Tobold's Blog
Friday, June 19, 2009
Unbundling MMORPGs - Part 1

At the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 about 6,000 English archers won a surprise victory against over 20,000 French knights. Shortly afterward the forums exploded with unhappy customers: The French were calling the archer class overpowered, and demanded it to be nerfed. They also complained that the English had grinded a lot of experience with their archers, and spent a lot of time getting their longbows. The English on the other hand were furious about server imbalances allowing the French to outnumber them 3 to 1. Knights having much cooler looking armor apparently made lots of new players choose that class, and the English were worried that the French would just zerg them once their n00bs learned2play. :)

When discussing combat systems, I always get a lot of comments from people saying that yes, one player against one PvE mob combat might be boring, but PvP, especially large scale PvP, was a lot more interesting and tactical. That might well be, although my experience in Alterac Valley or WAR keep sieges suggests strategy is often reduced to zerging. But the reason why I think that PvP doesn't work in MMORPGs is a very different one: The motives and requirements for good PvP are incompatible with standard PvE MMO gameplay.

Standard PvE MMO gameplay is about character development, making your character stronger first by gaining levels, then by accumulating gear. Good PvP is all about balance and fairness, so one player being better geared than the other is already counterproductive. A class balance that works well for a PvE raid is unlikely to work well for PvP, because PvP combat doesn't rely on artificial mob stupidity regarding aggro control. A PvE game profits from having a large world in which players can freely move, but if you have that in PvP you end up with both sides attacking the other at some undefended location. For PvE you want graphics that make every character look different, showing off his achievements in form of the epics he is wearing; for a PvP game hundreds of different looking characters and the need to display all their stuff usually causes lag and server crashes. And the list goes on and on.

So I wonder why game companies feel they have to bundle up all those incompatible features. Why not have one PvE game perfectly balanced for PvE, and one PvP game perfectly balanced for PvP? I am sure a much better PvP game could be designed if there was no PvE in it, with bigger, and better balanced battles. And classes in a PvE game could have a lot more variation if they didn't need to be balanced for some PvP part. And why first cram both PvP and PvE into the same game, and then try to make sure that being good in one part doesn't help you too much in the other? Unbundling PvE from PvP appears to be the much better solution to me.
I think that unbundling the two systems from a single game would be a terrible decision. Even though I mainly PvP, I still like being able to hit a 5man with my friends or jump into a raid if a buddy needs a healer. I don't do it that often, but it's nice to know that I can if I want to. It helps prevent burn out, and in the end, that alone will save subscription fees.

I'm not WoW's biggest fan right now, but WoW is working toward the best PvP/PvE balance I've seen in a long time with patch 3.2 and granting XP through Battlegrounds and increasing resilience's utility (and thus lowering PvE gear's desireability in PvP). It's like there are going to be two separate games existing in the same world, but it gives players enough of a choice that they can hop back and forth whenever they wish, whereas if the two were separate games, players would be artificially limited in what they could do, and so move on to a game that offered more content.
I'm not sure it needs to go as far as that. By actually splitting the game, you impede the players who like a little bit of variety.

However, I think there is a case for having different rulesets on PvE and PvP servers. The same basic content would be available on both, but the classes would be balanced differently.

Blizzard have already gone half-way to doing this by changing the way certain spells work depending on whether the target is a player or a mob (e.g. diminishing returns on CC).

This way, the players could choose to prioritise the kind of balance that was most important to them and you could avoid the ceaseless homogenisation of PvE classes in the name of balanced PvP.
Tobold describes the current identity crisis ongoing in Darkfall.

The Darkfall developers lathered up the PvP crowd for years, but ultimately delivered a classic, deep, stat-heavy cRPG.

What was released is incompatible with the sport of casual competition. Tobold nailed many of the causes: huge game world (read: travel times), long power progression, high power ceiling.

Darkfall is a rich and beautiful game if taken as a classic, immersive CRPG in a PvP MMO world, but it will need to decide which market it wants to serve.

If it is to be a playfield focused mostly on PvP, its design must be reworked to support it.

My hope is that it could remain a game for players who want a deep and immersive RPG world. I doubt it will, though. It seems like a safer financial move to change the game to fit its current audience, than to try to change the audience to fit the current game.
I agree completely. I think PvE and PvP balance should be completely separate. EQ2 has quite a good system where every ability has PVE effect and a PVP effect, meaning spells can behave quite differently depending on the situation.
Yes, many players enjoy both PvE and PvP. I doubt I would play a PvE only game. That's a niche game.

Now, a PvP only game would also be a niche game -- Planetside is one. Although I like PvP, I also want a chance to engage in some PvE, so a game with very good PvP like Planetside also failed to hold my interest.

WoW is evolving into a good balance of both. It's rich in PvE during leveling, and then offers raiding and crafting and faction gain.

WoW also has the battlegrounds, arena, Wintergrasp, and PvP servers, although open world PvP in WoW isn't all that active.

I can't imagine any MMO with aspirations beyond a niche title or a web browser game being PvE only at this stage.
EverQuest had this separation. There were a few PvP servers, but it was from the core a PvE game.

Did WoW win by allowing/introducing "casual World-PvP"?
Not at all. Even more so with the introduction of flying mounts, it is virtually dead.

Beej said WoW is working towards the best PvP/PvE balance seen in a long time. Well, even the best DIKU MUD balance is still rather BAD. The classes were developed with a role in mind, that works beautifully in PvE - but in PvP, you have an entirely different situation. Balance for both areas of the game and it becomes complicated and I dare to say near impossible to even get a halfway satisfying balance.

Guild Wars has PvP and PvE separated, PvP only takes place in arenas, but using the same skills.

The problem is, skills are mostly balanced for PvP for obvious reasons. But the PvE game is an entirely different beast and is a bit restricted by PvP balance considerations and just needs different skills. I.e. more area effect spells, as players usually fight larger numbers of monsters. They introduced some pure "PvE skills", but at the core the problem still persists:

PvE and PvP mix so well like oil and water, they simply don't.

I would like that at least one developer finally has the guts to make the "largest minority" of pvp players (mostly the Bartle type "killer" faction) unhappy and exclude them and make game for the huge and even more diverse PvE faction.

Or to make a game for the PvP interested players in mind.

The thing is, there is the so-called "Mordred-phenomenon" described on Scott Jennings Blog "Broken Toys" (Mordred is DAOCs PvP server.):

IMO: If you want to fight other players, play something else, but not a MMO. Play a MMO if you at least sometimes want to play with other players, even if you are among the huge mainly solo-playing crowd of today.

@Mark Asher: PvP in WoW is marginalized and heavily restricted in the whole world and got driven off to the arenas and battlegrounds. It even has specialized armor, with the resilience stat mainly interesting for PvP.

I am afraid it is not going to work to have the "best of both worlds", balance issues and design decisions for one side will always negatively affect the other one.

PvP is also a disturbing factor. Just see what happened to Ultima Online. The PvE world Trammel vs the PvP world Felucca (you could switch between these "facets", for those who do not know UO)

People voted with their feet, the PvP world was almost as empty as DAOCs "Mordred".

Is that worth it, just to have a little bit PvP now and then?

I would rather suggest playing the upcoming online-version of Mount & Blade, which will be all about PvP. :)
On the other hand, I can imagine a PvP based MMO world.

Let factions fight for resources, so that crafters can craft them new weapons to fight for even more resources.

Maybe even with a final objective, obliterate the enemy faction's capital - and then restart the world.

I could imagine a conquest based pvp system to work, in fact I would even prefer it to today's arena and heavily restricted and meaningless world pvp systems.
The problem with PVP in those games is a lack of coordination. Games such as savage offer a nice alternative. PVP with one commander who can give commands and has a top-down battlefield view. That way people won't just run around like headless chickens.

PVP vs PVE has been a long running problem in WoW. Why would I do these instances if with some PvP I can get a better epic weapon? Oh no, they nerfed my DPS just because my class is OP in PVP. I don't even play PVP, the bastards! Etc etc.

Splitting it up wouldn't be a bad idea. I feel the PVP in WoW for example is lackluster. Only a handful of battlefields to choose from. And it feels like a something they just added later to get more customers. A game that focusses on PVP or PVE can concentrate their resources. And they won't have to worry about "I can't change that because it will affect PVE/PVP".
"I would like that at least one developer finally has the guts to make the "largest minority" of pvp players (mostly the Bartle type "killer" faction) unhappy and exclude them and make game for the huge and even more diverse PvE faction."

The problem is that the player base isn't so cleanly divided anymore. There are a lot of us who prefer one or the other, PvE or PvP, but even if we prefer one we don't want to do without the other.

I prefer PvP. I don't raid in WoW. I enjoy the battlegrounds.

That said, I also questing, killing mobs, working on tradeskills at times, and doing all the PvE things besides raiding that are there for me to do.

I think there are a lot of players like me -- you take the PvP out of the game and lots of primarily PvE players will be unhappy. You take the PvE out and players like me who prefer PvP will be unhappy.

If you're going for a big audience, you need to include both.

If you're going for a niche, well, do whatever you want -- make World of Crafting even (Horizons!).
I don't think pure PvP is a great basis for an MMO. It's just the nature of a wartorn world that there wont' be end to end action 24/7. There will be a lot of waiting around, there will be a lot of strategic occupying territory while waiting to be attacked.

So pure PvP has long boring parts and brief exciting parts. That's just how it is.

So what do players do when there isn't much PvP on? I think this is where PvE or arena-type PvP fills a gap.

It's part of the persistent nature of these games that people expect to be able to log in any time and play. They expect to log in for any period from several hours to 20 mins and find something to do. (Maybe these expectations are unreasonable but that's what games are trying to offer now.)

So I think a variety of activities helps plug the gap. I kind of agree with you that a PvE only game could work just fine. PvE players don't necessarily need the PvP side (I often ignore it myself). Although having strong in game factions is quite useful for getting players into communities.
The Agincourt analogy made me smile. Thanks mate :)
Why not have one PvE game perfectly balanced for PvE, and one PvP game perfectly balanced for PvP?

Arena net have gone this direction with Guild Wars. Many skills now have a different function in PVE play to PVP play and some skills are restricted to only one mode of play. This does allow them to balance each mode of play independently.

One downside is that it tends to widen the gap between pve and pvp players even further. A pve player who just wants to dabble in a bit of casual pvp will get a rude shock to discover that some of their favourite skills don't work any more.

Mind you I am beginning to doubt if there is any such thing as casual pvp.
WoW's solution to the problem was dual spec. People can tell themselves that it was designed to let PvE players have a solo spec and a raid spec, but the truth is that it was so players could have a PvE spec and a PvP spec, the non-PvPers just get the side benefit of 2 PvE specs.

I actually agree that the best games would be where there is a split, either PvE or PvP. Blending the two just ends up with whining by somebody.
Actually, there WAS class balance at Agincourt but the English players just had more SKILL!

Seriously though. Guild wars recognized this early and pvp play is totally separate from pve play. On the other hand, Blizzard seems to try to accomodate both by watering down all classes in pve in order to achieve arena balance.
You don't need (or want) to split PvP and PvE, you just need to pick which one your game is based on, and balance around that. The issue with WoW is it tried to do both, and every PvP balance patch messed with raiding, and every raiding balance patch messed with PvP.

EVE is balanced around PvP, and the PvE is slotted in around that balance. It's a non-issue that what is useful in PvP is almost useless in PvE (jammers), because the player base understands the game is rooted in its PvP. Same with WAR, balanced around RvR, PvE fits around it. LotRO is a PvE game, and while it has some PvP, skills/items are not balanced around it. Works fine.

Oddly enough PvP balance is more or less 'working' in DarkFall, but the PvE balance is too far off (mobs are simply too tough), yet it's going to be much easier to solve that problem than if it was the other way around.

The problem is not the mix, the problem is when a game company can't decide which side to priorities.
@Mark: I think this is exactly the problem. I want to do both, too. Now and then a bit PvP, and vice versa.

But really, is that worth it to open a whole can of worms and make foul compromises to have both?

It does not end up in having the best of both worlds, but in a game that does not know where its heart is.
Syncaine is quite right in this regard.

Guild Wars exactly has this problem. It was originally meant to have PvP as the endgame, but it turned more and more into a PvE game.

Despite the totally separated nature of PvP and PvE in Guild Wars both share the same skill set.

They recently began to make PvE and PvP versions of various skills as people mentioned, but it is again a FOUL compromise.

The final stage would be to have totally different skills for PvP and PvE. Then the question arises, is it worth all the fuss just to have two souls in one body? Two different game modes in one game?

This attitude that companies want to soak in every customer, from the ultra casual player that logs in 5 minutes a month to the addict hardcore expert, plus PvE players plus PvP players plus everyone and his grandmother just creates disappointment for everyone.

How about making your specific and hopefully large enough target group happy instead of this?
I casual pvp all the time - in CS , BF, TF2.

Problem with doing it in MMO -everything requires time investment , besides learning the game mechanics . I mean I can know my class inside out and be experienced with all pvp aspects -but if I don't have appropriate gear (which includes gems/enchants /profession) I wont be competitive

Guild wars approach to pve/pvp balance is great imho and blizzard better adopt before it drives even more population out of PvP. -Rollercoaster pvp balance is one of main problems in wow.
Maybe this isn't a great idea but I was thinking of it as I read Tobold's post and figured I'd throw it out there. I'll use WoW as an example, since that's what I have primarily played.

Imagine if in a game like WoW, your main character could not PvP at all. Instead at a certain point (like at level 10 or something) you gained the ability to sponsor and apprentice. Your apprentice would be choosen from one of a few PvP specific classes (healer, heavy, range, melee) would gain xp through pvp only and would have a different leveling system that was based more on bracket (similar to fly weight, light weight, heavy weight, etc) which would determine what kind of gear they could wear and such. Your main character could then buy things with gold or PvE tokens, for example, to support their apprentice (mounts, potions, trinkets, etc.) but major gear and ranking would be earned from battlegrounds and arena.

In this way, PvE could be balanced around PvE, since the classes would be seperate. The same with PvP. Some of the PvP classes might mimic the PvE classes but they would be built from the ground up as just for PvP. Just a thought.
Because it is about a coherent world!! And not just about a game.
Tobold: Even the PvE side of the current wave of MMORPGs is fundamentally broken. I wrote about it on a blog I contribute to:


There is a lot of progress to be made in both PvE and PvP areas. Just because they do not seem to work together well now doesn't mean they cannot work together. "Unbundling" them just means you have people paying more to get the same amount of content and they have to advance TWICE as many characters to the same arbitrary power levels in order to be competitive.

MMORPGs have just been poorly designed at their very core for as long as I can remember. It's not time to rip it up, it's time to work on coming up with design ideas to overcome the difficulties.
Great opening lines, Tobold! Being an MMO player and a historian you had me cracking up :-)

This is a bit of a guess on my part, but I think developers add PvP to what are essentially PvE games because they perceive that it's a wanted feature by a significant portion of the existing and / or potential player base. And thus rather handy to have in order to gain substantial additional revenue by either attracting additional players or retaining existing ones.

Of course, there are games where the devs are genuine advocates of PvP.
But with the exception of EVE, there are no successful PvP-centric games. Even Warhammer, which is more of a PvE/PvP hybrid, seems to have suffered a rapid, drastic decline comparable to Age of Conan's. It's still a relatively big MMO, but for how much longer? Or will it gradually but still relatively quickly decline and dwindle, like Dark Age of Camelot?

EVE is a bit of rare beast, in the sense that it's the descendant of both ELITE, with its exploration/mining/trading and PvE combat, and play-by-mail space strategy games, in which individual players or groups of players fought over territory and resources. As such, it stands outside the genealogy of mainstream EQ-style MMORPG's, who are ultimately descended from D&D.
Within that genre, I suspect that PvP can ONLY flourish by riding piggy-back on PvE, and only if two conditions are met: the PvP has to be without consequences for the PvE part, and there has to be some sort of 'achievement ladder' that gives PvP players at least the illusion that they are 'progressing', with all the supposed prestige and various psychological benefits that brings.
In essence, WoW's approach of quarantining it from the main PvE game but simultaneously providing an 'achievement ladder' in the form of status rankings and special gear is maybe a rather inelegant solution, but it allows players an additional activity without which, otherwise, they might quit WoW substantially earlier.

Then again: PvP systems slapped onto quintessentially PvE EQ-style MMORPG's absorb a tremendous amount of resources and run the risk of incurring a lot of negative feedback.
For example, Age of Conan's developers spend a very large proportion of their time and money on the PvP aspects of the game, including entire zones. If they hadn't, the PvE core of the game would probably have been a lot better and above all more extensive; if they had also given themselves an extra year, who knows? Not a WOW killer perhaps, but a damn successful PvE game I bet.
Anyway, consider WoW: only a minority of players indulge in PvP more than occasionally. For how many of these is PvP really the thing that attracted them or keeps them playing? What if they were given the choice between dev resources being spent on PvE content, or a PvP system?
(I am talking here about players who have actually really sampled the PvP system, not potential new players, because PvP is all too often something that sounds great in theory, but falls flat in practice. Before actually experiencing PvP, I was in favour of it. Now, I'm not so sure...)

Because that is what in practice happens with both WoW, AoC and other PvE games: the PvP systems suck away resources from the PvE core. From the developers' point of view, adding a PvP system onto a PvE MMORPG only makes economic sense if the return on investment (in terms of players gained or retained), is higher than when spending the same amount of time and money on improving or expanding the PvE core.
It's hard to compare games with each other since there are a fair number of variables that affect a game's popularity. Darkfall was a failure (based on subs), but was it because the development of the game was so convoluted and financially strapped, or was it because it was FFA PvP?

Then you have the players -- some like only PvE, some like only PvP, and some like a bit of both.

Variety is generally good for keeping players paying and playing, so I would say including PvE and PvP in an MMO is a good idea so long as you have the resources to do both with a sufficient level of quality. WoW, for example, has obviously kept a lot of players happy (or paying at least) having both PvE and PvP, but it has the resources to do so. Other games like WAR and AoC were not able to do both with the same level of quality and have not done as well as a result.

We'll never know how WAR or AoC would have done if they had completely omitted PvE. I have my doubts that they would have been better though.
Yeah, but what would you guys thinks of a "WAR meets Counterstrike" game having all the PvP of WAR, without the need to level up first or grind for gear? You log in for the first time, and you're right into your first city siege. Wouldn' that be better than having to play PvE even if you don't want it?
"Unbundling PvE from PvP appears to be the much better solution to me."

One interesting counter-example to this is EVE's Apocrypha expansion. Specifically the Wormhole and W-Space features.

Players engage in PvP, for access/control over the W-space systems. In the systems is PvE content, consisting of sites guarded by Sleeper NPCs, who behave a little more like "real" players than EVE's standard mission K-Space.

CCP have implemented a PvE and PvP mutant mashup that's accessible (compared to Alliance space-holding), fun (ditto), profitable (so my ex-Corpies tell me), and popular.
@Tobold: There's already plenty of PVP-only games created. A lot of them have had successful runs by themselves (see: Starcraft/Counterstrike). The problem isn't isolating PVP from PVE. It's the other way around.

A PVE-only game goes only as far as the dungeons will take the player. However, players innately want to compete against each other, and adding PVP to the mix is a cheap compromise for the amount of increased player experience you get.
Yeah, but what would you guys thinks of a "WAR meets Counterstrike" game having all the PvP of WAR, without the need to level up first or grind for gear? You log in for the first time, and you're right into your first city siege. Wouldn' that be better than having to play PvE even if you don't want it?

Heck yes. Definitely yes. (For me, a PvE version like this would be quite nice as well.)
I don't PvP much. I'm not all that good at it. But I like that it exists in WoW. I like being able to see what my character can do elsewhere. It gives context and some mindless fun without having to switch to a totally different skill set like playing a FPS or even just a different MMO where the classes won't be quite the same.
I think you need a mix in order to get players acclimated to the game. You can't teach a player how to play by throwing him into the middle of a city siege, he'll die and not get raised by the veterans, who usually don't want to babysit noobs.

If it were all pvp, all the time, you'd quickly weed out the less skilled players who might try pvp on occasion in a blended game, but get repeatedly owned in a full one.
Yeah, but what would you guys thinks of a "WAR meets Counterstrike" game having all the PvP of WAR, without the need to level up first or grind for gear? You log in for the first time, and you're right into your first city siege. Wouldn' that be better than having to play PvE even if you don't want it?

How would you market such a game though? Do you develope the game in secret and hope the combat system is fresh enough to draw players from other mainstream games?

After the recent releases of games like Darkfall and such, I'm really beginning to question if a game can incorporate PvP and PvE at the same time while keeping the combat, skill level/attributes(skill trees) and gear systems completely seperate so as to allow players proper bragging rights when victory is actually achieved.

The incontrovertible Victory is what it's all about.
Check out the LOTRO monster-PvP solution. It's perfect for "bundled" games and easily beats WoW's artificially limiting class powers in order to create some sort of balance.

PvP ruins any PvE game to the fact that the balancing cannot (ever) match with the defined class powers AND balance between classes.

A mighty wizard just needs to be destructive, and not one artificially limited, paintball throwing shadow of himself just because he has to stand a chance in PvP against a PvE Deftank he should otherwise just one-hit.
Yeah, but what would you guys thinks of a "WAR meets Counterstrike" game having all the PvP of WAR, without the need to level up first or grind for gear? You log in for the first time, and you're right into your first city siege. Wouldn' that be better than having to play PvE even if you don't want it?

If you do that, you lose the whole persistant world thing. If you're fighting 24/7, it is an unending war in which no one can ever really claim territory. The everlasting scenario is fun for TF2 but it doesn't really fit a persistent world scenario.

Sticking the fighting into instances scenarios is workable, it separates the fun fighty bits from the persistent world. But if that's your whole game then there is no 'world'.
Hello, I wholeheartedly disagree with the OP, which is a shame as I was enjoying Tobold's non-WoW related writings as of late.

My response became a little long to post here:
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