Massively Overthinking: Grouping, kill-stealing, and open PvP in MMORPGs


This week’s Massively Overthinking topic arrived in our inboxes from longtime reader Leiloni. It’s a timely one all about newly launched Tree of Savior — and one of its more irritating old-school mechanics:

Tree of Savior is a very old school style MMO where grouping is highly encouraged, but since a lot of today’s gamers are more solo-centric, you see a bit of a split playerbase: half the people happy to group up and the other half going for the most powerful solo class builds they can find and doing everything by themselves — the result of which means there’s a lot of intentional and unintentional kill-stealing going on.

I’m a nice person by nature, so I do my best not to intentionally kill-steal, and I try to educate myself on a game so I know how it works (I saw a Reddit thread with some gamers who genuinely thought it was a first-tag-gets-the-mob game so tried to “help” when really they were stealing unknowingly). But I also enjoy some open PvP games because they discourage this behavior. I don’t like being punished in hardcore games, but in easier games like TERA, there was not much kill-stealing going on because you knew that guy could just turn on you and kill you at a moment’s notice, so people were much more polite.

Between ToS and Black Desert we already see more games trying to encourage groups and more similar games in development, so it’s nice to see that developers are trying to go back to this, but MMORPG gamers aren’t all moving with them.”

So let’s talk about Leiloni’s experience. What’s the best system for mob tapping or mob ownership in MMOs? Do group-centric MMORPGs solve the problem? How do you feel about kill-stealing, and what should players and developers do — if anything — to combat it?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Tapping is dated and needs to go away. It’s the easiest way to address kill stealing. While I feel that harvesting nodes shouldn’t be personalized since it has a huge impact on the economy, killing mobs is a very social activity. Rewarding people for randomly helping others should be encouraged, and a tap system doesn’t do that. There should be some kind of threshold based on healing or damage (or maybe even debuff types) before a player receives quest credit or loot rights to prevent abuse, but tapping for a single player/group just feels anti-social in a genre that’s moved deep into single player territory in the past decade or so.

Encouraging grouping only helps if it matters. That is, in Guild Wars 2, the lack of a tap system doesn’t encourage deeper bonds, but it does ensure that the single-player crowd can “play alone together.” That being said, I did meet some cool people I added to my friends list during that sort of play. It “mattered” because I noticed who was looking out for me in combat. When it’s so big that you can’t tell who’s who, it’s just mob mentality. It’s difficult to balance the two.


Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I don’t personally see groups as the solution to the kill-stealing problem (nor are groups necessarily the solution to the socialization/community problem). Groups just move the problem up a tier; instead of individuals KSing individuals, you just have groups KSing groups, to say nothing of groups KSing individuals. Classic EverQuest was built on this problem; on a raid, you angled to get into the DPS group so you could rack up the experience. Not in the DPS group? Too bad; you get nothing. And that was among friendly folks!

This problem has been solved many times over by Guild Wars 2. The solution isn’t finding a better way to decide who gets how much experience and who gets “ownership” of a mob; the solution is to just stop worrying about it at all and instead give everyone who contributes to a fight exactly the same amount of experience and loot. Individuals aren’t penalized, but there’s still benefit to grouping, formally or informally, since you kill stuff that much faster.

There’s no reason modern MMORPGs should be doing anything other than that system right there, end of story.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Honestly, this is one of those things that is still treated as a problem when the solution already exists in games like Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV. The first tag gets credit, everyone else gets credit by doing a significant amount of damage to the target. It’s not a perfect setup, but it’s the sort of thing that can be refined and iterated upon so that people aren’t worried about helping others. Frankly, any time a game starts making me reluctant to help other players, I’m going to give it a side-eye; killing something to help someone else seems like something that should just be tacitly accepted as a positive, whether or not the game has open PvP.

Group-centric games solve the problem of people claiming enemies in much the same way that setting your house on fire solves your mouse problem – you have solved one issue by trading up for a far bigger issue. Except that they don’t really fix the issue either, as I remember many days sitting in parties in Final Fantasy XI and being annoyed when another party pulled something that my party was about to pull for experience. So long as enemies are a limited resource, players are going to be competing for them; this is part of what led to the development of instanced content in the first place.

Ultimately, I think this is one of those problems that’s best fixed by not making it an issue. If you don’t want players to steal kills, don’t create a system wherein only one player (or group of players) can get credit for a kill. The alternative isn’t making your game more hardcore; it’s making it more unfriendly, and for a social genre that seems like a bad first step.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): MMOs should be social on all levels, not just in chat, and that extends to combat. In a coop game, don’t pit players against each other in trying to tag mobs and shut other out; allow them to seamlessly work together to defeat foes and share the goods. So I’m definitely all for allowing any and all players to attack mobs, get full credit (and more so in groups!), and full loot from them. It seems that more modern titles have moved in this direction while older games had more draconian rules about who got to attack and loot mobs and who had to sit on the outside looking pitiful.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): Group mechanics and kill-stealing boils down to the focus of the game. If the game is intended to be highly competitive, then kill-stealing mechanics should work in a way that makes killing a given mob a challenge. Perhaps it could be based on treat mechanics or even as simple as who does the most damage. However, I’ve not a huge fan of games like that. There’s nothing wrong with them, but I like cooperative games. I like game mechanics that focus on working together for a common goal, even if it is with perfect strangers. I can think of two games that do a decent job at with these mechanics: Guild Wars 2 and Elder Scrolls Online. I like the idea that if you helped kill a mob that you get rewarded for it in XP or loot.


MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I hate kill-stealing. I hate people who intentionally mess with others just for sport or to selfishly meet their own needs. I’ve seen and experienced times where something you’ve waited long and worked hard for was purposefully snatched away by someone else, such as when letting you clear a whole room then snagging a boss/item. Oh yes, that aggravates me.

I have come to appreciate the open tapping you can find in a few games, where those who participate get their own loot rewards without stealing from others. Although, I kind of like the idea of a mechanic where if a person comes in and hits your mob after you are fighting it and they kill it, taking the reward for themselves, you can stuck a KS buff on them that opens them up to be killed by other players for a period of like an hour — even in PvE games. And if they have so many buffs, it stacks. The only problem is how to deal with those who tag everything in an area first from a distance just to prevent you from getting it. I must contemplate this further.

Honestly, as much as I hate kill stealing, I hate when you are prevented form helping someone out of a bad situation even more. Yah, preventing me from throwing heals on some random stranger who is obviously about to die because the mob/encounter/player is locked from any interference is just too much! The first time that happened I just sat there in awe, not comprehending why you’d prevent players from helping one another.

Not allowing me to help others in a game is just telling me not to play your game. Period.

Patron Archebius: First-hit mob tagging has always felt like one of those vestiges of the distant past – like the appendix, or disco. I’m sure it served a purpose at one time, but looking at it now, I just can’t really understand what it was.

If you help kill something, then you should get XP and credit for the kill, assuming you did more than a certain percentage of the total damage. I think Guild Wars 2 did this pretty flawlessly. There’s nothing more annoying than hopping into a game and having to stand around the noob areas waiting for stuff to spawn; or, alternatively, for the starting region to be massively overpopulated with monsters to a ludicrous degree (looking at you, Black Desert. Pretty rare for boogles of weasels to just congregate outside of town).

And groups don’t really solve that issue; all that does is make it more convenient for anyone who gets in a group and increasingly less convenient for those who just want to kill five wolves and get back to town. Or for the second group to get to an area that’s already been stripmined for orcs.

If you want to make the game competitive, then great. Some people think that mobs are resources that should be fought over, just like anything else. But for all the small things we all have to kill just to make the town crier happy, do we really need to make it a struggle? If you want to make the big world bosses tagged by first hit or by overall damage, I can understand your reasoning – if you have everything tagged, then it’s just one more annoyance for me.

Your turn!

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