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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.

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