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Conquest versus Competition

Player versus Player conflict is probably one of the most debated subjects in the MMO space. I've talked a lot about it myself here on the blog before. It can usually be relied upon to generate passionate opinions and discussions. Discussions that can quickly deviate from a civil conversation about the merits of various implementations into all out forum wars where you best be equipped with your best tin-foil hat for protection and come armed with a fair amount of troll-repellent. 

That passion though often masks a fairly fundamental issue with PVP discussions, and that is what exactly people mean by 'PVP', and in particular in an MMO context. You see, the answer, while possibly deceptively simple, is often overlooked and is at the root cause of a lot of those impassioned verbal conflicts. So this time out we're going to take a step back from the frontlines and look at some of the core concepts that are driving, and dividing, the PVP communities in modern MMOs.


For me the difference is between a wish for conquest and a wish of competition.

They'll never take our freedom!!

MMOs are built from the concept of open worlds. There is a very real desire for these worlds to feel real. We want some of the same rules we believe that the real world is governed by to be applicable to the virtual space. Now that belief may actually be more rooted more in an almost medieval outlook on things, rather than a modern understanding of the world. 'I don't like that guy, I will build an army and take all his stuff', but at a fundamental level it is the desire to be able to conquer ones foes and vanquish them. It is what our legends, myths and stories are based on. Not many of our literary or pop culture heroes marched their grand armies across a dangerous fantasy landscape to sit down with their arch-nemesis and engage in a 'best of three' game of chess.     

The amassing of power, and then deploying it for maximum advantage is in many ways a cornerstone of the design for an RPG system. With a progression based RPG system you are not thinking about a fair fight...usually you are planning, acquiring assets, and training in order to create the situation which gives you the advantage. A 'fair fight' is actually what you are encouraged to avoid in most RPG systems. 

A sporting chance...

In a competitive environment however you see a different set-up. Games like Warcraft III, League of Legends, Starcraft 2, DoTA, or Bloodline Champions are built on the basis that all things are relatively equal at the start of a bout. It's more akin to a sporting challenge...both sides have access to the same tools

Now there is still progression in these competitive games, it is just handled differently. A competitive game can signify progression and skill, not through reward and a growth in actual power, but in acknowledgment and ranking. Pitting players of relatively equal skill levels against each other in league and ladder play with promotion and relegation. 

That avoids the dangers of dominance, and means that players retain that feeling that the match-up is 'fair'. At least as much as it can be in a skill based environment, in these situations there will still be bad players, but they don't have any inequality in power to blame for poor performance, they generally lose through deficiencies of reflexes, skill, knowledge or luck.

((as an aside I am aware that I am over simplifying a little here. The competitive games in this space, while placing everyone on a roughly equal footing, are occasionally prone to imbalances of their own, just ask a League of Legends or Starcraft player and they will be sure to recount their tales of how the developers design has unfairly penalized them in a certain match-up...but those imbalances are fundamentally different from RPG progression system imbalances and are also available to everyone.))

Do we want a fair fight?

At a fundamental level people hold out for the ideal of a 'fair fight', even when the games systems are specifically designed to encourage progression and the acquisition of power. The issue being that those systems fundamentally stand at odds with the type of 'fair' PVP encounter that you might find in the competitive sphere.

Now whether that is down to simple time spent, more gear collected, more rewards acquired, or more experience, and better tactics the experience is still the same for the end user... 

The weak get crushed...

...and in some ways that is how it should be, if your game is truly to fully embrace this 'conquest' style of PVP conflict. There are only a couple of games that support it openly, EVE Online is the obvious example in that field. The open nature of their game world allows for no-holds-barred conflict between player factions and it is all based entirely on their amassed power and resources, and the knowledge of how to use it efficiently.

However to understand the modern MMO you have to consider the fact that the current landscape has been born out of this underlying desire for a living breathing world that players could fight over, but that has evolved with the proverbial environmental pressures from the forces of accessibility, sales and retention. 

Evolution...how we got where we are...

So the mainstream MMOs evolved, that is where the idea of arenas and battlegrounds came from. The needs of accessibility dictated that designers try and find a way to accommodate the appeal of the 'conquest' style of play, while also retaining the 'fairness' of the the 'competitive' desires of the players. Put quite simply more players are interested in playing that content when they perceive that the fight is reasonably 'fair'. 

However the conquest style game-play driver, where the biggest and best aren't just primed to win, their dominance is the actual reward for being the best organised or the biggest, (not necessarily the smartest (although there is obviously overlap there, there is a reason why one big guild or alliance wins over another)), is then directly at odds with the goal of that mass market accessibility. 

Most people simply don't like being fodder for a dominating force. They don't like to be bullied or out-muscled by a force that the game mechanics have allowed to have a clear position of dominance. 

The system however has trained players firmly into the desire to constantly amass that power, and the only way to validate that acquisition of power is for it to have an impact on the user experience, to make them feel powerful and sweep weaker foes before them...which again goes against that desire for accessibility.

So battlegrounds and the like were an effort on the behalf of game designers to try and insert some limits and restrictions upon the setting so that they could force as much equality as possible. The evolution of the PVP options in World of Warcraft illustrated this perfectly. They started with battlegrounds alone, but as they experienced the regular 'mudflation' of MMO item progression, they soon found that fewer players found them appealing when they were getting rolled by teams of better geared, more powerful foes. Then the introduction of the arena systems, and rankings, allowed them to have both. While it separated their players to a degree it did so in a way that made both formats more enjoyable for those taking part. Blizzard of course also had the advantage of years of experience with competitive gaming through the Warcraft and Starcraft franchises.

Where are we now?

That is why we end up with the compromises that you see in most games. It is the clash of those desires. The desire for conquest but the wish for competition. In many ways it is an almost mutually exclusive, or contradictory set of desires. 

In addition some of the restrictions are of a more technical nature (limits on the number of players you can handle in one area), while some others are resource or difficulty based (it takes time to code and develop a good solid ELO style rating system) 

So what exactly am I advocating? Is this all a bad thing? 

Yes and no. I think it depends on your game, and what you want the project to be.

For the mainstream titles I think it involves continuing to refine our odd cocktail of the two desires. Building better leader-board and ranking style features, with better league and ladder play. If you aren't going to be able to have the open world options for conquest and ownership you have to find a good way to compensate and keep people interested.

...sometimes however it is actually fine that you don't prioritize accessibility above the rewards of having a harsher game.  


The contrast in EVE Online here is a good example of knowing the strengths of your game, and making things work appropriately. In EVE the developers have accepted that the conflict will be a niche activity within the game in terms of the number of those who actually take part in the actual conflict. (Although of course in a world like EVE's where there is a market at play, that means you can easily argue everyone is involved, albeit obliquely.) The vast majority of pilots carry on with their daily activity of buying, selling and mission running, far, far, removed from the corporation conflicts between the games elite, and the game is all the better for it. The idea of that conflict however is very compelling regardless of your personal involvement. 

However given most of the 'cool' EVE stories come from that conflict (or the occasional astonishing scam or deceit) it is completely understandable that there is also this desire amongst developers to try and get more players involved in such an activity.

It is gripping stuff!

You could even argue that those games that have received the most positive PVP feedback from players, are those that embraced their chosen style, and stuck to it, complete with the drawbacks. Whether it is the inaccessible but truly compelling corporate warfare in EVE, or the refined tournament play of Guild Wars. Those games that resonate the most are those that allowed conquest or competition. In general I think PVPers appreciate it most when there is that focus, but must understand that such a focus may not be appropriate for those games seeking a wider audience.

That means that it is fine for mainstream games to have their more 'in-between' solutions, because you want a wider appeal. Accessibility is not, in and of itself, a poor goal. It is indeed often a vital one for an MMO, and that is why you have seen the development of these systems that try to balance conquest and competition.

Building open worlds...

As the technology improves my own personal hope is that we are able to go back to exploring the ideas of conquest in an open world setting. 

On one hand I am one of those odd types of veteran player that loves the addition of story, and better storytelling to the genre, but also believes firmly that those two things are not mutually exclusive. It will just require a little bit of thinking outside of the box.

Thankfully I also firmly believe that some games will explore this area more. It is a fascinating element of design, and one I think we won't be able to resist exploring in the future...it simply holds too much potential to be ignored for too long. It's great to finish a great story and storm the castle and beat the bad guy..it is something else altogether to get to keep his castle, and for you to become the bad guy for the next would-be hero to try and conquer...





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