Sean Bulger's Column

Community Column: Open PvP


A while back we talked about conflict between players and what sort of a role that it can play in a game and for communities. During this, it was noted that player competition can be implemented in numerous different ways. This week, I would like to revisit this discussion and talk about one of those particular methods: the open PvP world.

Open PvP is one of the more controversial topics in MMO circles and plenty of people have fairly strong opinions one way or the other on the subject. That said, I would like to explore both the positive impacts and negative ones on the player community. Open PvP has the potential to help bond a community fairly tightly, but it also has the potential to truly tear it apart as well.

Politics, Intrigue, and Bonds

I believe it would be a fair statement that numerous MMO players have pretty firm positions on open PvP in their online games. A very large chunk of those people also seem to have a fairly negative view of such a system. That is not to say, however, that open PvP doesn’t have its own merits. For the purpose of this column, we will need to take a brief look at some of those potential benefits to an online community that something like open PvP can bring.

Open PvP has a tendency to open up certain types of gameplay that usually cannot exist otherwise – usually emergent forms of gameplay at that. Open PvP, by its nature, gives players a huge amount of power. Since anyone has the capabilities of engaging any other player at will, we see various play styles and player roles arise that generally do not exist in other games.

Of course, one of those particular types of play types is a double-edge sword: the ‘criminal’ type of player – often what will be referred to as a griefer. This is the player that spends a fair amount of their time attacking their fellow players. This is often regarded as a very negative thing – and probably with good reason. That said, the existence of this player does provide certain benefits as well. This player provides a certain amount of excitement for people as they travel through the world. This player encourages people to band together to fend off these types of people. It allows other players to offer their services as guards for other players. It also allows for groups of vigilante-like players to arise to seek out these types of players.

Grouping together is often a pretty major aspect to such systems. In a world with escalated danger, people are generally more inclined to stick together with other like-minded people, and rather strong bonds can be formed – such bonds which can be seen in games currently on the market, such as EVE Online.

EVE is such a nice example for this (in the sense that I’ve actually played it a fair amount and it is open PvP). Players group together to help fend off other players, or even to attack others – and for numerous other reasons as well. Politics is very present both inside of corporations (guilds) and alliances, with power shifts, backstabing, and intrigue unseen in other styles of games. Player-created factions (as mentioned before) also effectively requires open PvP.

This might sound somewhat daunting for many people – and it really probably is. However, games like this can draw players in who become rather strongly attached to the game because of these systems. People form bonds with each other in the game and experience a more dynamic gameplay experience. It also appeals to the competitive players as well. This at least partly explains why open PvP has a fairly loyal following of players – that said, this following is also quite small.

Dangerous World, Mistrust, Slaughter

The open PvP is small for a reason as well. There are a number of reasons that such a system turns off a vast majority of players. Generally speaking, open PvP tends to create a much less casual-player-friendly game, with a lack of trust between other players, and the general dislike of griefers.

Since anyone can attack anyone at any time, for any reason, players that find themselves ‘behind the curve’ in experience in the cookie-cutter MMO design will find themselves lagging far behind other players. Effectively, they become easy prey with little that they can do to beat the higher level players. That said, to effectively create an open PvP system to appeal to people who do not have the hours to invest into their characters, a developer would effectively have to tone down the meaning of character advancement – something that can be a bit dangerous to do. If nothing else, lower experienced players need to have a role that they can fill. The latter is a major reason why EVE Online has seen success in its system, as players in small ships have certain benefits in larger battles – they are hard to hit and can prevent other, larger ships, from leaving a fight.

The lack of trust between players is a major problem as far as community goes. It can be hard for a new player to find an organization and a group of people that they can rely on, that they can feel comfortable that they won’t get stabbed in the back by them. Who wants to group with some random people, when you never know if they’ll just turn around at the end of the night, kill you, and ensure you have no share of the rewards of the evening?

It can be very difficult to meet people that you do not have a prior relationship with, and that can be very dangerous as far as community goes. That said, if you are able to get in with a group, you will likely form close bonds with them. However, that is an ‘if’ for many people. Without a solid guild, a player may well find themselves playing in a very lonely world.

Of course, for all the player roles that griefers can form, they’re also vastly irritating for the vast majority of players. People just flat out don’t like being killed when they’re about to complete some goal that they’ve been investing a fair chunk of their time in, or even just to be randomly killed at all. This system doesn’t bode well for people who aren’t always in the mood for PvP.

Success Not Guaranteed

In the end, it can probably be summed up as this: EVE Online is a successful game. Shadowbane is not.

Both of these games used open PvP systems, but Shadowbane did not manage to take off like EVE Online did – and EVE had a very hard start as well. There are a limited number of people who are going to be willing to play in an open PvP game. Even in EVE Online, if it did not design its systems to help out the casual player, and if the (relatively) safe areas of space protected by NPC police were removed, it would likely suffer a pretty sharp drop in population.

A game built around open PvP can be successful… but it must be designed with care.

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