One of the meta discussions we’ve been having here on MOP this week has centered on PvP sandbox titles like Albion Online, specifically how Albion has made serious attempts to cater to non-PvP-oriented players to bring them into the gameworld – in fact, “synergizing” sheep and wolves has been one of the game’s key philosophies for years, and in my mind, this recent patch is just one more example of how it’s not just idle chatter.
That said, I don’t actually know whether it works. Our PvP columnist digs the game, but does it actually appeal to PvE players, and are they sticking around once they poke their heads in? And is it any different for other games with heavy PvP, like EVE Online, or even something like Black Desert, which isn’t marketed as an old-school PvP sandbox? For this week’s Overthinking, I am dropping this conversation in the laps of the MOP writers: What specifically can MMO developers do to attract sheep to the sandboxes where wolves prowl, and what can they do to keep them around?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): High levels of customization, engaging PvE experiences, and have PvP that occurs in a tiered sense can really increase the chance that MMO devs can keep wolves and sheep together, but it won’t be perfect. If you go back to the Shard Defense article I wrote on Asheron’s Call’s deathiversary, what you had was regular players who were affected by macro level changes (like towns getting destroyed) and the micro level PvP wars that could affect them. That’s really simplifying it though. More specifically, you had unengaged players basically bearing witness to the largest effects of the event. Then you had adventurers who unknowingly were causing issues. If you were lucky, one of those adventurers was also a lore fan and disseminating information. Those people created a faction to participate in PvP that picked a side in the game’s on-going story. Other players could support a side either through direct conflict (PvP) or trade (PvE).
I don’t think you can really have a truly FFA PvP game that both griefers and carebears will get along in, but you could conceivably created a PvP game where the PvP players are basically the center of the dramatic action. Say, holding towns. However, GM events could then threaten said towns, and PvP players would basically choose a side that effects said towns. Non-PvP players could either choose to directly participate and PvP or help with some non-PvE method. Taking a page from Asheron’s Call 2, I remember capital towns were invaded by large amounts of rapidly spawning mobs that could only be defeated by appeasing an NPC leader within the city. The NPC leader essentially had a riddle to be solved, and once a player could reach that NPC and solve the riddle, the town would be saved.
The problem is also how often and how severely you want to disrupt players’ game lives. I loved WoW’s zombie plague event, but it was also an event that caused many people to rage quit their gaming sessions at the least. That was some great sandbox play in a very theme-park MMO and even that was highly controversial. FFA PvP catering to non-PvPers is just a really messy topic, though I still applaud any company that attempts it (as long as they’re trying to learn from past games and not just spit-balling ideas).
Andy McAdams: I think it’s a big issue that developers seem rather unwilling to address on the whole. The problem with PvP games is that a singularly focused PvP audience isn’t enough to sustain a game; with only wolves, the game dies. I think the way to keep the sheep in a game is to provide ways for the sheep to fully enjoy the game with the option of remaining relatively safe. There absolutely needs to be some risk built into the game, but the sheep need to be able to be able to do things to protect themselves from the wolves. That protection might be something like being able to hire PC/NPC escorts when crafting in dangerous zones – safe ways to travel between zones / cities / towns. Maybe you can send PC/NPC adventurers into the wild for your mats (like actual NPCs that could be attacked).
I think that the wolves need to adjust their expectations as well. It’s a wolf-eat-wolf out in the wilds where things happen without consequences, but if it’s wolf-eat-sheep in a not-wild space, there should be real consequences for the wolf. Attacking a sheep should be a decision, a risk to be balanced by the wolf, and in order for that to happen there have to be real in-game consequences for the world. That might be jail time, a level experience, being unable to engage with merchants/enter cities/have bounties. There are plenty of ways to make the PvP dynamic risk-reward evaluation that doesn’t skew to sheep always being there to just be ganked. What sane person walks into an environment were the entirety of the game is designed so they get ganked as frequently as possible with no chance to retaliate? That’s what most PvP-centric games are.
Empower the sheep to expose/protect themselves for varying risk-rewards and set consequences for wolves so that ganking sheep becomes a risk-reward decision as well. Everyone wins.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I don’t think the wolves-and-sheep situation is resolvable in a game whose developers are designing for wolves and sheep. Sheep don’t want to be preyed on. Wolves want to prey on sheep, not other wolves. Sometimes there is no compromise, and many devs know this and do it anyway, hoping to trick sheep into being content. Please understand, I grew up in classic Ultima Online, in a PvP-centered guild, in a world where you marked safe runes, put your keys under a trapped box in your bag, stored all your good gear in the bank, and never went anywhere alone. But we didn’t have hundreds of MMOs to choose from back then. If sheep and wolves didn’t work for UO when there were no choices – and in spite of the fun I had, even the devs know it didn’t work – it’s a hard sell in 2019.
That said, if an MMO is being designed as a virtual world rather than a predator/stalking/ganking simulator, open world PvP is still absolutely doable. I continue to be a huge supporter of the TEF (temporary enemy flag) system pioneered by Star Wars Galaxies because of its tiered approach. First, there is a hard opt-out; if you don’t ever want to kill or be killed by players, you can choose that and go on with your day. Second, there’s a faction system, so fewer than half the other players would even want to kill you. Third, there are improved rewards for fighting players actually worthy (i.e., higher rank) rather than noobs, with minimal penalties for death. Fourth, the overt/covert flags allow people to temporarily flag and unflag for PvP so they’re not always a potential victim unless doing activities that’d flag them as an obvious enemy. And fifth – and most important – a lot of the PvP was encouraged to take place in public spaces, goading covert players into joining the fray, which they willingly did.
I saw so many self-described “sheep” willingly participate in world PvP in SWG, people who won’t touch something like Albion no matter how hard it works to entice them with safe zones and GvG. Part of the reason TEF works so well is that it attracts a crowd that’s OK with the pop-up PvP of TEF and isn’t hoping for a gankbox full of easy marks. It’s harder in this case to change the stigma and the playerbase than the mechanics.
Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Speaking as one of those soft, doughy sheep, it’s hard for me to rewire myself to like PvP sandbox anything. I fall to pieces when I have to engage another human player, fingers flailing like spastic eels on the keyboard and heart rate racing to uncomfortable and worrying levels. It would seem, then, that it’s impossible for me to enjoy this kind of MMO. And not for lack of trying, really. I guess the only thing that would entice me into joining in to these kinds of games if there were some manner of protections to quash griefing and mad ganking from happening at all. After all, I tend to prefer being a crafter/gatherer in these kinds of games, which makes me the most succulent of lambs, and nine times out of ten more attention seems to be paid on making crafting and gathering fun without actually paying attention to making it semi-safe.
Note I said semi-safe; I contend that there should be inherent risk involved for my chosen profession. All I’m advocating is “risk” here to not mean “heart palpatations whenever I realize I have to venture out to beat on a rock.”
Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I am huge carebear, but I also love Black Desert Online and have sunk a shamefully large number of hours into that game on characters level 50+ (when you become open for PvP). It isn’t quite the wild and crazy murder scene that “open PvP” implies. PvE players should look into the culture and consequences of PvP in a game before rejecting it out of hand. I really do understand wanting a game where you never have to worry about being randomly PK’d, but if you can tolerate it happening occasionally, you might want to try some of these PvX games that have a little something for everyone.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Honestly I think the only way to successful have sheep and wolves together in a game is to let the sheep completely opt out of the wolves’ gameplay. Because the PvP should only be wolves vs wolves. Other players shouldn’t be involved. I think the language needs an overhaul as well: It shouldn’t even be called wolves and sheep because that tries to enforce the notion that one is food there for the other. Let’s call them wolves and dinosaurs. The dinos don’t care about the goings-on of the wolves and don’t need to concern themselves with it. Wolves can run and do wolf things, and the dinos can do dino things. That’s the way it should be. But if a dino wants to be a wolf a while, or a wolf a dino, make it so. Games need to study Star Wars Galaxies’ system and head that way, allowing people to opt in and flag for PvP and participate in hot spot PvP zones. Shroud of the Avatar also lets you opt into PvP, and you can’t change willy-nilly, so there’s no throwing a punch and then going safe again.
Wolves and dinos can coexist, but they should never have interaction forced upon them. If you want PvE players in your game, you make them dinos, not sheep.
Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): This is certainly a tough problem without a single solution. I think the main difficulty for MMO developers is that they tend to see the wolves as the goal, or the endgame. The wolves are placed up high on pedestals. The wolves have so much more to gain and so much less to lose than the sheep. The sheep works hours gathering mats, putting them together, crafting something nice to go out and fight some beasts, only to get it taken away in five minutes by a ganker. That’s a quick way to have someone turn off your game and not turn it back on again. Just as with skill and classes, there needs to be a balance.
Perhaps one thing developers could do is add in another option – a third pillar if you will. Where are the shepherds or sheep dogs? Give players more reasons to protect each other and work together. Oftentimes, games will simply suggest that you can work together to avoid getting ganked but don’t explicitly reward you for doing that. Bounty systems can work in that direction. Maybe the ganker loses something from his bank, confiscated by the authorities. This way he can’t just keep his best things safe and away while he goes ganking.
There are options available, developers need to try new things and not fear their playerbase. One of the coolest things is what we are seeing in EVE Online right now – developers throwing things into disarray. I love it.
One last thing: A terrible way of trying to solve this problem that some developers tend to do is forcing the PvE and the PvP players together. For example, locking a portion of a quest/achievement within the PvP part of the game (looking at you ArenaNet). The PvP players don’t want PvE people taking up space on the server, and the PvE players don’t want to fight each other. Don’t force it like that.
Tyler Edwards: Realistically, I don’t think very much. The moment I hear open PvP is even a possibility, I start tuning out, as evidenced by the fact this is the first I’ve heard of Albion trying to make concessions for PvE players. I know I’m not alone in this. Those of us who aren’t interested in open PvP tend to be pretty set in our ways, and I don’t think there’s much that can be done about that.
It’s not just about not wanting to be ganked, although that’s obviously the biggest part. It’s also about the sort of community such games attract. While I know this isn’t universally true, my personal experience has been those that gravitate towards open PvP are pretty hostile to those of us who prefer PvE. Why would I join a game just to be constantly derided for being a “carebear”?