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

Don’t tell me you’re taking away my taunt button in PvP because ‘people hate losing control of their characters’ while simultaneously granting every other class in the game functional PvP crowd control.
Character and playstyle balance is likewise something I expect from MMO PvP. Like other forms of balance, class balance — especially for human AI! — is painfully difficult, but it must be attempted. People won’t long tolerate that one class who can take on five people solo because she can heal to full repeatedly with no counters or that other class who can lock down an entire zerg for 30 seconds with one button press.

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.

Trade can only enhance large-scale warfare by adding elements of realism that elevate MMO PvP above the skirmishes of stripped-down MOBAs.
Death, meanwhile, ought to be a setback, not a dire and damning consequence that ensures no one takes risks or does anything but glom together in a massive herd like six-year-olds playing soccer. Designers must find that happy medium between letting people zerg right back into the fight and punishing them so much they’d rather just log out than return to the front lines.

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.

Deliberate accessibility

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.

You know what’s totally not hardcore? A dead or dying game, that’s what.
Accessibility isn’t about “dumbing down” content but about making a game digestible. It’s about how well a newbie can participate, how much he can contribute in that twilight transition between newbie and veteran, because that is what will entice him to stay and keep learning. All MMOs must balance their desire to be ambitious and complicated with their desire to be sticky, but distasteful leveling grinds, elongated travel times, endless gear treadmills, and steep power curves are a big problem when tacked onto a game that hopes to feature PvP as its centerpiece in particular. In a world where MOBAs exist, people aren’t willing to PvE grind just to get to PvP, a lesson Camelot has learned well. I want some form of character progression in my MMO PvP, else I’d go play a different genre better suited for PvP to begin with, but I also won’t pay for an MMO that still clings to stretch-out-the-grind principles, the kind where I’m doomed to be cannon fodder for six months while I trudge through repetitive and unrelated content just to catch up.

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.

Ganking is the cheapest, lowest, easiest form of PvP. There’s nothing hardcore about it.
PvP should be a sport, not a mindfrack. I want to see PvP that avoids the lowest-common denominator of player interaction. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we class this joint up. And we can start with chat itself: Instead of blocking cross-faction chat or deleting chat entirely, let’s try moderating it instead. The very last thing an MMO should do is encourage one group to see the others as incommunicative subhumans worthy of teabagging emotes; being able to see a global chat is one way to encourage the “good games” and handshakes you’d see after an actual sporting event between professionals. League of Legends, of all games, is pioneering social engineering tactics to reward good behavior and punish toxic behavior in what by all rights should be the domain of the social MMORPG. I’m grateful to Riot for its efforts; MMOs need to follow suit.

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.

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.

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Zebes Jacobin If the person in question, is knowingly, and fully taking on the responsibility of high risk behavior, even at a disadvantage, does killing them cease to be a gank?

For example, an underskilled player in the game, knows enough that he is entering a resource rich region that is highly volatile, and knows he might get “ganked”. But the resource he may gain, are worth the risk in his mind. If a shark comes along and gets him, is this still a gank in your eyes?


breetoplay Jacobin Is this not unlike any sort of “competitive environment” in nature as well?

Like the old African proverb:

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up.
It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.
Every morning a lion wakes up.
It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle.
When the sun comes up, you better start running. 
This concept has stuck with me when it comes to online games with other people. I know I know, games are just supposed to be fun. We all just want to have fun. The African grasslands are probably not any fun. I get it.

Nevertheless, the idea of “versus other players” is so broad, that not a single multiplayer game escapes the above entirely.The all have PVP in some way, shape, or form.The ultimate goal of any MMO, should be to design a healthy enough “ecosystem” so to speak, in such a way that it has room to support a diverse environment of hypothetical “lions, hyenas, vultures, zebra, gazelles, crocodiles” etc.

Producers, Consumers, Degraders.


There is a lot of white knight people in EVE, most of them threatening gankers with lawyers, real life murders and spilling insults about gankers’ parents.
Recently one of the popular white knights changed the sides and joined gankers, because he was sick of the white knights’ behaviour. I believe he actually disbanded white knight’s alliance (in a truly EVE style ;-D)


Zebes Jacobin Funny you say FFA attracts sociopaths when league of legends has the most toxic / easily butthurt / trolling / wannabe e-sports heroes community on the planet.


Jacobin Zebes Ganking is defined as taking cheap kills. Roaming, somewhat fair pvp I just call roaming for pvp. I feel ganking is defined by its antagonistic nature. I realize people use gank as a general “I killed someone” pvp term, but that’s not what I mean here.

I am not sure controlled pvp is sterile, because I don’t know exactly what is meant. I feel controlled pvp is the only serious pvp. It can get stale if it’s poorly done or has a dried up meta, but if that is what is meant by sterile then that’s not the issue of it being controlled.  

Also, I am not calling all FFA open world pvpers to be sociopathic players. I am saying that type of game or ruleset attracts sociopaths. I feel stuff like RUST and DayZ are sociopath playgrounds.


Zebes It depends on how you define ganking. Are 5 people on a clipper in Archeage who fight whoever they come across ganking, or just pvping as is intended in the game? If they only find solo people or noobs is it really their fault or the fault of the game design?

A lot of the time gankers would prefer to fight strong opponents, but will take whatever comes along simply because they just want to play the game. 
Obviously controlled environments ensure even matches, but they are descried as sterile by the author of this article which I agree with. Believe it or not some people like not knowing what is around the corner which is why many are drawn to FFA.
Using terms like sociopath are just a way for MMO writers/posters to sit on top of their high horses and condemn people who don’t play exactly the way you want them to. Do I think allowing vets to farm noobs is dumb? Yes, but please don’t let dumb game design automatically mean that all FFA style games are for psychopaths. 

Finally, EvE is clearly the harshest MMO at the moment. Are you seriously telling me that people who camp gates on 0.0 are sociopaths? Get real friend.


Jacobin What is the point of ganking besides griefing? If I want to meet a foe and fight them head to head, I don’t need FFA open world pvp for that. I don’t need to loot their corpse for that. 

Unfortunately, pvp sandboxes attract sociopathic people and they tend to ruin things for others. They also tend to attract bad PVPers, because it allows bad players to target other players at a power disadvantage. 

I know that if i want the best PVPers then I am looking for somewhat controlled environments.


I hope your massive herd dig at GW2 isn’t about all of WvWvW, as the ‘mindless zerg’ only applies to the cassual play that tends to get whomped by organized play in WvWvW. 

(Unless we’re talking the massive blobbing of tier 1 that kind of ruins the fun of the game for PPT battles that aren’t really meaningful since the NA t1 scene has had each match outcome decided beforehand behind closed doors.)

If you haven’t experienced great organized open field fights in WvWvW then you’re missing out Bree! Try to check them out before ANet kills them off. Zergbusting may be dead already due to the Stability change. Open field fights may die off outside of EB depending on how these new Borderland maps play out.


BriarGrey “by not slapping down those just making life miserable for someone” 

This I think is the main reason for the toxic PvP environments we see nowadays. The more freedom, the more it gets abused because there is no consequence for doing so. I don’t think this should be up to the players though. In an ideal world yes, the playerbase could handle it by themselves. But just like it doens’t work that way in the real world (we need police and laws), it also doesn’t in game worlds. Rules need to be enforced or very few people will care about them. In my opinion game companies simply need to hire GMs who are ingame all the time and can respond to people who go too far.

For example, in ArcheAge there was a guild on my server with a horrible reputation. One of their leaders used to grab a farm cart and place it perpendicular on the middle of a bridge in a safe zone with an important trade route. Nobody could then run the trade route, while the toxic person just sat there and chat-PvP’d in the world chat about how much fun he was having because others were wasting their time coming to a bridge they couldn’t pass. Game companies need to get away from the mindset that whatever is possible is allowed, and ban players like this. All they do is push others away from the game, which benefits nobody in the end.


ManastuUtakata kimtoad  well there are plenty of “pvp” games to cater to the carebear types, sorry but why the snark from someone who wants safe pvp, if you cant handle the challenge then why pvp at all? less you want the battleground titles so you feel hard lol