Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Of my discussion of playing with other people, I left out Player versus Player combat (PvP). Games in which people fight against each other online are a huge success. Games like Counterstrike on the PC, or SOCOM on the PS2, or Halo on the XBox are driving those game platforms online. After fighting against bad artificial intelligence for many years, players are very happy to compete against human intelligence by playing PvP games online. So it is only natural that some people, players and game developers, were thinking about adding PvP to MMORPGs as well. With a rather sobbering result:

PvP in a MMORPG does not work.

The first game to make this experience, Ultima Online, nearly killed itself through PvP. A minority of player killers (PK) made life such hell for the majority of people, that many of them quit the game. UO was fixed by creating a mirror world. The same world existed in a bright, PvP-free version, and in a dark, PvP-enabled version. More than 90% of the players stayed on the PvP-free side, causing server problems. And the PK minority on the dark side wasn't happy either, because their side was so empty that they couldn't find anybody to fight with.

Since then, game developers were a bit more careful with PvP in MMORPG. Everquest had 1 PvP-enabled server for 30 non-PvP servers, and that was largely sufficient. Games that tried to pull in a lot of players by offering PvP didn't succeed in doing so. Dark Age of Camelot was one of the more successful attempts, but even there large parts of the game were PvP-free.

So why doesn't PvP mix well with the MMORPG genre?

Reason number one is character development. One of the big driving forces of role-playing games is the fact that your character is getting stronger as he plays. If at level 1 you encounter a big, mean monster that kills you with a single attack, a couple of levels later you will be equal in strength to that monster, and another couple of levels later it is you who kills the monster with a single attack. Now add PvP to that, and you see immediately that it can't work. If Player A has no chance against the monster that Player B can kill easily, Player A obviously doesn't have a chance against Player B in PvP. In DAoC it could easily happen that you enter a PvP zone, and after 3 steps you get hit by a single arrow from a high-level opponent and you die. That is no fun at all to the player that gets killed without having a chance. And the fun to the player killer is also limited.

Reason number two is that MMORPG are not pure PvP games. There is always Player versus Environment (PvE) combat of players against monsters. And there are nearly always other, more peaceful activities, like tradeskills, chatting, trading, or exploring. And all this doesn't mix well with PvP. If you just fought a monster and won, you are most probably wounded, or low on mana, afterwards. If in that moment a player of the same level as you, but fully rested, is attacking you, you don't stand much of a chance either. Being attacked while you are doing something peaceful would also put you in a disadvantage. In UO the PK were often attacking people that were mining, or doing other tradeskills, and were currently not wearing their combat equipment. In SWG fights often started in hospitals and cantina, where people had to go to rest and heal their wounds. If you are going somewhere because you are wounded, you don't want to fight at that place.

Reason number three is that MMORPG have different character classes. That works very well in PvE, as the different members in a group have different roles in combat. The character classes are balanced for PvE. The class with high defence has low offence to balance it out, while the class that deals the most damage is only lightly armored. And then there are support classes, most notably healers (of which I am particularly fond of). PvE combat works by introducing Artificial Stupidity for the monsters. The high defence classes, called tanks, have some sort of ability, called taunt, or provoke, that makes the monster attack them, and not the other group members. Meanwhile the other players are dealing damage, or healing the tank. This system obviously doesn't work for PvP. Enemy players can't be taunted into ineffectively attacking the heavily armored tank. So they kill the lightly armored damage dealers and healers first, and leave the tank standing until the end, as the tank deals little damage anyway, and isn't much of a danger. Character classes that offer both variety and balance in PvE, are suddenly unbalanced in PvP. But if a game developer wants to balance character classes for PvP, he has to give them all equal defence, so as not to create a class that always dies first. And if they all have equal defence, all damage dealers need to have equal offence as well, and the strength of the abilities of the support classes has to be equal in quality to the offence. If one class is better in dealing damage than another class, everybody is going to play that class. So you end up with classes that are more similar, and offer less variety in PvE.

Game developers are still trying to overcome these reasons against PvP in MMORPG. The best solution up to now is dividing the world into classical PvE zones, and specific PvP zones. To overcome the level problem, access to PvP zones can be restricted to people of a certain level or level range. One zone for people of level 25-29, another for people of level 30-34, and so on. Then if you don't add any monsters or other non-PvP environment to these zones, people ONLY go there for PvP, which takes care of the second problem. The third problem can't be solved, but it can be camouflaged. You balance different classes to be all of equal strength, but you make their offence and defence look different. The warrior has a plate armor and big sword, while the mage has a magic barrier and a lightning bolt, providing exactly the same defence and offence as armor and sword.

Another less well working solution is PvP flags. Only if you set a special PvP flag, you can attack other players, and be attacked. Without this flag you are totally protected from other players, but can't harm them either. SWG is doing this. It enables them to have classes that are basically useless in combat, like pure crafters, or even dancers and barbers. But their combat classes are still very sameish, to avoid unbalanced PvP fights. The level problem is solved by having a rather flat power curve, where you quickly reach a plateau, and can only develop your character further by giving up other skills you previously learned. Ends up making SWG rather unsatisfying in PvE.

Still some games try to make universal PvP possible. Usually you get some sort of negative flag when repeatedly killing defenceless other players. In EVE for example you had some sort of score which made the police hunt you if it went too negative, and force you to go hunting pirates to bring it back up into the positive region. Didn't work very well, some people simply didn't care about whether they were wanted by the police or not. And as all travel in EVE went through special worm hole gates, those gates were often camped by PK players shooting down every harmless trader wanting to pass. The EVE game developers are still trying to work out a better system, but they might already have lost too many customers due to PvP. Another game, Lineage II, will also have unrestricted PvP, and people are already reporting PK occurences in the beta.

The best solution is to not mix things that can't be mixed. One could well design a PvP combat game based on warriors, mages, and monsters, with every monster being played by a player, and no artificial intelligence monsters at all. No levels, no quests, no RPG, just pure player versus player combat, well balanced. Counterstrike goes fantasy, so to say. And then do the MMORPG games without a PvP element.

By the way, my favorite online comic strip is PVPOnline. But that one has nothing to do with PvP combat, although it does play in a fictional game magazine company, and thus mentions a lot of computer games, and makes fun of computer game players typical behavior.

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