PvP, the community and nerd rage

The whole issue of PvP-based MMOs has been a hot topic on MMO-blogs since Darkfall’s release and people have been trying to nitpick and analyze the game’s coming success or downfall on how its community or technology will develop. Over on his blog, Brian Green wrote an interesting article about why PvP-games’ core problem is their community, calling it a deeper problem than “technical instability and insane design decisions”, relating the whole thing to his own experiences with working on Meridian 59. Most importantly, he brings up the paradox that a lot of players of these games will face sooner or later…

The players say want the opportunity to win big, which means they also have to have the chance to lose it all if they are fighting against other players. This ties back into the issue people often mention that players fantasize that they’ll always be on top, winning all the battles and getting all the great rewards. They never want to think about the times when they’re the underdog, coming back naked after being completely looted and having nothing left in the vaults to fall back on. So, it’s not just a matter of making the mistakes less costly.

The article reminded me of what one of my old CEOs in EVE Online once told me – “giving a person in my corp more power is not about giving him or her more responsibility to the group, it is giving him more power the ruin the game for others”. Corp theft is one of the reasons why corps in EVE are generally paranoid, a well-placed spy or a corp member going rogue and emptying the corp hangars or wallets can destroy the most well-structured corporation in a matter of seconds. It’s an integral part of the game, CCP even recognizes corp theft as a valid career in EVE, but people much more prefer to read about the more dramatic instances of hangars being emptied (like the Guiding Hand Social Club-incident) than actually seeing it happen to themselves. They want the game to be free enough to let it happen, yet they never want to see it happen in their own backyards. Players have cancelled their subs in a nerd rage for much less.

But EVE Online and Darkfall are two niche titles, despite both getting a lot of attention in the media and in blogs. Darkfall will probably settle down with a fairly small player base, that will either tear itself apart of start to organize itself in a way similar to how the corporations in EVE have done. EVE Online, even though it is successful and slowly growing, only has around 200k players (and can only accepts so many subs before the galaxy will start to feel too crowded for comfort). But 2008 saw two triple A-MMOs released, two games with a strong PvP-focus and whose communities helped to ruin their potential instant success – Age of Conan and Warhammer Online.

Now, Conan and Warhammer did have their technical problems to begin with and the PvP was hardly completely to blame. Conan did sell very well at launch, boasting somewhere around 700k subs at the end of the first month (which is a huge number), with around 400k sticking around to August 2008. The number of players held by the game right now is up to debate, but figures around 50 – 100k have been mentioned in various places. Warhammer Online on the other hand seems to have around 300k subs according to an economical report from EA. That’s still a lot of people. But the fact remains that the two games, even though they have constantly been improving since day one, don’t have the best of reputation. Age of Conan never managed to get over the initial, and sometimes completely over the top, hatred that a lot of players spewed on it (and Funcom) – a lot of people complaining not only about the lack of end-game content, but also the lack of a proper PvP-system. Warhammer Online has also seen a lot of attacks from players, a lot of it directed towards open world PvP and public quests.

Let’s start out, for the sake of the argument, to leave the PvE behind. The public quests in WAR looked better on paper than they did when the first players had left the starting areas and the lack of end-game content in AoC in more or less irrelevant to a discussion about PvP. Looking at only the PvP in those two games, they suffer/suffered from the lack of open world PvP in WAR and the lack of a proper PvP-system in AoC (as mentioned above). And when it all comes down to it, these two problems have one thing in common – the community and its craving for rewards…

In Warhammer Online, it became obvious quite early that the reason why the players preferred scenarios instead of roaming the lands looking for open world PvP was that it was easier to gain ranks and loot through the scenarios. Mythic tried to fix this by offering extra XP when fighting the enemy in the contested areas, hoping that it would bring more players to explore this part of their game – after all, “war is everywhere”, right? When I left WAR, it hadn’t fixed the problem, even though me and my guild would often band together and go looking for trouble. My best memories from the game come from when we clashed with a destruction warband just outside one of the dwarven camps, not from any of the countless scenarios I played.

Ironically, the community seemed to agree with me – open world PvP was more fun. But yet, scenarios kept being more popular, due to the easy XP and loot they offered. “I can level my ranks a lot faster in scenarios”, seemed to be the general consensus and thus people kept bitching about that instead of taking matters into their own hands and going out to fight in the contested areas. Instead of creating their own fun, a large part of the community seemed to expect Mythic to create it for them – even though they had given them large parts of the map, with objectives to capture, to fight in. Fun, it seemed, was not a reward in itself.

I experienced similar things in Age of Conan, where some players seemed to accuse Funcom of actually “lying” to them because of the lack of a PvP-system (even though there were things in the game that had been promised to be there at launch that had gone missing). I never really understood this argument, since I was PvPing like crazy and enjoying myself a lot. I ran into some spontaneous world PvP at an early level and in Cimmeria I was ganked and were able to take my revenge on the ganker – it was wild, it was glorious, it was fun. I didn’t get anything for it, but I truly enjoyed it.

Warhammer Online and Age of Conan were never designed to be niche games, like EVE Online or Darkfall. They were large AAA-titles with huge budgets and marketing campaigns and hype machines behind them. But the players that bought the games at launch came mainly from World of Warcraft, a game that has seen its fair share of problems balancing PvP vs Rewards. What once began as a game where the PvP mostly took place somewhere between Tarren Mill, its focus has changed from open world PvP to instanced battles in Battlegrounds or Arenas. After a few failed attempts to bring open world PvP back, like removing dishonorable kills (remember those? Gah, they were a horrible idea in the first place) and adding objectives in Silithus and The Bone Wastes, it wasn’t until Blizzard decided to give real, tangible awards in Lake Wintergrasp that players actually started to care again.

That mentality is carried from game to game, from World of Warcraft to Warhammer Online. These days, the community expects to be rewarded for more or less everything they do. This has nothing to do with the arguments for or against what’s known as “welfare epics” in WoW. No, it’s about rewards in general. Why break the mold, why experiment with warfare in Warhammer Online, when at the end of the day you’ll have more XP if you just stick to the scenarios? Why can’t a game have open world PvP, like Conan did, without a proper “system” to deal with some form of arbitrary experience points or gear?

The community is spoiled, in many ways. It wants instant gratification and the knowledge that whatever they do inside a game, they get something out of it. Unless they are really, really bored, taking matters into their own hands and just having fun for the sake of having fun seems to be a very alien concept to many players. Then again, this might just be because of bad game design.

I have no doubt that Warhammer Online would be a much better game if people just stopped caring about ranks and went out and smashed each other in contested areas instead, starting grudges and fighting for their realm. Hopefully the introduction of the Land of the Dead will bring this to a game which clearly deserves it.

Perhaps the pure PvP-games will always have to deal with the paradox mentioned by Brian Green. Perhaps AAA-titles that go head to head with World of Warcraft will have to deal with the fact that people want to get constantly paid for their time. But I think that before the community goes all rabid against a new MMO without some introspection of their own first can be extremely harmful – against the companies that make the products we play, against the designers, against innovation and against the genre in general.

Or perhaps I’m just bitter and filled with nerd rage at the fact that people don’t play the game as I want people to play it. I’m right, you’re wrong, probably.

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