Vague Patch Notes: Why PvP is a cheap way to fill out a game’s content compared to PvE

Fair fights.

It feels like about four years ago when I laid down the first in a semi-regular series of columns I see as “useful notes” columns, the sort of thing that’s good to have on-hand for reference when asking if you did, in fact, discuss an issue before. It was actually just a little over a year, though, in which we talked about why the social penalty for PvP never actually works. And now we’re talking about PvP again!

It’s even for a similar reason, as it happens; aside from discussions in work chat, I’m fairly certain that our staff has argued that PvP is cheaper and faster to develop a few hundred times over the course of the site’s operation, but it’s been a hot minute since we expounded on why. So here’s a refresher and reference point for the future.

And for the record, if you think this is going to be somehow anti-PvP in any fashion… well, keep reading. You can learn something.

So... yeah.

Let’s start by laying down a few basic axioms that apply for basically any shared-space online MMO, with MMORPGs as a particular format. The first one is pretty easy and hard to debate: Every online game wants to give players a reason to log on to the game and interact with it on a regular basis.

This is just basic logic; you’re not going to spend money on Overwatch or World of Warcraft or Star Trek Online if you’re not logging in and playing. We’re in agreement on that, right? Let’s move on.

Every single game eventually needs to fall back on repeatable content. Again, this isn’t up for any serious debate. The nature of the repetition varies a great deal depending on the game itself, and I’ve talked before about the time to grind, the gap between when you’re doing new things and when you’re repeating content multiple times. But it’s always there, sooner or later.

This is not inherently a bad thing. If you’re enjoying Darkfall, for example, getting killed and losing your stuff means that you’re in a new grind to replace what you lost. That is repeated content as surely as running a random task force in STO. The nature of that repetition doesn’t matter so much as the fact of repetition.

Scripted content will always be finite. Those task forces in STO? There are only so many of them. There will always only be so many of them. If the developers on the game stopped doing anything else, including balancing existing content and adding new rewards and just produced new task forces, they would still be finite. (Also, they’d be awful.)

The reasons for this are obvious with a moment’s thought: When all of the events, mechanics, and interactions are bespoke creations, it will always take a certain amount of time to program, design, and develop the content. These columns are orders of magnitude less complex to write, and even if I had nothing but time to write them and there was no editing, I think I’d struggle to get more than two written in an hour. Designed content has upper limits on how much can be made available.

Constant streams of novel content comes only from randomization. This is an ancillary point to the prior one; after all, while I noted above that you can’t generate an infinite stream of bespoke content, you can generate an infinite stream of content with nothing more than random chance. A lot of games have used this to varying effects to bulk things out, and even in structured content it’s used to add variance to the run. (Who’s going to get the boss markers in this Final Fantasy XIV dungeon run? Which segments will you be running in this Guild Wars 2 fractal?)

Human beings provide a much more potent form of randomization than anything generated by machines. And here we see everything coming into focus. City of Heroes has its radio missions, for example, and those missions are random, but they’re randomly assembled from bespoke pieces. “ENEMY GROUP is at LOCATION and you have to CLICK THINGS/BEAT UP A GUY/BEAT UP ALL THE GUYS.” This can be fun (and it is), but it’s still all running on predictable frameworks.

By contrast, throwing you into a map with another player and saying that only one of you gets to emerge? That’s going to produce a lot of randomness every single time. It becomes even more random when you have a whole lot of different people taking part in the same match, because even though the map doesn’t change, how people interact and what everyone does is still effectively random.

Case in point.

So let’s look at all of this from a development standpoint. Whether you’re trying to bulk out your game with PvE or PvP, you have to do all of the same basic work regarding character abilities, collision detection, maps, and so forth. But once you’ve done all that work, putting a basic PvP framework into place and telling players to use that as repeatable content provides a whole lot of randomized content at basically zero further cost. All the work you have to do for PvP to work is stuff you’d already be doing for PvE content.

You’ll note, of course, that none of this factors in the element of whether or not the PvP is any good. That’s because it doesn’t actually matter either way when you’re talking about the time, effort, and money necessary to build repeatable content. Sure, that’s going to matter a lot in terms of whether the game is actually good, but…

The catch that a lot of developers learn too late is that good PvP requires a whole lot of work and effort to balance things just right, and that’s not easy. But that’s good PvP. A good hamburger doesn’t cost less than a dollar and come from a restaurant where you can order, pay, and eat your entire meal without ever leaving your car, but that doesn’t mean McDonald’s doesn’t exist.

Indeed, most of the games that suffer from this aren’t really suffering from poor PvP; they’re suffering from designers who either couldn’t or didn’t have a plan for developing actual repeated content for the upper levels of the game. PvP, then, becomes an easy and quick way to give players motivation… except it doesn’t do that because if the PvP is an unbalanced mess and is clearly just there to fill the space that otherwise would be filled with actual content, people tend to get bored and leave.

This is a far cry from games wherein PvP and the reasons for fighting in PvP are baked into the very core of the game; compare and contrast Dark Age of Camelot with Fallout 76, if you must. The former was built to be a PvP game from the start, provided motivation and reasons to play the game, and clearly provided content of all stripes and systems to encourage PvP. The latter just tosses you in a field and offers PvP as something you might want to do because why not?

It’s hard to really parse out exactly what the costs are for good content or bad content, simply because all of it is… well, content. Doubtlessly doing a good job at adding PvP is a time-consuming, demanding, and difficult job. But it’s the easiest way to artificially add a fresh set of endless content, even if none of it is very good – even easier than just randomly sending you into cake caves to beat up a villain group.

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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