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    Contents Copyright 2009-2010 Arnold Hendrick

How the PK Mafia Ruins Business

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on June 7, 2009

No, I don’t mean gankers. The PK mafia I refer to is that school of game design which believe that the only “true” PvP game is the one where PvP death has a real penalty. The proponents typically urge very harsh penalties, as found in Darkfall (where all your possessions fall to the ground for the enemy to loot).

Some years back a school of thought argued that a “true” role-playing experience required fully open PvP (anyone can kill anyone else). The leaders of Funcom’s design department for Age of Conan must have been believers, since the only “official” RP server for Conan is also a PvP server. Curiously, I never saw a single PK on that server result from RP, despite spending months in a bloodthirsty, hardcore RP guild. I did see plenty of casual killing and suffered a predictable dose of gankings. Nobody bothered to “dress it up” with roleplay. They were too busy ambushing the next victim or getting to a safer spot ASAP. The only RP PvP fight I saw was a carefully arranged event by people who knew each other, like a virtual world LARP.

I am reminded of another school of thought from the 1990s. It espoused that players enjoy competition, therefore players can compete against each other for great gameplay. Why spend time and money on mobs and AIs? This more or less works for well-known card games, checkers chess, etc. It has been remarkably unsuccessful in full-fledged MMOs. Planetside, Neocron, Shadowbane, World War II Online, CyberStrike, Battletech (1990s online version), and many online flight combat games illustrate this. Many games today have PvP, but no widely successful MMO depends exclusively on PvP gameplay.

Nevertheless, designers still tilt at the holy grail of a game with great PvP. See Scott Jenning’s article “How To Make A Game with PvP Done Right.” The trick is making sure a PvP game isn’t a PK game.

The problem with PK-heavy games is that they are simply bad business. When questioned or surveyed, players say they want to complete against other players. A good designer listens to players, right? Well, a designer also must observe what happens inside the game. Really good designers can correctly predict what will happen based on their (hopefully) vast experience.

Every time players have a PvP fight someone loses. Gamers familiar with solo computer games expect to win. In solo play, the computer happily loses every game and never quits. However, if a player is losing, they become unhappy. Losing doesn’t give players a reward. Losing players feel sad. Losers don’t encourage their friends to come play. When a player loses enough times they ask “Where’s the fun in this?” If nothing else captures the player’s attention, Game Over.

When the easily defeated players are driven from the PvP portion of the game, the more skilled players are pitted against each other. Again, some are better than others. Depending on the game system it might be level, equipment, hand-eye coordination, computer speed, or internet connection speed. Whatever the reason, those at the bottom of the heap frequently lose. In turn they ask “where’s the fun in this” and quit. The PvP population slowly declines in a Darwinian spectacle of survivors driving away the “less fit.” Taken to its logical extreme, PvP ends up with just one player. In reality a variety of factors intervene to maintain a somewhat larger game population. Based on what I observed overseeing Air Warrior years ago, then again in Planetside and Shadowbane, those factors are enough to populate about one server.

The whole process reminds me of how mafias or gangs ruin neighborhoods. Anyone not part of the gang is gradually forced to join up, pay up or move out. As people move out, those remaining suffer more and more until everyone is either in the gang or gone.

There are design techniques that slow this “death spiral.” Mythic’s Warhammer is a tour de force of such techniques, including the interesting idea of “renown points.” Nevertheless, nine months after launch the game has gone through multiple rounds of server consolidation. Top level players continue dropping out with remarkable speed. Why? Because Mythic believed PvP and its close cousin RvR would be a durable, enjoyable “elder game” for people at max level. Unfortunately, on any given server you can hear level 40s complaining that either (a) the other side “always wins” or (b) the other side “won’t come out and fight.”

In an imminent update to Warhammer Mythic is resurrecting the competitively accessed dungeon gimmick they pioneered in DAoC with Darkness Falls. The original was brilliant. I expect the new “Land of the Dead” for Warhammer to temporarily reverse the spiral for a while. But eventually EA’s current incarnation of Darth Vader is going to visit Mythic with more bad news.

Warhammer’s difficulties are the tip of an oncoming iceberg. A horde of new MMOFPS games is fast approaching. Many of these games rely on PvP gameplay. I am strongly reminded of the dot-com era where “everyone” believed that game aggregators were the secret to large-scale business success in online gaming. This may apply to casual games, but today not one successful MMO is significantly enhanced by association with an aggregator. Where MMO aggregators exist at all, they continue because of their association with major MMO products, not the other way around.

The design lesson here is nothing new (again, see Scott Jenning’s article above). Designers and producers shouldn’t buy into what players say they want. Instead, observe how players behave and give them what keeps them playing and paying. Most of all, don’t create products where gamers lose. They just don’t like it.

3 Responses to “How the PK Mafia Ruins Business”

  1. sellgosell said

    Nice articles Arnold. Your experience gives you a great perspective. Keep writing and I will keep reading.


  2. Stabs said

    Eve Online offers gameplay fuelled by player losses.

    The carebears occasionally lose a ship to creative gankers tricking them with game mechanics (beware wrecks floating in space labelled “Free stuff! Please take!”)

    The pvpers lose a succession of ships based on what Kill Ten Rats described as an ante system. I can fly with a cheap Tech 1 Frigate and if it dies the insurance payout will just about cover the cost. It’s not a good ship and I probably will lose if solo but I can afford to risk these ships forever. More importantly any time I lose it’s because of the cheapness of the ship but any time I win its because of my awesome playing skills.

    Alternatively I can fly an expensive ship that is quite likely to win but is a bigger hit to the wallet if I lose it. But that’s fun too and it allows people to have 10:1 kill ratios simply by spending game money. (A big part of this is the ability to legally buy game currency which is a big reason for Eve’s success).

    But everyone loses ships all the time. In a sense Eve is a disguised permadeath system. You may think your character is the little face in the top corner that is infinitely clonable but actually your playing piece is your ship, not your character, and ships suffer permanent death.

    Eve is a very clever game of smoke and mirrors. If I lose my ship I can find an excuse rather than face up to the cruel reality of “I’m maybe not all that good at this.” Fights are almost never even – variances in numbers, ship cost, and character age mean I can always find a justification why I lost that doesn’t include the demoralising issue of player skill.

    I think Eve shows that games can run on players losing all the time provided you give them plenty of justification for believing “I would have won if the fight was fair….”

  3. Gareth said

    Excellent article, it does show a fundamental problem so many games have fallen into.

    WAR was probably for me the most extreme example since it actually had so much PVE content yet was obsoleted by the PVP at every step, well that and I felt that they automated what were already very linear quest mechanics (I thirst for a good old fashioned choice in a quest! there are a couple of real ones in EQ2, but for the most part it seems that the bean counters decide that content you don’t follow isn’t worth coding in).

    Too many of these new MMO’s seem to have traded a well thought out storyline and end game for a couple of areas and some PVP, I’m not against PVP there, I think when having it does improve things but it should be only part of the end game.

    The other thing most games seem to have ignored is the PVE+PVP type of gameplay, when one of the most popular battlegrounds in WoW (Alterac Valley) is PVE+PVP its odd that more companies haven’t taken this idea further, Aion says they have, it will be interesting to see what they have done with it when I can give it a honest go (I’m into EQ2 too much at the moment to be subjective about a new game).

    Two of the games that go pretty much all the way with this PVP are Darkfall and Eve, while Darkfall is a fantasy MMO its actually a Fantasy FPS MMO so its not an easy one to directly compare. But with Eve I’m surprised that we’ve not see another company launch a credible competitor to the game, like EQ1 I think Eve’s success right now owes a lot to there being no one to compete with as much as the game itself.

    If say David Braben came out with Elite the MMO which had a universe say with nano tech that has a game world without the heavy penalty of dying/losing a ship, would this theoretical MMO take a lot of Eve’s business?

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