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On Afterthought

Editorials By Ray Vanderlip II on April 10, 2006

On Afterthought

EVE Online
EVE Online
Dark Age of Camelot
Dark Age of Camelot

Editorial: PvP and MMORPGs

Ray Vanderlip contributes this look at the most contentious feature in MMORPGs

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes." - Morpheus

Red has always been the color of danger. In UO when you became a PK you went Red. When you choose a server that is based on PvP it is called a red server. If you choose a PvE server it is a blue server. Which do you choose when given the choice? To some it’s an easy choice. To some it’s a labor or epic proportions to decide if it’s worth it. Is it worth the time investment? Is it all that it promises to be? Will the time put in equal fun?

Game after game, one thing continues to strike at the heart of the situation; PvP is often an afterthought. It is the bastard child of the MMO. There are reasons for this and at the same time those reasons are found to be suspect in many gamers’ eyes.

To this day, the majority of the MMO populace shuns the idea of Player versus Player interaction (PvP). They renounce it as a breeding ground for griefers and in some cases they would be right. However most of those same people have never gotten the chance to experience it first hand or in a way that made them feel empowered. Therein lies the rub, the fear of being unable to do anything to overcome the power of a stronger/more skilled player. No one likes to lose and in PvP there is always a winner and always a loser even if one player manages to get away with their life (and inventory) in tact. There is no redo. You can’t just go back and redo an encounter like you would a normal PvE event. No player is generally going to wait for you to come back bigger and stronger (though generally most players that want a challenge will hope to see you again in better fighting form.)

Players that live and die by PvP conflict find themselves faced with promises of satisfaction at the hands of competent teams of developers that swear that they will deliver. What those players find instead is often a watered down version of what they had hoped for and that’s IF their favorite game gets PvP at all. In many cases it is cut out completely in favor of PvE (Player versus Environment) conflict instead. The watered down version is often a surprise and is like going to take a sip of your favorite drink and instead finding that someone’s slipped in some seltzer water to make it look like the drink you ordered but it certainly doesn’t taste much like it.

There are reasons that PvE and PvP are in conflict with each other more than just whether or not players want to take part in one or the other more. There are balance issues involved. What may be balanced for a PvE encounter may not be balanced for a PvP encounter. Players must make judgments based on what they need or want most and make sacrifices based on those judgments. A character designed for PvE will not do well in a PvP encounter. A character designed solely for PvP will not do well in a PvE encounter. These are generally true statements. What skill can be used on a mob may not be fair to use on a player. Incapacitating spells such as roots, snares etcetera are especially suspect in instances involving PvP and even more so the question of thievery in PvP situations comes up as a point of contention for rogue lovers no matter the game. Balancing abilities and skills for use in PvP and in PvE is difficult and inevitably someone suffers for it.

In general, the majority of leveling and progression in a game is based on PvE interactions. The idea of experience for PvP is fairly controversial and loved and hated both. Shadowbane (of which the future is unknown) recently offered this ability to gain experience for characters rank four (40) and above. Many say that it was about time someone did it, but at the same time the question arises of whether this would be the last that someone does it at all? The most obvious argument against it is that it makes it possible for people to ‘farm’ other players and rewards griefing. Of course with kill checks this can be avoided. (aka diminishing returns/rewards for killing the same player multiple times.) If anything it would seem to be incentive to move on. If you aren’t receiving experience from killing someone anymore it might be better to find someone else to pick on. Right?

Contrary to the idea of PvP as an afterthought is PvE becoming the afterthought and the effects that it has as well. Again, Shadowbane’s very foundation was built on player versus player conflict.

Per an interview with J. Todd Coleman formerly of the soon to be deconstructed Wolfpack Studios and one of the founders:

    Coleman: I don't know. We've always tried not to take the critics and naysayers too seriously. After all, the audience loves to boo and hiss as much as they love to applaud and cheer.

    It is sort of surprising, though, how many of the more recent game announcements have included PvP to some degree or another. One of the reasons we chose PvP was because it was the pariah of the market — as a small company up against EA, Sony and Microsoft, we thought the best strategy would be to pick a niche that (a) we enjoyed, and (b) no one else wanted to touch.

    Somehow the concept of a dynamic, player-driven world went from being "a naive idea that will never work" to the "holy grail of MMOG development." The key difference between this perception isn't actually a technology or design revelation, but a recognition of a marketing truth — regardless of how well Shadowbane does, we were right about one thing: players certainly seem to want more control over the fate of their online worlds.

It is the sole goal for players to build cities worthy of defending and then either siege others or be sieged. It is a kill or be killed world and PvE is seen as a grueling (albeit quick) task that is not an enjoyable aspect of the game. Despite its flaws in the PvE realm, fans of the game deem it to be the best PvP available. Others would argue that Dark Age of Camelot or Eve Online would be up for the title as well.

There is no telling what is to come for the PvP set in the future. There are many games that are searching for that balance between the two aspects however, for the ‘hardcore’ set it is like watering down their drinks and telling them to ‘drink up’. Server hybrids of PvP and PvE are offered but truly free for all PvP is a red pill that developers don’t seem to want to take. You can’t take it back once it’s designed in. They want a purple pill; one that offers rich PvE encounters and a little PvP on the side. They want to bring in the larger PvE based audience because hardcore PvPers have yet to prove they can foot the bill and are often accused of chasing off the softer more gentle players that get tired of being kicked while they are down.

With monoliths like World of Warcraft showing large subscribers and a limited PvP style, it is unlikely that too many developers are going to want to step out of their comfort zone and look into how far down the rabbit hole really goes. There is a mistake to be made in concentrating on one end of the spectrum or the other too much, but at the same time there is a richness that is being missed by being too ‘safe’.

I strongly believe that there is room for a successful (true) PvP focused game to come out of the gate. Who will it be? Some are watching Dark and Light and some are watching Darkfall Online both of which promise a rich and involving Player versus Player and Realm versus Realm style of gameplay. Both games have been in production for a relatively long while as well. Some are also keeping an eye on Age of Conan. Will they be aggressive enough for the hardcore players? Will any of them deliver as expected? Or will some other unexpected come out of the woodwork to capture the hearts and minds of the many? I would point out that without PvP, role-play is hollow and meaningless, but then I’d have to launch into the fact that there is hardly any RP left in MMORPG as it is. Perhaps that would be best addressed some other day. For now those that are a part of the scorned (aka the Pker or hardcore PvPer) will continue to wait in the shadows for the next best thing.

Editor's Note: Ray Vanderlip is the husband of Danielle "Sachant" Vanderlip, who serves as the assistant community manager of Shadowbane until May 15th, 2006.

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