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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You lose most of your well written and structured credibility without putting any effort at all to present a solution, other than asking if there is a way to fix your very own issue.

The reason MMO developers implement the so called PVP closure or solution, is because every non-PVP solution to an (economic) conflict, is by far more unfair and not natural, than the PVP solution. Assume there is a very rare boss, which 200 players want to kill to get it’s loot. Out of all the solutions, the PVP will always be the most fair. Any other solution, like instances, or first come first serve, or RNG, or whoever deals the most damage get’s the loot are more flawed.

The PVE resolution on a rare commodity, reminds me of the rediculous argument modern Greeks have, that the world owes them because they invented something a millenia ago. The similirity to PVE resolutions in MMO is often arguments that I did most of this or most of that or whatever flawed metric someone can invent.

PVP solutions ARE fair, and that’s why they are there.


I’m going to disagree somewhat, because even though those games have been very rare, there have been games where the social penalty did work. Willfully ignoring them to write this article (which still makes mostly correctly points, to be fair) may be the easy way out, but I think a more interesting take would be to look at the difference between those few games that have pulled it off and the vast number that turned into a massive murderhole.

If I were a betting man (who’s taking the easy way out now, haha), I’d wager that it takes more than just a perceived social penalty – that the game has to be fundamentally structured around working together with not just a group, but large numbers of other players.

Labeling a player an Outlaw for a few minutes and making them drop a few items on death isn’t going to alter a lot of behavior. But if they truly need other players, and those social penalties are persistent and don’t simply wear off after a single play session, I believe you absolutely can strike a good balance.


Eve works with its rules.

I tried out space truckin’ for a time, and eventually found profit moving cargo to low-sec space. I got popped once, but overall I made money.

Is there a risk? Yes. Is there a reward? Yes. Does the system work to make my PvE choice viable in a PvP environment? Yes.


P.S. I’ve never been good at PvP, but I find the constant complaining and ‘splaining to be silly. If the game has PvP rules, either deal with it or move on. There are plenty of games for people who just want to PvE.

Melissa McDonald

not many games in the last few years though. Sure we can happily play 10 year old titles when PvE was the dominant thing. But last 3-5 years, it’s all been “PvP sandbox” games where it’s enforced and non-consensual. That’s why there is so much complaining. CHOICE has been taken away.

Fenrir Wolf

I think the problem is that MMO developers are overly concerned with offending their PvP crowd, who do tend to be the noisiest players.

I mean, if a criminal warning was put out on a player and the game had given them a bounty, so NPC bounty-hunter groups and players were going after them? Sure I’d absolutely join in. I find PvP disruptive at the best of times, so it’d be nice to see the griefer glean some semblance of responsibility.

If you couldn’t grief without grave consequences? That’d be an interesting game. Especially if it meant that the player had to be hampered in some way for having caused others trouble. I’m not sure if prison is always the right solution, but there’s likely some heavy consequence beyond just a fine that would make them think twice.

As I’ve mentioned prior; in an Ultima Online server where I was an administrator, I set up a system that would turn criminals into slimes who could only communicate with *glip!*s and *gloop!*s. It was novel to the player at first, but since they couldn’t do any content or talk back to their friends, it was definitely an impediment even if they weren’t technically imprisoned.

It’s all about inconvenience, yes?

If a griefer inconveniences a player, then there has to be the punishment of an even greater inconvenience if they’re caught. This adds consequence to the choice to grief. It’s meaningless without that consequence.

For the very worst crimes, the criminal would be sentenced to ten consecutive hours of Justin Bieber and the Spice Girls. Any attempt to not cooperate would stop the timer counting down, like that Black Mirror episode! Except without the porn involving someone they know.

Honestly, this is all facetious because in truth I wouldn’t know how to deal with this. I prefer to just be on PvE servers. I’m sad though that there’s been no PvE implementation of criminal acts in games. Not as the person who commits, that is, because the Thieves Guild in ESO was exactly that and an enjoyable romp to boot. No, I mean NPC criminals.

What if you were the one who had your pocket picked, and not by a player?

Melissa McDonald

the next game that commits to PvE (assuming it ever happens, sigh) will have to just be willing to thumb their nose at the noisy minority and tell them to go pound sand. I could be wrong but I think there is enough pent-up desire for PvE that a good game would have a good following.

Chris Ochs

I think the premise is flawed here. Rewards and punishment do work.

The punishment has to fit the crime. You can’t take something that has a high perceived value to players, and punish it using something of lower perceived value. That never even had a chance of working.

I’m not saying it’s an easy problem. But taking games that had rules where just at face value it’s obvious it wouldn’t work, does not make the case that you can’t make it work.

The biggest challenge is getting past the issue of you are going to lose some players if you do it right. At the end of the day if the punishment is to fit the crime, those that insist on the worst behavior will find their gameplay becoming limited.

There are also a number of ways to remove the sting of being killed. Making it less personal, adding a layer of indirection, or mechanics that make the victim whole in some way. The point being harsh punishments are not the only tool you have.

But regardless of what you do, a percentage of players will always degenerate into the worst behavior allowed. So you have to be willing to see those players leave the game if you want a system like this to work. So far games haven’t been willing to take any risks in that area.

Neiloch Fyrestarter
Neiloch Fyrestarter

PvE content only exists if its impossible to get PK’d while doing it. Calling anything else ‘PvE content’ is a joke if not an outright lie.

Melissa McDonald

just imagine the time wasted over this, when they could just make PvP consensual / dueling. it boggles the mind. Trying to solve a problem that has no solution. Game after game, try after try, scheme after scheme, penalty after penalty. Such an easy solution that game devs are, for some reason, unwilling to fix, because the solution



Paul B

A true PVP game needs people to die. The economy is based on gear being destroyed in combat.

Kevin McCaughey

Unfortunately, PvP is a honey pot for people on the fringes of gaming who are also psychopathic or just otherwise disgusting. They get a kick out of RL hurting people and like to make people unhappy and get attention. They get a kick out of the “power” of it. It really doesn’t matter how many “normal” PvPers you have, this rotten clump of them will always ruin PvP games. This is why I gave up on PvP. There is no way of creating a penalty for killing that outweighs the kick they get from pushing a kid into the dirt.


Imo it’s not possible. Forcing players into game modes they do not want to play is not working well in the long run. Devs should define very clearly what the targeted audience for their game is, for example like CU did. In a hardcore PvP environment there is no need for punishment. In a hardcore PvE environment there is no need for PvP at all. In everything between people should be able to opt out or in.

Loyal Patron
Bývörðæįr mòr Vas´Ðrakken

when you only have open pvp, you have a death match game or a grand melee tournament. In that case the only way to have it fun is to have the equipment be unlockable content and nothing drops.

In an MMORPG where you have items that drop no one values the items accept as proof that they beat someone. Then they become fetishes. That is a very dangerous path to lead people down it creates serial killers. Re-enforcing bad behavior with peer pressure is worse.

There are open pvp where tolkens instead of loot is dropped or where the corpse run happens and the player gets the gold on the player, I still think most of those were bad gold sinks that the developers hoped players would not notice.

In the mark and sasha example, the number of games that absolutely tanked with in a month of launch about most of them used that example. I remember the linage beta and people would run up attack once and see if the person attacked back to find out if the other player was a lower level. I decided not to play linage based on that beta test. That game did badly but not badly enough to sink the company for two years until the developer got bought out by NCsoft to use the art assets in another game.

The social plentalities are supposed to encourage players to hunt the sashas until they stop playing or griefing, usually all they do is cause the play style of racing for the highest level so no one has gear enough to stop them.

Politics and zoned pvp areas with pve only gear is the strongest way to re-enforce team work, if you only have the gear you earn working as a party in party size pvp zones, and raid gear in raid size group pvp, you end up with the social dynamic of people excluding strangers so they do not end up fighting them for loot, if players only gain loot based on capping flags, then players dual box to cap an alt they are playing against. It is far better to balance for the honest players and make the cheaters gear appear to be the avatarʻs underware to the other players. laughter and healthy mockery of lack of skill is far better than over complicated anti cheat systems.

Kevin McCaughey

I have to agree that, on balance, I think PvP games help create budding little psychopaths with their reward systems.