The Rare and Awesome PvP

EDIT: Major edit 🙂 This was scheduled to publish for some time, but recently the NBI had the Talkback Challenge. One of the topics happened to include PvP and I should have edited this to reflect that. So I’m doing it now.

Arcadius has a strong piece titled “Blame the Game Not the Players” in which he explains why he believes MMOs don’t get the PvP and PvE mix right. There’s a nice little discussion going on there, so please join us at his blog if you want to chime in!

Joseph Skyrim responds to Arcadius’s article and also provides a list of links to others who have been writing about it.

Open world PvP (OWP) remains a topic that interests MMO gamers of all stripes. We can’t seem to grasp the precise meaning or purpose of open world PvP except by describing the joy or dread we experience while doing it. Players either hate it, love it, or learn to like it. As game design goes, OWP is interesting to discuss when it comes to gameplay value. Is it truly offering something both as an experience and as meaningful content? Why should games have it? Players seem, by and large, to NOT prefer open world PvP if we look at their activity in-game. I can respect that it is a niche activity, but opposing views tend to posit that it’s the ultimate, pure and true PvP experience. That anything less than open-world is carebear, soft, or somehow not the “real” thing. If this is true, then why do so few players participate (what more proof do we need than the number of PvP servers vs PvE and the size of OWP communities)? 

There are 2 issues which I think affect how the OWP debate stands up:

  • Fairness and consent
  • Community (anti-social behavior, anonymity, poor community policing (priming for good/bad behavior))

Fairness and Consent

The definition of fairness can go as far as in the japanese game Go where it is considered fairer to handicap a more skilled player by granting the unskilled player a stone advantage, because it makes the challenge more interesting for both parties. This Meta-definition of fairness is as far as I know largely absent from videogames. Usually the better Player not only has the better gear and perks, knows all the tricks and exploits but he/she seems even entitled to shame „Noobs“ by calling them out after he annihilated them.

The Troll/Cheater that is breaking the Fairness and having fun despite the fact that there is no skill involved in aimbotting is playing a differnt game than the „honest“ player. He is only interested in getting a reaction out of the cheated player, like playing knock-and-run only to see how annoyed the people can get. – Andreas Ahlborn at Gamasutra

I think this is an important piece of the riddle of fairness in games. Fairness isn’t always achievable. Maybe. But it doesn’t have to be. What matters is that the game is designed to favor fair gameplay.

Open world PvP (OWP) basically gives players the freedom to roam a virtual space and pick a fight with anyone they wish, whether the player they pick a fight with wants to or not, or is capable of putting up a fair fight or not. Many shout from the mountain tops that this is exactly what’s so awesome about OWP. It’s a feature that provides an opportunity to indulge what appears to be a power fantasy. However, as Andreas says, these two kinds of players are playing two different games in this case.

Then, is the real issue in the OWP debate an issue of consent? I think it’s part of it. But then there’s the tough question of what constitutes consent. If I join a PvP server in a game, is that consent to all that follows? When I enter a store do I consent to buying every item on the shelf just because I’m there? Do I consent to buying anything at all by walking through the doors? Of course not. Both extremes are ridiculous. I haven’t seen any arguments that really explore the consent angle because I think many gamers intuitively understand that consent is fundamental to fair gameplay. We like being invited to games, not forced to participate in them. Mutual engagement is the keystone of fairness.

The problem is when “fair” becomes a matter of making sure everyone has the same access to unfair advantages. The logic goes that if everyone can play unfairly, then this makes it a fair game. It’s a good attempt to address the issue of designing fair games.

Well, what about ambushes and other exciting war strategies that one might engage in, such as in games like Team Fortress 2 or Call of Duty? To that I say: Context is everything. These games are purely about combat, where players participate exclusively in violent conflict against other players, no matter what. There is no expectation that a player would not be fighting other players once they join a game. For an MMO, this is very very different. The answer seems to at least depend on the genre.

Any given session I login to a Rift or Eve or World of Warcraft type MMO, I may do any number of things which don’t include conflict with another player. There’s no expectation that I will engage in combat just because I logged into the game. So the question of consent is actually valid in an MMO whereas it’s just about absent from a combat simulator like Dust 514.

Eve Online

Eve approaches OWP by trying as best it can to set up the virtual space as a place where combat is at the heart of the game, similar to what we’d expect from FPS games. The problem, though, is that combat isn’t the heart of the game at all and Eve is nothing like a combat simulator — something which is aptly demonstrated by Dust 514. Combat definitely plays a very significant role in gameplay, but for any given session a player may not even see a spaceship, nevermind engage in combat. The economy is at the heart of the Eve experience. Open world battles, even small ones, are exceedingly rare …and it’s this fact which makes the claims to the awesomeness of OWP feel exaggerated.

There are some 500,000 subscribers to the game. Let’s just forget for a moment that many of those are just players with multiple accounts (exceedingly common in Eve), RMT accounts and bots, and let’s pretend that these 500k are unique subscribers. Let’s even suppose that only 10% of them are the kind of PvP gamers who want that non-consensual, power-tripping, unfair open world PvP experience. Looking through the various killboards, we can see that on any given day some 50 ships are destroyed as a result of OWP, while Eve averages some ~22,000 active pilots simultaneously. 50 per day in a game where 22k pilots are online all at once; in a game that supposedly has the incredibly exciting OWP at the heart of gameplay. That’s not a lot of gaming going on and makes the argument for OWP unimpressive. But where does most player activity lie in Eve?

It all starts with the economy and is a smattering of random activities radiating from there, OWP a favorite among them.

Now I don’t want to get into a circular discussion about chicken or the egg. This is irrelevant, since they are dependent systems in Eve. It is, afterall, a war economy. Everything that can be produced in Eve is produced for the purposes of war. So players spend more time preparing for war in Eve than they do actually battling it out. It’s why the battles in the game are so memorable: there are so few. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; a game in which the world is always at risk of imploding or exploding or being invaded is a monotonous, predictable, boring world where adventure isn’t possible (adventure is precisely the chance that you could do something unexpected). Nothing is exciting when it’s always exciting. Warcraft suffers badly from the constant crisis mode which inspires all of it’s gameplay. So Eve has found a counter balance in this regard. Just because OWP activity is low doesn’t detract from the fact that battles in Eve feel meaningful and epic. It’s just that they’re too rare to support claims that OWP is essential to and better than moderated PvP gameplay.

Moderated PvP, on the other hand, seems to be wildly popular in the MMOs that have it. More PvP happens in battlegrounds and arenas than in the open world in WoW and similar games. When this feature is available in MMOs, players seem to flock to it more than they do OWP.

Alone, OWP provides a very tiny fragment of the player experience, even in a game like Eve where cut throat, power fantasy combat is important to setting the environment for gameplay. Arguments which suggest that open world PvP is essential must then explain how this essential activity is the least likely thing to occur during any given session. The Eve economy could certainly sustain far more combat than happens (hoarding of resources is a bigger issue than resource shortages caused by too many battles). So what’s the reason? Open world PvP just isn’t all that exciting and as content, it’s very thin — this I judge from player activity in that feature.


This has to be the bedrock reason open world PvP in MMOs isn’t very successful. As MMOs strive to build communities which can stand the test of time, open world PvP is everything counter to that because it breaks down the very glue required for community: trust.

A key issue that developers seem to face is how to secure a solid foundation to build their communities upon. Usually, they’ll develop tools that help players manage their communities: guild tools, grouping tools, friend lists, and reporting features are some of the most popular. Probably nothing is as important as the way the game primes players to interact with one another. OWP is one hell of a primer.

It’s really interesting how MMOs seem to be unique in this. Battle Arenas like League of Legends are known for their toxicity, but it’s not an OWP game. It’s highly moderated. Still, it’s a strong example of what game communities can become when unhealthy competition is injected into the mix. I’ll go so far as to say there may not be such a thing as healthy competition, but that’s an article for another day. Even players who enjoy OWP explain their enjoyment based on their ideas of fairness (ex. if you’re on their server it’s fair to kill you). Fairness is important.

Is OWP the devil? No, of course not. It’s one feature among many, but it’s interesting to think about why we like it. As for the argument that it’s “real” PvP or better than moderated PvP environments, the popularity of the feature is low and even in MMOs which want this feature to be the heart of the game have very meager participation rates. Maybe developers can think of improved ways to give players their favorite fantasies without having to live with features many consider to be imbalanced or which produce unfair gameplay. It’s coming, but it may be a very long ways off. Until then, I’ll stay subscribed to Eve.

Or maybe developers can just live with it. Players will always find ways to avoid it if they really hate it, which might include not playing their game.

9 thoughts on “The Rare and Awesome PvP

  1. I’ve only experienced open world pvp in one game, and that was Everquest II. I started playing the game in ’06, and had been playing a month or so when the pvp servers opened. I rolled a fresh character on Nagafen with my then-roommate and we had a lot of fun, as everyone was on an even playing field. There weren’t players that much higher than you, and the rules kept you within a reasonable level range for pvp conflict. There were raids that would form in the world and massive battles would play out over hours. It was an epic feeling. But as I leveled, the mid-game was terrible, as it got to the point that you couldn’t complete quests without being consistently ganked. The frustration of trying to do both at the same time eventually had me seeing through the eyes of a “care bear.” This isn’t to say I don’t think pvp has its place — Players will always be more of a challenge than AI — but I like instanced pvp in a battlegrounds fashion.

    Being a League player I like objective based pvp, so battlegrounds are a good way to have your MMO and eat it too. I do think that it would be better to do something like League does though, and give a pre-constructed character to play with. Like your appearance/class would still remain, but you would be given a few class-specific abilities and your gear wouldn’t change their effectiveness. That would keep it “fair” and “separate” from the pve game. People who don’t normally pvp might jump on that too, because they wouldn’t have to worry about not being geared right, and being on an even playing field is a true measure of skill.

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