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?

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