Steinhauer’s Opinion: The PvP Debate

    “You got this off of an armordillo?” the shopkeeper asked, hefting the long sword in his hands.

    “Probably was dining on an adventurer and ended up with indigestion,” Dingurth joked.

    “It has very fine balance for all that. I’ll give you a hundred pyreals for it.”

    “Deal,” Dingurth replied. As he lifted his hand to accept the bag of money, he felt the cold sharp pain of a thin dagger slipping between his second and third ribs. Legs no longer functioning, he tumbled to the floor as the life ebbed out of him.

Of all the questions facing an MMO designer, the single most definitive is how to deal with PvP. Many gamers enjoy the challenge and thrill of player-on-player combat, while many others would just as soon have little or nothing to do with it. The gaming world today has come up with four basic solutions to this question.

The first modern MMO, Ultima Online, initially made everyone a Player Killer. This tended towards realism, but demographically speaking, a large number of players would just as soon have nothing to do with it. Limitless PvP also opened wide the door for unbridled griefing such as instances where one player was repetitively hunted and killed by another higher level player. The second MMO, Everquest, therefore took the opposite approach: no PvP at all. This solved some griefer issues, but being at the opposite extreme, diminished realism and alienated the opposite demographic. The third MMO, Asheron’s Call, took the middle ground between the two. Most of their servers followed the Everquest model, but one, Darktide, was pure PK (as an aside, both UO and EQ later followed this model as well). Problem solved, right? Not really.

It was in Darktide that I first began my online game experience. I was drawn to the server because I wanted a realistic game. It didn’t make much sense to be able to battle monsters, but not other humans. Nor was there any recourse on PvE servers against moochers, griefers, or their ilk. I’ve never been much of a PKer myself, preferring cooperative play, but I did enjoy the camaraderie of defending a town from a raid as well as the general realism it allowed.

The problem I had was getting cut down in a shop or on the street simply on the whim of some punk. The story at the beginning of this column is not an exaggeration, it happened to me. I can only take solace in the fact that I did a bit of vigilantism. I hunted the guy down and sent him back to the Lifestone, recovering the gear he’d stolen from me in the process.

On PvE worlds, towns become the life of the gaming community. Players swarm them to trade loot, organize quests, or just hang out. Most villages on Darktide, however, were ghost towns where only the very strong or the very stupid spent more time than necessary. After a few months of lurking in the shadows, I gave up on realism and started over on another server. So what went wrong?

When I chose to game on Darktide, I had hoped to find some sort of feudal civilization with various monarchies at varying stages of war and peace, trade and turmoil. What I found instead was gang land, replete with hits, drive-bys, and backstabbings. In other words, it was tyranny and chaos.

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That leads us to the fourth and most recent innovation on the PvP question, championed by Shadowbane, but also seen in such games as Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft. Their intent was to focus the chaos of PvP into campaigns and empire building through the use of Realms. The idea is a sort of half-PvP with players of the same realm not able to kill each other and instead campaigning against players of the other Realms. Innovative, to be sure, but it has the bi-product of focusing the game almost solely upon its PvP element rather than making it just one part of many in a thriving world. Much like the United States in World War II, all aspects of economy and existence are focused on the war effort. Crafting, trade, and exploration become important only insofar as they further “The Cause.” On Shadowbane, for example, there are no quests. Thus the Realms concept successfully focused the PvP aspect of gaming, but still will only appeal to a narrower market. The gamer who has little or no interest in PvP will usually move on quickly, if they even try the game at all.

I should mention a few other PvP options that some games have introduced, though they all are variations on the above themes. Most PvE games have some allowance for what is often called PK-lite, Sparring, or Dueling. One form involves becoming fully PK for a period of time, and then reverting back to NPK when you are tired of it. The transition usually involves a small quest, and has a timer to going NPK if you were just involved in PvP combat. The other, more specific form allows two players to choose to duel each other for the duration of a single fight and without death penalties. While both of these can fulfill the desire for players to test their mettle against each other, their narrow focus means that they have no impact on the greater society of the gaming world.

Another variation, Monster Play, was recently introduced by Lord of the Rings Online. Given that Tolkien’s world is neither oriented for full Realm combat or general PvP, the designers focused the Realms concept on a specific region of the game where people can opt to play monsters against other normal player characters. Creative, to be sure, but again the narrow geographic focus means that it has no bearing on any other aspect of the world.

So having covered this ground, I leave you with one question: Is it possible to make a game that appeals to PvPers and Non-PvPers alike, where both types of players can coexist and positively impact the gaming experience of each other?

I believe so and will share my theory next time.

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