Massively Overthinking: Competitive PvE in MMORPGs

During last week’s podcast, Justin and I bumped into a tangential topic about competitive PvE and how relatively rare it is in MMORPGs, which seems weird, right? It was once the nature of MMOs to make us scuffle with other guilds in open-world dungeons, but with the dawn of instanced PvE content, devs didn’t replace that type of content the same way they’ve embraced raiding and PvP. You’ve got achievements, sure, and gear show-offs, but outside of Guild Wars-esque challenge missions and WildStar PvE leaderboards, it’s just not something most MMOs bother with.

Why is that? Should they? And how do you want to see it done? I posed all these questions to the Massively OP team this week for Massively Overthinking!

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Competitive PvE may not be built into MMOs’ games worlds often, but if you pose this question to a hardcore raider, they’d probably be shocked that the competitive nature of raid scenes makes this a valid question at all. Realm/Server firsts are still a thing, aren’t they? We’ve got sites dedicated to top performing guilds, best healers in X instance, and someone always posts DPS meters. In a lot of ways, it feels more damaging to a game to make PvE explicitly competitive. Imagine if DPS meters were built into our MMOs! If you think the average pick up group member can have an attitude, I shudder to think how much worse it’d get if they could say, “The devs support this style of play!”

Achievements are my limit for the most part, but I do think there are some ways you can do competitive PvE. Group gathering/crafting is still one I’d like to see more. Remember the opening of The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj in World of Warcraft? Lots of servers were comparing their progress to other servers. Prior to that were the group efforts to unlock additional races in Horizons/Istaria, such as warriors needing to protect craftiners as they built a bridge for a new race to escape or portal to summon them. Success meant attracting people to your server.

Riddles are one that may be hard to crank out easily, but The Secret World’s shown people can be attracted to them. Asheron’s Call 2 had a kind of lore riddle attached to city invasions where you had to not only fight your way to the NPC in the middle but give it a very specific but common enough item that non-lore fans generally wouldn’t guess (or would be dead by the time they figured it due to the rapid spawns).

Last but not least are time trials. I know WoW did Challenge Modes, but I’m not sure how they went over since I’d retired from the game. It’s not my playstyle, but I figure it’s something for competitive people that’s combat oriented but not restricted to raiders. Can’t recall any other MMOs except maybe TERA played with this a bit.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): After posing this question and reading everyone else’s replies, I’m questioning my question. Is the only difference between competitive PvE and competitive PvP whether a character can literally kill your character? It seems like a pretty small differentiation once you stack it up against all the other forms of formal (dungeon completion races, leaderboards, achieves) and informal (whose loot looks best while you’re dancing atop mailboxes) competition that a game could have or at least foster. I usually think of economic play as PvP, but it doesn’t fit the definition — it’s more properly competitive PvE. Or PvAH?

Anyway. The answer to why more games don’t do it is because they are broke or unimaginative and other systems are cheaper or easier, and on top of that, we’ve been pigeonholed as a genre that is about starting out as a noob, grinding quests to cap, and then raiding. Even PvP is a sidegame in most of the core AAA MMORPGs. So any system that doesn’t funnel into that churning endgame is trivia from all perspectives, which is why most of the living examples amount to “raid faster than other dudes.” I want to see that, but I want to see things like races around the world, crafting challenges, chess tournaments, and costume contests too. It’s just frustrating that it’s always on the players to make that flavor happen.

Bela Lugosi's dead.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I think, at the end of the day, the biggest thing stopping competitive PvE from being a thing is the fact that it’s not really looked upon as a positive feature so much as one that existed for a while. It’s easy to make forms of PvP that encourage fighting against other players without forcing players to explicitly ruin one another’s play experience, but yanking a monster away from someone who needs to kill it always winds up just causing misery. It is, one could argue, a form of PvP in and of itself; you’re not fighting the other player directly, but you’re still attacking someone else.

It’s easy to design PvE that can be both competitive (through speed clearing, run efficiency, or some other metric) and non-competitive, but it’s hard to design PvE that’s just competitive without being PvP under another name. And, y’know, I can really live without returning to the days of people camping notorious monsters for days on end in Final Fantasy XI. Let Leaping Lizzy live.

Did we not tell you this is how things would go down?

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): As I said on the podcast, I think competitive PvE is not only a wonderful idea but a woefully unexplored field for MMORPGs and ripe for development. “Competition” in MMOs doesn’t have to be limited to butting heads on a PvP battlefield. For instance, some players get competitive in the economy of a game to be the best at a particular area or make the most money.

Competitive dungeons would be an exciting format that would challenge player teams to go head-to-head against another in a race to clear an instance the fastest or in the best possible way. Perhaps even a leaderboard over a day or week of any participating teams to see who can top the chart at a particular slice of PvE content, with bonus rewards being dished out above and beyond what you’d get for completing that content.

I think it’s kind of neat that World of Warcraft is even dabbling lightly in competitive PvE content with its upcoming Trial of Style, creating a system for players to go head-to-head in fashion. Yeah it’s silly and fluffy, but it shows that competition can be just as diverse as the imagination allows.

Your turn!

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33 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: Competitive PvE in MMORPGs"

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kgptzac

There’s always competition in PvE. It’s called have’s vs have-not’s. Go to any non-trivial difficulty party/raid based pve where the player is judged by their character progress (often in terms of equipment). The competition is there when people have to improve their character, or face the prospect of being left in the dust when the party choose a better equipped character.

It’s actually in gamers’ blood. Gamers will find a way to compete one way or another, with or without supporting mechanics of the game.

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Schmidt.Capela

My answer to it is roughly the same I would give for PvP: I don’t mind it existing, but try to force me into participating — or have exclusive rewards for it that I truly want — and I will leave the game instead.

I’m not competitive. I not only don’t care whether I win or lose, I don’t want to ever care; thus, if the game manages to make me care about winning, I’m out.

(Ironically, I do love some good PvP. But I play for fun, not for victory. I’m even prone to give up and leave the game if I’m winning by too wide a margin.)

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Alex Malone

On my server in LotRO, someone organised a server event for fastest time clearing a specific dungeon. It was during a lull in content, but the competition kept us going for weeks. At the start, it was taking my guild maybe 1hr on average to clear, but by the end we were down to 17 minutes.

That sort of competition was great – it increased interest in old content, got us talking more with other guilds on the server and forced us to experiment more with our playstyles.

So, thats what I’d like to see in terms of competitive PvE – time trials with leaderboards, leaderboards for first kills etc. I’ve never been one for DPS meters or server firsts, but I’ve always enjoyed healthy competition with other semi-hardcore guilds

Sarigar
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Sarigar

Competitive PVE is a relic of bygone days, and I don’t want to see it return. Like it or not, “competitive PVE” is just a nice way of saying “guild-based trolling”.

In my opinion, PVP should be about competition, and PVE should be about cooperation. Instead of finding new and amazing ways for players to screw each other out of content, developers should be looking for new ways to roll out PVE content where players are rewarded for cooperating and participating. Guild Wars 2 does a great job of this, making it easy at all levels for players to help others while helping themselves (and vice versa).

Here’s an idea: loot tables based on player participation. If the threshold of players actively cooperating in a given event reaches a certain number, the loot table improves for everyone. Maybe there are even very rare drops that can only be unlocked when X number of players are participating in the content.

Sykes
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Sykes

Both WoW and SWTOR have decent competitive PVE options, if all you’re looking for is leaderboards.

WoW has challenge modes that are timed and leaderboarded weekly. SWTOR has weekly leaderboards for guild conquest objectives earned through crafting/questing/flashpoints, with planets being conquered by guilds to unlock temporary features for winning groups. SWTOR also has an active speedrunning scene for the Eternal Championship on youtube, both solo and group. I remember seeing the raiding community move to livestreamed guild vs. guild races with discord commentary and a live audience betting in-game credits during the content drought to breathe fresh life into that area.

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Josh

Eh, I go to PvP to compete and PvE to cooperate.

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Armsbend

Path of Exile does it in their races – although they are phasing them out.

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nobleeinherjar

The very last thing I care about in MMOs is competing with other people. I have fond memories of gathering up a party in EQ1 and FFXI and carving out a farming spot, but like hell do I want to go back to those days.

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thirtymil

“whose loot looks best while you’re dancing atop mailboxes”

I thought the whole idea of dancing on top of mailboxes was to do it nekkid?

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Tandor

I would have thought that pretty well every MMO could be said to have competitive PvE given that they all have players being kicked from groups for not being competitive enough in the dps or whatever else they contribute, with quite a lot of players recording parse logs of every fight etc.. I know that of my current MMOs ESO certainly does more organised competitive PvE in terms of trials with leadership boards etc. I have zero interest in such things and don’t play computer games in order to be competitive with others.

oldandgrumpy
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oldandgrumpy

Seems both STO and EQ2 are trying to do competitive PVE. STO’s version is live in game currently with season 13 and EQ2 will deploy theirs in GU 103 on the 9th of May.

Personally I am not interested in either games variants. I play games for fun and to relax not to get hyped up with competition.

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Sorenthaz

Y’know what would be interesting? An actual PvP mode where it’s literally a PvE raid BUT the enemy team is hiding behind the scenes pulling levers and activating environmental traps/boss abilities that try to throw the raid group off. I could just imagine something like the Karazhan Opera House in WoW serving as a good place for that. Like enemy players would be hiding underneath the floor and up in the rafters or something, and raiders could actually knock them down or what-have-you but there would never be direct PvP in the normal sense.

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steve

Competition between players is PVP. Whether it’s an arena deathmatch or an auction house or raiding for random drops, people will measure their performance against others and min-max to their advantage. There’s no simple answer to why or how, just tools we can use or develop to try and keep things manageable and profitable.

I’d like to see online worlds where the environment is hostile and the players are given real ownership of their work. That means more consequences and more competition, but also more cooperation and investment. I’d like to see developers who earn their pay by managing a market rather than a casino or themepark or sports arena. Those things should be elements within the world rather than the sole business model.

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Jeremiah Wagner

Most dev’s have just decided to remove fun challenging competitive PvE. They say its because mmo players don’t like to sink that much time into a game , but really I think its just because it takes a lot less time and money and its much easier to just make it more PvP focused and have everyone fighting each other rather then having to balance PvE combat and create decent AI. So they just made the vast majority of PvE basic as hell claiming that most players are just casual players that want quick PvP action even though that’s the exact opposite of what and MMORPG is supposed to be.

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Robert Mann

Competitive PvE can be a good thing… but too often it merely means ‘go grab this set of gear, this build, and then come back.’ That’s worthless in my opinion, so unless the design meta changes forget it.

Cooperative, as many have noted, is something even less seen… especially in terms of bringing the whole community together rather than just people doing a few daily quests and running up to some npc to turn things in.

Bring us both, with some game design that addresses those problems, and you will likely have quite a bit of participation in each. The problem that then remains is that if you can look at competitive stuff and compare results you can be elitist about it with grouping… which will have to be addressed at some point.

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mistressbrazen

I think there are good examples of how competitive PvE can enrich a game. In some of the versions of SkySaga there was a “community quest” every week. Sometimes it was crafting, sometimes killing bosses, sometimes gathering raw materials, but the idea was the goal was so large the community had to participate to get it done. I consider myself to be a casual player, but I loved the community quests and was often within the top 5 on the leader board. They didn’t include it in the last Alpha because some players wanted “better” rewards. But for me, the reward was participating and helping the community achieve the goal. I never cared what the actual reward was. I hope the beta version of the game will include the community quests.

The Secret World also did a decent job here as well. Particularly when community effort was required to unlock the solution on how to beat a world boss or an event NPC. Puzzles were always an expected part of the game, even extending to ARGs during development (thank you Ragnar). We never did get our puzzle raid though (yet another thing I curse you for FC!). On the other hand, I would not like to see dps meters running every time I do something or run a dungeon. I hate that. I don’t begrudge the people who like it, but I don’t want to run dungeons with them and I’m sure they don’t want to run with me either. Long story short, I think competitive PvE can be done in a way that enhances a game, but it requires thought and options for different kinds of players.

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Sally Bowls

I am also confused as to the question. If another player can attack me, then the content is obviously, by definition, pvp not pve content. If it is pve content, then there are all sorts of ways and sites to see that my guild is realm#4, world#1247. I can look at a raid logs site and see that my DPS – see today’s article on abused MMO features :-) – is 87 percentile but 91 percentile for people with about my gear level. (#s examples only) All sorts of other ways, sites to rank mounts or pets, way to see what % of people have a mount or pet. Youtuber Hazelnutty did a recent vid on a api-updateable spreadsheet so you unzip and compare yourself to guildies across a number of different metrics.

Nor do I see the pvpers wanting NPCs in their pvp; one tends to want different gear/talents/classes if you are fighting mere humans and if the pvpers enjoyed/were good at fighting npcs, they would already be doing that.

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Rottenrotny

Going out on a limb here and saying that I think overall the average MMOer is very casual and not at all competitive.
MMOers are often adults with jobs who work all day then come home and want to relax and kill pixel monsters.
Not grind their teeth, get sweaty hands and shake with adrenaline rushes as they pound their mouse and keyboard into submission whether it’s in pwning noobz PVP or pwning noobz on the DMG meters in PVE.
This casual, relaxed playerbase is likely the majority and thus the game devs cater the general content direction towards that play style.

django857
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django857

I swear i think modern mmo’s are changing for the worse with all these lame new dev ideas. Why do they think everything and everyone wants this stuff. Where are they getting their info.

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rafael12104

So, in my opinion, PvE is competitive. You are competing against the environment. Ladders to compare success relative to time to clear etc, are ok, but should not be come the measure of PvE success. And, I’m sorry to say, that is exactly these type of competitions would lead le

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Wilhelm Arcturus

With world first achievements and leaderboards and such, I am not sure this is exactly the untapped frontier that it is being made out as. I suppose companies could promote it more, maybe maintain a site for something like speed runs for specific instances and maybe offer rewards or titles or have seasons of such. But otherwise we seem to be almost there already.

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Robert Mann

Sadly, these things aren’t really so much about challenge and growth as they are about specific builds in most of the situations where we currently have them. I agree it is a good first step, but given the vast importance of unique builds and gearing that tend to top these leaderboards… well, there needs to be something to prevent that from being the primary factor.

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Veldan

I feel like world first or server firsts lost their meaning a long time ago. Nowadays it’s all about who spent most time on the PTR / PTS or whatever the test server for your game is called, to figure out the content before it even goes live.

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Nordavind

Collaboration > competition.

NEXT!

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Veldan

The highest level of collaboration is always found in a competitive environment, though. Nothing makes people work together more and better than an opponent to beat. I think what you mean is “laid back attitude > competition”. Which is fine, that’s a valid opinion.

miol
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miol

But the opponent can also just be the game itself!

There are, for example, also collaborative boardgames, like this one, where everyone has to work together as pulp investigators to “seal the gate in an old museum without going insane, before the Great Old One wakes up fully, keeping him from returning through the gate and devouring the world”:

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BalsBigBrother

My first thought on this is, why do you need to make everything a competition? Also a question that no one has really answered what are the benefits of competitive pve beyond epeen waving ?

What is wrong with doing things that are fun for the sake of being fun.

/shrugs might come back to this later when I have the time to give it some some thought.

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Koshelkin

Some people like competition. That’s why eSports is a thing. It’s also not only about “ePeen” and waving them around. Why are classical sports a thing? Because it pushes athletes to their maximum and makes them test their own limits. Not everyone needs to enjoy that but some people do.

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BalsBigBrother

So what specifically what would the benefits of competitive pve bring to the genre? I can’t think of any but can only see what competitive pvp brings and I am pretty sure that it will just be epeen waving and ego we see demonstrated there.

It is all very well bringing in classical sports as a comparison but they are not really the same. Those have independent governing bodies and rules that ensure you will be excluded if you break them. That isn’t ever going to happen in an mmo and even if you are excluded by the gm’s normally its just a case of creating another account, you are back in and able to do what you were doing previously with no repercussions.

Maybe it is just me but I have always preferred fostering an atmosphere of co-operation rather than competition. Sadly in games and the world at large that is something that seems to be seen as quaint and old fashioned these days /sigh

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Robert Mann

Aye, putting in rules and making challenges is basically my thought. It’s a test of personal skill and learning, which some people really do enjoy.

I do worry about elitism and epeen being the main focus for far too many, but for example I used to be in a guild where we would try crazy things and then make it a challenge for each other… such as soloing dungeon trash pulls on a dps character to the first boss (current content) or managing to reach some odd place on a map where you normally wouldn’t expect to get to.

One need not exclude the other, although sadly both are ignored outside things like raids for the most part.

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Koshelkin

I don’t know what to say to this. I don’t think your or my opinion is a guideline to what other people should or shouldn’t like. If you don’t like competition you can safely ignore it. No harm done.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

i guess this question is a marker of how long it’s been since a theme park mmo has launched, given it’s posed as if every mmo for 10 years didn’t have pve centric compeititoions on server region and world firsts of every kind someone could think to have a first of.

i remember rift at least used to put out server side messages every time someone got a server first loot of an item, no matter how silly to have a first of that particular item as a server wide message was. something that they were still giving firsts out for years later.

i guess people also tend to care less outside of the little bubble of people that engage in it, but it still remains fodder for recruitment posts to list firsts and such of every person ever achieved in guild or not that was ever a member of one’s guild.

Andrew Ross
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Andrew Ross

Yeah, I remember when my guild started at launch, our screens were spammed with those messages. At first it was kind of exciting, but I think by the end of the first day, just typing out “grats” felt like a chore.

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