game has grown steadily, to the point where it is one of the most popular MMORPGs on the market with over 300,000 subscribers, many of whom have made legends, without ever compromising on its initial vision - a virtual sandbox, on a single server, where one player can challenge the universe. Sometimes everyone else IS dumb.

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Scott Jennings