PvP MMO Design Redux

January 18, 2008 at 11:11 pm (Musings) (, , , )

I recently got a bit of a surge in viewer numbers here and, checking the stats, it seems that quite a few people are coming from this WoW forums thread to visit a link post I made regarding PvP MMO design. It’s a little odd because I didn’t actually say anything on the subject in that post, I simply pointed to a discussion that was raging elsewhere. However a good chunk of people seem to be headed this way to see what it is that I have to say for myself on that subject. Never one to disappoint, here I go.

Firstly I think we need to determine what a PvP MMO is, or at least what a marketable PvP MMO is. WoW apparently isn’t a PvP MMO despite the fact that the main end game activity is fighting other players in ranked arenas. EvE might be a PvP MMO but it has carebear areas so the jury is still out on that one.

If you ask a veteran PvPer what they want then their eyes will mist over and they’ll go back to glory days of shivving noobs on pre-Trammel UO, Shadowbane, Mordred/Camlann or whatever. What these players are looking for is an open world, free for all environment in which might makes right and the devil take the hindmost.

Games like that existed five years ago (practically an epoch in computer game terms) but generally don’t any longer. People who played them and clamour for something similar again claim that mostly this is due to those games launching in a hideously broken state. Probably this is mostly true but not entirely.

The real reason as to why those sort of environments don’t last long is because making games like that which work is hard. Along with the multitude of pitfalls waiting to trip up unwary designers in PvE centric MMOs are a whole new bunch of evils that lurk beneath the surface ready to pounce. Mostly these are community problems and are to do with the way that people play games like this. Additionally they are to do with the reasons that people stop playing games like this too.

I’ve said it before but when you are pitching an MMO to your audience, you aren’t so much offering people a game but a community. You’re asking them if they fancy spending four nights a week and the occasional weekend at your place for the next 18 months or so. Early adopters are impressed by shinies and game design, latecomers go where their friends are. So anything that kills your community will also kill your game. Bad development can assuredly do that, only masochists stick around to play broken games, bad design or bad management however can do it just as well. Anything that kills your community will also kill your game, and the problem with most free for all PvP games is that they aren’t conducive to strong communities.

So, before you start figuring out how much damage a fireball should do or whether stealth as a mechanic is fundamentally broken, you need to answer a few questions

  • “What will keep people who get their arses kicked, playing my game?”
  • “How do I foster a strong sense of community while not allowing unbeatable hegemonies to arise?”
  • “How do I reward people for fighting each other without making the loser quit and the winner invincible?”
  • “How do I give new people in this game a fighting chance against a mature population without trivialising the achievements of veterans?”
  • “Why are there thousands of Darkfall fans camping my forums, telling me how to design an MMO?”

Actually that last point can mostly be solved by employing a suitably gnarly crew of moderators, but I digress. In FFA PvP games the design needs to work against large scale community and co-operation, you want people to fight each other not to hold hands. If people are too chummy then you get some snowballing powerblocs and pretty soon the endgame can become irrelevant for anyone who hasn’t jumped on board with the cool kids. So you split people up and as a result people feel distanced from all the stuff that makes for healthy subscriber numbers.

Churn is an important point too. The early adopters will race to max level and form the primordial power structures, some people will quit for all the usual reasons and hopefully new players will join to take their place. These new players will also quit pretty sharpish if their experience consists of being repeatedly violated by the early adopters and their friends. At this point you are entering a recursive loop where people are leaving because they don’t enjoy getting owned and the people doing the owning are leaving because there’s no-one to wtfomgbbq.

FFA players want to be able to create their own societies and their own factional communities but in reality this is too important a point to be left up to players. Half of them won’t bother and then quit because the game doesn’t cater to soloers or casual players or players with wildly erratic playtimes, the other half will bother and get it wrong. Because it’s not their job to balance your game.

If the players can’t be entrusted with this then it has to come from development – and core development at that. It’s not enough to tack on a guild system or an alliance chat channel, there have to be pre-existing affiliations that will support players who don’t want to or are unable to create their own and which are capable of replacing player systems for any given player. These can run parallel to player structures (as in EvE’s NPC corporations) or vertically (as in the RvR systems of EA Mythic).

So what have we learned?

  • Whatever you do is wrong
  • Anything you get wrong will break your game
  • Making players run the game is bad
  • Making a PvP MMO in the traditional DIKU mould will probably fail
  • If it doesn’t fail then it probably wasn’t a PvP MMO to the people who care about such things
  • You will be by default attracting the type of players that other MMOs would pay to give you
  • Those players will work against your efforts to win over the type of players that you really do want
  • When your community dies it is your fault, notwithstanding the above point
  • Community is hard and you have to design around it from the beginning.
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14 Comments

  1. Lee Saggers said,

    “What will keep people who get their arses kicked, playing my game?”

    Less progression through Itemisation and more through a skill based system. If you work 6 months for the Sword of Dobber and some guy ganks you when your at 10% and you lose it, sure your gonna quit, or take it out on your household pet for a week or two.

    But what if you lose your gear, go back to the bank in your Y fronts and pull out your backup gear, which didnt cost much and is pretty much the same as what you were wearing. Soft cap skill learning so there isnt a “Max Level”

    “How do I foster a strong sense of community while not allowing unbeatable hegemonies to arise?”

    Shadowbane did this well imo, First of all you need a large game, a sand box map will create playground bullies. Bullies cant bully in every school, just thier own. With sufficient land mass you will create kingdoms and clans. UO had player run towns, Shadowbane was build around player run towns, the NPC guards, the shop prices everything.

    “How do I reward people for fighting each other without making the loser quit and the winner invincible?”

    In a “good” pvp game the rewards for winning a pvp fights are normally Land, braging rights and possibly some loot. There does not need to be a “Honor or Realm Point” reward. If you get ganked suck it up and move along that wasnt pvp. pvp is when your guild or mates go get him back and he gets his mates and suddenly theres a pitched battle running through town.

    “How do I give new people in this game a fighting chance against a mature population without trivialising the achievements of veterans?”

    Why help them, the newbie part of being a pvper is a very large learning curve. Hunt near your house, bank reguarly, practice skills in a secure environment. Hold thier hand till they are level xx and then they WILL cry and quit when they get ganked for the boots they are wearing.

    “Why are there thousands of Darkfall fans camping my forums, telling me how to design an MMO?”

    Because you never stop loving your first pvp mmo despite the fact you quit it for EQ/WoW

  2. Iain Compton said,

    Less progression through Itemisation and more through a skill based system. If you work 6 months for the Sword of Dobber and some guy ganks you when your at 10% and you lose it, sure your gonna quit, or take it out on your household pet for a week or two.

    That’s only a problem if item looting is possible. I agree that WoW stylel itemisation is a bad thing for a PvP game. In general there should be a very narrow gap between uber loot and an average item.

    Shadowbane did this well imo, First of all you need a large game, a sand box map will create playground bullies. Bullies cant bully in every school, just thier own. With sufficient land mass you will create kingdoms and clans. UO had player run towns, Shadowbane was build around player run towns, the NPC guards, the shop prices everything.

    People go to where the action is. DAoC had huge frontiers but 95% of the fighting at any one time was concentrated in half of a single zone. A lot of EvE action is concentrated around a few choke points too despite EvE havingan enormous universe. If people are made to spread out too much then they’ll complain that it’s hard to find people to fight.

    Why help them, the newbie part of being a pvper is a very large learning curve. Hunt near your house, bank reguarly, practice skills in a secure environment. Hold thier hand till they are level xx and then they WILL cry and quit when they get ganked for the boots they are wearing.

    If their initial experiences involve getting chain-owned then a lot of potential players won’t continue past the trial month. Most of those won’t make it past their second session. This point is really more about ‘how do I inject new people into an environment that’s filled with veteran players?’ You need to have a constant supply of new people joining your game to replace those that burn out and leave, if there’s no way that new players can achieve anything meaningful vs established vets then most of them will simply leave. EvE gets this right IMO by giving newbs a variety of meaningful roles that they can fill without needing to be particularly rich or experienced.

  3. Bonedead said,

    Why not market the game to the PvEers as a chance to finally squelch their PvP counterparts?

    Think you can defeat the bloodthirsty, savage, barbaric hordes of PvP addicted mad men? We doubt it.

    Meh, I don’t know.

    It just doesn’t seem like PvP games need to be marketed towards PvPers, we usually always know what’s comin out.

    I don’t think you necessarily need to change systems within the normal MMO games we play today, I think you just have to rearrange a few things. Make the world a big gradient. On the left side it’s PvE heaven, right side PvP heaven, and it slowly meets in the middle as a WoW or something.

    Most of my ideas to solve complicated issues involve very broad, very general, statements. But, I’m right! :p

  4. Iain Compton said,

    I don’t think you necessarily need to change systems within the normal MMO games we play today, I think you just have to rearrange a few things..

    I entirely agree. Most discussion on PvP MMO design is mechanical – what character archetypes to include, whether to have a level based system or a more organic, skill based system Stuff like that. To me, these are secondary considerations to be fitted around your core concept and your retention hook.

  5. Kord said,

    “Because you never stop loving your first pvp mmo despite the fact you quit it for EQ/WoW”

    well said! lol perhaps its due to the fact that true pvp games are limited, more limited than the mass legions of WOW clones. Limited in that usually they are arena based games, no world to explore. Limited in the contents, due to no world, no history the arena based games usually have no content updates to match their full MMO counterparts. But they are so much fun to play.

    with the popular MMOs out today, I hated how its never about skills but about who can grind more and have more stats. A reason of perhaps why the FPS crowd enjoy their kind of action. Where aim and reflex actually shines instead of select a target, press a button and you know, just KNOW that despite with your character’s face not even facing the target, despite the target just walked behind a wall, your fireball will still hit him.

    That said, I haven’t had the good luck of playing a MMO with pure pvp action based fighting. Perhaps they are too hard to program or maintain. Perhaps the chaos created by hordes, who I know will gather and rain arrows on unsuspecting towns and its citizens, will be too much to handle. Perhaps the army of outraged folks massing to hunt down said horde will create too much fun, too much of an RPG element for a main market MMORPG these days.

  6. IainC said,

    with the popular MMOs out today, I hated how its never about skills but about who can grind more and have more stats.

    But they are about skills. Just not classic twitch skills. Social, networking and organisational skills trump reflexes every day because those skills are harder to learn and take more work to develop. If you want effort to pay off – actual thinking about what is going on rather than mindless grinding – then almost every MMO that offers a PvP mode currently favours skill over anything else – do you think it’s easy keeping a set group or a PvP guild together for a decent period of time?

    To use an analogy, imagine a real life challenge between jocks and nerds. Jocks would want to play a game where brute strength and ability to throw, catch and run are most important. Nerds want a game where out-thinking the opposition and problem solving is the primary route to victory. Current MMOs are mostly for nerds with a bit of jock action thrown in. Just because they use different skill sets, doesn’t mean that they don’t reward skill.

  7. Kord said,

    I think you missed my point a bit when you say its not about the twitch reflexes and its about social networking, organizational skills etc. There are always social networking and organizational skills involved in both systems. Case in points, look at the competitiveness of the FPS genre. Why is it that they can use their twitch reflexes, have good aims, great timing AND still organize and plan their battles? Counter Strike, Halo etc. Those are all great example of Real time pvp that have socializing/ organizational skills involved.

    A good and well organized team will beat out the teams that run lone wolves and those that don’t plan their effort as well.

    A real time pvp system gets people to think on the move, to fight with reflexes WHILE still aware of everything going on around the battle field is one heck of a challenge that the turn base, dice rollers can’t claim to be taking up. Sure they still have to check their surroundings, but wow it must be so easy to do since they no longer have to actually aim their spells/ attacks.. just select the target once, and pound away at the cast button while having their looks around.

    Imagine this situation. 2 teams are facing off in a pvp arena. There is only 1 survivor each side. Both are maneuvering in position for the final kill. Their teammates watch with anticipation.

    In one system, the two survivors fight it out with skill, reflex to the bitter end. Both circles each other, guessing and using all their alertness. One guy swings with his sword, his opponent blocks the attack and backs off. The guy moves in, his opponent charged up a special move suddenly. The guy reflexively hit blocks, a mistake, if he had attacked he would have canceled the charge by the opponent. The special move was designed to take out a blocking opponent. The one who won have the satisfaction that his calm approach, his timing, his mind game take the victory. The one that lost, knows he did all he could, but was simply outplayed. Losing and yet he felt he had an even chance of winning, and if he could repeat the battle, he would do much better.

    In the other system, one guy happen to have the opponent selected. The opponent tries to make a move, spells hit him and he dies. He dies not only because he didn’t have his opponent selected first, but he died because he had no other choice. No chance to have a come back, no chance to dodge, no chance at victory… the moment he was selected.

    “do you think it’s easy keeping a set group or a PvP guild together for a decent period of time?”

    I thought this is what clans are for… I know clans in MMOs that only recruit people from their time zone and specifically only people that go on at the same time during the day as themselves.

    I have a small recommendation on a game with a well thought out pvp system. It has a system where both nerds and jocks would enjoy playing. It has brute skills in the ability to shoot physic based objects like arrows, daggers, hand axes etc. and swords, hammers or staff would have true range. It has out thinking of oppositions too as a primary route to victory. For example, if you detect patterns in opponent’s movement. Is he too cautious, is he always relying on blocks to get in close etc. Can you psych them into using a move that you will readily counter with deadly effects? Are they all heavy fighters with no range support? are they all range but lack the beef up close? Are they turtling or ambushing? Are they flanking or open to flanks?

    the game is called Rakion, a little known oriental MMO. The only reason, only reason, that I have stopped playing it regularly is because it is an arena based MMO. That means there are only pvps and no world to explore. For me at least, I want to explore as part of an MMO experience. However, that has nothing to do with how high I regard the pvp system of that game is. If there is a game creator out there that can combine the 2 element together… it will be a great thing to behold. Live action pvp + world to explore… Whispers on the grapevine tells of a game coming out called Darkfall… I await that day.

  8. IainC said,

    No, I don’t think I did miss your point. I think however that you’re rather missing mine.

    You need a far more rounded set of skills to play most current PvP MMOs (even the Western ones that people love to bash), than you do in almost any other game genre.

    In the other system, one guy happen to have the opponent selected. The opponent tries to make a move, spells hit him and he dies. He dies not only because he didn’t have his opponent selected first, but he died because he had no other choice. No chance to have a come back, no chance to dodge, no chance at victory… the moment he was selected.

    This is a problem with game balance not skill. If damage is so out of whack with defence then this would be a problem even in a purely twitch based game. I can’t think of any MMO that’s like this off the top of my head. Abilities have counters, teamwork adds survivability – keep the healer alive, have some good support players and you have skill based combat even without a targeting reticule and action combat.

    Adding complexity doesn’t increase the skill level, it just makes things more obscure and adds to balance problems. Action-counter-action and team synergy are the areas where skill can shine through. Every PvP MMO on the market currently has those.

  9. Kord said,

    making sure that when you swing the sword, everything in the path of the sword is hit is quite a bit of complexity added I admit. And like the original piece posted above, I agree that it is a hard thing to implement, work-wise.

    Fun-wise and challenge-wise, I completely disagree with you that realistic pvp doesn’t increase skill level. On the other hand, I think it completely boost skills to a higher level and the pvp experience is different.

    “Abilities have counters, teamwork adds survivability – keep the healer alive, have some good support players and you have skill based combat even without a targeting reticule and action combat.”

    I beg of you, please give the game I suggested a try, before thinking that a real time non selection based pvp combat doesn’t offer you all those and much more. Until you’ve tried the other side of things, I don’t think anything I say can convince you. I’ve played wow, I’ve played guild war to see their pvp system already. I’ve played as many “western” mmo as I can get my hand on that offered a pvp system. So I have selected my preference.

    “Action-counter-action and team synergy are the areas where skill can shine through.”

    how about… Great aims, good timing, sound tactics that doesn’t rely heavily on stats (which is a direct result of the grind fest) and team synergy are the areas where skill can shine through?

    A system where with skill, a player of lesser level can stand toe to toe against a higher level player, (of course the time it take for the higher level player to fall will take longer) will leave you with less people complaining about veteran players picking on people that (pardon the oft quoted retort) have a life. That system, I think requires more skill than a system where people automatically have a huge advantage due to levels and the lower level players just don’t stand a chance. (a chance meaning to actually dodge, and control their own fate through sheer skill of agility or twitch if you will)

    “Every PvP MMO on the market currently has those.”

    lol so would someone PLEASE break the MOULD! I am sure there is a growing number of people out there getting sick of the current system. Some time I wonder if there is such a thing as a MMORPG maker program out there, and all the game developer had to do was to change the art assets, the music and some stats to churn out yet another MMO in the saturating market.

  10. Kord said,

    on an off topic question, i am new to this type of blog thing. I was googling up PVP design system when I found the link to this post. Are you the original poster of this thread Iain ? I looked around, but didnt see the name of the original author of the thread anywhere.

  11. IainC said,

    That system, I think requires more skill than a system where people automatically have a huge advantage due to levels and the lower level players just don’t stand a chance.

    That’s not a related issue. Level imbalance – or having levels at all for that matter – is not a problem that goes away because you implement a twitch based system. If you’re making a hardcore PvP game then regardless of how you choose to design your combat system, those are still problems that you have to overcome or design around. I’m not convinced that adding a reflex based system to the standard Western MMO design would make it any more ‘skillful’ or make lower level characters magically able to compete with higher level ones.

    You can make an autoattack system skillful and you can make a twitch system random and arbitrary. Basic design choices determine how much skill is required and in general those design choices are not tied to your combat mechanism.

    “Every PvP MMO on the market currently has those.”

    lol so would someone PLEASE break the MOULD!

    Wait so now you’re saying you want less skill in games? I’ve already argued that pretty much all games today are in fact skill based. The fact that they require different kinds of skill other than pure twitch doesn’t mean that they are as random as twitch fans claim they are. What you seem to be saying is that ‘all those other skill types are hard, let’s just concentrate on twitch because I can do that’. No dice sorry.

    Finally yes, all the articles on this blog are written by me.

  12. xphy said,

    “making sure that when you swing the sword, everything in the path of the sword is hit is quite a bit of complexity added I admit. And like the original piece posted above, I agree that it is a hard thing to implement, work-wise.

    Fun-wise and challenge-wise, I completely disagree with you that realistic pvp doesn’t increase skill level. On the other hand, I think it completely boost skills to a higher level and the pvp experience is different. ”

    MMO’s and twitch skills dont go together, online games that require twitch skills introduce a level of character developement that is completely outside of the game itself. to reliably hit somebody or several persons with your sword while requiring no server side dice rolls you introduce lag and fps as a large part of the combat and these factors cant be wholly controlled by the game developers so if your running around in this mmorpg world without top hardware and a reliably low ping you cannot compete at the top end of the pvp game.

    Having a whole array of twitch based moves eliminates the need to add skill points to these abilities in a community based pvp mmorpg which in turn removes most elements of character progression and shifts the game away from the definition of a true mmorpg and the removal of an explorable world just turns the so called mmo into unreal tournament with a waiting room.

    Yes all current mmo’s require skill in pvp. Implementing a pvp system that requires skill to play isnt the hard part, no matter the archetypes, skill sets or environment PvP skill evolves around and is shaped by the players and the need to compete. Where most developers are going wrong in their pvp environments is their implementation of ‘Balence’. Balence is crucial and hard to monitor if your devs dont play the game themselves at a decent level and the company actually listens to their players. An mmo developer shouldnt really be listening to what the players say individually, daoc’s class leads were a great idea and on the whole worked quite well. For most of DaoCs life pvp and rvr combat was fairly balenced and tempered with a brilliant community. I’d be a happy man if Warhammer turned out to be a daoc clone with the mistakes removed.

    Autoattack systems have an element of twitch involved anyway, when a group of 8 encounter another group of 8 then 16 players are now trying to look and evaluate 8 other people to identify targets and then target as fast as possible to be able to perform optimally throughout the rest of the combat.

    In mmorpg pvp environment Silhouetting is a must to at first be able to identify the basic class or archetype, further inspection of certain weapon, armor choices or spells used should be able to identify that players spec choice which leads to your group now being able to make tactical decisions. this is a skill set for a player that ingame mob grinding cant develope, it’s built through game and play experience and is what enables veteran players to acheive that rr1-9 twice as fast as a new player and is how it should be, there shouldnt be penalties for being a better more experienced player.

  13. sonicmerlin said,

    “Having a whole array of twitch based moves eliminates the need to add skill points to these abilities in a community based pvp mmorpg which in turn removes most elements of character progression”

    Um…have you ever played Deus Ex? Or any action-RPG hybrid game ever made?

    Including reflexes into PvP combat would make it much more interesting, as it would give a chance for very skilled lower level players to actually compete with unskilled or lazy higher level players. The system doesn’t just reward you for spending time to grind, but for actually improving *your own* personal skills.

    Imagine the exhiliration of defeating a higher level player whose attacks do much more damage to you, by being extremely smart with dodge and block tactics, or whatever other tricks you can come up with on the fly. The sense of “wow I’m good” would be unparalleled.

  14. Ashrik said,

    hi IanC, i liek ur articul

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