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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

What I’m looking forward to in 2020

Despite all moaning and groaning, in my opinion there has never been a better time to be a fan of video games in general and the MMORPG genre in particular. There’s an abundance of great games to play, old and new, huge and small, many even at very low or even no cost to boot. If I had the whole year off I still wouldn’t be able to play everything I’d like to and do each title justice.

Thus I don’t actually need any new games to look forward to. You know, technically speaking.

Most people really like to stare longingly at the horizon though, waiting for that one (or yet another) game so great that it changes their lives or heralds a new age of video gaming, and I’m no different. So here’s a selection of games I have high hopes for, that will or at least might come out in 2020.

Lost Ark

Lost Ark
Borrowed this from Time to Loot‘s Naithin

It’s not exactly news that I’m very keen on getting my hands on this one. By now the Russian version is out – or at least in a no-wipe beta, I’m not sure which it is – so it actually can be played without a Korean account. There’s an English language patch available for this version too.

When I first tried Black Desert Online the situation was exactly the same though, and my experience wasn’t that great. Also, it looks like we might see at least the announcement of a western release sooner rather than later. I’d be very surprised if we didn’t. Sure, the Asian market is huge, but the EU and Americas combined are nothing to sneeze at either. Not releasing the game here would mean leaving huge piles of cash on the table.

I guess we’ll know soon enough. Until then I’m watching this from the sidelines.

New World

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This one I’m mostly curious about, I don’t know nearly enough about it to actually have high hopes of any kind. I’m not really a fan of survival games, so possibly it’ll turn out to not be my cup of tea at all, depending on how pronounced that gameplay aspect is in the end.

One thing’s for sure though: Amazon definitely has the resources to let the dev team get this right. I highly doubt they’ll release a sub-par product just to get it out the door. In fact they’ve already proven that they’ll rather shut a project down than do that.

If they in fact do pull off something great I think it’ll be a boon to the whole industry. ActiBlizz and EA desperately need another big player to light a fire under their butts, and we all need a sign that western publishers are actually capable of more than rehashing the same old ideas over and over.

Current release date: May 26th.

Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077 Screenshot Night City

Not an MMORPG, obviously, but this is by far my most highly anticipated game ever since its first announcement.

I played the Pen & Paper RPG Shadowrun back in the day. It made me absolutely fall in love with that kind of setting, and for quite some time I soaked up pretty much anything even marginally related. Novels, movies and of course games.

There have been some very good cyberpunk games, too, the first Deus Ex still being my favourite. I have really high hopes that 2077 will trump them all though, the reason being that it’s developed by CD Project Red.

I’ve actually only played the first Witcher game myself (yeah, I know, shame on me), but the reputation those guys and girls have built since then is nothing short of amazing. Hence many a cyberpunk-fan’s mindset: if anyone can pull this off, it’s them!

Release is slated for April 16th. Can’t wait.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2

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This game’s predecessor is one of my favourite games of all time. I find it hard to describe why exactly – which is why my long-planned Greatest Games Of All Times-post about it still hasn’t materialized – but I still play through it every two years or so. Not bad for a game released in 2004.

Every time I replay it I wonder what might have happened had it been less buggy and more successful at the time. Story expansions, more locations, more playable clans. How great that would have been.

To be honest, as of yet I haven’t seen much to convince me that this sequel will actually be good. I’m hopeful though, if only because I want it to be good. It’s ought to release at some point in 2020.

And…that’s it. I mean, of course there are some more games in the pipeline that I’m not completely uninterested in, but I’m not actively anticipating any of those.

Pretty bleak, isn’t it? Nah, not really. As I said in the beginning, I have already too many great games at my disposal that I don’t have enough time for. If these four titles do release in 2020 and manage to fulfill my expectations I’ll be a very happy camper indeed.