This week I wanted to try something a little different in our PvP-centric Fite or Kite column and take a look at a number of successful esports PvP games to consider whether there are common features or design decisions they’ve applied to grow so popular. Perhaps we could co-opt those ideas to bring more players to our MMOs.
I’m not here to suggest that our MMOs need to be designed around esports; however, we cannot ignore that something about these games is sticky. They grab great numbers of players, and that alone is a key component of ensuring our games are alive and enjoyable. So let’s see if I can find any commonalities in these games and consider if those are features our MMOs could take advantage of, or if they already do.
The titles I’ve considered
Before I dive into the topic, I’m going to touch on the games I looked at when searching for features. Fortnite, Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO), League of Legends (LoL), and Rocket League are the four I’ve picked out. There isn’t any particular reason that I picked these titles other than they are the most familiar to me, although I haven’t played all of them myself either. At first blush, yes, these are in fact some of the most popular esports games. And yes, I know that there are successful PvP games that aren’t esports. However, we can’t deny that the esports industry isn’t growing, so they must be doing something right.
My choice of games to examine here covers several different game types. We have cars playing soccer, two different shooters, and a lane defense game. However, if we squint our eyes and carefully thread this needle, we’ll see that there are actually several features they have in common that any MMO studio considering PvP should keep in mind.
Free to play means no barrier to entry
Let’s start at the very first thing a potential player sees when looking at a game: the price. With the exception go Rocket League, all these games are free to play. Removing price as a barrier to entry is huge. The primary reason I’ve played over half the games I have in the last 10 years was because they were free-to-play. In fact, a close friend encouraged me to play Rocket League for years, yet I never could find the wherewithal to plop down the money on it. It wasn’t until a sale that just happened to include the game that I snagged it and haven’t put it down since.
I don’t want to rehash the subscription vs. free-to-play battle here, but I do believe we should recognize that it is an important factor. I don’t think it would be entirely impossible for games like Guild Wars 2, World of Warcraft, or Star Wars: The Old Republic to have a method for this. Design a token that allowed free to play players to log in, restricted to PvP/arenas only, and play with all other players but only in that mode of the game. If you want more players, make it easy for them to join.
Multiple game modes keep things fresh
All of my games have multiple game modes. Many of them include variations on the same theme, such as Fortnite’s Solo, Duo, and Squads, where the game play is basically unchanged, but the way you play is different. In other cases, the gameplay even changes. In Rocket League’s Dropshot mode, you and your teammates are trying to bust holes in the floor to score points rather than knock a ball through the goalposts.
It is extremely important for a PvP-focused game to keep innovating and trying new game modes. One of the things I loved from the original pitch of Crowfall was that there could be different campaigns with different rule sets. I really love that concept. It reminded me of playing tabletops or board games.
So, studios listen up: Don’t be afraid to innovate. If you look at nearly any industry throughout time, you’ll find a common thread. Companies in a dominate position will begin to stagnate because they are afraid to change for fear of cannibalizing their current products. Don’t be afraid your players will move to the new mode and leave the old behind. That’s not bad – that’s progress.
Gamers want to own their looks
It’s a no-brainer: Everyone wants to be able to customize his or her character (or vehicle). It is one of the keys to having players feel invested in the game. When we play, we want to look exactly how we want. We want to be special in our massive worlds with other players. Owning a look we really love can truly lock us in. Granted, there are some controversies about this because it’s one of the most common methods of monetization.
I know most MMOs already do this, but some of them excel at it. As I listen in on more and more of the City of Heroes discussions, the one thing that always comes up is the extensive and awesome character customization options it had. At the same time, I hear about the fervor and anger when studios choose to restrict character choices (gender-locking anyone?). Do customizations right and you’ll earn a loyal fanbase.
Keep the playing field level
One of the most common approaches to balance for an esports game tends to be that your character’s stats are fairly constant or don’t change at all. Instead, levels or ranks are primarily driving the matchmaking algorithm. In Rocket League, your car never gets faster or carries additional boosts. In Fortnite, players’ stats are flat, but the gear you pick up matters.
Reducing the effects of granting players with more time in game an advantage is critical to success. Not so much because it means that a newbie has a chance of beating a veteran, but more because of what that really means: Skillful play leads to victory, not power as a result of buying gear or playing longer.
The game should be fun to watch
The number of people watching each of these games right now is a testament to how important it is for the game to be fun to watch. It is difficult to know exactly what makes a game better to watch than others, but I’ll take a stab at it.
The action needs to be fairly constant. Fights/moments of action cannot (usually) end too quickly. It can be exciting to see a quick kill-shot, but oftentimes it’s the rising tension of a close bout that really leads to an exciting viewing experience.
These aren’t the only factors that a PvP focused MMO should keep in mind or try to integrate. I also considered the importance of matchmaking, balancing, and discussing the studio’s role in moving the games PvP scene forward, whether toward esports or otherwise. However, I do think that all of these are things that our MMOs can include.
So, readers, typing messages vigorously into a scrolling chat window that I could never hope to keep track of: Do you agree that these items should be included in our PvP MMOs? Do you have any other features from esports games that we could tackle? Or do you think this whole analysis was absurd and has nothing to do with MMOs?