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Nation States And The Social Ganker

This post was prompted by a thread on f13, which asked “is there any difference between open PvP and gang warfare?

It’s an interesting topic. Let’s look at it first from a purely game-specific level.

Ultima Online was pretty much full-on gang warfare, and I suspect the memory of which prompted this specific thread. There wasn’t a great deal of organization, and what organization was introduced (guilds, notoriety, order/chaos) tended to be ignored. PvP combat in UO could be broken down into either internecine gang warfare (two PvP guilds duking it out), vigilante action (PK and anti-PK guilds duking it out), or petty crime (PKs ganking helpless passers-by). (Note that this is my memory of UO circa 2000; I’m fairly certain it’s changed dramatically since.)

Everquest was, uh, broken PvP. If you remember, the original plan was to have PvP and non-PvP players on the same server, where PvP was an opt-in system that had you hand in a Tome of Discord and flag yourself eternally red. The problem was that flagging yourself PvP meant that you basically could not group with a non-PvP player (could not heal or buffs, accept heals or buffs, etc). Which meant that effectively, your character couldn’t actually play. Eventually, I’m fairly certain, resetting the status of players who mistakenly or were tricked into handing in that book as a “quest” became such a CS hassle that the entire system was scrapped. Asheron’s Call and Everquest both had “open PvP” servers which were popular, but also pretty clearly afterthoughts that would often be broken by patches to the “real” game.

Of course, there wasn’t a lot of discussion about social structures in the above paragraph, was there? That was intentional. With such a tangle of rules and bugs and strictures, any social structure was choked in its crib. AC Darktide had a pretty efficient social structure, but it was mainly gang warfare squared, with the XP chaining scheme helping to encourage a terminal mass of people joining the dominant gang.

Then you had the next iteration of games; Shadowbane and Dark Age of Camelot. Both took very different takes on PvP. Shadowbane tried to create a “guild vs guild” game where guilds would form into meta-groups of nations and fight over territory. In practice, the meta-groups never really took; the game crystalized into guild vs guild wars… again, gang wars by another name.

Dark Age of Camelot’s thesis was to ditch the open PvP model completely. Instead, DAOC channelled everyone into one of three sides and treat the other two sides as very smart NPCs. No trash talking, in fact, very little interaction between them at all. Personally, I think this is a very underestimated part of the equation. Without the social (or more appropriately antisocial) behavior in game, two very distinct and almost contradictory things happened; players in-game acted as opposing sides as designed – Britons would fight Elves on sight, Trolls would attack Highlanders, etc. And, interestingly enough, the interaction between the two migrated to message boards out of game. Even to this day, the VN board for a Camelot cluster is composed largely of “@CharacterName” messages aimed at trash talk or, more surprisingly and more often, compliments for the way a fight went the night before.

So, Camelot managed to avoid the ‘gang warfare’ symptoms to a large degree. People seeking out gang warfare – called “8v8s” in DAOCspeak, the moniker for a full group fighting another full group – were a part of the game, but not the majority. Most players could find gameplay by attaching themselves to what the “8v8s” would derisively call “the Zerg”, a somewhat self-explanatory term for the massive armies of loosely coordinated players looking to swarm over one another.

The next step up in PvP complexity released shortly after DAOC, but took some time to really get rolling. Eve Online is undoubtably one of the most punishing games you can play – it’s full PvP everywhere, even in the new player areas (you are protected by NPC police, but can still be blown out of the sky by a suicidally motivated PKer). But Eve iterated in many interesting ways – even more interestingly, not on the simple nation-zerg model of Dark Age of Camelot, but the virtual world model of Ultima Online – specifically, the depth of the economic model. Like UO, most everything of value in Eve is player crafted. And the game provides enough tools for economic manipulation that one could viably play the game as a day trader – not of goods back and forth, but literal commodities market manipulation.

The benefit here is sublime in its simplicity. A: Valuable goods need to be mined. B: You need to hold territory to mine those goods. C: There are no other rules. This swiftly led to D: The Carving Of The Map. Instead of relying on players to go to great lengths to defend the innocent, as UO asked, Eve asks you to, more simply, take what you want and hold it. Greed trumps altruism.

The Eve forums are far from civil most of the time (neither are the DAOC forums, really), but the passion is there regardless. Eve’s gameplay is still gang vs gang (note the meta-guild names like “Goonswarm” and “Band of Brothers” on the Eve map) – but the gangs got organized, they formed alliances, and they police their own neighborhood. Kind of like, you know, nations did.

And finally, the juggernaut, World of Warcraft. WoW’s PvP model is basically “DAOC, polished to a sheen, with instancing.” There, done, ship it. (Bitter? Moi? 😀 ) Not really open PvP, even on the PvP servers. But still accessible; and noticeably, World of Warcraft has far many more PvP servers than one would expect from the history of such things. Clearly, there’s a market for people who want to fight running battles in Stranglethorn Vale instead of killing 10 tiger cubs.

So, there’s the models extant today. What does that show us?

I personally believe that Eve shows what can happen with a mature endgame owned by the players. The trick is getting them to that point; something DAOC did remarkably well. But what will result, if done right, won’t really resemble gang warfare much at all. My off-the-cuff opinions on how to make that happen:

  • Lesson learned from Eve: a deep economy is critical to a deep PvP game. To the surprise of the Wolfpack guys, clearly people DO bake bread AND crush. (Sorry, everyone who didn’t get that. Long-running in-joke.) Economy gives you the skeleton of what to fight over.
  • Lesson learned from Camelot: limit the grief. (This goes against the lesson from Eve. But DAOC, and its descendant WoW, are a touch more popular.) Whatever you can do to “NPC-alize” enemy players, do so. Those truly motivated to exercise the art of the trashtalk will move it to the forums, where, in a win-win, it’s both content outside your game and easier for CS to manage/ignore.
  • Lesson learned from Counterstrike: skill-based PvP has it’s place. That place is not an MMO. The tyranny of a skill-based elite is only compounded by the permanence of the MMO. As seen with the popularity and success of the Camelot zergs, people can be successful as part of a massive team, but that success wears down if that team can be wiped off the map by 5 really super guys.
  • Lesson learned from World of Warcraft: item-centric PvP makes your game painful to balance. I can only imagine what gyrations the Blizzard PvP designers are going through trying to “load balance” arena matchups based on item loadouts. Plus, an item-centric game built on loot drops also tends to break your player-run deep economies – which violates the first lesson above. Item-centric PvP – bad touch.
  • Lesson learned from… well, my own delusions: context matters. It’s my belief that if you set up enough of a context within the game’s environment for nations to come together and fight for/against something, a core of your players will take it and run with it. This hasn’t really been tried yet – Shadowbane came close with its deep lore that the game systems tended to ignore.

What lessons would YOU add to make a PvP game more of a struggle of nations and less of a gangbang?