Saturday, May 8, 2010

Why Open-world PvP-focused MMORPGs are Dead

Players will approach the PvP game within an MMORPG as a game of strategy. All the tools are there for it to be a strategic affair: no real aiming is required, twitch skills play little role, the players has hundreds of potential actions he can take, and coordinating actions with other players is important to success. PvP is naturally approached as a strategy game, but this game is in the context of the MMORPG that hosts it. All the baggage of the MMO carries over—time-spent indicates power in an MMO, so the strategic nature of PvP is compromised by a context that slants the playing field strongly in the favor of the more prepared player, where preparation is a factor primarily of time, not skill. What you’d naturally play as a skill-based mode is actually constructed on the shifting foundations of a timesink. This indicates that PvP may be inherently broken in MMORPGs unless players do not play it like a game of strategy, but instead treat it was a comparison of time spent and resources brought to bear.

MMORPGs are games of time, not skill. An MMO can never be good enough as a game to sustain the kind of beating players will give a system that grants them great responsibility and power. The game will be exploited and those exploits will be shared among the playerbase until the game becomes a collection of exploits. The more players involved, the shorter the space in time is between a content or balance patch’s introduction and its dismantling and exploitation. This effect is multiplied by the potential power that can be gained by exploiting. Complex systems make it harder for players and devs to figure out what is actually an exploit instead of just being a clever strategy.

Players are a PvP MMORPGs’ biggest opponents. The devs have to fight the players for every single minute of fair gameplay. The players expect to succeed in a world that is built to see them fail until they’ve spent as much time as the guy they’re fighting against, but the devs need these punished players to stay playing for long enough for their paychecks to be signed. It’s no wonder open-world PvP MMORPGs have trouble sustaining subscriber numbers over 50k—even EVE, the sweetheart of the PvP community, sees not much more than 10% of its 330k players participating in nullsec activities.


defconquell said...

I think you're jumping the gun a little saying open-world PvP MMOs are dead. I would rather think that they just in an early stage of development.

There is something wonderfully compelling about being able to participate in, and shape, a story of conflict. EVE, WHO, and DF do this, but the implementations are flawed, which I would argue limit the number of players who are willing to subscribe to them.

This is a long discussion, so I'll just mention a few points for the sake of keeping it simple:

1. Having technology that can put all players on a single cluster/shard builds reputations and community. WoW's server hopping and character renaming revenues weaken this. One cluster also solves population issues.

2. Warhammer's cookie-cutter keep assaults was poor map design. Having variety is important, also give me more interesting AI for NPC guard/boss units. Make each fight unique, like WoW does boss fights.

3. EVE's skill over time model is flawed. It disempowers the player, actually encourages me to go outside instead of playing the game.
At least give me the option to skill faster as a element of gameplay.

That's all for now, I just get frustrated because I'd like to see better open-world PvP games made. Strategy can be built-in if the devs design a better mousetrap.

Akjosch said...

I don't know ... Lineage II does quite well still. On the order os something like a million players or thereabouts. Good enough for me to still play it, in fact. That said, if someone makes a Korean-styles open-world free-for-all PvP game with sieges and wars, I'll be one of the first to check it out.

Kenny said...

I think it depends on your definiton of PvP. Players killing other players directly is something I could never be happy in a traditional MMO. However players competing against other players in any other way seems to be a nice idea.

However studios would need a paradigm shift for this - not going to happen anytime soon, unless some indie title proves the concept for the suits.

Verilazic said...

I agree with your arguments, but disagree with your conclusion, because of one assumption: That time investment has to be a significant contributor to power. If you take away time investment as a "strategic option", but replace it with a suitable diverse assortment of other strategic options, you can still have a meaningful game that is PvP-focused and open world.

Though I think that's a fair assumption to make, especially since almost everyone makes it. I believe it will be possible to make a PvP-focused open world MMO if the timesink formula is discarded. Of course, then maybe it wouldn't be an MMORPG, but something else instead.

pxib said...

The difference between sport and competition is that competition is inherently unfair. If you are seeking out fair fights you are a competitive failure. The rich get richer and the strong get stronger because the make sure to squash the meek before they get an even shake.

In a competition without rules, playing to win (minimizing risk and maximizing reward) is the only sensible way to play. In the real world, we tend to call this sort of play "work".

Sport, on the other hand, is about having fun. In the professional sense, it's about having fun watching a close, fair game of skilled opponents and in the personal sense it's about having fun playing a close, fair game against respected opponents. There is nothing natural about fair games. They only exist by strictly policed obedience to arbitrary rules.

Open worlds maintain that openness by minimizing the impact of rules. PvP there, then, will never be good sport. Players looking for fun rather than work will continue to look elsewhere.

evizaer said...

def: You still have huge issues of zerging. Open worlds are zerg-dominated in general. Any game that can be dominated by zerging tactics is broken as a game of strategy. In the case of zerg-dominance, the only viable strategy is to have more players on your side than your opponent has on theirs so you can overwhelm them.

People tend to join the strong alliance over the weaker one, anyway--look at the American zones in Global Agenda. Almost all of the top-tier players joined JL and they win easily.

Games like WoW and Warhammer have actually closed off PvP parts of the game in an effort to make PvP more agreeable, so they can't really be mentioned in the open-world PvP game conversation.

Veril: Open-world impact PvP is predicated on rewarding victors and punishing losers. You can't building buildings and craft the strongest weapons by doing much aside from spending time in the game. No amount of skill will make crafting easier. And since open-world PvP games rely on these kinds of impactful aspects to make their worlds live, you're stuck with time investment and power asymmetries trumping skill the majority of the time.

pxib: You bring up a good point about the competition/sport distinction. I think, though, that you miss a crucial factor: scope and context.

In an individual battle, one side may be the obvious victor and the situation might be clearly imbalanced. But the sides in the entire war may be balanced. Strategy may grant the advantage in a specific instance, but in other places disadvantages arise. The game designer must pick a level at which to balance a game. If time is a factor meant to compromise balance and players are incented to spend a lot of time playing, of course the game is going to imbalanced. Is there a broader scope, though? I don't think so--the whole game is simply imbalanced and a poor game of strategy in such a case.

Verilazic said...

Yeah, the reward model is tough, I'm not sure there's any way to avoid it. But I think it's a flaw of MMOs that they have to use these individual rewards and time investments in order to make their worlds feel alive.

Basically, I'm thinking you should be able to make a self-balancing system out of the world which can eliminate a lot of the problems we've seen in PvP-minded MMOs to date. Not by balancing just abilities, but by balancing advantages for each faction. If you give convincing in-story reasons, and use them to enhance the atmosphere of the game, they could work. I just still don't know how to reward individual players except by making them stronger, which makes the whole setup flawed.

Eric said...

Open world PVP is why I spend 20-40 hours a week on a computer gaming. Currently 90% of my game time is spent PVPing in WoW. There have been times when time spent or gear was greater than skill but Blizzard has gone along way to level the playing field.

In this latest PVP refresh, aka Season 8, I was able to sufficiently PVP gear my toon using my regular play style in a couple of months.

Now all that is left is unadulterated pvp fun. I will PVP wherever the Devs help to cause it to happen. Currently that tends to be Winter Grasp. I don't need the marks or the honor but I do have fun using the mechanics the game has to fight against other players in the open.

Quietside said...

I think that there is a difference between 'open world pvp' and 'pvp focused' as well.

Eve's model is not a bad one as virtual worlds go, the small percentage of the population that wants to get deeply involved in conquest and warfare has the ability to do so, even if assymetrically. More casual players have the opportunity to engage in pvp or to avoid it, based on personal choice.

I agree that pvp-focused games (Shadowbane, Darkfall (both fun, both broken)) are far more likely to fail or languish in obscurity. Indeed, the idea that the worst enemy of a pvp-centric game is its community is spot on.

However, there are things that have been lacking in most of the attempts so far that might go a long way toward achieving that larger strategic balance that you discussed:

Community building tools as part of the game, actual attention to the costs and logistics of conquest and warfare, making nation building more than arbitrary ownership of one holding or another. Bringing back ideas like faction, reputation and renown when dealing with the pve and npc aspects of the world as well.

A little deeper design work would provide the developers with a series of brakes and valves to allow for both the open world, unbalanced pvp that many players enjoy and mitigating the zerging, bullying and generally poor behaviour of a small percentage of the population.

defconquell said...

I'll second what Quietside just said. If you can revolutionize the game design to provide sports PvP battles to channel players into environments where zerging is minimized or prevented, you maintain the fun factor for the casual player.

At the same time, the results of these battles need to translate to the bigger story of the world. Gaining territory is a great mechanic for this, but also provide unique and changing discoveries and prizes as the story evolves.

I currently have been having a love/hate relationship with EvE for about a year now. I like the fact that a corp can claim nulsec or a wormhole and farm it for resources, build labs and factories, and grind out ships for their players or to sell.

What I would like to see added as a new feature are more epic quest arcs that take you into lowsec. The reward for a carrier group doing a level 5 high-risk mission in lowsec is pitiful right now. Giving a boost to L5s/epics in lowsec would make for some really fun gameplay.

One last note, the recent Sansha attacks in highsec are an example of devs doing world events right. If your story says an NPC faction is getting aggressive, show it in the game world. Give players unique and surprising opportunities to participate. It would be like a large and formidable NPC army showing up in Ogrimmar every few months just to spice things up.

Love everyones comments, great discussion.

Tesh said...

Open world PvP with a game that uses a wide power band and/or allows significant zerging is inherently broken. Indeed, when time is the coin of the realm rather than skill and strategy, PvP will degenerate into a cycle of ganking and bullying. It almost can't do anything else. (The only way such a system could wind up with fair PvP is if the players choose and enforce fair fights... which isn't likely to happen.)

Sure, some players like that sort of imbalance, and "real world" war can be like that, too, but it's not a level playing field, and that keeps it in a constrained niche. I wouldn't say those games are dead, but they certainly don't have mainstream appeal.

defconquell said...

Recently Syncaine at Hardcore Casual had an interesting post about Guild Wars 2 and PvP related dynamic events. Check it out, his ideas are pretty damn good.

redgiant said...

The reason why games like DAoC are not being made much at the moment stems more from balance issues and the "if you can zerg, you will zerg" problem.

In DAoC, a few key features kept the imbalances at bay in a fairly self-balancing system:

1. There were > 2 side. Namely, 3. And I don't mean 2 sides and the Balaur (Aion). This helps blunt one side from taking over, sicne the other two can gang up on them to swing the pendulum. Now, this didn't always happen perfectly of course, but it helps.

2. The tactical objectives are small and can occur for many reason and in many forms, but the strategic goals are intentionally designed to progressively thin the controlling side and stretch their resources almost asymptotically, so for example no matter how much of a "zerg advantage" your side holds, they cannot hold onto everything, everywhere but the carrots are present to compell them to try to. The equilibrium shifts to make the 3:1 seem almost even, given that the larger forces are much more strung out and the smaller one can focus on the weakest links and guerilla/surprise tactics.

In DAoC, having three sides and the increasingly difficult gates of controlling more keeps to get at relics was designed to accomplish (1) and (2).

In particular, you might have a 3:1 advantage in bodies, but when you try stringing them out to take 1...2...3... up to 6 keeps and hold onto them to open up the relic keeps with the increasing stress on your supply lines and resources, you can see how this helps self-level the field.

The real problem in current games is that no one has bothered to put enough emphasis on the stretching mechanisms like they did in DAoC (not even WAR which was also by Mythic but turned out to be an instance-fest), and the motivation to have long, coordinated open-world efforts with bigger rewards for pulling off the harder-to-maintain spread objectives.

Control of dungeons, attribute bonuses, enabling invasion access, realm pride are all valid motivations that, when applied correctly to an audience, makes them work towards simlar goals collectively and make it feel more personal when the other realm attacks something that "is yours".

I never felt anything close to what I did in DAoC whe I played WAR or Aion. When your realm yelled "MIDS AT DC" or "ALBS POURING THROUGH EM MG, 5g+", you dropped whatever you were doing and headed out to help. You felt like you were part of a REALM, not a bunch of animated gifs parked waiting for a scenario or BG to pop.

What has happened to the "Massive" and "Multiplayer" in MMO? We need a new term for what we have today: MSO - Massive Singleplayer Online.

SP said...

you are sadly right. there is every week a suggestion about world pvp on blizzard suggestion forums but they don't care. topics just fill up with other people chiming in and either get forgotten about, or deleted.

blizzard had to put up with all the complaining of all the lowbies getting ganked by the highest levels, and in the end just created bgs/arena/wg/etc.. system in which players "PvP" in a box with no one to gank or harass by killing off NPCs. in fact, some cities like Grum's NPCs respawn time is 1 second. you kill one, they re-spawn over and over until you leave the town.

RIP world pvp, you will be missed.

Mooseman said...

Time is the main factor of success in FPS games too. The more time you have to play the game, the better your twitch skills will be. If I spend hours practicing, my kill ratio goes up. If I'm busy, my kill ratio goes down.

For some reason, MMO players don't like to have their characters die. In a FPS game, this can't be avoided, so you quickly learn to take it for granted.

But, I long for an active MMO game that is open world PvP. Capturing territory objectives, being able to have a real effect in the game world. That's fun.

Anonymous said...

That's why open world PvP makes a good alternative server choice. This ensures the game can reach the "carebear" crew as well as the hardcore PvPer.