PLAYING TO CRUSH [Author: Lum the Mad]

Seemingly every massively multiplayer game arriving on the market now has some element of player vs. player combat (PvP) involved. In fact, I\’e2\’80\’99m at a loss to think of a major game due on the market which doesn\’e2\’80\’99t involve players beating other players on the head at some point. This is pretty strange behavior, when you consider that unrestrained player killing was the main reason Ultima Online\’e2\’80\’99s first years were such a post-apocalyptic spectacle.

One possibility, of course, is simply that no game designers are capable of independent thought. With the latest iterations of \’e2\’80\’9cLike Everquest, but with CHIMPANZEES!\’e2\’80\’9d we saw last month at E3, this looks more and more likely. Yet it\’e2\’80\’99s unfair to judge the state of the art so harshly. For one thing, those chimpanzees can be pretty darned cute. Another, more likely possibility is simply that PvP is what most veterans of MUDs eventually graduate to (cf: Duris and Arctic, still among the most popular of text MUDs and both extremely PvP) and there are very few MMO game designers who aren\’e2\’80\’99t veterans of MUDs. It\’e2\’80\’99s a happily incestuous little clique, and more so since they cheerfully roxx0r one another. Possibly because of this, many designers see PvP as the \’e2\’80\’9choly grail\’e2\’80\’9d that keeps the players happily amused in the endgame. Hey, it worked for said designers. People write what they know.

Another reason could be that players ask for it. Popular opinion to the contrary, game developers usually do try to give their customers what they want. Designers, being usually human, also try to listen to as many of their players as they possibly can. Players, also coincidentally being usually human, tend to be more and more vocal the larger the axe they have to grind. The only conclusion we can draw? Replace designers and players with chimpanzees. They\’e2\’80\’99re just so darned cute! Failing that, let\’e2\’80\’99s look at how human nature enters the equation. Thanks to human nature, the most dedicated players naturally tend to be the most vocal \’e2\’80\ldblquote and thus the most often heard. And in the magical world of make believe that MMO players, designers and chimpanzees inhabit, that means those dedicated, vocal players are either on the \’e2\’80\’9cright wing\’e2\’80\’9d of the endless PK/PvP argument \’e2\’80\ldblquote \’e2\’80\’9cI Have A God-Given Right To Kill Anyone I Want, And That Goes Double For In Game\’e2\’80\’9d and the equally adamant \’e2\’80\’9cleft wing\’e2\’80\’9d \’e2\’80\’9cThis Is Not A Game, But An Evolution In Society And Peekays Should Be Put On Trial For Murder\’e2\’80\’9d. Given the endless storm and thundering about this admittedly pretty core issue \’e2\’80\ldblquote do you or do you not have a right to embed your axe in yon George over there \’e2\’80\ldblquote it\’e2\’80\’99s a wonder that game designers work on ANYTHING other than PvP, or more to the point separating the rightists from the leftists.

A test case here might be illustrative. Everquest is, to date, the world\’e2\’80\’99s most successful massively multiplayer online game (give or take a few Korean internet cafes). Everquest also, like every other massively multiplayer game released to date, was released with the intention of supporting PvP combat on every live server.

Everquest was not designed in a vacuum of course. While most games today are being designed with the core design document being \’e2\’80\’9cLike Everquest \’e2\’80\ldblquote but with chimpanzees!\’e2\’80\’9d one of Everquest\’e2\’80\’99s design goals was pretty obviously \’e2\’80\’9cLike Ultima Online \’e2\’80\ldblquote but without all those player killers!\’e2\’80\’9d Remember, at the time Ultima Online\’e2\’80\’99s major, one and only issue was player killing. There were lag issues, and bug issues, and possibly even game play issues once the lag and bugs were surmounted, but all that was kind of irrelevant if you were ganked by six invisible mages immediately upon leaving town. Brad McQuaid and company were aware of this. They could not help but be aware of the spectacle of, at the time, their only competition basically consuming itself alive \’e2\’80\ldblquote casting off most of its players on a monthly basis as people voted on the PK/PvP argument with their subscription dollars. Everquest thus had a built-in appeal to those disaffected Ultima Online players simply by offering a space safe from unrestricted PvP and predatory PKs. This was not so much through abolishing PvP as in regulating it. Remember, Everquest was released with the intention of supporting PvP combat on every live server. In the game\’e2\’80\’99s original design, players would choose either a PK or No-PK path upon character generation. Every character was (and still is) created with a \’e2\’80\’9cBook of Chaos\’e2\’80\’9d which they can hand to a Priest of Chaos helpfully glowering at players in every major city to flip their PK switch. Players who hand in the book can kill each other, players who don\’e2\’80\’99t hand in the book can\’e2\’80\’99t. Simple enough. The two groups would exist, separate but equal, in the same game world.

Yet this seemingly simple design quickly proved impossible in the implementation. The restrictions imposed by the \’e2\’80\’9capartheid\’e2\’80\’9d between PKs and No-PKs proved crippling to the minority group. Everquest\’e2\’80\’99s core design is one of enforced cooperation \’e2\’80\ldblquote classes are seriously limited in what they can accomplish, and a fighter requires a healer requires a wizard requires a fighter to succeed. In Everquest, cooperation is not merely encouraged, it is required. Players who flipped the PK switch and \’e2\’80\’9cturned red\’e2\’80\’9d very quickly found that, for them, Everquest was unplayable, as they could not even reset their bind point upon death since that required them finding a friendly (then) high-level player who also happened to be a PK. Verant created a server, \’e2\’80\’9cRallos Zek\’e2\’80\’9d (after the god of war, all EQ servers being named after gods in the Everquest pantheon) that was \’e2\’80\’9cPvP only\’e2\’80\’9d \’e2\’80\ldblquote all players were created automatically as PKers. This worked, in a rough fashion, and although Rallos Zek was consistently the least populated of EQ servers the basic design goal of apartheid seemed to work.

Except it didn\’e2\’80\’99t. Players, for whatever reason, still yearned for the ability to embed their axe in yon George over there. Shortly after Everquest\’e2\’80\’99s release, Verant announced a new server, \’e2\’80\’9cTallon Zek\’e2\’80\’9d, which would use a new \’e2\’80\’9cTeam PvP\’e2\’80\’9d ruleset to encourage racial warfare. (Only in MMOs is the encouragement of racial strife considered a core design goal.) When brought online, it was immediately and literally crushed by thousands of curious EQ players wanting to try \’e2\’80\’9crole-played PvP\’e2\’80\’9d. Verant, caught totally off-guard by the sudden thirst of EQ players for each others\’e2\’80\’99 blood (since Rallos Zek even then was the most under populated server and Tallon Zek was seen as more of a design experiment) immediately brought up another server, \’e2\’80\’9cVallon Zek\’e2\’80\’9d, with the same ruleset.

The popularity didn\’e2\’80\’99t last, and today, the three Zeks are consistently the least populated of Everquest\’e2\’80\’99s servers. There\’e2\’80\’99s a few reasons for this. Everquest\’e2\’80\’99s gameplay, balanced around literally months of slow advancement in a player-vs-environment game, simply didn\’e2\’80\’99t translate well to PvP. When it takes a player hours of camping to win a Breastplate of Uberness, losing it in a thirty second battle to another player simply isn\’e2\’80\’99t acceptable. Yet the designers keep trying \’e2\’80\ldblquote one of the current focuses of the EQ Live team is a \’e2\’80\’9cDeity Teams PvP\’e2\’80\’9d server that seeks to address some of the problems that the \’e2\’80\’9cTeam PvP\’e2\’80\’9d servers encounter. Obviously, someone, somewhere, even if only the designers themselves, see PvP as a worthy goal, worth sinking development time into.

Interestingly, Ultima Online eventually arrived at the same point, albeit through a far different road. As Everquest\’e2\’80\’99s release (and later, that of Asheron\’e2\’80\’99s Call) took a serious chunk of Ultima Online\’e2\’80\’99s player base, the UO developers kept hacking away at fixes that would slow down the PK assembly line. When ever more punitive measures such as \’e2\’80\’9cstat loss\’e2\’80\’9d (designed to either keep the PK kill-free for eight hours per kill or, saving that, simply cripple their character) failed, the UO dev team finally threw up their hands and gave up. When UO: Renaissance introduced, through some clever server-splitting technology, a doubling of the UO gameplay area, the newly cloned world was declared PK-free. A new ruleset, named \’e2\’80\’9cTrammel\’e2\’80\’9d after the Britannian moon the new \’e2\’80\’9cfacet\’e2\’80\’9d was named after, protected players from almost every possible negative player vs player interaction, including blocking, kill stealing, and thievery. Not surprisingly, UO players moved to Trammel en masse, thus neatly canceling out the load balancing that the UO: Renaissance server splitting was supposed to introduce to begin with. In a recent interview, Rick Hall, UO\’e2\’80\’99s producer, acknowledged that the \’e2\’80\’9cTrammel\’e2\’80\’9d facet was home to over 80% of UO\’e2\’80\’99s player base.

Despite the vocal demands of PvP enthusiasts, whenever an alternative is given, players have always chosen gameplay that doesn\’e2\’80\’99t include PvP. Why is this?

One of the most obvious reasons, of course, is that players don\’e2\’80\’99t like dying. Gameplay without PvP is always easier; no AI-driven monster in a game has yet matched the skill of a human being. PvP is hard.

Another reason over and above that is that PvP rewards those who spend the most time at it. Casual players are quickly subdued by those who make UltimaQuest\’e2\’80\’99s Call their new career. This leads to frequent death, which, again, brings us back to the players not liking dying thing.

And finally, it must be said that a large subset of PvP players are, well, asses. Look at any PvP guild website \’e2\’80\ldblquote here\’e2\’80\’99s just a few from random recent LtM news stories. Ask yourself if you actually want to, you know, be around these people. Are these the folks you\’e2\’80\’99d kick back a beer with at the end of a workday? That\’e2\’80\’99s not to say that all PvP guilds are like this \’e2\’80\ldblquote some are quite beer-worthy. But when given the chance to \’e2\’80\’9croleplay\’e2\’80\’9d, most PvP guilds end up roleplaying LA street gangs. Most of us spend a great deal of effort and money to stay away from that sort of thing in real life. Our \’e2\’80\’9cimmersion in a fantasy gaming environment\’e2\’80\’9d rarely includes being whacked five minutes after logon by someone from the \’e2\’80\’9cFoo Jackin Pimps\’e2\’80\’9d guild (yes, that was, and for all I know still is a real UO guild).

This brings us to Shadowbane. Depending on whether you listen to the early, edgy twentieth century Warden:

I looked at your sites, actually. No conventional game company would ever consider including you as a part of their marketing campaign. For this reason alone, we’re excited to work with you.

I firmly believe that we have the opportunity to make our own mistakes, while at the same time introducing the net to an entirely new breed of asshole… if you guys want to cover us, lemme know what I can do to help.

\’e2\’80\’a6or the now calm, corporate and arr-pee friendly twenty-first century Warden,

And there is no question, in fact we have never even denied, that we have absolutely softened our marketing. I mean, it’s obvious so that’s not even questionable. The game design has not changed, but also the marketing has become more intelligent in the mean time. Back then you could say something that was more like ‘yeah I want to humiliate people’, and people didn’t jump on it like that was the word of God, they were willing to accept that you were kind of half joking. [And combat and PvP] is a vital part of the game. But that doesn’t mean that we also want to say ‘and therefore we shouldn’t have good fiction’. That’s kind of silly. Why shouldn’t we also have both? I believe that Shadowbane’s fiction is among the top, if not the top, for any game out there – I think its some great fiction. Why not add that? We’ve always been of the opinion that PvP and Roleplay go hand and hand. In fact, that the epitome and the greatest of both can not exist without the other one.

This is what makes the ongoing development of Shadowbane so fascinating. Shadowbane either is the answer to hard core PvPer\’e2\’80\’99s prayers or the answer to hardcore RPer\’e2\’80\’99s prayers. There\’e2\’80\’99s a whole lotta prayin\’e2\’80\’99 going on. Not least at Wolfpack itself, one suspects. Where Ultima Online failed, where Everquest failed, where Asheron\’e2\’80\’99s Call arguably failed \’e2\’80\ldblquote Shadowbane claims it will succeed. How?

The first thing that Shadowbane partisans (and there are a lot of them) will tell you is that, unlike other games, Shadowbane will \’e2\’80\’9cdo PvP right\’e2\’80\’9d. Until recently this was more an article of faith than anything else, since Wolfpack held the mechanics of their PvP system fairly close to their chest. With this year\’e2\’80\’99s E3, we saw a great deal of discussion mainly about player-owned towns, and the means to remove control from said player-owned towns. Players are really excited about this. Some of them even invented drinks to commemorate the event. When players are mixing alcohol in your honor, life is pretty good. The last time I tried to analyze Shadowbane\’e2\’80\’99s siege system, Dr. Twister got horribly offended by nudity. Let\’e2\’80\’99s not do that again and just move on.

Another article of faith is that guilds will be more accountable for their actions in Shadowbane, simply because they will have a geographic center that other offended parties can strike back at. Hmm. I wonder if this was ever tried in other games.

Finally, Shadowbane claims to have a rich backstory that brings the \’e2\’80\’9choly grail\’e2\’80\’9d to players, story-driven conflict that players seek to be a part of and participate in. Shadowbane does have a rich and well-written backstory. The questions remains, will players pay attention to it? After all, other games have incredibly well-written backstories as well. Try finding any reference to Asheron\’e2\’80\’99s Call\’e2\’80\’99s plot on any Darktide guild site. Step-by-step walkthroughs to get to the last month\’e2\’80\’99s event goodies don\’e2\’80\’99t count.

Personally, I\’e2\’80\’99m rooting for Shadowbane. I haven\’e2\’80\’99t seen hardly any cute chimpanzees anywhere near the game design. The problem, as always, is other people. I\’e2\’80\’99m sure Lineage is a nice game too, and if I could play for ten minutes without being spammed into oblivion by racist Korean PKs I might be able to find out.

The problem, as always, is other people. Player vs Player depends on other people \’e2\’80\ldblquote without another Player the equation does tend to break down. And, for an enjoyable game, those players have to follow certain basic rules. Chess isn\’e2\’80\’99t much fun when the other player randomly eats the game pieces and every so often unpredictably throws the game board over the nearest wall. Yet that\’e2\’80\’99s probably the quickest way to describe how players behave in MMOs.

The \’e2\’80\’9choly grail\’e2\’80\’9d for PvP \’e2\’80\ldblquote for MMOs in general \’e2\’80\ldblquote can be broken down into one simple task \’e2\’80\ldblquote to get players to behave like normal, sane human beings.

The problem, as always, is other people.

Now you understand why almost every game at E3 was like Everquest. But with chimpanzees!