Massively Overthinking: Three-way RvR and ‘fair’ PvP in modern MMOs

And sometimes, it's all about winning.

MOP reader Sally Bowls is on a roll with the good questions lately! She lobbed us one this past weekend that seems a good follow-up to a comment thread discussion about the problems inherent in unregulated three-way factional PvP/RvR (and how a game like Camelot Unchained will regulate it). By way of example, she noted that a certain MMO griefer famously argued in favor of strategy that basically made the opponent not want to log in, using tactics like creating timesinks and hassles in a sandbox. “Should the dominant faction on a RvRvR server ‘camp’ the smallest to try to drive them off?” she wondered.

“If it’s about fair PvP, then that is anathema. But if you see the game as being about your faction being at war with other factions, then not doing your utmost to win that war is incompetence. Neither is bad design per se, just a conflict in understanding of the goals. And will Camelot Unchained really be RvR, doing everything legal for your realm to win? Or will it be about PvP battles, with the RvR rhetoric being more marketing fluff than von Clausewitz and Machiavelli? If camping a mine hurts your kill/death ratio but makes the opponent weaker due to hassles or crafting, is that winning or losing? Is an RvR game really about realms vs. realms or is it just another BG?”

I’ve pitched Sally’s comments to the team for consideration in this week’s Massively Overthinking. Is RvR just a more carebear-friendly way to market FFA PvP? Do you play RvR or factional PvP to win or to have fun, and how does that differ from a more open FFA sandbox? How would you design three-way factional PvP to keep people from quitting and stop griefing before it starts?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): RvR and factions aren’t nearly the same as FFA PvP. I’d argue they’re probably closer to a BG feel, in that you automatically come with a defined side and people who (should) support you. It takes out the need to make social connections, but it also helps minimize the damage done by random PvPers ganking lowbies.

That doesn’t mean it’s intentionally more “carebear- friendly.” I’d argue it makes the game more friendly to people who are anti-social and/or aren’t as devoted to building a community, especially if factions can’t be changed post creation. I say this as someone who’s organized guilds, factions, and even alliances from World of Warcraft to Darkfall. I was reminded just last night that while playing Overwatch’s FFA battles that, well, I’m really not a killer.

I do PvP because it gives me objectives and a chance to employ digital diplomacy. Darkfall actually had a rather nice community, and I’m sure EVE is the same, but they don’t make headlines the way griefers do. When you have to build your own “faction” in FFA PvP, I think you’re a bit more invested. In BGs when I’m playing for fun (and not grinding for gear), I find it easier to leave after a good win streak ends. If I’m losing, I play longer because, well, I want the win. In the long run, we see this in MMOs in the way that one side may drive off the others, get bored of winning, and change games, while the losers who stick it out may win the remains of the game simply because the population’s been decimated by then.

For example, while Asheron’s Call 2 had a faction system that may have bugged some of the hardcore FFA PvPers, players could shift their faction (with a bit of a penalty). My friends and guildies worked to hone our faction. When other people joined it to be on the winning side, a few of us left. We had people in that faction who really didn’t support us though, which was frustrating. As the “winners,” we nearly quit, but switching factions gave us a new mission: to motivate our new faction. Our old faction retained power, but rolled more alts and… well, jumped ship to “conquer” World of Warcraft as soon as it came out.

That sort of mentality followed us despite our options being even more limited: two factions instead of three, no opportunities for cross-faction communication, and no faction switching. People who just wanted to be winners could join the bigger faction and zerg it. While FFA PvP also has that, you have more control over your community. The Darkfall guild I was in was part of a larger alliance, and we had allies who were “obnoxious” to say the least. Yes, some would team attack us, but as they were fringe within their own clans, they’d often be removed or harshly punished (like being robbed and ganked by senior officers griefing them to guild quit). When things got bad, our clan leader once allowed the city defenses to attack the troublemakers and banned them from the city. Since we’d made strong political connections, the alliance leaders not only allowed it, but let us choose how the offenders would be disciplined in a way to bring them back into the fold (as the only RP group, we decided to force them to run laps and do some RP-type stuff, which ended up being fun for everyone, even them). Pre-set factions don’t allow for this sort of community moderation, especially as MMOs aim for larger crowds, faster travel, and instanced based content.

That being said, I’m actually in favor of factions these days, but they need to be fluid. As much as I love building my own community, I don’t have the time I used to, nor the social connections/support to build and maintain e-communities with tons of strangers on the internet. While AC2’s faction system had the same issue as many other faction based games, I felt the ability to change factions helped minimize stagnation compared to, say, Pokemon Go’s team/faction based system that’s continuing the same MMO issue into real life. It’s what I’ve found attractive about Crowfall’s seasons. By having a defined season and a “reset” period, people on the losing side can potentially the winners. People on the winning side who are getting bored can join the losing side. If a developer is worried about Blue team constantly dominating the seasons, they can have rotating teams (maybe Blue, Black, and Red for season 1, Purple, Yellow, and Green for season 2, etc). I love faction pride, but feel like, as a mechanic, it only threatens the genre, especially now that people have so many other games they can move on to.

Sort of?

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Maybe it’s my roleplayer upbringing, but metagaming in roleplay is a no-no, and I consider that true in PvP games as well, no matter the format. When Camelot Unchained (for example) forbids in-game communication between factions, it’s a way of signalling that what happens in game, stays in game – that using “meta” resources to discourage the real people behind the characters from logging in to contest you is not in the spirit of any MMO. It would be stupid for most game studios to allow or incentivize that behavior since it costs them players. It would likewise be stupid for gamers to do this to the playerbases around them. But hey, some gamers are just that dumb, and they don’t really care if they end up the only one left in an empty sandbox as long as they get the bragging rights from “winning.” Zero long-term foresight about the health of their own hobby.

Consequently, I think that RvR MMOs should be cracking down ultra-hard on the kinds of alliances (first and second place beating up on third place) that destroy whole games. It’s in their own interests as well as ours as players. There are lots of ways to combat it; eliminating in-game cross chatter is just one. I’m thinking NPC bots, penalties for not attacking enemies, adding bonuses for being in the losing group, seasonal resets, and so on.

To answer the other question, I’d say standard RvR (DAOC, CU) isn’t pure FFA because you don’t have to worry about teamkills or corpse looting, but it’s also not much like battleground PvP because the whole game is centered on the RvR effort – not at all true in a game like WoW, where the PvP is literally outside the game. It’s more like mini FFA, since you’ll see the same sort of ganking and zerging and singular focus on PvP, maybe even more of it since there are generally more enunciated incentives for doing so. The RvR in ESO, on the other hand, is more like a battleground as it’s not all-consuming and indeed has basically no impact on the gameworld or people who opt out entirely.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): There’s an interesting assumption baked into the core of this question that I can’t help but pick at first and foremost, because it kind of cuts into part of a problem. The question presumes – not altogether incorrectly – that free-for-all PvP is a blacklist system rather than a whitelist system. That is, the rules are that anything not explicitly forbidden is allowed, rather than the rules stating that anything not specifically allowed is forbidden.

Sports, generally, operate on a whitelist system. It’s true that there’s no rule in basketball saying that a dog can’t play the game, but there doesn’t need to be one; there would need to be a rule specifically saying that a dog can play the game. If it’s not allowed, it’s not permitted. Games with consensual PvP like World of Warcraft also have a whitelist system, where the game specifically outlines what’s allowed and what isn’t.

Sometimes that changes, too. To continue the WoW example, for a long time you could bait players into flagging themselves accidentally by flagging yourself, then standing in an AoE; the game would read that as a hostile action and flag the other player. You could also do various things to blue-shield yourself in open PvP, deploying beneficial effects that would help other flagged players without actually flagging you and making yourself eligible for targeting. Patches have worked to change these as much as possible.

In open PvP, on the other hand, the system found in games like EVE Online is essentially “anything not expressly forbidden is allowed.” Obviously, that means PvP shouldn’t include going to someone’s house and smashing up your opponent’s computer, since that’s a crime (the law tends to look down upon “but we’re fighting in a video game” as a defense). But preventing people from logging on? Suicide raids? Lies, deception, and backstabbing? All totally valid.

The reason I bring all of this up is that it ties into the whole question of “fair” PvP. “Fair fights” is something that I skewered a while back, because the reality is that you can’t argue a version of “fair” that doesn’t even out to “unfair in my favor.” If you’re making a game built around open RvR like Camelot Unchained, your goal isn’t to make the game be fair but to fill it with self-balancing forces, ensuring that the unfair strategies have drawbacks and/or costs over time that make them unviable.

So, let’s say you have your team of players camping an enemy mineshaft 24/7. Is that fair? Totally! You’re denying access to a resource. But eventually you’re going to be running low on supplies yourself, you’re vulnerable to being overwhelmed by a larger force, and you have to maintain a constant state of vigilance and rotating logins to continue the denial effort. In the long run, you might wind up making your faction more vulnerable by denying them access to troops.

In other words, the idea is that it’s different from open PvP in that you can’t just deny access to everything forever with no consequences. If half of your faction is defending, you might get overwhelmed by the 75% of another faction that’s attacking. The forces become self-balancing over time, and rather than preventing others from playing the game, you’re inspired to focus more around gaining long-term advantages that can’t just be taken back.

Which means that in some respects, it is just like a large, extended battleground. But that’s what battlegrounds in World of Warcraft were originally meant to emulate in the first place.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): “Rules” and “PvP” might seem two opposing perspectives, but I think that they’re necessary bedfellows. Sure, some might pine for a dream of unfettered, anything-goes conflict, but that often isn’t as exciting, fair, and engaging as fighters hope. Creating some boundaries and designing a system that gives all sides a chance at victory is crucial to keeping participation high and sustaining long-term interest.

And three-faction PvP is a proven way to do that with its inherent checks-and-balances that aren’t present in a two-faction system. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it does provide a way for an underdog to team up with the second-most powerful group to trounce the faction on top, deflating dangerously large egos and changing up the PvP meta. Resetting the game board (a la Crowfall’s campaigns) is important to shaking up stagnation and trench warfare as well.

I think it’s also important for game designers to include a “blue shell” technique or item that is only available to the underdog faction to give them a boost back into the game. This video from Extra Credits is illuminating on why Mario Kart’s often-hated weapon is actually a brilliant design for competitive play, and it got me thinking about how such an item might be wisely employed in factional conflict:

Matt Daniel (@Matt_DanielMVOP): Huh, that’s a great question, and one that I don’t think I’ve ever really considered before – at least not directly. In my mind, the one game that really epitomizes a PvP attitude of winning by any means necessary – fair or foul – is EVE Online, with all its Machiavellian schemes and sordid, soap-opera-esque betrayals, and in a broad sense, I’m a fan of games providing players with the tools and the freedom to pull off those kinds of dramatic stunts. Not that I have the wits or the wherewithal (nor the time and energy, for that matter) to devise and execute such schemes, mind you, but I love reading and hearing about them as much as everyone else.

So in that sense, yeah, I’m a fan of games where PvP is about more than just which faction kills the other(s) the most and which give players tactical options beyond outright military aggression. That being said, any game that allows and/or promotes tactics that are designed to cripple and demoralize other factions to the extent that players don’t even want to log in – whether by design or otherwise – doesn’t strike me as a particularly good time. Admittedly, my experience with RvR-centric games is fairly limited; I played Dark Age of Camelot only relatively briefly (and that was before I was experienced with the MMO genre, so I didn’t have a solid grasp of what the hell I was actually doing), and I’ve made sporadic forays into other games with RvR mechanics like PlanetSide/PlanetSide 2, Elder Scrolls Online, and Warhammer Online (RIP), but that’s about it. That is to say that I’m by no means an expert in the field.

That said, it’s generally been my understanding that one of the major philosophies behind RvR systems (which I’m not defining – not erroneously, I hope – as PvP systems that emphasize faction-based combat between three or more independent factions) is that the existence of more than two factions is supposed to prevent situations where one faction has absolute dominance over another, as Sally described in her comments. As someone who has never considered himself particularly adept in PvP (and who seems to have an uncanny knack for gravitating to the losing side in any two-faction game), that’s a pretty big draw for me.

Moreover, though, I think that RvR systems should (regardless of whether they actually do) ideally promote PvP playstyles outside of the usual ganksquads and steamroll-zergs. Sally gives this as an example: “If camping a mine hurts your kill/death ratio but makes the opponent weaker due to hassles or crafting, is that winning or losing?” In my opinion, in a well-designed RvR system, that should be unequivocally categorized as winning; it provides less-proficient PvPers (e.g., me) with a way to meaningfully contribute to the battle while also broadening the range of strategic options beyond just trying to kill more dudes than the other dudes.

I’m realizing at this point that I’ve yet to actually answer any of the questions originally posed, but since I don’t have the patience to go back and edit what I’ve written to smoothly integrate the questions into my rambling, here’s a non sequitur instead: “Is RvR just a more carebear-friendly way to market FFA PvP?” I mean, I’m sure it can be, but I think that’s an overly broad generalization to make. I don’t see anything inherently carebear-ish about RvR in comparison to two-faction PvP; the fact remains that, when you boil it down, there’s your faction, and then there’s everyone else trying to kill your faction. Whether a PvP system – RvR or otherwise – is “carebear-friendly,” in my opinion, is determined by the implementation of much more granular and specific mechanics: death penalties, PvP looting, the inclusion/exclusion of non-PvP areas, and those sorts of things.

Next up: “Do you play RvR or factional PvP to win or to have fun, and how does that differ from a more open FFA sandbox?” In RvR- or factional-PvP-centric games, as in everything else I play, the answer is “both.” I’m a pretty competitive person, and I do whatever I can to try to win – read theorycrafting analyses, fine-tune my character’s build, all that good stuff – but I try not to get too super-duper-srs about it; after all, my leisure time is limited and precious to me, so if I’m spending it playing a game where I’m not having fun, then that’s just a waste of perfectly good time and energy. As for how it differs from an FFA sandbox, that’s a tough question to answer objectively. But the way it should differ from an FFA sandbox is, somewhat obviously, in the implementation of the factions themselves and of mechanics that encourage intra-faction communication, coordination, and cooperation.

Sure, RvR games can end up being nothing more than glorified battlegrounds where the only difference is that it’s not Red vs. Blue – it’s Red vs. Blue vs. Yellow, or whatever. But on the other side of that coin, I feel like a well-made RvR game – one that is designed around the cooperation within/competition between factions and that leverages those aspects of the game with mechanics that promote strategizing with your faction rather than incentivizing the simple wholesale slaughter of everyone you see – can (and should) create a more complex style of gameplay that standard two-faction- or FFA-PvP games can’t replicate.

Older engines, you know.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I do not enjoy PvP solo, so faction PvP or RvR can have a leg up in terms of my interest because there is already some social construct built into it. It also tends to give a story or purpose behind the fighting, which is a big deal; fighting for no other reason than to just to bash other people’s heads in holds no appeal to me. The addition of objectives that allow players to contribute to their realm without having to actually fight is also key. Crafting, holding strategic points that aren’t on the front line, and even running a mobile hospital and/or morale unit (wouldn’t that be totally cool?!) should all be viable ways to further the war effort. Plus, those bring in more folks to the world, especially those who maybe don’t revel in the head-bashing as much as some others but still love a good contest. Faction pride and all that.

As for the question of winning at all costs or having fun, you might have guessed that I do it for fun.

Your turn!

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