Monday, February 19, 2018

The Race Question

A couple of weeks back, Syp used Massively OP's "Daily Grind" column to ask a pertinent question: "How do you feel about the increased focus on PvP in upcoming MMOs?" It was, I thought a remarkably restrained choice of words. Hardly click-bait, more the title for a term paper. 

But then, you hardly need to sex things up to start an argument over PvP.  It's been a hot button topic in MMORPGs ever since I began playing. A disturbing number of people tend to take positions on the subject that seem indistinguishable from religious conviction. Fundamentalist religion, at that.

Video games in general and MMORPGs in particular are riddled with enough moral ambiguities to keep a university department in research grants for decades but it's PvP that tends to act as the lightning rod for moral hysteria. Well, it was until lockboxes came along, anyway.

My own attitudes, both emotional and rational, have changed significantly over two decades. In answer to Syp's question, I feel sanguine.  PvP hasn't scared me for a very long time and if I have any moral qualms about what we do in MMOs these days I could apply them just as readily - perhaps more so - to many of the things we take for granted in PvE content.

That's a can of worms that might be worth opening another day but for now I have a question of my own: why does PvP have to mean players killing other players? Or to put it another way, why are MMORPGs so reluctant to include non-fatal but directly competitive content?

The reason I ask this is because I've spent a quite ridiculous amount of time this last week or so running races in GW2. I got all the achievements on all three accounts long ago but still I find myself hanging around the starting line in Divinity's Reach hour after hour, waiting for the announcement that the next race is about to begin.

It's not because I want to win. I'm usually on the rented mount without the skills and without the skills you ain't winning zip! It's not even because I want to prove I can win. I know I can win. It took a lot of tries but I did, eventually, win a race and I can prove it. I have a screenshot of my character's name being broadcast across the map (which is all the reward you get) because of course I have a screenshot.

All those italics go to show how involving and exciting I find it, even when it's over. It's bloody good fun, that's why I keep doing it! Unlike the races I enjoy in other MMOs like EQ2 and DCUO, it's not a time trial against the clock, nor even an asynchronous competition against the scores of others shown on a leaderboard. It's an actual, for real, proper race, with tactics and strategy and thrills and spills and personalities.

Why isn't there more of this kind of thing in MMOs? It's not that it doesn't exist at all. When it does exist, though, it's usually tucked tidily away in a corner somewhere, set off in an instance or inside a building, safely out of sight lest it frighten the monster-killing masses.

Take WoW's pet battles. They're a major feature I've yet to try it (free accounts are locked out) but as far as I can tell from my research, although you can play against other players, it's not player vs player in any sense that matters. Not only does everything happen away from the crowds in instances but according to WoWpedia, Blizzard has gone to extraordinary lengths to make the experience as close to fighting an NPC as possible:

"the player's opponent is represented by a randomly selected player character. They may be of any playable race, of either gender and faction, and may wear any of a variety of often quite impressive armor. The opponent's representation does not appear to be related to their actual character; meeting the same player twice in a row will yield an apparently entirely different opponent"

When EQ2 added its own version of pet battles way back in the first expansion, Desert of Flames, it was allegedly as a sop to the demands for PvP. Once again it was PvP by proxy, teams of creaturees controlled by players fighting in an arena. No-one really played it and now it's gone.

GW2 did, for a while, try to make a feature of  non-fatal player versus player content. There was Keg Brawl at launch, swiftly followed by Crab Toss and Southsun Survival, then Sanctum Sprint. None of them ever really garnered much of a following outside of achievers trying to eke out every last point, even though Southsun Survival is eerily similar to the mega-hit PUBG.

Nowadays you can only do the activities when they come up as a Daily and even then your chances of a good, competitive match are slim. Someone will always just idle until the timer runs out. They didn't want to be there anyway and if you attempt to play competitively they'll most likely yell at you in chat to stop wasting everyone's time - particularly in Keg Brawl and Southsun Survival, which can go on for a while if someone takes it seriously.

I'm sure there are plenty of similar examples from many MMOs but compared with the sheer, overwhelming volume of PvE (players killing monsters) and PvP (players killing players) content, the incidence of true, direct, real-time competition between named individuals under a given, non-fatal ruleset seems vanishingly small.

Why is this? Is it that players just don't want it? Or is it that letting players kill each other is just so much cheaper to design and code?

Surely it can't be hard to set up races. It seems like it would be cost-effective, too. If you add a course and ring a starting bell players will gather like a pack of Pavlov's dogs. It - and they - could run forever.

I'd love to see more races. I thoroughly enjoy racing in every MMO I've played that features it, even though I'm far from expert at it - with one glaring exception. Ironically, I'm unable to enjoy the only MMO specifically designed around racing - The Crew -  because I'm so bad I literally can't get out of the tutorial. There's a race there you have to beat to qualify for the main game and I can't do it.

But why stop at racing? I'd love to see a whole raft of competitive mini-games in MMOs. We could have quiz competitions. (The only MMO I recall that had quizzes was Zentia but those were against NPCs). We could have timed, competitive mazes or puzzles. We could have in-game board games, something roleplayers always ask for but which developers tend to be reluctant to add because supposedly it "takes people out of the game" - as though the endless instanced dungeons and raids and guild halls didn't do that already.

All these things are possible and I'd love to see them as options but let's be honest, what I really want is more races. Big, noisy, exciting races that encourage dozens of players to career through major population hubs, cornering wildly and falling off bridges. Flashy races that draw the attention of bystanders and make people feel like cheering - or joining in.

It's fun trying to beat your own best time or get your name higher on a leaderboard but it's nowhere near as much fun as using every trick you know to gain a few inches on the guy in front, the guy who just beat you to the tape last time. I'll take any kind of race but that's the best kind.

Anyway, Syp, if you want to know how I feel about the increased focus on PvP in upcoming MMOs I think it's unimaginative, unambitious and obvious. I think it's an easy option and I think it's lazy. It's not that I object to PvP- I'm completely fine with it. I'd just like some genuine competition that doesn't involve fighting, for a change.

I want more races!


  1. It does make me wonder, what would an MMO with no killing (of players, NPCs, wildlife etc.) look like? How do you go on adventures and quests and so forth when you can't just murder your way out of a problem? What if killing was possible but had much more severe consequences (psychological, legal, etc.)?

    1. I think there have been one or two. There was one set on a space station - I think it was called Seed - but it folded very quickly. Endless Forest doesn't have any combat but then it barely counts as a game. Is there any combat A Tale in the Desert?

      I'm sure you could design a very competitive and even exciting virtual world/MMO without allowing any combat or killing but whether you'd get an audience I'm not so sure...

    2. Oh, and replying to myself, there's Ever, Jane! I haven't played since early alpha but I'm guessing there's no overt violence although there'll be plenty of cutting people dead!

    3. Yep, there’s no combat in A Tale in the Desert. There’s plenty of competition if you swing that way.

      Besides formal Thought puzzles and in-game minigames accessible from a Shrine of Conflict (, there is plenty of indirect competition when only limited numbers of players can accomplish an achievement (aka pass a Test) weekly.

      The Test of the Obelisk is often the first one new players encounter in their progression and that’s when they realize nothing is hunky dory kumbaya community in Egypt. Social minded individuals try to diplomatically organize a ‘queue’ system - which, curiously, always has themselves as one of the first ones in line; while competitive achievers thumb their nose at this and build monuments to excess, forcing others to outdo them if they hope to win that week.

      Conflicts are resolved in other ways besides player character killing character, since that is not possible. It goes from the ideal of talking it through like mature adults, using an in-game mediator as a third party, communicating like immature adults with the corresponding unhappiness, one party swallowing their unhappiness and living with it or just moving away to a different area, mutually griefing each other until the area or object of conflict is now unlivable scorched earth and/or one or both parties quitting the game. Now that’s some PvP right there.

    4. Hmm. "MMO without combat", i think that's also how some people described Second Life. Being around for well over 10 years now (almost 15 even, i think), i would say that it sure found its place on the market.

  2. Are you playing the race card here?

    Even the auction house can be seen as PvP, at least if it is done right. EVE Online, without any magical delivery system, a fact that makes location a function of price, has a lot of dedicated sales PvP players looking to make their fortune.

    But there is something about PvP that really bothers a lot of people. Again, I often see this in people raging about EVE Online and I wonder "If an NPC attacked you, would you be as mad?" There is something about the thought of a real person getting the best of you that seems to some irk people. I suppose we like the predictability and reduced complexity of computer opponents. I forget who said it, but the optimal NPC would be easy to beat but not feel like it was easy to beat.

    1. Heh - kind of! I thought it was funny, having praised Syp for his restraint, to use a click bait title of my own.

      Economic PvP is almost as big a feature of most of the upcoming MMOs as the physical violence kind. Outside of games that are already considered primarily PvP, though (like EVE or Black Desert for example) I think overt conflict via the auction house (deliberate undercutting to drive people out of business, cornering the market etc) tends to be seen more as something you might report to Customer Service than legitimate gameplay. People moan about it constantly in GW2, both on the forums and in game.

      As for difficulty, what you'd want as a developer would be something that makes every player feel skillful, competent and daring without requiring your players to have any significant levels of skill, competence or initiative at all. PUBG seems to be nailing that right now from some reports...

    2. Yes, market PvP does seem to upset some people a whole bunch. I'm surprised the market in GW2 would attract complaints. At the levels I played it seemed to be flooded to the point of driving everything to the lowest possible price.

      I also wonder if any game company has ever done anything at all in any situation when somebody is playing the market well. Of course, the reason the market gets that way is because the game economy is out of whack.

  3. I don't know if you ever tried it, but GW1 had Polymock added in one of the expansions (EoTN maybe?). It was this board-game like battle. As I recall it was PvE only, though I think the mechanics would have been fairly easy to expand to PvP. I was actually somewhat surprised that with the prevalence of the Asura in GW2 Polymock never made it to that game.

    1. I almost mentioned that but I don't really understand Polymock well enough to place it in context. I did try to play it in GW1 when I was playing a few years back but as I recall it had some pre-req I didn't have and didn;t want to take the trouble to get. I may be misremembering though. There used to be regular requests on the forums for it to be added to GW2 but I haven't seen it mentioned for a while.

      There's some form of Golem Chess in Metrica Province in GW2, I think. I played that a long time ago. I seem to remember reading it was removed in one of the new player revamps. I think ANet are distancing themselves from mini games in general these days other than as part of holiday events.

      There is Belcher's Bluff though. I forgot that one. That's actually a good example of the kind of thing I mean...shame it's such a horrible game.

    2. While i wasn't the biggest Polymock master, i played it enough to get all rewards from it. All in all, it seemed a lot of rock-paper-scissors to me.

  4. I can only tell for myself, why i don't usually go for the activities in GW2: i find most of them not particularily interesting or well done.

    The exception is the race to the top. It has a bit of a Super Mario Cart feeling to it. (Not that it would rival that game, but it's actually fun and thus vastly superior to all the other daily activities. )

    Part of all of them is that they give you a completely new toolset but no time at all to learn it. Instead you are dropped into it and the timer is running. And before you figured anything out, it's over again and you lost.

    That's implemented frustration. And while i -might- push myself to learn it, my wife then just declares that she hates it and we do something else, which is more fun... so who am i to argue with that?

    In contrast, the current race in Divinitys Reach relies on your mount and movement. You don't get a new toolset, which you have to learn within short time, while other players are already attacking you. Instead you already know everything, now make good use of it. Thus it's much more accessible, which puts it miles ahead of all the other minigames GW2 has.

    1. Yes, they are all pretty bad except for Sanctum Sprint. The thing about the movement abilities in that one is that, at the time it was introduced, most were a key feature of the Living Story so everyone was already familiar with them from the main game. Some of the other abilities on the bar were new but again, when it was introduced, most people were running Sanctum Sprint over and over again for the Achievements so everyone got to plenty of opportunity to learn them. Now that it just crops up once or twice a week as a daily and most people only do it one time for that, the learning curve seems a lot harder than it was originally.

      The same applies, to a slightly lesser extent, to Crab Toss and Southsun Survival, both of which were key features of a specific update. Keg Brawl is the only one that came with the base game and I doubt many players other than those playing Norns ever bothered with it.

  5. I think part of the answer is that its not the game play advertised. The same reason why a lot of people dislike quests that put you in vehicles or give you a specific weapon with its own abilities.

    1. I can't argue with that. I have very often been annoyed by quests or special events that take my character away and make me play something else. Which is why races that let you stay as your character and use your regular skills is the way forward!

  6. Interesting subject for a blog post.

    In SWTOR, there is a part of the community that has been clamouring for the introduction of certain non-deadly competitive mini-games that were part of KOTOR pretty much since launch, specifically swoop racing and Pazaak (a card game). The devs actually tried setting up racing internally but apparently the verdict was that the game's engine couldn't handle it in a satisfying manner, meaning that the person winning the race might not actually be who appeared to be winning on your screen. I could observe this while mock-racing guildies on our normal speeders while on voice chat. "Haha, I'm winning, I'm just a little bit ahead of you!" "On my screen, I am ahead of you!"

    Neverwinter made a decent attempt at trying to include some simple competitive PvE activities on its launch maps. They were called "contests" and ran every ten minutes or so. They usually had objectives like being the one to kill the largest number of a certain mob, collect doodahs off the ground or "tag" the most number of neutral mobs. Based on how quickly they abandoned the concept in their expansion content it can't have been very popular.

    They still try though, especially during seasonal events. The summer festival in particular comes to mind with its water balloon fights and Sahha (a sort of volleyball/football hybrid).

    Even though I haven't played WoW Legion, I also remember reading about that expansion introducing a fashion contest between players...

    1. LotRO had the same problem you cite for SWTOR.

      For many years, the festival horse races in Bree and the Shire were competive, with up to four players running races that began every 15 minutes.

      The devs changed them to "one player vs. timer" because there were so mnay complaints about players seeing a different winner than the server did.

  7. The soundtrack played during racing is very nice. This is enough reason for me to go for just another race ...


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