Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Come And Have A Go If You Think You're Hard Enough (Emotionally)

There's been something of a blogging roundtable on PvP going on recently. J3w3l has most of the links in these two posts as well as a thoughtful take on PvP as end-game content.

As must be plain from yesterday's breathless report on the current state of play in Yak's Bend's bid for Tourney glory, I'm far from averse to a little consensual PvP action, or indeed a lot, but I wasn't always quite as blase about being virtually murdered. I chose Everquest over Ultima Online as my first foray into online gaming specifically because of the horror stories I'd read. Spending two hours chopping wood only to be chopped down yourself the minute you stepped out of the forest. That sort of thing.

All the same, the idea retained some kind of sick fascination and I did make characters on EQ's Zek servers although I never really played any of them to any meaningful level. Actually, it was kind of hard to level up on Rallos Zek, the Free-for-All ruleset server, seeing as how a brand new character could be and usually was ganked on spawning into the game for the first time.  I don't believe I ever got my Ogre as far as his guildmaster even though he was probably standing only a few feet away.

When Dark Age Of Camelot arrived it was a very big deal. Western fantasy MMORPGs were not thick on the ground back then (I know, hard to believe...) and a new one was something quite special. As I recall, Mrs Bhagpuss and I were moderately apprehensive about the Realm vs Realm aspect but the draw of a new world to explore, not least one based on myths and legends we'd grown up with, was too much to resist.

DAOC was where I learned three things:

  1. I enjoy PvP, in moderation.
  2. PvP and PvE sit uncomfortably together.
  3. Left to their own devices, other players make poor content providers.
Number One is largely a matter of personal taste and personality. For some people the entire concept of entertaining yourself by doing bad things to other people, even if the bad things are imaginary and the other people said they were up for it, is just morally wrong. For others there never comes a time when getting shanked by a player playing a rogue feels the same as getting shivved by a rogue running under AI.

Plenty of people, for all kinds of perfectly good reasons, don't like, and will never learn to like, fighting other players. Plenty more, while naturally nervous at the start, will soon get the hang of things and find that, like roughage, some PvP now and again makes for a healthy MMO diet.

PvE in the open world. It stands for Player vs Exhaustion.
 Number Three has been discussed here before. DAOC hadn't been out for very long at all before some of the shortcomings of the concept and design began to make themselves felt. Leaving aside the problems of my hardware, which turned large battles into slide-shows, DAOC fights could be both thrilling and entertaining but they were also utterly unreliable. If you come home from work on a Friday night ready for a little blood-letting, nothing sours the mood like spending two hours roaming an empty borderland looking for someone to fight.

Mythic didn't take long to recognize the problem, which is how we came to get instanced Battlegrounds. If you were looking for trouble you'd come to the right place. Except that even in Battlegrounds it turned out not everyone came just for the fight. Some people wanted to win. There were evenings where I spent two hours waiting in vain outside one of the other team's portal keeps for someone, anyone to come out because no-one wanted to move until they thought they had enough troops. Sometimes there just weren't even numbers so no-one fought anyone.

As time went on the process got refined and revised by other developers in other games. WoW, Warhammer, Rift, EQ2 - they all have automated matchmaking systems for their instanced PvP areas, drawing from a sufficiently large pool of people, usually cross-server, to ensure enough turn up to get a fight started. Specific objectives, often with timers and rewards, ensure that there's action, not just a staring contest. WoW with Wintergrasp, GW2 with The Mists and TESO with Cyrodiil combine the original "Frontier" concept with Battleground mechanics and spread the result across whole maps, zones or regions.

It's not End Game unless there's a Dragon in it somewhere

That leaves Number Three: mixed content. Some people swear by it, others swear about it. There's no question that it's not for everyone. I didn't play Vanilla WoW but it's notable how many of the rosy-tinted reveries I've read about those halcyon days come freighted with anecdotes about the running battles around Tarren Mill or the city invasions. Indeed, that's become such a predominant narrative that, not having been there myself, I just had to google to find out if WoW actually had any non-PvP servers at launch (it did).

Theme park MMOs, to use that less-than-helpful shorthand, rely very heavily on authored content. It's problematic enough when they allow players to kill NPCs in a kind of PvP proxy war; allowing one player to gank another just before she completes a long and difficult quest...well, you see the problem. Somehow I can't quite see revenge killings standing in for Heroic Dungeons as end-game content for PvE players.

Sandboxes, though, that's a different matter, isn't it? Somehow PvP and sandboxes have become almost inextricably linked in the minds of MMO players and developers, to the point where even Landmark purports to be heading down a road that might include non-consensual player versus player combat up to and including the destruction of players' homes and properties.

There's really no reason sandboxes have to be competitive. They could just as easily be co-operative. Xsyon, the little talked-about FFA PvP MMO once touted as a rival for the rather more talked-about Darkfall, recently chose to open a pure PvE server. Whether that was a flailing bid to keep a sinking ship afloat or a response to in-game demand I have no idea. It did, briefly, make me consider downloading the game though. Briefly.

Opinions are like tails. Everybody has one.

What's the point of all this rambling then? There isn't one as such. There's no right answer, no one true path. I have no great insight to bring to the debate. Mostly its that, much though I might enjoy it if it happened, I find the idea that any form of open world PvP could ever stand in for constructed, organized developer-led content quite hard to swallow.

The numbers of PvP servers and the size of their populations in what we might call mainstream MMOs suggests that both demand and take-up among players is relatively low. Even in large, successful MMOs that have easily accessible instanced PvP my guess is it goes unused by the majority of players. My guess is also that, expensive and time-consuming though it may be to produce, some form of top-down, provided content, be it dungeons, raids or narrative events, is likely to make up the bulk of end-game content for PvE MMOs for a good while yet. Player-made content like that found in Neverwinter's Foundry may carry some of the load but the real heavy lifting is still going to have to be done by paid professionals, much though their paymasters might prefer otherwise.

Unless someone can come up with some entirely new idea. That'd be nice.





20 comments:

  1. You could still do world PVP on non pvp servers in early vanilla wow. Non PVP servers only prevented PVP in starting zones. In fact in early vanilla wow you could get loot off of the gaurds and they didn't respawn at stupid rates. I don't like pvp but I do have fond memories of defending astranaar and dolanaar. There was just something perfect about coming to the defense of your characters homeland.
    This is from a PVE player that has never enjoyed PVP in any other game he's tried it in.

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    1. That's very interesting. It explains why so many people have those stories to tell. It's also a surprising design decision considering WoW was heavily based on Everquest's five-year run as the most successful Western MMO and PvP had only ever been a very small and quite controversial part of the mix.

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  2. I interested to see how EQN will use storybricks to create dynamic events. Let`s hope that it works, that will open a new path for MMO development.

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    1. I think we're all interested. The question is whether any of us will live long enough to see it actually happen!

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  3. I've been talking about this on many of the posts in the roundtable, so short answer to you here is: I think the reason most people in the big "themepark" MMOs today don't PvP, especially open-world PvP (OWP), is that there are no consequences to it. In the instanced, ladder-PvP it is simply a sport like tennis or football. All you're trying to do is climb the rankings. In OWP you don't even have that. There is literally no in-game gain for engaging in it if you are the winner, and as the loser you simply have lost some time out of your PvE play. Not only that, but there is no recourse for the victim, no way for them to exact restitution or retribution in a form that would satisfy.

    Bring in a justice system. Bring in consequences for your actions, both amongst players and amongst NPC organisations. Bring in a way for victims to get restitution and/or retribution. Big games are starting to do this (ArcheAge, Age of Wushu, Black Desert) so I hope that other developers sit up and take notice. I think it will take a few iterations to get to a game where the world is built around systems that both promote and regulate OWP, but I am sure that we'll get there. There are other considerations that I feel need to exist in order for my ideal to work, but at the heart of it is the concept of real (in-game) consequences.

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    1. Better motivation, more interesting systems, consequences - that all makes a lot of sense - for players who like PvP to begin with. Unfortunately, I doubt any of it would change the minds of what I'm fairly sure is the large majority of players who just don't want their PvE interrupted by PvP at all.

      The thing about PvE players, even the highly-motivated and adventurous ones, is that they like to learn patterns. That's basically what PvE is - pattern recognition. You can see how very poorly PvE players react to any content that is unpredictable. They don't mind it being complex and hard to learn - look at the willingness of raid guilds to take weeks wiping to learn a new boss - but in the end they want to have everything down to a fine art and be able to win every time, no question. Ditto group players with dungeon content. The goal is to get everything to farm or speed run status.

      They often complain about being bored but what they mean by that is that they want new patterns to learn not to have unpredictable elements added. And that, of course, is what PvP is - unpredictable. Players, if they are any good, won't let you learn their patterns, let alone put them on farm status. The bad ones who find that's being done to them will either get better or leave.

      Some PvE players like battlegrounds because they have rules and win conditions which make them reasonably predictable and because they largely get to fight other PvE players who often aren't all that much better at it than they are. Open world PvP offers none of those comforting softened edges. Knowing that, should you get ganked, something bad might happen to the person who ganked you is beside the point. PvP players might be re-assured by that - PvE players just don't want to get ganked in the first place.

      I think Sam above is more on the right track. Human beings are very territorial and very social. If you can trigger both those factors then there's a good chance you might get them to fight to defend the places and people they feel are "theirs". The trick there is getting anyone to care enough in the first place. Established franchises with a history of emotional involvement have a shot at that. Brand new MMOs filled with back-story no-one cares about, or at least not yet, are going to find it an uphill task.

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    2. I never thought about the difference as being about patterns, I mean, of course pve is about learning set actions and such but as the main focus of learning it makes sense. PvP is that unpredictability but there are also many systems that you can predict, actions you can take that minimise unpredictability.

      I agree that it isn't for everyone but would still like to see it incorporated within a system although there should be many options within this system where such people can mostly avoid it. I'm not sure the mechanics, or the perfect development... I just know I want more and I think a more open PvP is a part of that.

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  4. Huh. I don't even remember what the name of my server is. I hope it's not supposed to have a "strong community".

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    1. My guess is that on even servers considered to have the strongest community the players constituting that community are a minority and that the majority is unaware that the community even exists. It does, though, like Australia exists even though I've never been there. At least I think it does...

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  5. There must be something to open world PvP. I'm theoretically a carebear but after I'd tried a PvP server back in WoW I couldn't go back to PvE. I tried but it just felt indescribably pointless and tame.

    A similar thing happens in ARPGs. Once you have gone hardcore in Diablo there is no going back.

    The problem is that this doesn't make either PvP or Permadeath infallibly good things. Just because you don't want to go back doesn't mean you still want to go forwards. Until the end of time I can't play WoW unless I feel like some PvP and I can't play Diablo unless I feel like some permadeath. I don't think I want to do either as often as the devs would like.

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    1. I can honestly say open world PvP has never had that effect on me. It's more like visiting someone who has a large, poorly-trained dog that insists on jumping up at you every time you get up to go to the bathroom or make a coffee. You can put up with it but it's annoying and if it keeps on happening often enough you end up yelling the dog and falling out with your friend over it and about the only thing you can say in its favor is that it really makes you appreciate the peace and quiet when you get back to your own home.

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    2. I know what you mean and I don't actually enjoy the process of open-world PvP on account of always losing. For whatever reason though, I miss it when it's gone and can't opt out of it. The pain makes me feel alive. Or something.

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  6. "Human beings are very territorial and very social. If you can trigger both those factors then there's a good chance you might get them to fight to defend the places and people they feel are "theirs"."

    This is what DAOC did correct, as well as tieing in a key piece of PvE content to PvP success. If you can put something physical in front of the pure PvErs that shows what you can gain from PvP success (in DAOC's case the Darkness Falls dungeon), it helps to grow that realm pride.

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    1. In the early days and months of GW2 people on the forums were always suggesting that what WvW needed was "something like Darkness Falls". That dungeon certainly seems to have made a huge impact on a lot of people. I never liked it all that much although I think the mechanic of having a PvE area that is only accessible if your team is successful in PvP is an interesting one.

      Whether it instills realm pride or simply plays on PvE players' self interest, though, I'm not sure. In GW2 the achievement system certainly does the latter very effectively but I've never seen all that much sense that server pride increases along with the population when a new set of Achievements bring people to The Mists.

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    2. The problem with having something to fight for is that it only works for as long as you value it. At best you get a false-read of how popular your fight really is, at worst you get ignored (like most of the contrived WoW open-world PvP objectives)

      GW2 did pretty well at WvW-because-reasons. It was fun so we did it. Anet's resolve is weakening though and bribes are starting to emerge. No game is ever improved by the introduction of players that don't like to play.

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  7. I like PVP and was big into DAOC.

    I hate impossible odds PVP. That isn't to say because they brought a bigger force and was better organized, but that the levelling system in all MMOs are ridiculous. Two levels higher and the lower level has zero chance. 10 levels higher and the higher player can typically kill 50 of the other team. The power curve is so out of whack that it has nothing to do with skill, and everything to do with levels.

    I argued in one of my old favorite posts that you have to flatten that curve to have meaningful PVP. Level 100 player? Two level 50's can kill him quite handily if he isn't careful. Or 4 level 25s. A level 100 character (or max level, I am just throwing around numbers) vs a level 1 - or starting character, in pretty much any game, can't even HIT the higher level - let alone compete. Even if they brought 100 friends. 1 AOE and they are all dead.

    PVP is fun when it is competitive, not abusive.

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    1. I think most modern MMOs avoid that to some degree either by scaling of one sort or another or by banding. It's never 100% effective and an up-leveled or bolstered character is always weaker than a natural max level but it certainly removes that "no hope if there's even a couple of levels between them" thing.

      I wonder if there are any MMOs made in the last five years that have, as the main part of their PvP offering, direct PvP between characters from the full level range?

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    2. STV in WOW was bad for this. Top level characters just crushing everyone beneath them. My point was more for open world PVP than the battlegrounds.

      If you had reasonable power bands, you wouldn't limit battlegrounds by number of people, but by relative power. So 10 level 20s might face 7 level 18s, because the balance of those levels and numbers makes it a fair fight.

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  8. For me PvP comes back to this quote from the above blog entry:
    "For some people the entire concept of entertaining yourself by doing bad things to other people, even if the bad things are imaginary and the other people said they were up for it, is just morally wrong."

    Never did understand S&M never wanted to take part in it, yes it may have cost me some 'interesting' encounters when I was younger but I feel that I would have been lessened by the experience. For me PvP particularly OW FFA PvP is just virtual S&M.

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    1. This is a viewpoint which I heard a lot back in the early days of EQ (generally without the S&M analogy although you're absolutely right that to pick that out of the quote - I did put it in there deliberately). There used to be a very vocal, active demographic among MMORPG players who objected to PvP because they felt it was just plain wrong. You don't hear it nearly so much now as did back then. I imagine most of those people have found other pastimes, and also attitudes in society to this kind of thing have probably changed somewhat.

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