PvP Considerations in MMORPG Game Design

Note: This is a reposting of an article I wrote on PvP design from a theoretical point of view some years ago.

While it is demonstrably impossible to make everyone happy with any
design, my hope is that I can give you guys more of an insight into the thinking and reasoning behind MMO game design, as well as shedding light onto some of the choices and challenges we in the industry have to try to solve every day.

Few areas of MMORPG design can match the contentiousness that is bred by even the most innocent discussion of PvP (Player versus Player) gameplay.

From a purely practical point of view, this shouldn’t come as any particular surprise. Modern MMORPGs grew out of a PvE (Player versus Environment), Diku-style environment. From this kind of gameplay some very fundamental conventions of MMORPG gameplay evolved.

Convention 1: The player (almost) always wins.

Unless a player makes a blatant misjudgment and barring raid-style end boss content, the player will emerge victorious from any particular engagement. PvE fights are virtually never fair, and are heavily biased in favor of the player.

Convention 2: The player’s character gets better based on the time played.

Regardless of player skill and barring non-formative gameplay, the more time a player’s character is played, the better in absolute mathematical terms that player’s character will get. Computer-controlled opponents that were fearsome yesterday are a pushover today.

In the modern MMORPG environment, there are exceptions to these conventions, but it should be noted that making an exception to one of the rules above carries with it consequences. Some of those consequences will be easier to deal with than others. More importantly, if one wishes to break (or even bend) one of these conventions, it is critical to understand why these rules have evolved and to make sure that whatever solution the developers devise does not create unexpected problems.

Both of the above conventions are commercially successful because they are very effective at securing the long-term commitment of players. Players like to win, and once the basic mechanic for success is figured out, players in games utilizing the above conventions can ensure themselves a steady stream of victories. Players like to feel that their characters are growing stronger, and the convention of largely equating time spent in game with mathematical improvement is similarly effective at giving players a reason to continue playing.

Where these conventions begin to break down is when developing PvP content. And the expectations resulting from these conventions can cause headaches for developers attempting to introduce fair and satisfying PvP gameplay.

In PvP, the expectation is that if all other things are equal, a particular player will emerge victorious about 50 percent of the time. In reality, things are never equal, and a player engaging in PvP for the first time will have a chance of victory substantially lower than 50 percent. Therefore, many players engaging in PvP for the first time will face a rude awakening, as they enter a world where achieving “only” a 50 percent win ratio is a substantial accomplishment.

It is worth examining two notable divergences from the accepted conventions for PvE gameplay.

Guild Wars, for example, has a level progression, but the top level is achieved relatively quickly. Even early on in the level progression the emphasis is weighted very heavily in favor of a player’s strategic choices for slotting their action bar. Gaining an additional skill – even one that is generally not achievable until deeper in the content – expands the breadth of one’s strategic options, but does not directly mathematically improve a character’s performance.

World of Warcraft follows the above conventions until a player begins raiding in earnest. At that point, a twist is introduced – the end boss of a raid generally involves some type of puzzle. Until you figure out a tactic to beat the puzzle, victory is extremely difficult, if not outright impossible. Once an effective tactic has been devised, the challenge becomes more one of organization, logistics and communication than it is of gameplay.

The vast majority of MMORPGs orbit around PvE content, but even those that do not – such as EVE or Guild Wars – contain a huge core of PvE gameplay, and this foundation cannot be ignored or disregarded in any discussion of PvP implementation. Those games that have attempted to introduce PvP late in the design process without real exception have had to wrestle with balance issues and inconsistencies between PvE and PvP gameplay.

How, then, can one approach the problem of introducing fair and enjoyable PvP content that can peacefully co-exist with PvE content?

There is a path, but it is a path that will have to be the subject of another entry.

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