Perfect Ten: The many flavors of MMO PvP

There were some decent tabletop Star Trek games, but no.

Not so long ago (so, at the rate news has come out since then, what feels like decades ago) I wrote a column about the different sorts of social interaction in games. One of those types – just one! – was PvP. Another was economic PvP. And this… covers the grand field of PvP not at all, especially since PvP is such a basic component of games that we’ve had it in games longer than there have been games without it. If you wanted to be technical and a bit silly, you could argue that the advent of video games was when you finally had the chance to play against something other than other players.

Of course, the trick is that a lot of the things that are PvP aren’t generally thought of as PvP. because we tend to just think of PvP in MMOs as two people smacking one another with weapons and/or magic until one of them falls over. This is true, but it’s hardly the only variety. So let’s make a list of this stuff, shall we? That’s sort of how this column works. It’s a list article.

1. Open PvP

Ah, the classic, the time-honored form of PvP, when you see a guy and you decide that the guy in question needs to not be alive any longer. Maybe you’re competing for resources. Maybe he’s killed you before. Maybe he has a stupid name. Whatever the reason, it’s weapons hot for this dude, and the two of you are going to get into a donnybrook. A tussle. Perhaps even a fracas.

In MMOs with permadeath (they do exist) this alone can be enough to shut someone down for good. However, in many other games this just results in… well, inconvenience. You’re not really ending things with someone in World of Warcraft because you’re in War Mode and a member of the opposite faction was nearby. But, of course, there is another option…

Your house is my house, your gear is my gear.

2. Open looting PvP

In ancient times, when human beings met other, unfamiliar human beings, it was often possible for the encounter to end in violence and death. We don’t have a recorded history of when this first happened and the surviving human looked at her now-dead opponent and thought, “well, it’s not like he’s going to need this knapsack and sword any more.” But we know that that human’s eventual descendant was Raph Koster.

Or not. The important thing is that open PvP that also allows for looting is really a different ballgame. Killing someone doesn’t just mean an inconvenience, it means that you’ve acquired a whole shiny new set of items. Now you actually have an incentive to be a violent brigand, slicing up anyone with nice stuff in the hopes of making it your own.

For some reason, people think this tends to attract players who like to just make other people miserable. I wonder why.

3. Arena deathmatches

Well, this one is simple enough. Two teams enter, both teams attempt to make the other team fall down, one team emerges victorious. Depending on rules about respawning, it may be less “two teams enter, one team leaves” and more “two teams enter, one half-dead member of one of those teams limps away,” but the sentiment is the same.

Often, this kind of content serves as a test for “pure” PvP; there’s no fiddling about with anything but the direct clash of players, and while a given arena might have additional features it’s still a contest to see which team can thrash the other. There’s no way to win that doesn’t involve being alive while the other team isn’t. That’s the whole idea.

I got your thing.

4. Structured battlegrounds

Here’s a very different sort of contest, though; instead of trying to slaughter the other side, you’re trying to complete an objective while the other side tries to complete the same objective or stop you from doing the same. Battlegrounds in Star Wars: The Old Republic cover a lot of ground, for example, but things like Huttball still functionally don’t have “kill the other team” as an objective. If the other team stands still but can’t take damage, you can still win a match.

In other words, it’s a flip perspective. Your opponents are an obstacle to a separate goal, and you serve the same role to the other team. This tends to be popular with people who aren’t necessarily big on PvP chest-beating, because even if you don’t feel like you have the raw skill to emerge victorious in a duel you can still participate in something neat while recognizing that other players are functionally very smart enemy AI units.

5. Economic PvP

Yep, this is still PvP. Pricing people out of markets! Driving down the price of goods! Engaging in aggressive trade wars! Shouting at your rival about how you drink his milkshake, underscoring the escalating conflict between the two of you as being a clash of morals until you can no longer stand the social refinement and you lash out with actual physical violence out of a need to feel your own righteousness!

Wait, that one slipped into open PvP. My bad.

But then Bart said 'this is stupid' and stopped so I won!

6. Minigames

This is where we kind of feel like we’re moving afield, but that’s all because we think of PvP as an exercise in playing Sword Tag. But what else would you call facing off against another player in Triple Triad in Final Fantasy XIV? You are competing. You’re seeing who can play this game better. It’s separate from your level or gear or stats, but it’s still entirely focused on PvP just the same.

Part of why this doesn’t tend to get thought of as PvP is that a lot of games are rather sparse in terms of minigames to play like this that aren’t Sword Tag, of course. But minigames are cool and fun. Add more of them, designers. Make that a thing that happens.

7. Performance competition

When my wife and I were playing a bunch of Pokemon Go, we frequently would team up to take out raids together. It was fun, but it also led to us fending with one another over who did more of the work. And while the actual match itself was cooperative, the fencing back and forth over who was better? PvP.

Yes, that means that if you’ve got people fighting over DPS meters, it’s still a form of PvP. It’s a serious competition. Heck, races to get world firsts and server firsts are competitions, just ones wherein you don’t ever directly engage with your opponents. There’s a reason why these sorts of races have an emphasis on sportsmanship and politeness, after all.


8. Social contests

“No one liked PvP in City of Heroes,” say utter fools who can’t wait to get into the game’s next costume context. People loved PvP in this game. It was just… well, that. Social contests. Who has the best costumes? Who has the best character concept? Who managed to make you laugh for twenty minutes because he’s playing a baby-faced giant in a kilt named Javier Placeholder?

Wait, that was me on the character creation screen. Never mind.

This also covers roleplaying contests, like the various fight clubs that spring up in FFXIV roleplaying circles. (There are no rules about talking about those fight clubs. This is not Jack’s thinly veiled skinhead allegory that mediocre pseudo-intellectuals misremember.) You’re still competing against another player, but it’s in a social environment for entirely different stakes than mechanical ones.

9. Passive PvP

While more structured PvP made its way to Final Fantasy XI over time, even at the game’s launch there was a PvP system in place with the conquest system. As players from the various nations killed monsters in a given zone, points were earned for each nation; the nation with the highest totals got control over the zone for the next week, leading to certain important NPCs in outposts as well as vendors in the home city.

It was easy to miss that this was PvP, because it was almost entirely passive. But the idea was that sometimes you would be more inclined to level in Zone A to help improve your nation’s standing rather than Zone B is… well, intriguing. It’s a passive form of PvP, putting players in conflict without ever actually drawing weaponry.

Well… against one another. This was leveling in FFXI, weapons got drawn.

fight me specifically

10. Resource competition

There’s a named enemy here. There are five people who all need the kill for a quest. It’s time for a race. Sure, it’s kind of ridiculous, but racing to get the claim on an enemy, gathering node, leveling spot, or whatever is still, well… players in conflict with one another. It might not involve any direct fighting, but it’s still fighting.

Fortunately, a lot of games have worked hard to make this form of PvP a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the success rate is… well, not perfect. As long as there’s an element of limitation in the open world, there is a limited resource to be scrambled for, and as long as there’s something to scramble for, people are going to be scrambling.

And that means someone’s going to win. And possibly do a dance in the process.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at or with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”
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