Monday, April 16, 2012

My MMmanifesto - PvP

The importance of PvP to an MMO is serving as a driving force, as an endlessly renewable vehicle for the rest of the action in the game world. Yes, we're back to that 'coherence' thing. If done right, it is a much cheaper way of creating varied content than PvE because of the lesser predictability of the players themselves. It is also the most straightforward form of player interaction.

The problem is usually that PvP is introduced as 'a feature', just one more activity for players to indulge in, separate from all else. It has no point. This appeals only to the idiotic masses who go in for the sadism of ganking as a reward in itself or for the endless dick-measuring contest of who won such-and-such duel. It's as if soldiers were shooting each other in the real world just so they can yell "lulz dood i totally fragged u ur noob omg" across the trenches. Building a PvP-centered game means building a world in which players have something to fight over, in which they are competing for resources or for goals greater than self-aggrandizement.

There are two basic variants for PvP in a persistent world: freeform and faction-centered.

Freeform is the closest to the 'sandbox' ideal and it's the one i generally push whenever i talk about a persistent world. The world is filled with resources. In the standard fantasy setting this means there are animals walking around waiting to be killed and skinned for body parts which can be made into various usable goods. There are trees that can be chopped down, seams of metal ore to be mined, bodies of water to be fished, unique monsters to track down for unique crafting components, etc. The trick is being the one to get access to those resources while being vulnerable to attack at any time. The megalomaniacal dream of becoming a big cheese of an ever-growing group of players rests on building cities, houses, ships, blimps, whatever your programmers can cook up, but that in turn has to rest on securing the resources for all that PvE through PvP, which is in turn fueled by PvE crafting of weapons and armour, food and spell reagents, padlocks and lockpicks, all of which is in turn fueled by smaller-scale PvP... dear sweet morning-star, please tell me there are at least some of my fellow apes that can understand this pattern.
The 'story' of that MMO becomes the expansion and shifts of power between various player groups. Your personal character advancement is the role you play in that competition. I remember a PvE player (only interested in trading) in EVE saying "and then such-and-such war started and my friend and i just cashed in on running ships, guns and minerals to the borders of both alliances, easy money". A good PvP-centered game creates its own demand for PvE.

There is an alternative, which i'm not quite so big a fan of because it's less grandiose, less complex, and that's the pure PvP game, logically (though i suppose not necessarily) centered on faction combat. At character creation, players choose a faction to join and fight against the others. This is basically a team PvP game taken to MMO proportions and it's already been done, with some success. Planetside provided excellent examples of both good and bad features of the concept, the worst of which are the difficulty of creating group identity within the larger faction and the lack of personal choice. Still, the 'massive' aspect is there, as hundreds of players at once shift across the map trying to take various objectives based on their strategic importance to their faction.

In any case, the worst excuse for PvP is the half-hearted attempt to slap something on top a PvE game just to be able to advertise that you're offering PvP. For one thing, the game mechanics are very different. Crowd control is more important for PvE because it can easily become overpowered or have to be nerfed for PvP. Movement speed changes, on the other hand, are easily overpowered in PvE but crucial to PvP. A game system that tries to mix the two will predictably make neither side completely happy. Sacrifices have to be made.
A PvP-centered game can have plenty of PvE, but it won't have those highly complex 40-player fights against 'raid bosses' where every player has his particular role to fill.
On the other hand, PvP in a PvE game is pretty much pointless. All of the player abilities are likely designed to make things interesting against monster AI, but that means little tricks like incapacitating something for 30 seconds will be impossible to balance against other players, and aggro management will end up serving no purpose. PvPing ends up meaning playing a gutted, simplified but still unbalanced version of the PvE portion of the game, usually in an 'arena' or 'battleground' that has no connection to anything else. Anyone with more than half a brain can see you can get better gameplay on the same scale in any Counterstrike or Quake ripoff.

It goes without saying that there is no place for PvP rankings in an MMO, nor for PvP rewards. The rewards are the resources to which your player group gets access for winning the fight. If there was nothing to fight over, no resource node or rare animal to skin, there should be no reward. Rankings are just an idiotic dick-measuring contest that belongs only in deathmatch FPS games, never in team games. An MMO is about the world itself, not the individual players.

addendum the secondum:
PvP mechanics also concern the game engine. Companies are used to graphics as the biggest selling point, but for a PvP game, responsiveness is crucial. Even though an MMO likely will not anywhere in the near future provide twitch-gaming because of increased lag, the players must still be able to quickly and reliably control their characters' movements. Regardless of whether or not they're pretty, the graphics must scale smoothly with increasing numbers of players in an area, and all effects, icons, character details and so forth must be created to be first of all recognizable and provide feedback. You have to be able to instantly see whether your enemy has drawn a sword or a bow or whether your fireball was resisted or not, and this feedback must not interfere with any of the rest of the mountain of information on your screen. Low-key, simple graphics are often the best way to go.
To spell it out even more clearly, developers, you can save some money on the most expensive part of the game. Please. Skimp on the graphics.

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