I spend a lot of my time thinking about MMO PvP. You might not realize it, but I’m actually a really big fan of PvP; it’s one of those misconceptions about me that gets passed around a lot based on the occasional comment about disliking specific implementations of PvP rather actually disliking the idea of it entirely. So the other day, Massively OP’s Bree and I wound up having a lengthy discussion about PvP and the fairness of fights within an open PvP environment, and that inspired the piece you’re reading right now.
See, I’m noticing a trend among a large number of games that are embracing what I call the “throwback” model of open PvP that what really made open PvP so distasteful in games like Ultima Online was the fact that it was unfair. And there’s something to that, definitely. It’s hard to be upset about losing a completely fair fight, right? So let’s walk through the things that need to be changed in order to make an actual 100% completely fair fight for a PvP game.
Let’s start by establishing a baseline here: What people want is a fight where both players have an equal chance of winning. Neither player has an advantage over the other. That’s the goal, right? That’s fair. And gear, obviously, is a place to start to make sure that no one has an advantage because the dude decked out in the Plate Armor of Twelve Million Health has a substantial advantage over the guy wearing the Flimsy Cotton Shirt of Dying to a Stiff Breeze.
So gear is out of the equation altogether. In fact, let’s just remove gear entirely; make it purely cosmetic. FPS games do this all the time, and it creates a fair PvP environment. You can’t really have a fair fight unless no one can be wearing better gear than another player. Even having a low ceiling on gear or small gaps between the “best” and “worst” gear winds up giving an advantage in a fight. So everyone is on the same level.
That’s all we need, right? Oh, not by a long shot! This column isn’t Perfect One Then Done, after all. No, from here we need to take on…
2. Network ping
Yeah, this sounds fair. No matter how balanced gear might be in, say, Albion Online, you’re not going to have a fair fight if your opponent has a ping in the high five digits while you’re at a comfortable 82. So you’re going to have to remove that from the equation.
How are we going to do that? Well, that’s not really the point, is it? We’re talking about what goes into a fair fight, and we can agree right off of the bat that having a terrible ping is going to make any fight unfair. Let’s not worry about the logistics of things and assume we have some kind of magical Internet ray to handle those issues.
3. Exploitable terrain
That rock where a vertical clipping issue makes targeting your character impossible? That’s got to go. Those pillars you can shoot through without fear of return fire? That’s not fair. We need to avoid making terrain a factor in this fight at all, really; terrain is inherently unfair.
This is the point where some people are going to start crying foul, of course, but let’s think about this rationally. You want a fair fight. Sure, you might have spent time carefully scaling a mountain in Darkfall and positioning yourself just right so you’re difficult to see, but that is unfair. You know it and I know it. The point is to have a fair fight without unfair advantages, and while outright bugged terrain is definitely an exploit, making heavy use of the terrain means that fight was never fair, was it? You’re raining death on someone who can’t fight back. Not fair. Satisfying, maybe, but unfair.
Again, we’re not going to worry about the mechanical side. Fights can happen only in plain fields with very slight rolls to the ground, why not? That’s fair.
4. Unfair abilities
This kind of falls into the same category. Stunlocking opponents has been a tradition for Rogues in World of Warcraft ever since someone said, “Wait, why don’t I deal with my durability issues by never getting hit?” But that’s not fair, and you know it. The whole point is that it’s unfair. We want a fair fight, and by definition, preventing your opponent from doing anything is not a fair fight. It’s arguably not even a fight. That sort of stuff needs to go.
Options like crowd control abilities are similarly unfair, of course. And abilities that are just plain broken have to be outright banned. We could spend hours with any game picking out the abilities that are all unfair for various situations, but let’s just leave this at “unfair abilities” for the time being. An ability that serves as an “I Win” button is out, as is any ability that serves as an “I Get A Massive Advantage” button. Sounds good, right? Right. And since we’re on stuff that prevents you from fighting back…
“But I like stealth,” you say, and hey, dude, I get you. But again, our goal here is a fair fight. Stunning someone until next year prevents someone from fighting you, and that’s not fair; surprising someone isn’t really all that different. It’s the network latency issue all over again, where you can’t have a fair fight if someone isn’t able to respond in a meaningful fashion.
I know, setting up ambushes is satisfying. Black Desert Online even sells an outfit to specifically let you set up ambushes. But an ambush, by definition, is not a fair fight. It’s meant to negate fairness. It’s a technique used to prevent your opponents from fighting at all! No, awareness needs to be a central component of a fair fight. Even if you would argue that realizing what’s happening and reacting quickly is a hallmark of a fight, you’re still dealing with a situation wherein someone can only respond to the first attack.
So awareness is a must. No ambushes, although that plain field from before will help make that happen anyway.
I don’t mean insects here, incidentally. I mean that your game has to work perfectly to have a really fair fight. At the very least, there has to be a completely transparent and non-bug-free encounter for the fight to actually be fair, since otherwise abilities aren’t working as intended and the game is fundamentally exploiting someone. I know that the last couple of points might seem a bit out there, but we agree that this is pretty much the definition of “fair,” right? You use an ability and it works correctly, with no bugs or errors in the code.
I think this one is going to require more of that magic Internet ray, too, since I can’t think of a single game that’s ever been free of bugs. There are games that wind up being more buggy or less buggy, but none that is absolutely free of bugs. Eh, forget it, I said we weren’t worrying about logistics here. No bugs!
Have you seen Robin Hood: Men in Tights? I have fond memories of it from when I was younger, but I haven’t actually watched it in years, and these days if I want to watch Cary Elwes be dashing and hypercompetent, I’ll just watch The Princess Bride again. Anyhow, there’s a scene in that movie with the Sheriff of Nottingham that ends with a quote that wound up becoming a thing over on TV Tropes: “A fight to the death, mano a mano, man to man, just you and me… and my guards!”
This is, by definition, not fair. The humor of that situation comes down to it being unfair! We all know it’s unfair! It’s a way of avoiding an actual fair fight in favor of one that is explicitly unfair. So reinforcements are right out. No calling in your buddies, no calling on your guild for support. We’re cool with that, right? Fair fight means a fair fight, period. Everything must be balanced.
8. Differing ability loadouts
Speaking of “everything must be balanced,” that means everything. We’re obviously going to need to get rid of things like consumable items, of course, but that just gets you thinking about abilities in general, right? I mean, we were talking earlier about terrain and fairness, and let’s be real, the option of raining death down upon someone is only an issue so long as you can rain death down at all. Clearly, unfair abilities include abilities that say that you can do something your opponent cannot.
This one rankles, I know, but the whole point is that we want a fair fight. Imagine a game of rock-paper-scissors in which you weren’t allowed to use rock. That would be pretty obviously unfair; you might win sometimes, but you simply have no answer for your opponent using scissors. If your opponent has a trick you don’t, you’re not really having a fair match. So you both need to be able to do the exact same thing for a truly fair fight.
9. Different hardware
This might seem arbitrary, but it’s pretty important because it’s really just another side of awareness, lag, and bugs; if you can’t do anything, you can’t fight back. And if my GPU can’t handle a lot of particle effects without slowdown, I’m at a disadvantage if yours can, right?
For that matter, this goes for everything. Do you have a newer mechanical keyboard? We should both have one for fairness. I love my Naga, but I need to make sure you have one as well if I want this to be fair. I’ve got an advantage otherwise. We have to be fair here, and that means neither of us should have an advantage over something as silly as hardware. And we’ll also assume that our magical internet ray can generate hardware, or maybe every purchase of the game comes with an equivalent rig that can only run that one game. You get the idea.
So, we’re totally fair now, right? Well, almost. There’s just one more big factor to remove.
10. Player skill
That sounds absurd, right? But remember our goal here. We want a fair fight. When you remove everything else, someone who has a dozen hours to practice every day is naturally going to win over someone who only has two hours or so to practice. And when the whole point of a fair fight is making sure that neither player has an advantage… well, this is an advantage. It’s unfair. It needs to go.
“But the whole point of making a fair fight was to make this about skill,” you object. Yet again, the point is to remove advantages. This should be fair. Both sides need to have an equal chance of winning. Skill is an enormous advantage. It’s the very definition of an advantage.
I mean, let’s walk back. We’ve eliminated every other possible advantage that someone could have. A less-skilled player cannot now be wearing better gear, be smart and outflank you, pick you off at an opportune time, or use abilities you can’t respond to. She can’t have a build developed to counter your abilities or make use of allies to take you out. Now the fight is almost fair, but if you leave it like this, all you’ve done is made sure that the advantage that matters is having more practice. It’s just a new kind of advantage.
Or you could accept that the very nature of competition is unfairness and that “fair fights” are an ideal rather than a reality, and if no one wants to jump into an open gankbox, the fairness of the fights is not the deciding factor in and of itself because you’re never actually going to have a fair fight — just ones that are unfair in a fashion that’s more favorable for your particular playstyle.
That sounds fair, doesn’t it?