How To Make A Game With 'PvP Done Right'

Considering that every time I make a post with “P”, “v” and “P” somewhere in the title the ensuing comments pile up into three digits, either Scott Kurtz has a lot of fans or there’s a whole lot of people still mad about getting ganked in front of Despise 10 years later. And given the recent comments by Auran on the less than stellar success of their new PvP MMO, it seems a refresher course may be in order on H0w 2 mak3 y0ur playerZ gAnk. So, here is my incredibly humble checklist of how to make your player vs player not morph into player vs company. In other words… a design manifesto cleverly disguised as some incredibly obvious aphorisms! I can speak from experience, of course, having worked on one of the more successful PvP-centric MMOs and, much more importantly, having complained a lot on message boards.

PvP should not be the focus of your entire game. There have been three MMOs where the entire game consisted of player vs player combat: Planetside, WW2 Online, and Fury. Although all of these games are still running, none of them were considered market successes. (That’s not to say that a PvP-only game can’t be successful – but be prepared to consider a niche title a success.) Very few players in an MMO want to be “all gank, all the time”. Even in a game where PvP combat is the primary focus, such as Shadowbane or Eve, other elements of the game (city building, economy, etc) provide context for the persistant-world battling. With that context, your players exist in a world at war. Without that context, your game is a long-running deathmatch. And it’s safe to say other people are probably doing deathmatch better than you are.

PvP should not be a random afterthought. Or if it is, be prepared for it to be an afterthought that few bother with. Gameplay mechanics that may be crucial for the player vs environment game can spell hot death when used against other players, such as crowd control. If you go the path of designing a combat system that works well against AI monsters and raiding, and then retrofit it to a PvP environment, at least establish a framework so that what works against a monster doesn’t necessarily work against a player. However, if you go down that dark pathway, be prepared to hear a lot of complaining from your newly disenfranchised players that you just nerfed into goo. Another problem with “hey, let’s throw in a dueling system” PvP is that, by definition, that system will have little context.

PvP players hate classes. Generally, the strongest advocates of skill-based systems are PvP players. Not much of a surprise, since PvP players tend to also be the more experienced MMO players who feel as though they want to play on “advanced” mode. Class based systems also breed a sense of entitlement and disillusionment, as the players feel as though their class is inferior to everyone else. (Note: in a class-based system game, check the message boards for that class – if there’s not several dozen pages of people complaining their class is underpowered, that’s a good sign that class is wildly overpowered.) Plus there’s always the allure of coming up with a “build” that no one else has (even though everyone else in a skill-based game is playing one of three builds – maybe two) and bragging about it on message boards.

PvP players need classes. The best argument for this is what Damion Schubert has termed tactical transparency. The easiest way to illustrate this in a PvP context: players want to be able to build contingency plans. It’s hard to have a contingency plan in the heat of battle when the best you can determine about an enemy coming over the hill is “uh, he’s big and he is holding some sort of weapon”. Note that you don’t need a class to fit this need so much as a clearly visible role. If your PvP game is in a fantasy environment (note: stop), make sure your casters can’t wear platemail and tote a halberd. There, you just made it easy to identify a caster. Now, to define it further, make it so your healers have to wear a Pope hat to have a strong connection to the divine. Hey, now your players can target healers by looking for the funny hat. You just made gameplay. Also, even if your game does have classes, some means of differentiating player choices within each class is crucial. World of Warcraft’s talent system is a great example of this; a priest can be a good healer, can melt faces in PvP, or can spend points in that other tree no one uses.

PvP players detest grinding. This is something of a trick question as all players detest grinding. However, PvPers will be the loudest of the contingent demanding a shortcut. Be it level grinding, skill grinding, reputation, items, whatever roadblocks you put in the way for players to reach the end of the game in two weeks, people wanting to engage in PvP will demand that, yes, they want to reach the end of the game in two weeks, thank you.

PvP players need some grinding. Without some form of ‘grinding’ – in other words, character persistence and improvement – you have a world without meaning. No one grinds in Counterstrike (unless you count the very real grind of player skill and oh boy are we coming back to that one in a bit). Very few PvP players want no character improvement – what the argument boils down to is that they want a small “ramp-up” time, and then small incremental improvements over time that give their characters a wider set of abilities without making the constantly growing equation of power growth = time invested that is so common in MMOs to date. At any rate, that’s the charitable view. The cynical view is that the average PvP player wants player growth for everyone else capped to 10% to 25% less powerful than they personally are at any given moment.

PvP should not screw new players over. This is the No, You Cannot Be A Juvenile Little Brat rule. For examples of what happens when that rule is broken, consult everyone’s favorite, Ultima Online In The Good Old Days. Another example is “world PvP” in World of Warcraft on PvE servers, which usually consists of a passel of bored level 70s deciding to camp on a low level town owned by the other side and wipe out all the characters. Most games prevent this by making NPCs in low level zones higher level than the attacking players, or simply prevent them from bottom feeding in low level zones entirely. However, it’s pretty clear that Blizzard intended for players to be able to “raid” low level zones – without thinking through the impact that has on precisely the players who (a) cannot actually fight back and (b) are learning how to play the game and (c) deciding if they want to continue paying for said game. Alienating people who have not yet decided if that free month you gave them is enough time to get tired of your player base’s crap? Not a good idea. I mean, clearly, look how badly it’s hurting Blizzard!

PvP should screw over someone. At the same time, without someone bitterly throwing a keyboard against the wall and breaking it yet again thanks to yet another goddamned stupid pickup group not that I would know anything about any of that, PvP combat becomes just a meaningless exchange of particle effects. Part of opting into PvP (and oh, yes, we shall return to that point in a moment as well) should entail the understanding that not only can you lose, you will lose something dear to you. Whether that is as simple as time, or as permanent as item loss or even permadeath (if you’re particularly insane), consequences are part and parcel of meaningful PvP.

“You gotta keep ’em separated.” Whenever you hear old-school Ultima Online veterans indulge in nerd rage!!!1! over something called ‘Trammel’, they’re talking about geographic PvP separation – in this specific case, the introduction of safe zones into UO. Which pissed off every vocal PvPer playing UO, marked the end of a glorious era of a true shared virtual world, was a horrible sap thrown to skill-less “Trammel newbs”, and, oh, also, stopped the incredible bleeding of customers UO was suffering to the very-much-not-a-shared-virtual-PvP-world Everquest. Although the stereotypical MUD-era “PK switch” doesn’t work very well in an MMO environment, geographical separation does work very well indeed for providing a pure “opt-in” to a PvP-free-fire zone, even a ‘soft’ separation as seen in Eve where there’s not a line but more or less likelihood of retaliation by the NPC police force. And if you think seperation/opt-in PvP isn’t a very good idea for whatever reason (purity of your virtual world vision, desire to have a hard core PvP experience, deep and undying hatred of your new players), keep this simple fact in mind – your game will have a geographically based PvP switch. The question you should answer is – will it occur within your game, or by players leaving it for games with other rules systems?

But not too separated. At the same time, there should be encouragement to actually enter what I’ve been known to call ‘Gankytown’ (if only so I can intone “MASTER BLASTER RULES GANKYTOWN”) (note: when designing PvP systems, it often helps to indulge your inner 14 year old). Both to give the battle-hardened denizens someone new to slaughter, but also, and more seriously, giving new players a taste of battle so they can discover whether or not they have a taste for it. The best way to do this is to place optional, but valuable rewards for new players (and only new players, preferably through the mechanism of quests or other one-time-only reward systems) that encourage them to get into the fight against other new players from opposing sides after the same thing. Continuing this progress through to “battlegrounds” where hopefully even-matched players compete against one another, and players discover that losing a PvP match doesn’t actually cause massive internal bleeding, and more importantly start to make contacts among other interested players and guilds. Guild Wars tends to do this pretty well with its PvP minigames, as does World of Warcraft (though the low level WoW battlegrounds tend to be dominated by specialist twinks in a sort of PvP minigame, which can alienate the truly new player). Other possible carrots include valuable raw materials for crafting and, in level grind games, greatly expedited experience gain vs. other players (which worked very well for Dark Age of Camelot).

In the endless player skill argument, you should assume your players don’t have any. I’m tempted just to leave that sentence as is. However, the player-skill vs character-skill argument is, in the sense of this discussion, almost a red herring. Does your game have twitchy gameplay? Is player growth simply gated by whomever has the most time or cash on eBay to spend? Are your rules so arcane and so often patched that your players have to level up their Google skill just to get an accurate spell list off your website? No matter what gates exist, there will be some. And there will be those who are better at working those gates than others. It’s what I call the tyranny of the skilled minority. A given small percentage – be it 10% or 20% or whatever – will win any contest consistently, when faced with the less skilled 80% or 90%. There’s not much you can do about this, save be aware of it, and more importantly, ensure that losing isn’t too painful a proposition. Note that this directly contradicts with the rule that “PvP should screw over someone.” Congratulations on the realization that no matter where you step, the mine will go off directly under your foot.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reward those players who do. Players should always feel as though PvP combat is more than just a random dice roll weighted by what level their Panzerelf Warden ground up to. Even if a player is consistently losing to the skilled minority when they are matched up with them, if they feel that in a fair fight they had a chance of winning, the pain of that loss is lessened considerably. If the player feels as though given enough practice and skill they can turn the tables, they’re motivated to do so (and also possibly pay for a new keyboard). If a player feels as though they had no chance because the Emotionally Distressed Wizardling class just pushed a button that vaporized all players within 500 feet, that motivation usually expresses itself as “finding another game”.

PvP players are angry and bitter, and will hate you. This has nothing to do with design. I just thought I should warn you. There’s been enough bad games out there that you have no honeymoon period at all. Sorry.