Before any of you look at the title, the author, and then at your screen again in disbelief, let me disabuse you of any confusion immediately. Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the problems with open PvP, about how the social penalty for it doesn’t work and so forth. I’ve usually summarized the bulk of my problems with it rather simply: While I enjoy PvP, I also enjoy ice cream, but I don’t want to suddenly have ice cream stuffed into my face while I’m eating something else. That does not sound like a good time to me. And no, my position there has not changed.
However… I think it’s easy within that context to sort of lose sight of the idea that there is any merit to open PvP as a mechanical decision, which I don’t think is necessarily productive. Yes, open PvP has some problems, but there have to be reasons why people enjoy it and advocate for it. So let’s look at some reasons why open PvP actually kind of rules and why it’s desirable as a goal at all.
1. It adds an additional factor of risk
When you get behind the wheel of a car, there are certain risks you accept as part and parcel with the experience. Low risks, much of the time, but still real risks. Things can go wrong! Similarly, by having open PvP on in an MMO, you have risks beyond environmental hazards, enemies, and any survival mechanics the game may have; you also have to deal with the possibility that someone might just decide to kill you to death. Which is compounded if, say, you’re a jerk and wearing harvesting gear and the other person really doesn’t like you.
2. It makes routine content more distinctive
I find that there’s often a relaxing sort of state to be discovered in gathering from countless nodes in an MMO, but it can often get kind of dull too. The line between “relaxing meditative state” and “sleep-inducing snoozefest” can be a fine one. So it’s interesting that open PvP spices this up. There is never a completely safe experience, and that can also be a positive. Sure, it’s not likely that those other players are coming for you, but you have to stay attentive.
3. It adds an extra vector of player expression
Being a notorious killer of other players for no reason is a method of player expression, just like trying to ruin roleplaying events for no reason is one. It’s not commendable, but it’s still there. But there are other possibilities too. After all, if you can be a notorious killer of players, you can also be a well-known person attempting to save others. You have other vectors of building a reputation and experience with your fellow players, in other words.
4. There’s the possibility of more churn
The thing is that if you’re used to games where someone can’t kill you and take all your stuff, the possibility someone could kill you and take all your stuff sounds way worse than the reality. Because the reality in PvE games is usually that the stuff… isn’t all that irreplaceable! Otherwise the game would break down completely. That’s usually not the case in PvP games. Oh, sure, it might be rare, but you generally are only wearing the rare stuff when you’re safe… and even then, the rare stuff can be re-acquired. It can introduce an environment wherein the person who’s on top today might not be on top tomorrow, in other words.
5. Unique experiences can result
Let me tell you a story. I was doing a world quest on my Horde Paladin in a FFA PvP area in World of Warcraft, and I happened across a Dwarven Shaman in the same area. We both faced each other for a moment, waved, and then went back to killing enemies instead of fighting each other. But a few moments later I saw him being attacked by a Night Elf who was clearly happy to engage in fisticuffs. So I ran over and joined in… and helped him fight off the Night Elf, with both of us teaming up even though we couldn’t do more than just understand one another’s intent. Night Elf down, we faced each other, emoted a few times (him in thanks and me in congratulations), and went back to killing enemies.
That was a neat moment. It was fun. It couldn’t happen unless we both had the option to fight each other and chose not to.
6. New gameplay can be built on top of it
Albion Online has some interesting dynamics to its zones based on whether or not you enter an open PvP zone. You can avoid many of them, but there are limits on gameplay options and resource acquisition if you do. But that in and of itself creates a new kind of gameplay mechanic. More importantly, it’s something that couldn’t easily be done with just enemy gameplay; it adds an additional risk without just tacking in a roaming murder machine.
A scripted one, I mean. There might still be a roaming murder machine, people can suck like that, but let’s not get into that here.
7. It diversifies risk vs. reward metrics
If you’re never worried about losing your best gear, you never really need to wear anything other than your best gear. But equally importantly, you have to figure out a different sort of approach to doing things if other players are out there as potential enemies. Is it worth wearing decent but not great gear you can replace more easily? Will that make you an easier target? Even if it’s open PvP without full loot, is it safe to go out questing alone? Is this area crowded? Would it be better to do this particular quest at a different time of day?
8. Players develop different social structures
Players just act differently around other people when other people can be a threat instead of just an inconvenience or a potential ally. There’s an added edge there and an uncertainty you cannot replicate in any other environment. Players develop customs about how to signal that they aren’t a threat in high-stress environments, and other players develop habits based around those customs, and… you get what we’re talking about here, right? It becomes very complex, very fast.
9. There’s still novel design space there
Look, realistically, most people who are designing free-for-all PvP are trying to just throw back to the point when Ultima Online briefly allowed it before realizing it was kind of a terrible idea for the game as it was bleeding players. But that’s the thing: There is, in fact, interesting design space to be explored with the potential for open PvP, and the fact that it hasn’t been explored all that well and tends to just replicate older structures doesn’t mean the design space isn’t there. There’s potential to make new things!
10. Some players get to feel very powerful
We shouldn’t leave it just implied, really. Some people get to feel really good in open PvP. And not just the people who hunt down low-level players for no reason. Sometimes people get to look like just low-skill idle gatherers and then turn around and murderize would-be gankers because it turns out that they were vigilantes posing as bait. And that, I think we can all agree, is kinda just cool.