Design Mockument: Can an open PvP full-loot system for MMOs be designed fairly?

Let's try.


I have an interesting relationship to open PvP design in MMORPGs, or at least I find it interesting. I don’t think this kind of game design is good; it almost always turns into a playground for cruelty and awful players, and I generally prefer to stay as far away from it as possible. However, at the same time, I’m also of the mind that it’s at least an interesting idea for game design. We have very few games that seem designed with open PvP and full loot that are actually predicated upon fairness and encouraging actual fights, but that doesn’t mean the mechanic should necessarily be ignored out of hand.

Now, the flip side is that you have to ask if this system even can be fair because of the inherent unfairness in the concept. I’ve even done columns about why the social penalty for open PvP (which is almost always put forth as a rationale for fairness) doesn’t work in the slightest. But can this system be designed fairly? Can you make an open PvP full-loot system that seems fair and fun? Let’s give it a shot.

To set the design parameters, I’m going to start with a few basic design assumptions. First of all, the game I am going to place this hypothetical system in is one that many of our readers are familiar with, World of Warcraft. This is done specifically to make the exercise more difficult, as it’s important to note that in usual games designed around open PvP, the whole point is that gear is relatively straightforward to replace and not particularly precious. You didn’t have super-rare ultra legendary swords in Ultima Online for people to loot; you had a pretty good sword, sure, but it was the sort of thing you could replace with relative ease. However, the point here is to design a fair system with a game that does not match that ethos, so we’re going with a bad fit for full-loot open PvP intentionally.

Second of all, I want to make it clear what I mean by an open PvP full-loot system to close myself off from any and all loopholes. That means all of the following must be true:

  1. PvP is always on in every area of the game. While there are areas where you may be practically safe, you can never be entirely safe.
  2. There are no level restrictions on PvP in any direction. Any player can attack any other player at any time, even if the results are comically one-sided in either direction. Similarly, if you are a low-level player and somehow manage to defeat a high-level player, you are entitled to everything the high-level player has.
  3. Full loot means full loot. When the other player drops, you may take everything on that player’s body, including gear, items, and money. It is not possible to make certain items immune to looting.

Is this possible? It may not be. But let’s take a crack at it.


Let’s start with the basic system. When a player attacks another player, the player who takes aggressive action first is designated as the Attacker and the player who is attacked is the Defender. You can have multiple Attackers or Defenders at any given time; a guy who runs into a crowd of new players and uses an AoE attack qualifies, for example. While you don’t have to flag, you do specifically turn on the ability to attack other players so you can’t be accidentally shown as an Attacker because you were helping a friend attack enemies or something.

If the Attacker is killed, the Defender just gets to loot the corpse. Don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing. (Of course, keep in mind that if the Attacker hits a lower-level player and then that player’s higher-level friend hits the Attacker first, that makes the higher-level friend an Attacker, too. Fairly warned be ye.)

But let’s say that the Attacker wins – because that’s obviously the goal here. You see someone harvesting lumber, you attack, and then you get to take all of that sweet, sweet lumber. And you also now have a status effect that specifically alters your damage dealt, damage taken, healing done, and healing taken based on the difference between your item level and that of the person you just killed. So if your level was around the same as your target, you won’t have much of a change. But if your item level is 700 and your target was item level 69 (nice), you’re suddenly a whole heck of a lot weaker.

Oh, and that effect isn’t coming off. Because now you’re Wanted. And if you’re thinking that’s a badge of honor, it gets worse.

Hmm. Yeah. Nope. Not buying it.

See, if you’ve ever played a game like Grand Theft Auto, you know how wanted levels work… and that’s not how they work here. This doesn’t fade so long as you don’t attack anyone else. It gets worse the more time goes by. Your position is flagged to an ever-wider radius of players, and NPC guards come at you with increasing intensity. Bear in mind that the NPC guards in question are based upon your un-debuffed stats. So you’re max level, you killed a level 1 player, and now not only are you being hunted from the air but you are also significantly weaker.

You do have a way to keep your gains, though. You can’t get airborne, but you will immediately be notified that there’s an NPC a certain distance away who can remove your Wanted status. Needless to say, you will want to book it.

If an NPC or player kills you before you reach that safety NPC, all of the things you took are returned to the player you initially killed and you can be looted if you were killed by a player. And just like with a Defender, the player who killed you while Wanted won’t suffer any penalties. But if you manage to reach the safety NPC, you can have your Wanted status removed… by trading in most of the items you looted from your victim.

Yes, if you killed people of lower level and didn’t loot them, you’ll have to just trade some of your actual stuff.

Meanwhile, the slain player you looted will earn a special currency based on the same formula as the Wanted debuff, and that currency can be used to buy whatever you traded in to purge yourself of the Wanted debuff. Or, of course, said player can just hold on to said currency for the future. You could even add other powerful items that can be purchased with it, although if that’s the case you should trickle it out slowly over time (to avoid high-level characters just mass-murdering new players as a power boost).

“Wait, under this system you would only want to kill someone around your power level, and even then you’d mostly want to get one item from that person.” Yes. That is entirely the point. It adds the potential of open PvP and full loot without making it crippling to be killed and looted, especially by someone more powerful than you. That seems fair enough.

Would this work? Well, I don’t know. There are definitely problems with it, and doubtlessly some I’ve missed, but I think it’s at least a decent stab at making the system non-horrible. Of course, I’m pretty sure that the people who really want open PvP and full loot wouldn’t like it all that much, but… that’s kind of the point.

Designing an MMO is hard. But writing about some top level ideas for designing one? That’s… also remarkably hard. But sometimes it’s fun to do just the same. Join Eliot Lefebvre in Design Mockument as he brainstorms elevator pitches for MMO sequels, spinoffs, and the like for games that haven’t yet happened and most likely never will!
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