The Quest for the Heart and Soul of EVE

So a rather interesting debate exploded over at J3w3l’s last month which quickly began to turn into finger wagging and passionate claims and denials of the very existence of other players. The whole PvP/PvE debate is unusually touchy these days it seems. More than I remember it being in the past. In this case, I engaged a couple of fellow gamers on the question of what makes PvE and PvP so different. Specifically, there were several claims made that PvP is more “dynamic” than PvE which lead me to think about the PvE of EVE Online.

Now staunch PvPers will never want to be in a conversation where they admit PvP has anything in common with PvE. So usually they’ll try to frame the discussion as a duel between having a “dynamic” (defined as intelligent people to play with) game or having one where you only interact with AI (defined as PvE). I think their definitions are a bit off and the comparison too extreme. It strips each feature of it’s nuance and importance. PvE, generally should be understood as cooperative play when players use the term to describe their preference. They’re almost always trying to explain that they prefer not to compete in combat with other players. PvE players play with the same dynamic people as PvPer’s, so that’s not a defining difference between the two. PvP on the other hand is typically used as a euphemism for “player combat”. Players usually use it to reference this specifically. When PvP’ers come to the conversation with this term their number one argument is that “players are more dynamic” which means this is the subject when the term is brought up.

So here I am pondering just what it is about EVE Online that me and thousands of other players like me – nay, the majority of EVE players – love about it. I pretty much only engage in PvE in EVE these days. It’s just vastly more interesting to me. I interact with other players. We have politics, we have rivalry, and of course the economy. We’re every bit as active with other players as PvPers. It’s just the nature of that interaction tends to be non-violent. I’ll balance that by saying I know capsuleers who find the same amount of joy in combat against other players. They also have politics, rivalry and economic interests. These are equally valid and fun ways to engage the game. The differences between the two come down to how players prefer to approach one another. PvE’ers tend to prefer cooperation, and PvPer’s the opposite. Of course, none of us can ignore all the players in between, such as the bounty hunters, good-guy militias who fight pirates, pirates who fight evil pirates, industrial companies who hire bounty hunters, freight runners who hire security and so much more. This is why defining PvP and PvE based on combat/AI gets us nowhere. Both features employ combat, but the approach is different. The defining difference is how each player prefers to approach other players.The gameplay is otherwise, not very different.

If we were to say that there was a heart in EVE, a core that gave the game all of it’s strength and power to influence gameplay, what would that thing be?

My first hunch is always to say it’s the economy. It drives all interaction, both peaceful and warlike. Maybe that’s why so much of what I enjoy about PvE other players enjoy about PvP. How else could these difference be bridged? They’re two approaches to the same game with the one major intersection being the economy. All the same, it’s true that every feature of the game is interconnected such that no one piece is as good without the other. You can’t subtract the economy from EVE in any way and still have the game we know. Each piece, including the PvE/P pieces, makes up the whole. None can be removed without changing the game dramatically.

They’re just features, and while players may have a preference for one or the other, the things they signify usually are only tangentially related to what they actually mean. So PvE is no more strictly about playing with AI than PvP is about strictly fighting with other players.

EVE is a fascinating game, totally unique in its offerings. It’s got flaws, but it’s also got something no other MMO I’ve ever lived in has. It’s got politics and economics are gameplay systems. I’d say these are the heart and soul of the game. PvP and PvE are just additional features.

Games that Get PvP Right

So we’re back and the Talkback Challenge 2014 has kicked up a lot of dust in the community. The topic? PvP vs. PvE: Do they Mix?

Sometimes.

I think it’s interesting, and totally predictable, that most of us in this conversation think PvP has problems and that it can ruin the gaming experience when mixed with PvE. I also think it’s interesting that everyone of us believes that PvP itself can be done right. So how about we look at some games which do it right?

Obviously, the games below are just my own personal list. But for the sake of discussion, you should take a moment to think about games you think gets PvP right as well.

Demon’s Souls

First of all, this game gets a lot of things right. It’s just extremely well designed and well thought out. So it’s no wonder the PvP is also a very fine addition to what is otherwise a pure dungeon crawler. To quote myself:

One more feature that has a really ingenious implementation is the multiplayer aspect. If you turn on the game while connected to the PSN, you’re automatically in multiplayer mode. This allows you to see phantoms; ghosts of other players across the network. You can’t communicate with them, but you can see their actions which may help you figure out what’s lurking around that corner. You’ll also see blood spatters on the ground which indicate where a player recently died. Touching the blood allows you to see the last few seconds of that players life before they died, giving you clues as to what killed him. Players can also leave short messages scrawled on the ground which can either tip you off to dangers or send you bumbling to your death. Lastly and most deadly is that players can invade each others worlds. If you need a body, you invade the world of a player who has one …and if you can kill him, you can take his body.

Players can invade the world of other players. They want to enter your game for two reasons. One, they need your body (lawl). In DS when you die you return in spirit form, which means you play with only half your health until you recover your body. You can do that by collecting the orbs I mentioned earlier …or you can invade another players game and slay them, taking their body if you succeed. The second reason is for the sheer adventure of it. Either way, if you’re just there to slay dragons you get to do it with the added suspense that your game can change at any moment. It’s a bonus that the PvP encounters are short — you’ll be back to your dungeon crawl within minutes.

The multiplayer feature is really interesting and definitely unique overall. The PvP twist is just icing on an awesome cake. While there are always players who are abusive, DS manages to make it not worthwhile. Players get to rate each other and in a game where skill is everything, players are more likely to give each other accurate grades than to grief or lash out. By making combat meaningful and limiting PvP by designing it to enhance PvE, the game strikes a perfect balance between the two.

MOBAs

I know this may seem non-obvious, but MOBAs are another perfect balance between PvE and PvP. The fact is players can play a round of DOTA 2 or League of Legends without ever fighting one another. It is optional. But no one plays this way, because PvP combat is very meaningful to winning the PvE map. And let’s not forget that it was a pure PvE strategy game that spawned the entire genre (Warcraft).

Still, this is what it looks like when a game gets the PvP and PvE mix correct: you can’t even tell the two are separate.

How hard is it really to mix these two elements? Why do MMOs seem to get it so wrong? I think the hard bit for MMOs is the open and persistent world. To an extent, players must expect open world PvP because it’s an open world. This makes it seem like PvP and MMOs simply don’t mix, because what other way can they co-exist? Battlegrounds and arenas will probably continue to be the primary means for official PvP in the genre, but I still think there must be something designers can do to make open world PvP fairer and therefore more consensual.

For starters, just make it meaningful. Why would players want to PvP? Which elements encourage players to strike a balance between fighting and negotiating? EVE Online shows us the ways that devs have come closer to balancing this, but it fails because it rewards belligerence.

Will there ever be an MMO which gets this right? I think so. I just hope I see that game in my lifetime.

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.

Community

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.