Why we fight....

Discussing Player versus Player (PVP) gameplay leads to, more often than not, some very emotive responses. It is after all, a competitive environment, and while competition is a great motivator for fun and challenge, it also frequently brings out the worst in people as well. However there is somewhat of a unique paradox when it comes to PVP gameplay in MMOs. It presents us, as game designers, with a very interesting set of challenges that are worth exploring.

These points came up quite a bit this week in discussions on our own forums with the PVP community. I don't want to talk about the particulars of that game specific debate here (the there are already threads on that over on the official forums for that specific discussion!), but it opened up an interesting topic for discussion that spawned the thoughts behind this post. It is a very fundamental challenge in designing PVP features for an MMO, and something I think is an interesting subject worth some discussion on a theoretical level as well.

What motivates you to PVP in your MMO gameplay?

It sounds like an easy question doesn't it?

At a top level you would think that much of the appeal of PVP gameplay comes from besting another human opponent. In a First Person shooter title much of the enjoyment comes from just that. Taking part in a game against human players rather than an AI is more interesting, more challenging and generally more fun.

There is a reason a game like Team Fortress 2 stays installed on my machine for years, which can't be said of many other games. (I am though, for the record, pretty terrible at it, I just enjoy the game). It's why I still play Starcraft (and now Starcraft 2)...it's fun to pit your wits against a human foe. It's unpredictable and engaging.

The challenges start to emerge when you take a look at how players react to PVP content in an MMO.

The MMO genre has an inherent element of progression, and an expected reward structure. The types of rewards can vary, but in general terms an activity in an MMO offers some form of reward, either through progression for the player (advancing in skills, level or maybe faction) or through an item reward of some description, or a system where the progression is expected to open up access to vendors or other rewards of some description.

Now unless you have a conquest based 'sandbox' (although I am loathe to use that term as it's a bit buzzwordy and doesn't accurately describe all possible types of a conquest driven game, but people seem to use it and understand what you mean when you use it...so for now, 'sandbox' it is) game, where the game is designed from the ground up just for that type of system, it's hard to separate any MMO activity, even a purely PVP one, from a reward structure of some kind.

...and that leads to some side-effects. You see, once you bring rewards into play, it seems to warp how the players approach a PVP experience. At a fundamental level, it no longer becomes enough just to compete against another player, you want to progress and as with all progression in games, people often look for the path of least resistance. That's where things start to get tricky for us as designers.

In many ways it is one of the core questions of PVP features in any MMO environment that isn't purely built as the 'sandbox' I mentioned above (and even extends to those that are). Even though players often claim they prefer the activity 'just because' (i.e. PVP combat in and off itself is worth doing) that isn't actually the case, and the prime driver and motivation (or de-motivation if not correctly done) turns out to be the rewards. Remove the rewards and people would be left with a system that could, in theory, encourage great PVP encounters and an engaging experience...In theory. In practise it doesn't seem to matter on most occasions if it's fun if you stick to the rules, people also want progression, and not only do they want it, they will also start looking for the path of least resistance once it's there.

It doesn't just affect MMO games either, now that the current generation of first person shooters have achievements, ongoing progression, ranks and even levels, you will even find that behaviour starts to slip into the first person shooter environs (and really we have seen that for a while, even the relatively pointless achievements in a game like TF2 have people manipulating server rulesets to just farm their achievements.) You only have to see the latest campaign of awareness against Infinity Ward and the exploits being used by people to maximise their scores.

So on one hand you have the players wanting modern features, and for many the old 'everyone is equal, there is no progression, just skill' isn't enough to attract them to a game, yet on the other hand, the incentive of those progression systems then motivates exactly the behaviour that we, as designers, would want to avoid. It presents us with a unique challenge.

So rather than players appreciating compelling game systems and environments for the joy of playing against human foes, in reality what you usually find is that the mindset is dominated by 'how to claim the rewards as fast as possible' and that presents the designers with their ultimate challenge - for many players it isn't actually the PVP experience they ultimately want, when there is a conflict that has a potential reward, they invariably tend towards mitigating the barriers between themselves and attaining those rewards...even if that mitigation means subverting the system into something they don't actually want it to be.

A first person shooter might be able to avoid the issue entirely and just skip having a progression system (although not so many do these days it seems as it does draw in players), but even there, it is still a consideration. This means that designers honestly spend probably well over half the design time actually working through how the players will abuse any given system, and what changes, compromises and restrictions they have to put it on it to consider releasing it.

You would be amazed how much development and design time is spent figuring out ways to prevent people from abusing an MMO PVP system. It is usually far more time than is actually spent designing the concept.

Removing the rewards to solve that issue sounds great in theory, but then without rewards players tend to complain there is no point to the content in the long term, even if it is fun, and they stop doing it. That is to say that the actual act of participating itself is not actually as strong a driver as being rewarded for participating.

It is an interesting and challenging subject, and one the designers have to juggle every day, in particular when considering PVP content. (although the whole reward / motivation subject does also apply to PVE game-play but in PVP it is simply open to be 'gamed' much more because the interaction is with another player and it is easier to strike agreements of convenience)

Would you play and enjoy PVP in an MMO purely for the sake of it, purely for the challenge? Or do you require the incentive of a reward? Or are we now conditioned so that we can't enjoy something without the reward?

Have we lost something when it comes to enjoying competition, or are PVP combat and MMOs just odd bedfellows who will never quite get along, but can't do without each other?

Interesting questions, and ones I'm sure will keep us on our toes for some time to come. So, as always in closing these posts, over to you guys? Do you require a reward to consider PVP gameplay, would you prefer to never have a reward, or do you think that in this day and age no-one would be interested in a PVP system without rewards?


Treras said…
Personally I believe that reward centric designs simply disguises content that is not compelling to players. To me nothing says "lazy design team" like a team that believes you need to reward people for them to actually engage in your content.

Note: This relates to item type rewards, especially when linked to character progression.

For me, PvP is about the visceral thrill of victory. Crush your foes, hear the lamentation of their women and all that.

I understand and acknowledge that there is a certain element of bragging rights to it though, people want to know they are better than the average player. So, in those cases I believe there needs to be Faction / Title / visual type of rewards.

But I engage in PvP to have fun and to win. I don't have the time to chase the item reward metrics, which means that games designed around items invariably creates too wide a chasm between fun and purely being beaten by somebody that has the hours to acquire all the items. (Wellfare epics in World of Warcraft)
Anonymous said…
I can only speak for myself. I enjoy playing games, but I don't necessarily enjoy fighting. PvP without reason doesn't interest me at all. I'm the same person ingame as I am in real life, basically, but with a few exceptions. I don't go around fighting unless it's necessary. About rewards for PvP, I think these rewards shouldn't be personal rewards. And certainly not rewards that will give an advantage in PvP. I like what I have heard about the PvP in TSW, and I will probably take at least some part in that, if it matters. If my contribution turns out to not matter at all, I won't take part. It's as simple as that. Because I don't find the actual fight against another random player fun.

BryanLeeJones said…
For me at least, I need a reward structure, and will game the system as much as you guys allow in order to get my phatz! Sorry, guess I am the type of players you guys must despise :p My entire guild is like that tbh, we have always approached things in that way. We want to win, win fast, and be the best at what we do, and don't care if we offend a few people along the way! If you don't think of it, we will, and we will use it to whatever advanatage your systems allow!
Pamela Blalock said…
In an MMO, we need rewards from PvP because all other options in the game (like PvE,raiding) offer rewards. If I wasn't going to progress toward some new gear or title, I wouldn't play that MMO because it didn't offer anything to the PvPer.

In most MMOs, the PvP isn't good enough to not offer something.

In almost all MMOs, I PvP and I never raid. I enjoy the challenge of PvP, and I love that it can be done with my small group of 2-3 people. If any MMO that I play doesn't offer something for my PvP efforts I probably won't play it long. However, if the PvP is stupid fun I might keep playing.

MMOs are centered around character progression. Your character should have some way of progressing through PvP with rewards, leveling a skill on use, or something else entirely.

The structure of most shooters with the leaderboards and all that doesn't appeal to me. I still play them but I never stick around because there's really no goal besides climbing up a board that I never look at. The shooter is such a different element than the MMO unless you're talking about a CrimeCraft or APB type title. Leaderboards or arena ranking aren't "tangible" enough for me. XD
Burmese said…
I think PvP scenarios need to give ppl more motivation to fight to -defend- something. Most PvP scenarios are about offense, and if something is lost, they expect to get it back shortly via offense. In real life, only a small % are really offense-minded, and most ppl will be more inclined to PvP if they feel they are defending/retaining/preserving something of value to them that cannot be readily retaken simply by going on the offense the next day. A lot of players who would otherwise never PvP for the "I beat another human player" would PvP for a system such as described above. Both Conan and AO are largely stuck with a pvP crowd that feels it is 'boring' to defend anything and more exciting to just look ahead to the next opportunity to go on the offense. Result is far less interesting and spirited PvP encounters (Sieges / Towers).
Anonymous said…
The main problem I have with rewards is that they often lead to a nearly insurmountable difference between characters with the best reward and characters that have just started earning rewards. I don't mind not receiving anything. Some of the most fun I've had in multiplayer games was before rewards were even implemented (eg. Jedi Knight, old Battlefield/front games, etc.).

The most important thing to me is for anyone involved to have an equal chance at succeeding (barring player skill/experience). The next most important is to have a reason to fight. This seems to work best if you're separated into factions. Probably even better if you can't talk to each other, because then you're less likely to make agreements - you just have to take it on faith that the opponent might not be looking for a fight at any given time.

Despite the fact that I'm more than willing to play without rewards, I think that pvp can be better with them. The difficulty is to implement rewards that provide a clear benefit (or at least that players will desire, regardless of the actual benefit) without providing too much of an advantage. This is easier in FPS games than in MMOs, where most rewards are going to be stat-laden. In an FPS you can just give someone a gun with more accurate sighting, a weapon that trades off accuracy for rate of fire, or something that provides less-direct benefits, like the ability to spot enemies on the minimap or something similar. You can also force the player to choose a limited number of these to use at one time, whereas in most MMOs the player expects to have upwards of 10 skills available for use at any given time.

Not to mention, balance is also less of an issue in FPS games. If a player feels like they're constantly being demolished by a particular "class", they can just swap before respawning. In an MMO you're in for the same grind all over again on a new character, which may take weeks of effort (or much more).

In the end, I think MMOs might be better off coming up with some sort of partition between the PVP and PVE. Force players participating in certain types of PVP (minigames/battlegrounds/sieges) to select from a specific PVP-geared set of skills and gear.

Even better if you implement an FFXI-style class-changing system so a player can redo the grind with the same character instead of another. Better still if you balance all stats across the board and allow everyone to compete in the same PVP minigames regardless of PVE level. Give each of the classes a class-specific amount of HP, MP, Agility, and all other stats. Let players earn class pvp experience based on playing that particular class in BGs. Make it so class pvp experience unlocks rewards, such as a new type of pvp gear, a new weapon, or a new skill. Balance all of these abilities so that a player new to the scene can compete with someone who's been playing for a while but isn't expecting an attack, is playing poorly, or is outnumbered.

Essentially - steal all the best ideas from the best non-MMO multiplayer games out there now (BF:BC2, TF2, etc.) and implement them in pvp that is not done in the open-world environment. This would give players the balanced competition that most desire, a taste of progression, and be friendly to casuals. You'd also have a lot more games popping because players of all levels would be in the same queue. Also keep in mind that the way minigames/bgs are set up caters to the player that wants to just jump into a match from any location. This concept works well with such a mindset.

For the players that aren't interested in this, they could always participate in world pvp objectives (shrines of bori, wintergrasp, RvR, etc.), where your PVE gear would have an effect.
Anonymous said…
I think what often conflicts with PvP in an MMO is that the ENTIRE game has an advancement system in its core. Leveling or gathering skills and items is mostly the main mission the players are sent on. You compete with other human beings by how far you have accomplished that mission. A lvl 80 in AoC has accomplish this further than a lvl 40, while a lvl 80 with top gear is further ahead and more powerful than a lvl 80 with quest gear.
So, when it comes to using your game time for PvP, you always have in the back of your mind: I want to become more poerful and accomplish this core mission of being one of the powerful, far-progressed players. When you have PvP without rewards, ppl will use it as a change and distraction, but will quickly give into that voice in the back of their head saying: Others are leveling while I am bashing heads and they get more powerful. I should get back to leveling/ finding equipment instead of PvPing.
So, when you have rewards that make the player more powerful in PvP, they will join PvP more frequently, but the goal will be to get those PvP items/ levels in order to further their achevement in the core idea of the game.
FPS games without without progression don't have these issues since the core idea of the game is to train your keyboard/ mouse skills to be more powerful than your human opponents. So PvP does not conflict with other goals and pressures in the game.
Banner said…
I am torn on whether an MMO should have PVP. I think it works in a game like EVE online when everything is built on it, but in the currently popular inane themepark games it just doesnt fit well at all. EQ never got it to work, that should have been a hint to everyone! WoW did an ok job in another boring grindfest themepark kind of away (thats what they excel at LOL!) but AoC, Warhammer, Aion and all the would-be WoWs just can't do it as well :( A shame! I'd either make a game revolve around PVP or not have it as a feature. The problem is everyone thinks it 'has to be there' to be a good game. And that is utter rubbish, the original EQ was great with almost no PVP at all. So build for it or ditch it I say!!
First of all, I'm not really a PVP-oriented gamer so that colors my perspective from the go of it but nonetheless, your post reminds me of the one gaming experience where I found PVP particularly compelling - and there was no explicit reward system.

I was a long time player/builder/game master on a hardcore Neverwinter Nights RP persistent world back in my days of near unlimited personal time and minimal RL commitments. By its very nature, the player base had a profound impact on the gaming world around them due to the involvement of live GMs. In this environment PVP wasn't a commonplace random occurrence, rather it was interwoven into unfolding player and GM driven story lines. As such, when PVP did occur, it generally had a marked impact on the gaming world itself . . . a greater reward for many players than any new piece of gear or stat boost. Now, there might be implicit rewards to be had - perhaps you enjoy playing the villain, hunted for your crimes or perhaps your following an entire story line build around a particular conflict. But there might also be consequences - perhaps your small raid leads to a costly faction war, or if you're nabbed by the constable, your head ends up on the block (perma-death anyone?).

In an earlier post, Craig, you discussed the question of whether players enjoy the journey or the end game experience . . . for me, PVP is at its best when it is an integrally interwoven thread of the story and not a wholly separate set of game mechanics . . . but obviously that's not the case for all, especially among the broad customer base of a AAA MMO like AOC!
Anonymous said…
Excellent post, Craig. It is truely a relief to know that this topic is something you obviously is giving a lot of thought and that it creates these considerations.

You raise some interesting questions, and from reading all the above it seems there isn't any easy answers. I am just happy to see that you are having thoughts about these issues.

One thing that do comes to mind though, is the choice to artificially create a larger gab between the casual PvPer and the experienced one.

In FPS games as in AoC, you largely depend on practise to be good in PvP. This is all good. Now the problem as I see it is that you choose to reward this practice with items that artificially creates more advantage, hence creating a gab between the casual and experienced player that is too big.

It should simply be enough to be good at it. If the current combat system isn't challenging enough to the player to master then it just needs to be developed further.

I think what drives me in any game is that there is something to be good at, with a lot of practice. Games that isn't difficult to master just isn't fun in the long run.

Following this line of arguement, being a big guild should give enough advantage as you can muster more players to fight for your cause than smaller guilds.

Don't give large guilds the insane advantage of battlekeep buffs. Being large should be enough. Find another reason for people to have battlekeeps, like an XP gain to all their players. Now some might argument that this won't benefit level 80 players in AoC, but those who reach 80 tend to make a new char they want to level up. The XP gain would be enough reason to fight for a battlekeep.

Every tank fight to gain 1-2% of extra armor mitigation, just read the thread of whines after you adjusted the mitigation formula and people lost just that. Now battlekeep buffs adds not 1-2%, but 10% armor and protection mitigation. This is insane!

What I'm saying here is the idea of rewarding the good/big by making them better against the weak/small isn't such a good idea.
Anonymous said…
A very interesting text of the viewpoint of a game-creator on such an important problem.

But I have to disagree on your explanation of the player motivation:

As you stated, and I think no one can disagree with that, MMOs have one defining element: progression.
The player gets different kinds of rewards; experience to level up, new items, or acess to new content etc..
Then through these rewards the player gets a unique personal feel of progression.

Then you say:
"At a fundamental level, it no longer becomes enough just to compete against another player, you want to progress(...)"

This is where I see a problem; players have tons of different kind of motivations.
I'm pretty sure you are familiar with models like intrinsic/extrinsic motivation, or Bartel's types of players.
But why do you reduce all that to getting rewards? Progression is a part of a MMO, but not the only source of motivation.

I can see that reward is a point where many different motivated players "meet".

An example how I understand that: one player kills another and gets a trophy;
-the first is happy to show it others players, now they know how good he is.
Without the community is the reward useless to him.
-the second adds it to his collection, not long till he finally gets to the new level.
Maybe he doesn' care if he plays a MMO or not, only achieving something is his goal.
-another had just a lot of fun pvp'ing and maybe takes the trophy, he doesn't really cares about it.
-the last one doesn't kill his opponent but rp's with him, later they marry.

When it's said poeple ONLY want to progress, types of players get summarized that actually may have very little in common.

I have the feeling that nowadays many game-desinger just think "how can we make bigger, better and sparkling rewards" instead of "how can we give the player a fulfilling an fun experience and along with that a fitting reward"

You gave an exellent example for that: CoD.
Give an 16 years old CoD 2 and the second thing he'll notice is: "where are my xp and achievents!?" (the first thing would be "wow this graphics suck")

As rewards and achievements first came up it was a fresh idea that worked very well, even in genres that had not much to do with things like collecting ep.
CoD:M2 brought that to a level where the whole game is now reduced to rewards. The other big mistake was to make that game too "casual". There was no room for "casual" and "serios" players to co-exist with that forced matchmaking system and certain other mechanics.

Many poeple play heavily reward-driven games, but would they play these games with toned-down rewards or even without? Is the amount of rewards the only thing that makes a good/sucessfull game?

My point is;
rewards are not the only thing that matters in player motivation, especially in PvP. Yes some people are only driven by shiny new items and emblems and whatsoever. And I have no idea how complicat it can be to fulfill and balance the rewards for those players.

But what I can say is that sometimes less can be more. There are many sucessfull games that "only" need a ladder/matchmaking system and thousands of players are totally fine with that.
Even in the beginning of AoC as there were no rewards for pvp exept the k/d ratio, but (fun)pvp existed enough.

Different poeple need different mechanics and not just rewards for everything. In most cases rewards are important, but just a small part of the problem.
Anonymous said…
You would better spend more time designing the system it self than thinking about how it can be exploited.

Every PvP system in every MMO I played had ways to exploit it and it's not a problem for me. Problem is when content like Bori is getting release which results in PVP giving no reward because people can't fight and dig concurrently, while NO PVP by digging at night is highly rewarding. That's a big problem and lot of frustration. People fight 5hours battles and get 10 tokens, while others don't spit any blood and get 200.

PVP should not only offer the reward it should also be forced down the throat on PVP servers. You should create conditions where PVP is unavoidable for all player whether they want it or not. Otherwise they will always find short cuts for their progression and there will never be PVP. Basically for active PVP, you have to force PVEer into fight.
Anonymous said…
Take this from a person that does PvP 90% of the time in every single game, including AoC.

I started from release when there was no reward and I loved it because of the fast paced combat system, I didnt even care about the flawed class balance.

After a few months the rewards came, and as you say devs spend more time thinking about how a system can be exploited than how to design it. Back in 2008 a player with the forum nick Kahpo made threads about how the new system would be possible to exploit by farming your own guild members and he also made a post about farming murderes at a later stage. FC did not listen before the damage was already done. 2 months before bori was released, Lied among other players shouted on the forums about how easy it would be to transfer to low populated servers and farm tokens there instead of doing it on competitiv servers. This is exactly what happend and FC does not have the time to do anything about it because you focus in the expansion.

How can these players so easily see how players will exploit your system before the devs, and why doesnt the devs listen?

I would seriously ask a few PvP veterans to volunter as consultens as they will most likely have spend more time playong AoC than your devs.

I myself will be leaving for good and play guild wars 2. A game that give rankings, tournemants and bragging rights as the best rewards =)
Anonymous said…
PvP is the favorite of the loner. I like having an MMO world to explore, and I like the challenge of competing against human skill as apart from AI. All the same, I don't really want to group with strangers. I have a few real life friends, maybe I'll have one or two join me in my game. Not enough to make a 5 man group at any time. The rest of humanity I wouldn't touch with a cattle prod, unless I'm forced to associate at work with them. So comes the problem of getting gear. Unless there is competitive gear available from just doing PvP, then people like myself move on.
Anonymous said…
No semblance of class balance...at all (Rangers...nuff said). An Open world PvP system designed for greifers (everyone stealths at choke points..waits for favored kill class to come along ala Rock/Paper/Sic PvP). A system where you can be attacked while in a quest "cut scene" and unable to respond. Bori. Bori?

Seriously, Mr. Morrison, if I were you I would keep my trap shut about PvP. You obviously shouldn't be giving advice or even observations. Unless, of course, you wanted to do a postmortem.