Sean Bulger's Column

Community Column: Competition Between Players


One of the most controversial topics you’ll run into with online game development – but certainly far from the only one – is competition between players. The very idea of Player versus Player (PvP) content can scare off a number of players and make plenty more question the potential community of any game with it. It would seem that a fairly large amount of MMOers believe that PvP is detrimental to their enjoyment of the game, that it draws in a fairly bad crowd, and it hurts the community for a game. Between the PvP severs of most games and the popularity of primarily PvE games and PvE content, tends to showcase this mindset.

Yet, is it true that PvP is detrimental to a community? Well, beyond shrinking it simply because the game has PvP, that is. Can competition be used to actually strengthen a community? And, is it possible to have competition between players in ways that do not involve the mass slaughter of each other? PvP may be considered to be harmful to a community and draw in a bad crowd, but that may not necessarily be the case. Competition may actually be a boon to an online game’s community.

PvP’s Attracting Power
PvP tends to draw up images of players who wish to do little more than slaughter other people and ruin their fun – thank is, gank them. There are certainly plenty of people out there who have a distaste for what is sometimes known as the ‘PvP crowd’, and many would feel that the inclusion of PvP in a game can harm a community, simply because it draws in a more unsavory crowd as opposed to people who just want to work together.

In my own gaming history, I have certainly seem a variety of games that have lacked direct PvP have rather good communities. The launch community of Final Fantasy XI was simply amazing and during my few trips into Norrath in EverQuest 2 I found plenty of great people and few bad seeds – of course, every player’s mileage will vary.

Yet, to say that only PvE games have solid communities and PvP games simply attract a bad crowd is probably quite inaccurate. I also found a rather nice community during my many trips into Dark Age of Camelot, across several servers and every realm. EVE Online had some… interesting people, but a ton of great individuals that I had the pleasure of meeting – that definitely includes people hanging out in lawless space. In fact, to steal a story from a friend of mine, he had just started the game not much more than a month prior to losing his ship to a player pirate. After the exchange, a conversation started up between them, and my friend found himself talking to a rather civil individual who offered up a wealth of knowledge on how to avoid pirates, fight back, and tips on some of the more complicated aspects of the game – all freely.

It would be a stretch to say that direct PvP games only draw in a nasty crowd, although it would be flat out incorrect to say that they don’t draw in a few bad apples. Yet, to be fair, a PvE game does as well, though perhaps not as effectively.

Beyond Killing
To be fair, competition can a lot more than just killing other players – no, I am not going to go into some philosophical reasoning for this. Rather, what I mean is that there are a lot of different ways to introduce competitive elements into a game, direct or indirect. In fact, many games have these elements and you will find at least a few in most games that are praised for their communities these days.

Of course, the default concept of PvP is player killing – which in itself can come in a variety of flavors – but there are certainly more ways of including PvP than just that. Final Fantasy XI introduced an interesting method, where each of the three kingdoms of the game could conquer zones of the through PvE. The fewer deaths you had and the greater number of kills you had (the system is a touch more complicated than this, actually) the more you were helping your kingdom. Whoever had the highest ranking in the zone would then control it – very handy as controlling a zone opened a number of useful abilities, such as being able to bind in it. In fact, we can see a somewhat similar system of PvE affecting a conflict between player factions in the upcoming Warhammer Online, along with its direct PvP.

War is waged not just with blades, but also with coin. Battles of economy are quite common in MMOs, although we may not think of them as PvP. Yet, in games with player run economies, where players can set the prices of their goods, they are in direct competition with each other in a truly capitalist fashion. Everything from Auction Houses, where players continue to try and undercut each other, or set higher prices and hope for a more coin in the end than their competitors even if it takes longer, to player vendors such as was seen during the heyday of Star Wars Galaxies. Oh, if your game of choice lacks a player run economy, as long as there is the ability to trade items, you will still likely see players shouting out competing prices in populated areas, either for a price to sell and item or a payment they are willing to make for the item.

To be fair, you could start to dissect MMO systems and find many cases of indirect competition if you really try to look for it; like who can get into a group, who gets a mob first, etc… But, that isn’t my point and it’d get silly after a while. Rather, what this should be highlighting is that there are many ways to have players competing with each other, beyond just killing each other, be that competition directly between players or not. Heck, Sony Online Entertainment even has a collectible card game for both EverQuest games now.

Indirect PvP systems, and systems that don’t rely on player killing are entirely possible, although they are not commonly featured as highlights of games. Yet, I have a feeling we might be seeing more of them.

Competition Fueling the Community
It is difficult to talk about how much indirect PvP affects a player community – not enough of it has been done in the past. It did get some attention in Final Fantasy XI, but to be fair, I don’t believe it was quite as earth shattering as it could have been. Regardless, it does have potential. Player run economies on the other hand are pretty much a staple for MMOs these days.

One way or another, I am very willing to say that competition in general does have an impact on player communities. Sometimes it can be fairly hit or miss, sometimes it can draw in bad players – but, to be fair, I can say the same about PvE-focused games as well.

Competition has a tendency to draw people together. If you have ever played on a sports team, there is a certain bond between fellow teammates as they go through a season of games. The same can be said about online environments. Whether you are charging out together with allies to fight off the enemy team, banding together with friends for survival in a dangerous world, trying to undercut your competition as you wheel and deal with other players, or just grabbing a friend for a duel, competition between players can form a bond that can help strengthen a community. This competition may not need to be direct, and it does not have to be a form of ‘traditional PvP’, so to speak, but for a game to lack some form of competition between players is for it to lack a tool to help build a stronger community.

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