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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SkyyDragonn You are in a small minority of people who actually enjoy Eve Online in its current state.  I could write paragraphs of text about why this game is fundamentally broken, but its current death spiral of declining subscriptions and login numbers tells the story more succinctly.  Bottom line is that most rational people have no desire to participate in a game where other players are literally years ahead of them in terms of currency, training/abilities, and assets.  This is the problem with these kinds of sandbox games; older players inevitably end up permanently dominating and the supply of fresh meat dries up as people figure out that the game is rigged.

disUserNameTake
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Flamethekid Plenty of MMO players never participate in PvP.  I would actually be quite interested to see for instance how many GW2 players never or seldom do any type of PvP in game; I would not be surprised if it was 50% or more.
On the other hand, a pure or mostly PvP MMO certainly does not work at all in the long term.  Just look at the current mess that is Eve Online, and the many abandoned PvP-centric MMOs out there (Shadowbane, DAOC, etc.) if you need evidence of this.

disUserNameTake
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disUserNameTake

Open world PvP in MMOs essentially does not work as it has been implemented to date.  The primary problem is typically that only the ability to kill other players is implemented and not any of the other systems that might keep this in check or provide disincentives to simply repeatedly kill and grief lower level players.  In the real world, we have police, jails, and courts to keep criminals in check, but most games with open world PvP do not implement any of this or provide systems for players to do this themselves.

For instance, why should a higher level player be allowed to kill another player repeatedly without consequence?  Why not tag them with an outlaw status for X amount of game time so that they cannot enter towns without being attacked by powerful guards?  What if attacking another player caused your player to be hunted by NPC guards?  What if there was a serious fine for killing another player?

I know that all these mechanics might come with their own difficulties, but the complete anarchy of most open world PvP systems as they have been implemented is not at all enjoyable for most players aside from the ones who enjoy harassing others.

disUserNameTake
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disUserNameTake

Most PvP in video games works best as structured, non-persistent content like a sports match.  That’s why the most popular PvP games like CoD, LoL, Starcraft and many others have matches that take a set amount of time, usually under one hour.  Who won or lost a previous match has essentially no effect on future matches, and each team has access to the same number of players without any extra one ups.  So aside from the skill and abilities of the individual players, their is a certain level of fairness in that the same tools are accessible and the playing field is more or less flat.
Of course, this isn’t strictly the case now as many shooters for instance have added ability and item unlocks, but the imbalance is usually not so bad as to ruin a new player’s experience entirely.  And from PvP newer players can themselves eventually access all the same unlocks eventually.

Contrast this with persistent PvP in an MMO world, where basically none of these aspects apply.  Persistent faction vs faction warfare is essentially never-ending and so eventually because tiresome and boring, because no side ever really wins.  Each side can not only bring as many players as they like, subject to technical restrictions, they can also access all the shiny toys acquired from PvE grinding, which at a certain level are not easily accessible by new players.  Also, the side which wins consistently is likely to keep on winning, as players abandon the losing faction or server for the winning one.

The poster child for this kind of PvP dysfunction in an MMO is Eve Online, where a single meta coalition dominates, older players have access to ridiculously overpowered super-capitals, and newer players face an essentially impossible uphill battle to compete.

I would contrast this with Guild Wars 2, where I think a lot of thought has gone into incorporating PvP in a structured fashion.  There are faction vs faction matchups with WvW, but they reset every week.  And participation is optional as the maps are separate from the main world.  Arena PvP is more or less fair in that everyone has easy access to the same builds and items, as one’s PvE equipment cannot be used there and is replaced by different PvP gear.  And then there’s the Mists which is mostly a PvE experience with a smattering of PvP.

For PvP to work well in a persistent MMO without being itself fire-walled off from the rest of the game, the ability and progression would need to be much flatter.  This would level the playing field so that a fully geared up, max level character would still be vulnerable to newer players, which is certainly not the case in most open world PvP MMOs.

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PurpleCopper  Well, it is a bit ironic that you say “pure PVP MMO games are more popular” and then mention three games which are certainly not popular.  Shadowbane is shutdown.  DAOC is basically in a zombie state, and though I don’t know the actual numbers I would guess it rarely sees more than a few thousand concurrent players.  Eve is dying with concurrent users at less than 14k many hours of the day.

Guild Wars 2 is probably the most popular MMO right now with a strong PvP element, but it is not an open world system.  There is WvW in which one does not need to participate.  There is the Mists which is mostly a PvE experience with occassional PvP encounters.  Then there are 5v5 arenas where gear from PvE makes no difference.

So I disagree with you.  I think the MMOs that include PvP as a successful game element have moved more towards making it a separate and optional part of the game.

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camelotcrusade A Dad Supreme But the difference here is that in a football match you can’t put 50 people on the field just because you brought them to the game.  Each side plays with 11, period.  Obviously, it isn’t the case in a lot of PvP environments like Guild Wars2 WvW, etc.

Father Xmas
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Father Xmas

There was one for a year, City of Heroes.  Pure unadulterated PvE.  And then they added the Colosseum (and Anime school uniforms) in Issue 4.  

It was Arena only combat, PvP zones came later with City of Villains.  Now 1v1 was very rock/paper/scissor which lead into either draws or very one sided battles.  Plus movement powers were a big issue.  Tough for a  melee superspeeder to fight a range flying character in any map with high ceilings or open sky. 

It’s my opinion that to much time was spent trying to fit “balanced” PvP into a system that seemed to be designed for PvE.  And what really would have helped early on was alternate builds, which was added near the end of the game’s life, because Powers worked very differently in PvE than PvP.

I loved CoH but PvP always felt like it was duct taped on and every attempt to “fix” it simply made it worse.

Flamethekid
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Flamethekid

ManastuUtakata Estranged Digest planetside two has tons of pve like omg their is definitly no pvp

like in the first 5 minutes of me playing i didn’t get shot to death but i got tons of hugs from bunnies and unicorns

Flamethekid
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Flamethekid

pure pve doesn’t work 

Monster AI is pretty much guaranteed to be retarded no challenge at ALL in pve unless u get swarmed or have some condition in real life 

PvE content will never ever be cranked out as fast as player devour it 
when PVE content comes out 70% of the people playing will never read a single word and will skip all the cutscene and then finish the content and beg for more to chew threw and if none comes out then pfft back to the rotating door

the end game for pure pve is just stand around and look pretty then rotating door out

even with sandbox features such as housing and gather and fishing and stuff their will always be a limit to how much of your house you can customize

if they make an mmo where you have full reign over crafting meaning you actually make your own creations instead of just gathering mats and clicking a button then yea i can see how people might stay for a pve mmo
closest thing to that is a korean mmo called peria chronicles(someone made a tetris machine ingame with just various items it feels like making a house with legos

if they make mob AI not retarded then yea

if they stop doing powercreeping and making everything gear based then sure and if they add decay even better  

if they stop turning everything into a casual single player glorified version of farmvile then yes i can see how that can work as well

but most of the stuff i listed will not be coming anytime soon 
even peria chronicles which had something i said isn’t even in alpha yet

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SkyyDragonn
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SkyyDragonn

wow so many of these “opinions” are just flat out wrong, for example Larry suggests that a PvP centric MMO doesn’t need puzzles or story just a combat system and that’s it…sure if you want to play CoD. A player in EVE still needs/wants to feel like they’re a part of a larger universe that there are inf act things going on around them that aren’t controlled/influenced by PvP combat alone. A big part of the draw for many PvP centric games is the feeling that your actions have tangible and impactful outcomes. instead of scripted dialogue and a shiny “ding! here’s your prize!” every once in awhile. I love EVE Online but the blowing up of someones ship is just a means to an end. its the impact of that loss that is the real reward. perhaps that freighter was carrying the supplies required for manufacturing a hostile corporations next capital ship? or ship modules being moved to a warfront? the combat and subsequent victory is thrilling but the real game lies in the repercussions of the combat not the combat itself. This is something that a purple PvE MMO simply cannot provide without it being systemic and eventually being a chore once all the guides/videos/walkthroughs hit the internet.