Vague Patch Notes: Why the social penalty for open PvP in MMOs never works

Remember, he's bigger and stronger than you, but you're smaller and weaker!

One of the most important things to have when you’re thinking about games and their design is reference material. It’s one of the things that the Vague Patch Notes column in particular is meant to provide, an anchoring point where important issues can be brought up and memorialized so that in a year’s time I can ask myself “didn’t I talk about that before” and then just link back. It seems useful to me.

Thus, the genesis of this particular article, which is about a discussion MOP’s Bree and I have had several dozen times by now without ever actually writing down in a format that can be used for callbacks.

There’s a consistent attitude and acceptance of the idea that games with open PvP attempting to use the social penalty system aren’t really addressing the fundamental problems that open PvP brings to the table. However, I don’t think we’ve ever actually put forth the reasons why the social penalty system doesn’t work; it’s just something that’s stated as an a priori failing without explanation. So let’s spend the day explaining why this penalty system just doesn’t work.


First of all, we should be clear by what is meant by the “social penalty” because lots of games use different variants on the same core concepts or turn the dials in different ways. Let’s outline exactly what we mean by the social penalty for open PvP, in convenient list form. The social penalty system is defined as a system wherein all of the following are true:

  1. The game is mandatory open PvP, with any “safe zones” enforced by NPC guards or player consensus rather than by actual mechanical exclusion from being attacked.
  2. Killing another player causes an immediate impact upon the killed player, usually the loss of items, or maybe everything in the player’s inventory will become available for the taking.
  3. The penalties in place are meant to shield players not actively engaged in combat and/or incapable of facing off against their attackers.
  4. Killers in these scenarios will be penalized via hostile reactions by NPCs and/or lessened penalties for other players attacking them unprovoked, with the intent being that this creates a risk-reward scenario, i.e., is it worth killing this miner and taking his minerals if I’m going to be unable to sell them at a larger town.

All of these conditions have to be fulfilled for the social penalty system to really be in effect here. If you can opt out of PvP entirely, for example, the only reason you’d be at risk of being attacked is if you opted in; thus, you don’t need to be defended against people attacking you for sheer greed or boredom. You’ll also note that this isn’t concerned with the specifics of what the penalty may be, whether it be declaring open season on the killer, hostile NPC reactions, the opportunity to take part in a justice system in-game, or all of the above and more.

That’s because none of that matters – the system is failing right from the start for the player who got killed.

Yes, I realize this example is highly hypothetical, but let's just move along.

Let’s say Mark is out in the woods in Chronicles of Elyria harvesting plenty of lumber. Sasha, meanwhile, has been stalking along behind Mark for some time. When he’s laden with lumber, Sasha jumps out of the shadow and hits Mark directly in the face with a dozen arrows, leaving her free to take all of that lumber off of Mark’s body.

Forget about what happens to Sasha in this scenario. What happens to Mark? Mark has just seen all of his work go up in smoke because Sasha felt like it. Knowing that Sasha is going to have to face repercussions later doesn’t do anything to help Mark now. In all likelihood, it’s never going to help Mark in any way. Even if a player-organized trial is convened and Sasha is convicted and penalized, Mark is unlikely to get all of his lumber back.

In other words, Mark’s going to immediately ask himself whether the game is worth continuing to play because however much fun he was having, he’s now been reminded that all of his stuff can be taken away whenever someone wants to take it away. It’d be like clearing a very difficult level in a single-player game and then just having the game decide “nope, do that again because we said so.”

“Ah,” you say, “but Sasha is going to face justice!” Except, uh… maybe not so much. See, by making the penalties social rather than mechanical, it’s very possible that Sasha is actually happier to have a higher wanted level or outlaw level or whatever. All of those penalties rely on either going back into contact with NPCs or in other players making use of the social systems.

The plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data,” but I do think there’s an anecdote from my time in Lineage II that perfectly illustrates this without the need for more examples. After reaching the first major city in the game, I headed out a gate into the wilderness… and was promptly ventilated by an arrow. Respawn back in the city, head back out the gate, get another arrow in the throat. Respawn a third time, and this time hang back… and watch as the same player slaughters a few more new players, avoiding me only because I wasn’t in range for him.

See, he knew exactly how far away from the NPC guards he could stand while being safe. He also knew that any high-level player could come along and kill him freely… but he had his own friends alongside him laughing, and almost all of the players coming out of the city were new players, meaning they both lacked high-level friends and couldn’t hurt him anyhow. This wasn’t being penalized; this was the point of the game for him.

Shortly thereafter somehow it occurred to me that I was done.

You can argue that this player was uniquely awful, the lone sociopathic and cruel MMO player in the history of the genre. And sure, all right, let’s go with that. But that doesn’t change the fact that the game’s social penalties had no way to cope with this kind of player. The game was not designed to account for “what happens if there’s no one around to help and someone just likes ruining the day of others?”

This isn’t meant to examine the merits of open PvP as a design choice or even ask whether or not this is something that should be fixed. Rather, it’s meant to explain why these penalties don’t make the game any more welcoming to people who dislike open PvP. It’s highlighting the fact that these penalties are really not a deterrent and don’t actually address the core problem, the feature that makes most MMO players leery of games as soon as they’re told that open PvP is a major feature.

You can argue that this isn’t what these systems are meant to accomplish in the first place, of course, but they’re usually touted by designers as “solving” the open PvP problem. It’s the promise that this time it’ll be fair and players will enjoy the added excitement of an open PvP environment without having to deal with players acting in bad faith. And so long as your penalties are going to center around these social consequences, you’re going to have the same problems that plague every open PvP title.

Is there a way to allow open PvP with penalties that actually encourage non-PvP players to enjoy the game? Is it desirable? Is that worth the effort? That’s all for another day. But now you’ve got some reference for why this approach keeps falling flat.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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