Saturday, June 24, 2017

PvP: It's Not Going To Kill You

This week brought several interesting posts about PvP. Wilhelm took Syp to task, in the mildest manner, over the commonly-held belief that EVE is "a gankbox". The biggest takeaway from the lengthy discussion there seemed to be that no-one really knows what a "gankbox" is. Or agrees on what costitutes "ganking" for that matter...

UltrViolet had something to say about PvP in FFXIV. Once I'd got over the shock of finding that FFXIV has PvP (who knew?) some of his observations had me re-assessing my own attitudes and assumptions.

Lastly, Jeromai had plenty to say about the recent, significant changes to GW2's World vs World. This is PvP I actually know, in some depth, from personal experience and yet at times he seemed almost to be describing a game I'd never played at all.

The crux of the problem seems to me to fall squarely where it usually does - on definitions. Like "MMO", the term "PvP" has become so stretched by overuse, so baggy and warped, that it can be fitted over almost anything. Badly.

I see Commander Chris Goes Deep in there so I'm guessing he ran off a cliff and we all followed. We'd follow him anywhere except to Jade Quarry, which is where he went :(

UltrViolet is uncomfortable with what he describes as "a pervasive attitude of what I’ll call … well, cowardice, for lack of a better term" among PvPers in MMORPGs, something he compares unfavorably with pre-MMO days, when "in a fight with someone in Quake, they usually fought back, and a duel ensued (a duel with rocket launchers)". It's apparent that what underpins his understanding of the term "PvP" is a literal stand-off, head to head, toe to toe, between individual players, conducted primarily, probably entirely, for the honor of a clean victory.

In Wilhelm's comment thread, however, Gevlon defines PvP in an utterly unromantic, purely functional fashion. PvP for the Greedy Goblin is "an in-game reason to fight, you seek to complete an in-game objective". When he says "’s competition" he means competition for resources.

Gevlon dismisses fighting other players for the sake of fighting them as merely a means of staving off boredom or promoting an out-of-game self-image. For him, and indeed for several other commenters in the thread, PvP is primarily a means to an economic or political end, not any kind of an end in itself.

Jeromai, meanwhile, in a series of lengthy, detailed and thoughtful essays, analyses both his actions and his motivations, which, unsurprisingly for any regular reader of "Why I Game", largely seem to revolve around testing and refining the limits of his own skill and ability.

The new reward system gives me the pip.

These three approaches, which most likely represent only the shallowest foothills of the mountain of nuance that exists to be scaled on the topic, amply demonstrate that, where any discussion of PvP is concerned, what we are most likely to see are people talking past each other. As in all negotiations, without agreed definitions at the outset, little progress can be made towards consensus.

It would help if, when we talk about PvP in MMORPGs, we made it clearer what kind of PvP we were talking about. There are well-established names for some of these subdivisions, after all.

Let's take Dueling, for example. Dueling is the apex of the consensual, one-on-one, "honorable" fight. Most MMOs offer it in some form or other.

I absolutely, utterly loathe dueling. It was the single aspect of EverQuest I most hated from the moment I began playing. In all the time I ever played, from 1999 to now, I only ever dueled once. That was in a Guild event, when I did it with extreme reluctance so as not to seem "difficult". I won, easily, as it happens. No-one was more surprised than me.

My objection to dueling has nothing whatsoever to do with whether I would or would not be any good at it. My issue is with the extreme intimacy. I find it skin-crawlingly creepy. To be locked in a virtual rope-fight to the death with another human being is just beyond anything I ever expected or wanted to discover in a fantasy world. I set all duel acceptances to "automatically decline" where the game allows and never accept or respond to them where it doesn't.

Left a bit..left a bit...right a bit...FIRE!

GW2's complete lack of a duel function is unexpected and also one of the very best things about the game. Unsurprisingly, I don't try to replicate dueling there in the kind of lone-wolf WvW roaming Jeromai describes.

I do, however, travel alone in WvW all the time, scouting, taking objectives, simply moving from place to place. I'm not remotely apprehensive about being alone and vulnerable because, as Hording says in Wilhelm's thread, in "games with no consequences you just shrug and continue from the graveyard or waypoint. Who killed you – who cares?".

If someone attacks me in when I'm alone in WvW I simply wait for them to kill me. Then I waypoint and get on with whatever I was doing. I have no skill as duelist and no interest in acquiring any. My interests and aptitudes lie in matchplay. I want our team to win. I want to do my part. Dueling harms not helps that objective so I feel virtuous for avoiding it.

When I play, even five years in, I care whether we hold all our own keeps. I care whether we win the Skirmish and the match. I care where we place in the table, even though everyone agrees the whole scoring system has been so broken for so long it's effectively meaningless.  

It doesn't much matter to me that it's all pointless, repetitive and silly. It's an MMO. Of course it is! I'm as easily able to suspend my disbelief to become immersed in the fortunes of my server as I am to believe that each battle against Tequatl is the only one needed to defeat him forever, even though I already killed him twice today and the moment he dies I can look up his next scheduled appearance on a website created for that purpose. If you can't believe, why play at all?
Personally, I'd "fix" WvW by removing every single "reward" other than the score. If that means only a hundred people left playing then at least it would be the right hundred.

GW2's mass combat - army against army, battling to take and hold territory - is perfect for me. It removes all of the uncomfortable intimacy while retaining a very strong sense of purpose and identity.

That same approach  - wanting to be an effective part of a team and to see the team prosper - scales well. I prefer the larger stage but I enjoy most types of instanced, group PvP. I liked all the various Battleground options in DAOC, Warhammer, Rift, WoW, and EQ2, but they come with a self-limiting factor that's absent from WvW, which I can and do play, quite literally, for hours at a stretch.

I find battleground matches exciting for a while but they come with diminishing returns - after an hour or so I begin to feel enervated. Still, I always go back, eager for more, once my synapses have had a chance to discharge.

When conflict-phobic players like Syp talk about PvP in terms of dread they generally don't mean the kind of sanitized, organized, structured - ultimately safe - play we see in instances, however large or small. The two things that terrify them, it seems, are the specter of loss and the prospect of becoming a target.

I'd keep the bags - I just wouldn't put anything in them.

I can see their point. No-one likes to lose stuff or have their time wasted. Even dedicated PvPers don't like a bully. Few rational voices will be raised to defend the handful of sociopaths who spend lonely evenings on their max-level characters or level-locked twinks, killing the same newbies at spawn over and over until they force the hapless neophytes to log off and uninstall.

Still, there's a world of difference between that kind of apocryphal abuse and real, open-world PVP as it actually happens, be it consensual or otherwise, with or without item or xp loss, level restricted or FFA.

Yes, in theory it can seem a bit more unsettling, certainly more personal, to be jumped by another player when you're alone in the wilds, especially if you're half-health and locked in a tough fight with a wyvern at the time. In practice, though, is it really very much different to being blindsided by a Sand Giant as you concentrate on killing a mummy, only to be rooted by a ghoul as you try to run away? Or, worse, being trampled by someone's train as they exit the dungeon just as you zone in?

Pre-WoW MMO worlds - even Vanilla WoW, by reputation - were dangerous places. You didn't need your PvP flag on to get ganked - a griffon or a werewolf would take you out without malice or mercy just as quickly as any player. You could lose a level or, worse, your corpse and everything on it.

They also serve, who only stand and scout.

We lived in fear every day of our gaming lives back then. And, yes, having players as predators did make it scarier still. But not orders of magnitude scarier, the way random, unconfined, unexpected, non-consensual PvP appears to so many MMO players today.

I'm not advocating a return to xp and item loss as standard. Nor am I nostalgic for the days of Zone Sweepers and corpse runs. I'm certainly not suggesting all MMOs are better with PvP in the mix. I don't, by and large, choose to play on open PvP servers, given the option, even now. Virtual life can be hard enough with just the A.I. on your case.

All I'm suggesting is that PvP comes in many flavors. A little taste of it, once in a while, can be delicious. A whole meal can be gloriously satisfying, provided you order from the right menu. It's an acquired taste, for sure, but, like most such, it's worth acquiring.

It's been a very, very long time since the letters "PvP" included anywhere in the description of an upcoming MMO caused me make the sign of the cross and back away. Now I take every case on merit. As Dire Necessity says about Syp's oft-repeated concerns over the risk of being ganked " He’s really not talking about EVE as typically played at all, he’s talking about the stories he hears about EVE."

In most MMOs these days the only thing to fear from PvP is the fear of PvP itself. Don't listen to scare stories. Try it out and see for yourself. What's the worst that could happen?


  1. This might inspire me to finally write down all my thoughts about PvP. :) I've had a post about this in the back of my mind for ages but never been able to organize my thoughts.

    I agree that people are too fearful of PvP in general. PvP in most of the major AAA MMORPGs is fairly benign. I think part of it though is not so much the fear of getting killed but the loss of control over your playing time. With PvE you have a good idea of how much you can accomplish in a given period of time, but with PvP it's more random and requires a more flexible time commitment.

    Anyway great post!

    1. Thanks! It's a very big topic. You might need to do a series!

      The potential effect on what I can do in a session is the main reason I tend to avoid PvP servers in MMOs that offer a choice between PvP and PvE.

      I think the MMO that did best at accommodating PvP and PvE players on the same servers without wasting the time of either was probably Rift. Their opt-in flagging system that also auto-flagged you for AE damage or healing a flagged player made for a very organic and dynamic experience.

    2. If you enjoyed DAoC's battlegrounds you would have loved WAR's. You could level up in the at least as quickly as questing, and gear loot dropped from player corpses as if they were npc mobs. One of the few things WAR got right from the very beginning.

  2. To paraphrase Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, "I can't define ganking, but I know it when I see it." That post of mine, which was a last minute, off the cuff ramble that replaced what I had planned to post at the last minute, certainly seemed to draw some comments, even if it didn't decide anything.

    Gevlon's views on PvP are far too utilitarian to my mind. For him it is bad unless there is a concrete objective to be won. And there certainly are such things in EVE Online. The forums often buzz about "conflict drivers" and things that groups will fight over. But sometimes you shoot other people to make a point or to define territory or to project power or so that next time the other guy will think twice before they setup a gate camp in your space.

    And then there are the meta grudges, as between the Imperium and Circle-of-Two, which frankly make the game interesting.

    The problem is, as UV notes, that PvP depends on the other side showing up when you want them to. You can spend time roaming and not find anything, or I'll be at work and I'll see a ping come up about a huge fight and know it'll be long over before I get home.

    And, as a high sec mission runner was lecturing me a while back, a lot of people like to know what they are getting for their time invested. PvP cane be the antitheses of that, as you might not get a fight and you might not be better off win or lose.

    1. One of the big mistakes ArenaNet made over WvW, in my opinion, was to ban all "match-up" threads from the official forums. To avoid spending customer service time on monitoring and taking action over the relatively small amount of name-calling and taunting that occasionally got out of hand, they decided to put a stop to any and all conversations related to what many players see as the main purpose of the game mode - direct competition between known entities with a history between them. What with that and the complete anonymization of individuals, maintaining a healthy loathing of the opposition can be a challenge.

      As you point out, when it comes to PvP that goes on for years, it's the grudges that generate the interest that keeps people playing. A wise developer would both facilitate and manage that aspect, not try to wipe it out of existence.

      As for the unreliability of PvP as a form of entertainment, I learned that the hard way in my first real PvP game, Dark Age of Camelot. The relief when they introduced Battlegrounds and I could spend my weekends actually fighting instead of running through endless miles of greensward hoping to spot someone who wanted to kill me...

    2. WAR's battleground system was even better then DAOC. You could level up at least as fast as questing, and players corpses could drop gear loot like just like npc monsters. One of the few things that game got right from the beginning.

  3. Sadly, my lengthy essays about solo roaming are mostly from lack of alternatives. My current server is suffering from a dearth of competent commanders and in matchups against more populated, more commanded servers.

    So my options are: run as a small straggly unccordinated group led by someone likely to have -less- situational awareness than myself and get run over by a larger group dedicated to tracking down and eliminating such targets, achieving no progress for both the server and oneself; or learn to develop one's own situational awareness and ability to evade uneven odds fights and actually garner a few small wins here and there while the overall loss continues.

    I think it helps to know what aspects of PvP one enjoys and which are complete dealbreakers. I don't like games where the prospect of loss or negative progress is possible. Hence, I don't play Eve or other sandboxes where equipment or inventory loss is possible or can set you back to a crippling point of being a naked newbie or worse than. Other people are fine with that, and they can deal with those types of games as a result.

    I am okay with games where local number advantages/disadvantages happen - hence I can deal with WvW where a lone person may happen to run into a mob of 30+ people (though preferably, I'd like to have a solution/response that can prevent me from getting killed = steatlh/waypointing away works for me.) If not, I would be better served sticking to games where PvP occurs in controlled number matchups between teams of 5 and so on.

    1. Tarnished Coast is in a bad place right now after the pummeling they got when they were trapped in T1 and the mass defections that caused. On the other hand, I've played against them on my EBay account (currently linked with Crystal Desert) and they seem well able to hold their own if the likes of BG/YB/Mag aren't on the field.

      It's relinking at the end of the week and that makes a huge difference. YB + FC is highly competitive all the way to T1 whereas YB+AR tops out in mid-table and YB alone falls to T4. If TC gets a strong link the entire feel of the (combined) server could change. At least you'll get some new commanders. (Zudo, who you mention and who came to YB with the Alliance, where he was welcomed for a while but left as a loathed oppressor, is still playing every day. I have him on my friends list. I think he's on JQ, not sure - he moves around a lot. I got fed up with him and his crew before they left YB - he quite literally does the very same thing every single night for the exact same period of time. You could set your clock by him.)

      I don't mind xp loss from PvP too much but I'm not keen on significant item loss. I think losing a ship in EVE is entirely different - it makes sense that the ship you were in should be destroyed when you lose a fight in which our enemy was trying to destroy your ship. I suspect if I did play, though, I'd just pootle around in the absolute cheapest ship - I pretty much do that in all the games I play casually anyway!


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