Working As Intended: Six things I expect from serious MMO PvP
With PvP-encrusted MMORPGs like Camelot Unchained, Crowfall, and even Revival on the genre's horizon, I have a glimmer of hope that the future of MMO PvP might not be a dreadful dichotomy of sterile MOBAs and psychopathic gankboxes after all. PvP might just have a chance at restoration to a place of honor in MMORPGs rather than be jammed into themeparks as an afterthought or unleashed into empty open worlds as the lazy dev's idea of "hardcore content." MMO PvP has been great before -- wouldn't it be fun if it were great again?
This is how I'd like to see it go down: Here are six things I expect from serious MMO PvP.
Faction balance and guild control
Perfect balance in anything in an MMO is probably unachievable, but that's no excuse for developers to give up. Time and again we've seen MMO dev teams shrug helplessly when one PvP faction in a game dominates the others, whether those factions are official or entirely player-made. Some sandbox devs cede significant power to influential player groups, becoming unable or unwilling to dislodge those influential players from the top of the toy pile, however much they taint the game or drive off paying customers who simply grow tired of the power imbalance and leave. Whether we're talking about Horde outnumbering Alliance two-to-one or a massive ganker guild running roughshod over an entire sandbox, balance and control over the game is a serious problem that affects not just the people on the eternally losing side but the health of the game as a whole. I don't want to see any "let 'em play, ref" attitudes from the sidelines or from MMO studios. Serious PvPers expect a fair playing field and quick intervention from the refs to keep that field fair and fun. To do otherwise is to sign a game's death sentence. Crowfall's map resets give me hope, however ironic, that someone's finally found a way to copy a mechanic from a non-combat MMO in a way that will actually enhance a cutthroat PvP game and solve this core competitive MMORPG problem.
Class and playstyle balance
At the same time, I can't stand it when designers invalidate entire characters, classes, or playstyles because it's too much trouble to make them work in PvP. Don't tell me you're taking away my taunt button in PvP because "people hate losing control of their characters" while granting every other class in the game functional PvP crowd control (sup, Blizz). If you have tanks, get some collision detection and let them tank in all their glory. If you have bards whose signature songs provoke monsters to attack other monsters, that had better work in PvP too. Even it means adjusting gear or health pools or skills for PvP, make it happen. And if you can't make it happen, reconsider whether you're building the right kind of game to begin with.
I'd like to think it goes without saying that gear disparities should be extinguished swiftly; the game's content should never place PvP-focused players at a disadvantage to PvE-focused players in PvP. There's nothing more obnoxious than being steamrolled in battlegrounds by raiders decked in epics. How is that even still a thing? There's no faster way to tell your players that you don't take PvP seriously (or want their money).
Depth, significance, and persistence
I don't mind battleground PvP, not at all, but what I prefer are large-scale encounters imbued with more meaning than a scoreboard that pops up after 20 minutes. I loved Dark Age of Camelot RvR; I loved old-school Alterac Valley too. I want to see high stakes territory-control, grand siege weaponry, and enough persistence that there's a point... but not so much that we're back to a single alliance dominating the game forever and ever.
I think meaningful PvP might take root in the player-driven economies promised by Crowfall and Camelot Unchained. Though it's not twitchy, trade is its own form of PvP; combined with crafting, resource gathering, and combat, trade can only enhance large-scale warfare by injecting tactical planning and realism -- supply lines, provisioning, logistics -- that elevate MMO PvP above the skirmishes of stripped-down MOBAs and create a variety of combat and support roles for the multitude of different playstyles embraced by typical and potential MMORPG PvP players.
Accessibility is a loathed word in gaming circles, but the reality is that an MMO's accessibility determines its income and support. Most gankboxes are so actively inaccessible to newcomers that their tiny playerbases provide only tiny trickles of income; they run on a shoestring, and their lack of maps, updates, and actual players to fight reflects that. You know what's totally not hardcore? A dead or dying game, that's what. The most successful PvP sandboxes, however, are forever chasing accessibility. Not a year goes by that we don't hear yet another plan from EVE Online, for example, about how it hopes to coax newbies to try (and more importantly, stay in) the game with a revamped tutorial.
Likewise, every large-scale PvP game needs some sort of a niche for small groups and guilds. Existing MMO players are usually uninterested in breaking up their extant teams to bond with the inevitable power group that controls their faction. And not every PvP activity should be best conquered by smashing through it with a giant zerg. Incentivize finesse to keep your casuals and small groups happy. Make sure there are missions only strike teams and stealth scouts can carry out effectively. Give the loners a home and a purpose too. That's not just catering to soloers; that's creating layers of play that make financial sense to studios and logical sense to anyone steeped in the history of warfare.
The reinvention of PvP culture
Ganking is boring. Steamrolling lone newbies and naked miners is boring. It's not hardcore; it's the cheapest, lowest, easiest form of PvP. A child can do it. Any idiot can do it. Heck, it's not even "PvP" because there's not actually any "vP" on the other side of it. I want epic warfare and strategic battles with people who want the same thing I do, not dueling and scamming and one-shooting bads who never even saw it coming, and that's exactly what happens in gankboxes, with the epic battles being so few and far between that they make actual headlines. Developers have seized upon mechanics like flagging and safe zones and chat restrictions and protected level ranges to reduce the potential for ganking and abuse because those are easy band-aids. But the problem lies in PvP culture itself, and that's something few studios address head-on; in fact, some of them intentionally appeal to the ugly side of the MMORPG world with macho marketing or customer service policies that seem to encourage players to go way over the line in their pursuit of abusive one-upsmanship.
And justice for all
The final way to show me you take PvP seriously and aren't just milking closet sociopaths for sub fees is to ensure your game world has an appropriate in-game justice system that rises above the "my gang is bigger than your gang" warlordism that plagues free-for-all PvP sandboxes. MMOs have tried, but most fail to be effective at incentivizing or disincentivizing behavior. ArcheAge took a stab at fixing the "ain't no justice" gankbox problem with a court and jail system, but it wasn't enough. As I wrote on old Massively back in 2011,
[FFA PvP] is lazy game design. It's the developers' way of saying, "Yeah you know, we don't really have anything interesting to add to this part of gameplay, so just go ahead and do whatever, because anarchy is like so hardcore." [...] I resent being robbed of a massive spectrum of interesting interactions and consequences, all of which would be far more rewarding than the yes/no option of kill/don't kill. Kidnapping? Torture? Imprisonment? Trials? Fines? Bounties? Piracy? Espionage? Public executions? So very few games even bother with these elements, preferring instead to just turn us loose on each other like rabid dogs. The designers allow us to be criminals and vigilantes, but we can't fill any of the other roles a realistic justice system would have: police, justices, gaolers, lawyers, privateers, bounty hunters. The last-resort option of murder should be exactly that: a last resort, rife with serious in-game consequences and dozens of strong and creative alternatives that provide roleplay experiences for all parties involved.
Developers are always happy to provide elaborate and even draconian rulesets for skill gain and housing and travel and crafting -- EVE even employs an economist to interfere in the player market -- but when it comes time for the creation of a system of logical consequences for the seedy underbelly of the game (the PvPers, griefers, gankers, scammers, etc.), game companies shrug and declare "free for all," all while refusing players any sort of system to make their own justice beyond "if someone tries to kill you, you kill him right back." It's nice advice, but it's hardly viable for newcomers to a game who lack the skills, gear, and social networking necessary to survive in such a world. This in turn ensures that the thugs who rule the sandbox keep right on ruling it, hogging all the toys until all their victims are driven away and the game slowly but surely shrivels.
If you're suspicious that I've come full circle to the first few points in the list, then you're right to be: These PvP problems are bound together because each is a domino that inevitably bumps into and topples the rest. Sandboxes in particular face a difficult challenge with PvP. Getting past the genre's bad habit of dumping PvP into sandboxes and letting it rot there is hard. Balanced RvR-based PvP MMOs, on the other hand, neatly dodge this dilemma by not being a free-for-all murdersim to begin with, and that's precisely why the upcoming crop of competitive MMORPGs has my attention.
Epilogue: The 'real PvPers'
A fellow in our comments suggested a few weeks ago that people who don't play open-PvP gankboxes aren't real PvPers -- that if you aren't a fan of a game like Darkfall or EVE, you can't legitimately call yourself a PvPer or a fan of PvP. But the truth is that PvP is so much bigger than gankboxes. Just do the math: There are more people happily PvPing in World of Warcraft battlegrounds right this very minute than currently logged into all of the open-PvP sandboxes in existence (OK, except maybe Lineage). Every person who's ever gotten up at 4 a.m. to repost his auctions is hardcore PvPing. Hearthstone is card game PvP! And I dare you to look a professional League of Legends player in the eye and tell him he's not a real PvPer. There are dozens of ways to PvP, dozens of formats that people enjoy, dozens of different types of PvP players. Let's see them in MMORPGs in that same variety, and let's take it seriously rather than stuff it in as a themepark gimmick or miserly sandbox design tic. The worst thing that happens is we convince a few PvE carebears to come to the dark side.