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Column #5: Open PvP

Nathan Knaack Posted:
Editorials 0

Nathan looks at the concept of open player vs. player combat

From Chutes and Ladders to the latest MMORPGs, games are based on rules, quite often strict guidelines of behavior what qualify participation as acceptable or not. Abstract games tend to have rules just as off-the-wall, but any game that at least attempts a vague mimicry of real life usually includes rules to that end. Aside from a few notable exceptions (like Puzzle Pirates or There), most MMORPGs try to incorporate real world physics and social interactions whenever possible; some have even tried to get as close to real life as possible, like in World War II Online, where 99% of all shots are one-hit kills. Most modern MMORPGs fall somewhere in between though, with a mix a bit more weighted towards real life. You fall when you step off a cliff, just as shopkeepers won’t trade with you while you’re attacking them. While these basic rules make for an interesting environment, they cannot hope to accommodate (perhaps “baby-sit” would be a more accurate term) every possible player or playing style. For every honest role-player out to enjoy the game, there are two or three sleazy power-grinders out to exploit bugs for any advantage they can get.

This is where those annoying “invisible wall” rules come in; when a designer just says “no” to a certain activity instead of dreaming up elaborate systems to dissuade or curb it. Most players are going to unconsciously understand that if they go ballistic with their crossbow in the middle of a large town, they’re going to get dog-piled by the local authorities, but there’s always that one guy that tries it anyway, isn’t there? If he gets off enough shots, he might just kill another player, so most games have thrown up an invisible wall rule to prevent all combat in civilized areas. Non PvP zones are an unfortunate evolution of the “casual era” the MMORPG has recently entered. Do some games avoid that stereotype? Sure. However, I think we can all see the direction in which the industry is moving. The primary issue at the heart of the softcore/hardcore debate is, naturally, PvP. Some people think it should be an on/off switch, some enjoy strict safe/unsafe zones, while others lobby for completely separate PvP servers.

Here at Outside the Box, we understand that nobody is going to whip up a few dozen games to satisfy every preference, (especially with the bulk of the MMORPG industry’s fetish for copycat design) so the theme of this discussion is, and has always been, how we can unite as many people as possible in one game, one title with enough stability, content, and solid gameplay options for anyone to enjoy? How can you have a game that caters to casual (short term) as well as fanatic (long term) players, while also allowing them to enjoy a softcore (safe) or hardcore (risky) style? Also, is any/all of that achievable with as few “invisible wall” rules as possible?

The reason some people dislike the idea of open PvP is the same reason they dislike PvP in general, but that has more to do with the level system (see the previous article) than when and where the combat takes place. If they were much more likely to have a fair fight than just get surprised and stepped on like an insect by someone ten times their level, I think many more people would enjoy PvP instead of fearing and complaining about it. If an alternate form of character advancement can be developed, open PvP is that much closer to a reality.

Speaking of reality, what is it that stops you from hacking your neighbor apart and taking all of their gold? Morals? Laws? Consequences? Risk? Probably all of the above in different quantities, but the fact is that real life has completely open, unrestricted (physically) PvP, yet combat outside of war is a cumulative statistical rarity. Yes, some areas have high crime rates, but a very small percentage of the population actually commits or is the victim of a crime on a daily basis. In most games, the greatest enabler of unwarranted PvP combat (often called “ganking”) is the fact that there are no consequences, and even if there are, they’re certainly nowhere near permanent; in most cases, they’re not even mildly annoying or uncomfortable. Remember that age-old moral dilemma: “If you could get away with murder, who would you kill?” Well, in MMORPGs, that’s not much of a dilemma for the average ganker because there’s nothing stopping them and usually no meaningful penalties for their actions anyway.

What if there actually were permanent consequences for your actions in MMORPGs, ones that would stick with your character for his or her entire career? What if attacking a player with an open affiliation to one city might mean that you can never, ever return there without the powerful authorities attacking you on sight? How about a fantasy world in which worshipping a benign deity would provide you with worthwhile advantages, but attacking any other player you would result in falling out of favor and completely losing those bonuses? Obviously, self-defense would be the lone exception to the above two concepts. If that city was the only place to buy certain powerful items or that benign deity was the only one that granted a very desirable power, players would really think twice before committing a deed that would forever prohibit them from enjoying those benefits.

But what about all of the situations in which a player can be a general nuisance without actually attempting to kill anyone? In games with avatar collisions (players bump into one another instead of sliding right through them), you always see that one moron who decides to go AFK in a busy doorway. Then there’s the jerk who buys up every individual item of one type available, then puts them all back on the market for twice the cost. What about that annoying kid who sits in the center of town, constantly shouting at everyone who walks by to inquire if they’re a girl in search of romance? What if you could report these people to the local authorities, then if enough complaints are received, that person’s reputation with the location in question worsens, perhaps even to the point where they’re thrown out and cannot return? This also solves the problem of what to do about the gang of gankers that lurks just outside the town walls, killing anyone who enters or exits, but never faces any consequences because, according to the program, they’re outside the city’s “jerk detection radius.” Is that system exploitable? Yes, but instead of one person flying “under the radar,” exploiting a bug until the moderators take notice, exploiting this system would require a mass effort on behalf of tens, even hundreds of people. An abuse of the system on that scale will quickly and easily attract the proper attention from the game’s administration.

Going along with another concept brought up in last week’s article, I believe that ganking would be significantly reduced if a game came along that made newbies valuable resources to be petitioned and nurtured instead of hunted down and killed for sport. When you first log into Lineage 2 or (old school) Ultima, you’ll likely be ignored for months by established guilds or killed on sight by hungry gankers, but if you’re polite and helpful, you might get an invitation in your first ten minutes online to join one of the premier squads of WW2O or corporate superpowers of Eve Online. Is that because more mature people play those games? Perhaps. Probably the biggest reason, though, is that those games put a lot more emphasis on teamwork and cooperation than the “lone badass” philosophy of gameplay. By reinforcing the benefits of fresh recruits, new players are much more likely to be sought out and recruited than ignored or ganked.

This week’s challenge, if you’re willing to accept it, is to figure out how to tailor an open PvP system that allows for a realistic game world, but still has the ability to cater to casual, fanatic, softcore, and hardcore players. How do you keep anywhere, anytime PvP a possibility to keep people on their toes without making it an inevitability that favors aggressive ganking over good, honest role-playing?

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Nathan Knaack