Designing good MMO-PvP is hard – but not impossible

There’s been a lot of fuss about Amazon’s New World lately, specifically regarding the quite radical changes to its PvP-design. Originally planned as a free-for-all open PvP title, players will now be able to fight each other in “opt-in faction conflict and territory wars” only…or will they?

What bugs me personally about the ensuing discussions – if we can actually call them that, quite often it’s more like shouting and screaming at one another – is that the vast majority of players seems to be rooted firmly in one of two extremist camps, with absolutely no room for some middle ground.

Camp number one is mostly comprised of the hardcore PvP folks who wanted their big budget FFA-slugfest so bad. The gankers and griefers, as it were. Look, I am a fan of PvP and really hate it when all PvPers are painted with the same brush, but I’m not blind or stupid and know full well that this kind of player exists. Their dream-MMORPG would be all but unplayable for everybody else. History has proven as much.

The other camp is home to people who are like “If a game has any kind of non-consensual PvP I’m not touching it, period. Don’t wanna know anything about it, don’t care, lalala, I’m not listening!”.

Both camps seem to be totally convinced that finding a middle ground can’t, or worse, shouldn’t be done. Well, I beg to differ.

In my opinion there are some MMORPGs out there that manage to not only provide open PvP for those who like it, but also give incentives for and meaning to said PvP without actually forcing anyone to participate in it. Is any of those games perfect? No, because nothing ever is, but they prove that designing good and meaningful PvP can be done without the game in question automatically becoming a “gankbox”. I hate that term, by the way, ever since camp number two has decided to throw it around like candy whenever an upcoming game plans to have any kind of open PvP.

I’ll use ArcheAge as an example here because – again, in my opinion – its PvP aspects and how those are integrated into the game’s design as a whole are pretty well thought out. As a consequence there’s something here for everyone, and no one has to do stuff they don’t like, despite the different game systems’ various interdependencies.

Gliding into action – voluntarily

First of all, the game’s population is divided into two warring factions, with the option to switch to a third – the dastardly pirates – later on if you so desire. The two main factions each have their own home continent, separated by the sea. As I’ve talked about before a couple of regions constantly cycle through states of peace, conflict and war; everywhere else on your native land you’re absolutely safe all the time.

My home continent: fifteen regions, ten of which are permanently at peace

Our little family empire is located in Two Crowns, for example, which means that when we’re tending our crops, sleeping in our beds or doing whatever we can be totally relaxed, knowing that no harm can come to us.

When you do venture into a contested region – which you technically need to do only once for the quests there – you can always wait until it’s at peace. Granted, doing all the quests that way might take a while, but it’s possible if you want to avoid PvP at all cost.

Why go there at any other time at all then, or even place your house and farms there?

For one, since living in constant danger obviously isn’t for everyone those regions aren’t as crowded, and farmland is much less sought after. If you wanted a big chunk of land for yourself or your whole family early on your chances would have been much better there than anywhere else.

Said land can also be quite lucrative. If your cheese has aged on a farm in Hellswamp or Sanddeep, for example, it sells for a considerably higher price than cheese from Two Crowns or Dewstone. Since gold is extremely important and always scarce in ArcheAge (much more so than in most other MMORPGs I’ve played) that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Another incentive might be gaining honor. Honor is a very important currency, mostly for gear upgrading, and you gain it in big chunks for recurring events that are either centered around PvP or at least take place in contested regions, making PvP a possibility. Honor is also gained by killing players of the other factions during the highest level of conflict or war.


At the heart of all this is one design principle that’s often talked about, but rarely executed this well: risk versus reward.

Pretty much everything that offers big (or bigger) rewards in ArcheAge involves taking a higher risk. You don’t have to take any of those risks if you don’t want to, but if you do and it works out as planned you’re rewarded accordingly.

Another good example of that is the acquisition of Onyx Archeum Essences. That’s a crafting material needed for almost all kinds of advanced products. No matter what your personal playstyle and goals are, you’ll most assuredly need a couple of these at some point.

The only way to “make” them is to buy a special kind of trade pack on one of the main continents and sell it on another. So you shell out 26 gold, strap the heavy pack on your back, and then what?

Well, you can board your clipper (or vessel of choice) and set sail. The catch is that the sea is always at war, so should you encounter other players chances are they’ll try to…umm…relieve you of your burden. Nevertheless this is my method of choice, and I have yet to lose a pack in Unchained. I lost one once or twice in the original game though.

Almost there…you don’t see me…and I’m definitely not carrying anything of value

Alternatively you can wait for the NPC-ferry to arrive, pay another five gold for a ticket, take a seat and just enjoy the ride. That ticket makes you immune to being attacked as long as you stay on the ship, so this is a risk-free variant that’s more expensive and takes longer in return.

Option number three is to just buy the essences from other players on the market. Fast and risk-free, but obviously the most expensive way to get them.

There are many more examples for risk vs reward-based choices players can make. Fish caught in the open sea is more valuable and it’s also way more labor-efficient than fishing in a lake; delivering trade packs to a contested region during war yields a bonus; mobs in all contested regions drop more loot during war; honor-bought lunagems (gear upgrades) have lower stats than the crafted versions, but are waaay less expensive.

Also, gaining honor can be quite fun

Remember, you don’t have to ever choose the riskier option. You might progress more slowly towards whatever goal you’re pursuing, yes, but you’ll get there eventually without ever giving other players the chance to attack you without your consent.

Me? Above all I love to have that choice, and which path I take may well vary from one day to the next, depending on my mood. More often than not I’ll choose the high-risk, high-reward option though, not because I love to gank or get ganked but because it keeps the gameplay exciting and fun for me. I’d like to give you some examples of such exciting situations I’ve found myself in, but this is already getting long, so I’ll save those for another time.

Of course, as with any game out there, different people say different things about ArcheAge. Some call it a gankbox (bleh) while others claim its PvP is meaningless, nonexistent or both. As far as I’m concerned those people seem to be playing a different game because for me it’s a (mostly) well designed sandbox that incentivises PvP in all of its forms without actually forcing you to engage in it.

So…if XL Games can do it, why should Amazon Game Studios not be able to? The question is, can they manage to radically redesign New World in the time they have left? Probably not. At least they’re going for a three-faction system now, which is likely better than what they had before. Well, I guess we’ll know soon enough.

5 Replies to “Designing good MMO-PvP is hard – but not impossible”

  1. DAOC was perfect that way to cater to both camps. The ganker would live in the frontier all day, and the PVE carebear would stay in PVE land – until they wanted to help defend a keep (or other, low risk, run PVP event). Plus your mood could swing. We would form small gank squads to mess with bigger armies in the frontier, hit and run tactics if we felt like it. Or not.

    As a player who has enjoyed PVP and PVE servers, and in various titles, I wrote a piece on relative player power curves on my blog years ago – and it still stands (for me) today as an interesting way to explore PVP. The problem now, generally, is that a level 50 can wipe an indefinitely number of 25s. The power curve of the player ramps up so much that they become godlike.

    In that article, I suggested the power curve flatten. So a level 75 player (imaginary levels and players) can be beaten by three level 25s. Or 75 level 1s. Always making a fight a possibility, and not a max level needed to beat a max level.

    I didn’t bother with archeage, or BDO, or many of the more recent titles that have PVP because my gaming time is no longer uninterrupted. I need to have the flexibility to walk away from my computer frequently – something PVP lands and games don’t really support (nor should they…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @Isey – I absolutely agree, power curves are a serious problem. Unfortunately ArcheAge is no exception – if anything it’s even worse here than in many other titles.

      I’ll try to find your piece on the topic, look forward to reading it.


  2. Over the long years I’ve played these games my views on PvP have changed numerous times. I was always curious about it even from the start – I had a monk on one of the Zek servers in EQ before DAOC launched – but I only dabbled very cautiously and never progressed far because in those days what you really had to lose was your invested time. Even in DAOC I didn;t do all that much RvR because more often than not it was an evening wasted – not because I died too often but because we never found anyone to fight at all.

    As the genre developed that changed. I liked a more organized, timetabled version of PvP a lot better than the “hope someone wants a fight” style, let alone “how many times can I gank you at spawn before you rage quit?” Battlegrounds made me really enjoy PvP and I’ve done some in most games I play that have it ever since.

    Of al the versions i’ve tried I liked GW2’s WvW the best, back when server loyalty was still a very real motivator. I still like it now, on occasion, though it’s a shell of what it was. I’m looking forward to New World and I hope they’re aiming for something like that. It is entirely possible, as you say, to integrate PvP and PvE players into a single game ecology. You just have to make sure both sides can have the gameplay they want at will.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @Bhagpuss – Indeed, wasting time hoping for a fight and not getting one always sucks. As a long-time EVE player I know that all too well.

      Still, most MMORPG-battlegrounds I’ve played lacked any kind of meaning or consequence, so I lost the drive to do them rather quickly.
      From what I’ve read on your blog GW2 indeed seems to be (or at least to have been) different in that regard, unfortunately I missed out on that experience.


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