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.