Massively Overthinking: The pure PvE ‘niche’ of MMORPGs

    
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This week’s Massively Overthinking question is posed by Kickstarter donor Winterskorn, who wants to talk about something getting less and less love in MMORPGs lately: PvE.

“There are currently a lot of PvP-centric MMOs cropping up. But when companies talk analytics, they always indicate PvPers are small percentage of the population. So the question is why are there no PvE centric MMOs — solely PvE with no PvP attached?”

I polled the Massively OP writers for their take. Is Winterskorn’s perception accurate, and if so, where are the purely PvE MMOs?

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): A big part of the reason for people focusing on PvP-based MMOs and sandboxes is likely due to the stickiness factor that a few of the writers here at MassivelyOP have been exploring lately. Sandboxes have a way of making people invest in a game world and stick with it in the long term, which is becoming increasingly rare in today’s market full of free-to-play MMOs trying to grab and hold our attention. Focusing on PvP also turns every player into a potential content generator, reducing the cost of developing new content considerably. This is a big part of the model that’s helped make EVE Online so successful because instead of spending time developing new content that’ll be eaten up in days, the developers can put together a few new sandbox tools or ships for us to smash each other over the head with and we’re happy for months.

For a PvE-only MMO, the cost of rapidly developing new zones, monsters, quests, and items could be prohibitive as players will complete the content in a fraction of the time it took to build. Developers could spend months working on a new dungeon and players can have it cleared within a day of release. Guild Wars 2 has made a fair attempt at this with its Living Story, though we don’t know how expensive that is and what the return on investment looks like for ArenaNet. And RuneScape has similarly been able to deploy frequent content updates over the years, but only because its simpler graphics and gameplay allow for more rapid content development than other MMOs. I guess the short answer on why nobody’s made a PvE-only MMO is probably that PvP is very cost-effective and repeatable content and that tacking it onto any functional PvE game is a good business decision.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I might roll my eyes at some of the hardcore PvP games that have trundled out in the last few years — seriously, guys, have a Mountain Dew and jump off a cliff, you’re EXTREME! etc. — but the genre has been dominated by PvE games for a really long time. Pure PvE MMOs might be rare, but they exist, and most MMORPGs, classic and modern, are already primarily PvE with highly optional PvP tacked on and half forgotten — just enough PvP to keep some PvP players interested. But MMO PvE has grown stale, so developers are looking in new directions. If I want a pure PvE combat game, a single-player RPG is probably going to do it better anyway. Large-scale PvP, on the other hand, is something MMOs and only MMOs do well, so it only makes sense that new developers are turning to it as a way to revitalize the genre.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): For a large number of games, PvE is the de facto state of affairs already. Once PvP became an optional and entirely consensual engagement, a game becomes chiefly a PvE experience unless you specifically seek out PvP. If you never seek it out, it never has to factor into your thought processes at all. Making a game explicitly without PvP is just removing the option to opt in at all, and if the developers want to design some PvP modes and objectives, why stop that from happening?

Really, what “PvP-centric MMO” usually means is “we want to turn back the clock to the days before Trammel.” It’s a small percentage because in an environment wherein everyone is on alert for being attacked at any time, the weaker players become prey for the better players, and no one likes playing as prey. Sure, EVE Online does it, but EVE also makes it possible for you to play large chunks of the game in relative safety and with little threat of PvP conflict; if you go out into nullsec, you’re taking a voluntary risk. So it’s be more fair to say that only a small percentage of players want to do everything in the game with the constant specter of looming PvP.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): There should be, but studios are too frightened about the possibility of alienating a portion of a potential playerbase that they’ll put PvP in no matter what, even if it doesn’t really belong there (LOTRO, anyone?). It also gives the studios another bullet point item in their marketing and theoretically provides an unlimited amount of endgame content generated by and for the players.

Personally, I’d be totally fine with a PvP-free MMO — there are other ways to compete than bashing each other’s skulls in, after all.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I don’t want to imply that developers are lazy, but it’s clear that some publishers are, and PvP-focused games are simply faster to push out. PvP games don’t require puzzles. PvP games don’t require a story. PvP games don’t require much of anything other than a combat system and a place for players to duke it out.

I also believe that too many developers think that if they get PvP right, PvE will be easy. Maybe I’m conflating developers with publishers or product managers. Regardless, that kind of thinking makes for lazy design and PvP-centric games.

Mike Foster (@MikedotFoster, blog): It’s probably easier to build a PvP-centric MMO than a PvE-centric MMO. With PvP taking the main focus, the devs need only balance the game and provide an appropriate environment in which to fight; the players create the content. With PvE, every tiny aspect of a player’s enjoyment has to come from something a developer manually placed in the game. Final Fantasy XIV is a good example of a PvE-centric game, and anyone who has stopped by FFXIV can vouch that it is packed with almost too many contents. Small teams, crowdfunding teams, early access teams — these folks might not have the resources to build a 300-hour+ PvE experience, leading them to focus on PvP to shorten the development process.

Developing a PvE-only game requires immense upfront labor and continual ongoing content creation. It’s a tall order for any studio, especially one that’s struggling to find a place in the market.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): You’ve got me! It seems to make no sense to cater to the minority like that. But somewhere along the line someone (erroneously) equated sandbox with PvP and that was that. Folks have craved more sandboxes, begged for more sandboxes, and now sandboxes are finally the new “in” thing. The only problem is that PvP is such a focus in all of them! While I don’t have any decisive answer as to why, I think a chunk of the reasoning sadly boils down to the money. Even though there are more people wanting a PvE existence population-wise, my guess is that the folks who are Hades-bent on being the best and at the top of the competitive game are the ones who will shell out the most cash. I’ve seen it in people I know, and I’ve seen it demonstrated in cash shop statistics. If you’ve just got to have the best to be the best, you’ll pay for that privilege. And pay some more. And keep paying. So I blame the industry focus on cash shops and subsequent fall of the subscription model along with that misidentification of sandbox equaling PvP. Another problem is holding up a certain early sandbox as the pinnacle to be emulated, which itself was quite the PvP game.

I don’t really see a purely PvE sandbox in the future anymore because if you completely remove PvP as an option, you will lose out on what I expect is a wad of cash — even if it comes from a vocal minority. But there are ways to makes PvE and PvP co-exist: Star Wars Galaxies did that well in my opinion. Both groups intermingle in the world, but PvP cannot infringe on PvE without consent (except in those amusing accidental flagging moments!). I also think a straight subscription is a necessary part of the equation, with everything needed to fulfill that I’ve-got-to-be-the-best feeling coming directly from the player economy, not a cash shop.

Honestly, if I-can-do-whatever-I-want-to-whomever-I-want-whenever-I-want is the new definition of sandbox, then I will stop being such a sandbox promoter and instead propose we start using virtual world as the term of choice. Heaven knows we need more virtual worlds!

Your turn!

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