Massively Overthinking: Competitive PvE in MMORPGs


During last week’s podcast, Justin and I bumped into a tangential topic about competitive PvE and how relatively rare it is in MMORPGs, which seems weird, right? It was once the nature of MMOs to make us scuffle with other guilds in open-world dungeons, but with the dawn of instanced PvE content, devs didn’t replace that type of content the same way they’ve embraced raiding and PvP. You’ve got achievements, sure, and gear show-offs, but outside of Guild Wars-esque challenge missions and WildStar PvE leaderboards, it’s just not something most MMOs bother with.

Why is that? Should they? And how do you want to see it done? I posed all these questions to the Massively OP team this week for Massively Overthinking!

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Competitive PvE may not be built into MMOs’ games worlds often, but if you pose this question to a hardcore raider, they’d probably be shocked that the competitive nature of raid scenes makes this a valid question at all. Realm/Server firsts are still a thing, aren’t they? We’ve got sites dedicated to top performing guilds, best healers in X instance, and someone always posts DPS meters. In a lot of ways, it feels more damaging to a game to make PvE explicitly competitive. Imagine if DPS meters were built into our MMOs! If you think the average pick up group member can have an attitude, I shudder to think how much worse it’d get if they could say, “The devs support this style of play!”

Achievements are my limit for the most part, but I do think there are some ways you can do competitive PvE. Group gathering/crafting is still one I’d like to see more. Remember the opening of The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj in World of Warcraft? Lots of servers were comparing their progress to other servers. Prior to that were the group efforts to unlock additional races in Horizons/Istaria, such as warriors needing to protect craftiners as they built a bridge for a new race to escape or portal to summon them. Success meant attracting people to your server.

Riddles are one that may be hard to crank out easily, but The Secret World’s shown people can be attracted to them. Asheron’s Call 2 had a kind of lore riddle attached to city invasions where you had to not only fight your way to the NPC in the middle but give it a very specific but common enough item that non-lore fans generally wouldn’t guess (or would be dead by the time they figured it due to the rapid spawns).

Last but not least are time trials. I know WoW did Challenge Modes, but I’m not sure how they went over since I’d retired from the game. It’s not my playstyle, but I figure it’s something for competitive people that’s combat oriented but not restricted to raiders. Can’t recall any other MMOs except maybe TERA played with this a bit.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): After posing this question and reading everyone else’s replies, I’m questioning my question. Is the only difference between competitive PvE and competitive PvP whether a character can literally kill your character? It seems like a pretty small differentiation once you stack it up against all the other forms of formal (dungeon completion races, leaderboards, achieves) and informal (whose loot looks best while you’re dancing atop mailboxes) competition that a game could have or at least foster. I usually think of economic play as PvP, but it doesn’t fit the definition — it’s more properly competitive PvE. Or PvAH?

Anyway. The answer to why more games don’t do it is because they are broke or unimaginative and other systems are cheaper or easier, and on top of that, we’ve been pigeonholed as a genre that is about starting out as a noob, grinding quests to cap, and then raiding. Even PvP is a sidegame in most of the core AAA MMORPGs. So any system that doesn’t funnel into that churning endgame is trivia from all perspectives, which is why most of the living examples amount to “raid faster than other dudes.” I want to see that, but I want to see things like races around the world, crafting challenges, chess tournaments, and costume contests too. It’s just frustrating that it’s always on the players to make that flavor happen.

Bela Lugosi's dead.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I think, at the end of the day, the biggest thing stopping competitive PvE from being a thing is the fact that it’s not really looked upon as a positive feature so much as one that existed for a while. It’s easy to make forms of PvP that encourage fighting against other players without forcing players to explicitly ruin one another’s play experience, but yanking a monster away from someone who needs to kill it always winds up just causing misery. It is, one could argue, a form of PvP in and of itself; you’re not fighting the other player directly, but you’re still attacking someone else.

It’s easy to design PvE that can be both competitive (through speed clearing, run efficiency, or some other metric) and non-competitive, but it’s hard to design PvE that’s just competitive without being PvP under another name. And, y’know, I can really live without returning to the days of people camping notorious monsters for days on end in Final Fantasy XI. Let Leaping Lizzy live.

Did we not tell you this is how things would go down?

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): As I said on the podcast, I think competitive PvE is not only a wonderful idea but a woefully unexplored field for MMORPGs and ripe for development. “Competition” in MMOs doesn’t have to be limited to butting heads on a PvP battlefield. For instance, some players get competitive in the economy of a game to be the best at a particular area or make the most money.

Competitive dungeons would be an exciting format that would challenge player teams to go head-to-head against another in a race to clear an instance the fastest or in the best possible way. Perhaps even a leaderboard over a day or week of any participating teams to see who can top the chart at a particular slice of PvE content, with bonus rewards being dished out above and beyond what you’d get for completing that content.

I think it’s kind of neat that World of Warcraft is even dabbling lightly in competitive PvE content with its upcoming Trial of Style, creating a system for players to go head-to-head in fashion. Yeah it’s silly and fluffy, but it shows that competition can be just as diverse as the imagination allows.

Your turn!

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There’s always competition in PvE. It’s called have’s vs have-not’s. Go to any non-trivial difficulty party/raid based pve where the player is judged by their character progress (often in terms of equipment). The competition is there when people have to improve their character, or face the prospect of being left in the dust when the party choose a better equipped character.

It’s actually in gamers’ blood. Gamers will find a way to compete one way or another, with or without supporting mechanics of the game.


My answer to it is roughly the same I would give for PvP: I don’t mind it existing, but try to force me into participating — or have exclusive rewards for it that I truly want — and I will leave the game instead.

I’m not competitive. I not only don’t care whether I win or lose, I don’t want to ever care; thus, if the game manages to make me care about winning, I’m out.

(Ironically, I do love some good PvP. But I play for fun, not for victory. I’m even prone to give up and leave the game if I’m winning by too wide a margin.)


On my server in LotRO, someone organised a server event for fastest time clearing a specific dungeon. It was during a lull in content, but the competition kept us going for weeks. At the start, it was taking my guild maybe 1hr on average to clear, but by the end we were down to 17 minutes.

That sort of competition was great – it increased interest in old content, got us talking more with other guilds on the server and forced us to experiment more with our playstyles.

So, thats what I’d like to see in terms of competitive PvE – time trials with leaderboards, leaderboards for first kills etc. I’ve never been one for DPS meters or server firsts, but I’ve always enjoyed healthy competition with other semi-hardcore guilds


Competitive PVE is a relic of bygone days, and I don’t want to see it return. Like it or not, “competitive PVE” is just a nice way of saying “guild-based trolling”.

In my opinion, PVP should be about competition, and PVE should be about cooperation. Instead of finding new and amazing ways for players to screw each other out of content, developers should be looking for new ways to roll out PVE content where players are rewarded for cooperating and participating. Guild Wars 2 does a great job of this, making it easy at all levels for players to help others while helping themselves (and vice versa).

Here’s an idea: loot tables based on player participation. If the threshold of players actively cooperating in a given event reaches a certain number, the loot table improves for everyone. Maybe there are even very rare drops that can only be unlocked when X number of players are participating in the content.

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Both WoW and SWTOR have decent competitive PVE options, if all you’re looking for is leaderboards.

WoW has challenge modes that are timed and leaderboarded weekly. SWTOR has weekly leaderboards for guild conquest objectives earned through crafting/questing/flashpoints, with planets being conquered by guilds to unlock temporary features for winning groups. SWTOR also has an active speedrunning scene for the Eternal Championship on youtube, both solo and group. I remember seeing the raiding community move to livestreamed guild vs. guild races with discord commentary and a live audience betting in-game credits during the content drought to breathe fresh life into that area.


Eh, I go to PvP to compete and PvE to cooperate.

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Path of Exile does it in their races – although they are phasing them out.


The very last thing I care about in MMOs is competing with other people. I have fond memories of gathering up a party in EQ1 and FFXI and carving out a farming spot, but like hell do I want to go back to those days.


“whose loot looks best while you’re dancing atop mailboxes”

I thought the whole idea of dancing on top of mailboxes was to do it nekkid?

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I would have thought that pretty well every MMO could be said to have competitive PvE given that they all have players being kicked from groups for not being competitive enough in the dps or whatever else they contribute, with quite a lot of players recording parse logs of every fight etc.. I know that of my current MMOs ESO certainly does more organised competitive PvE in terms of trials with leadership boards etc. I have zero interest in such things and don’t play computer games in order to be competitive with others.