PvP and the Value of Investment

I don’t play PvP-heavy MMOs anymore. I haven’t for over a decade now. I have, occasionally, participated in organized PvP battlegrounds, but it’s not a big part of what I spend my time doing, and a lot of people have, over the years, assumed that it was because I simply didn’t like PvP. My previous Dark Age of Camelot and Shadowbane posts wherein I talked about spending a lot of time not just PvPing, but as a straight-up player killer surprised some people, and I’ve had a few people since then ask why I never participated in battlegrounds and whatnot.

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Straight answer: it’s because it feels artificial to me. PvP flags, organized battlegrounds, it’s more a sports team metaphor than a high-stakes danger metaphor. I’ve never been one for team sports, and organized PvP feels, to me, like a team sport with a slightly different interface. It’s occasionally entertaining, but it doesn’t really thrill me.

It’s probably worth telling a brief story about the first MMO I played, which wasn’t Everquest. I played Ultima Online, one of two games to break my spirit (Star Wars Galaxies was the other). I was excited about a game in which I could be a crafter, and make items for the really skilled heroes. I didn’t have a lot of faith in my own abilities in games at the time– I loved them, but I never considered myself very good. Rather than trying to play something good at combat, that might fight on the front lines (scary!) I decided I would instead be a blacksmith, and make swords for the real heroes.

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It took a ton of work, but I eventually was able to save up for a small house with all of the supplies I needed to craft things. I made nice items and stored them in my house, and sold them to other adventurers (keeping the money, of course, in my house). It was a pretty good time, and I enjoyed the brief conversations I had with people, all of whom were much more powerful than I was. Rather than fighting, I’d spent a lot of time working on my sneaking skills, so I could go out and collect ore for blacksmithing without getting into any trouble. Sometimes, if I needed an item that could be pickpocketed from a mob, I did that, rather than fighting– I had effectively no combat skills, but I could make fancy items and I was sneaky.

At one point, I had a window shopper looking at my wares and house. He hung around a bit longer than most people, and while I thought it was strange, I didn’t really think about it. What I didn’t realize was that he’d pickpocketed me while pretending to chat, stealing my house key, going inside, using the key to open my chest of valuables, and claiming the deed within. He made his move while I was standing outside of my own home, and when the deed transferred, the house belonged to him, and he locked me out. It was a pretty effective scam, and I’d (foolishly) put all of my valuables in one easy-to-find place, so he had my stock of items, my gold, and my house, and laughed when I raged at him.

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I was devastated, and angry. I’d worked hard for the house and money, and it seemed monumentally unfair that another player could just rob me of it all in a blink. I alternately whined and raged on forums, getting mild sympathy but mostly responses of “you didn’t use X to protect yourself? what were you thinking?” suggesting common knowledge that I’d somehow missed out on. Angry at the lack of help I was getting, I went after the guy who’d stolen everything from me, hunting him down at my own house and attacking him. In my angry frenzy of button pushing, I hit the pickpocket button, and for a brief moment, I saw his inventory window before he cut me down. It was surprisingly sparse, three teleport stones labelled “home” and some simple other things like potions and a spare weapon. I wondered why he would have three teleport stones that were all the same, and I returned, stealthily this time, stealing one from his pack. I was surprised at how easy it was– he’d spent time working on pickpocketing, but nothing on sneaking, so he never noticed me. As I left, I saw him looking around for the thief, because he must have looked in his inventory, and to hasten my getaway I hid and used his teleport stone without thinking.

I was dropped in a house, not unlike mine, but much more remote, in which there were simply piles of money and items, all stolen (I presumed). On a whim, I grabbed as much as I could quickly (after all, I had no qualms about stealing from a thief) and used my own teleport stone to leave, vanishing just as he got wise, used another teleport stone, and appeared in the same room. Not taking any chances, I deposited my loot in a secure bank and chuckled as he chased me down. In addition to a healthy pile of gold, I’d nabbed a handful of items I didn’t recognized, most of which I couldn’t use but grabbed anyway. It turned out these were incredibly valuable items, some of the best items in his vault, and without a care I sold them to other players. The thief would harass me as I did so, telling people who were buying that I was selling items I’d stolen from him, and every time I’d merely comment “You stole my house, turnabout is fair play!” and eventually simply “maybe you should’ve protected yourself better”, mimicking the jabs I’d gotten from other players on the forums.

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I was soon flush with cash, and had plenty to buy a new house and set up my blacksmithing shop again, several times over. I set up shop again, but this time spent a huge amount of money buying and preparing elaborate traps, ensuring that anyone who tried the same trick on me wouldn’t have it so easy. After all, I expected a vengeful thief. It wasn’t long before it happened again. I’d become paranoid, and kept my inventory open, so even though I didn’t detect the thief, I saw when my house key vanished. I waited a few moments, then walked in. The same thief that had started this mess was lying dead on my floor, having been variously shot, stabbed, impaled, ignited, and otherwise maimed by my collection of traps. Considering it my just desserts, I looted his body and replaced the traps. He never bothered me again.

I could say that I stopped my PvP-related theft there, but it’d be a lie. I wound up doing to several other people what the original thief had done to me, and ultimately realized what I was doing, felt awful about it, and quit the game while sitting atop a huge pile of ill-gotten gold.

What stuck with me, though, was the sense of weight to my actions. Exerting influence on another player, whether that was making them a weapon, stealing from them, having a nice chat, or brutally murdering them in my deathtrap dungeon, was a choice I made. It wasn’t fighting nameless AI-controlled mobs that were mostly dumb and offered me little in the way of challenge or thought, or wandering around gathering from static nodes with only those same AI-mobs to stand in my way, it was an actual interaction with another person.

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When I moved to EverQuest, the same sort of interactions with other players were there– I couldn’t do very much without a group, and so I spent a lot of time either seeking out people to play with or playing with (and getting to know) other players, who were doing the same things by necessity. It made our playtime horrendously inefficient in terms of getting to the highest level, and I often stood around doing nothing, because the penalty for going out on your own and failing was severe– a lengthy corpse run (that you had to do, or your body would disappear with all your items!) and often some severe experience loss. The stakes being high meant that I valued my time with other players.

As I’ve talked to people about Archeage, there’s a recurring comment that I hear: “I wish I could play that game without the PvP”. I’ve rolled this around in my head, because at first blush I’d agree. I (think I) want a game where I can better myself and build and have interesting, interlocking systems to explore without the fear of another player coming in and ruining my day. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m not convinced it’s true. I’m put in mind of Minecraft, especially its build-only mode, which some people love but I have no patience for. I can certainly build interesting things, but without anything to threaten my construction, I have little motivation to achieve. It’s the same thing that drives me to succeed in raids– taking something that looks impossible and gradually, over time, building and executing a strategy that overcomes it. Every new boss could be the one that breaks us, which makes every boss we defeat a rush. If we’re not challenged by a boss, there’s little joy in its defeat, only frustration if for whatever reason we fail at it.

In a game where other players might affect your experience, every victory has the weight of achievement. The threat of actual loss makes the world feel more organic and real, because you interact with it in an organic and real way. You don’t simply hop a teleport back to the local bank when your inventory is full, you think about what items you need to carry and you plan your excursions. You don’t throw yourself off a cliff to expedite travel back to a town, and you don’t treat other players like inanimate objects at best, direct opposition at worst. The next player you run across could be the one that saves you from a player-killer or the one who stabs you in the back. In most modern cases, the game doesn’t even let any of this happen to you until you’re fairly familiar with the game’s mechanics, so the bygone days of cheerfully slaughtering newbies are largely gone, outside of periodic exploits.

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I don’t think that PvP is a “better” way of playing MMOs, but it certainly shifts my viewpoint. Even in my short time poking at Archeage, there’s a clear culture and players have actual reputations, something I haven’t seen in ages. I couldn’t tell you who the notable people on my FFXIV server are unless I know them personally, despite playing for a year now, but inside of a week I can rattle off a handful of names that cause a stir in Archeage. There’s weight to your decisions, and the game lets you make your own bed, but forces you to sleep in it.

It’s possible to have the same kind of stakes in PvE MMOs, but the concerns about “forced grouping” become very big in that kind of game, because the “Environment” half of PvE has to be extremely punishing and essentially require multiple players working together at all times.

I’ve said it before, but I look forward to the next technological advancement that gives us MMOs-as-sims instead of MMOs-as-games again. I’ve come to miss the uncertainty of a game world that doesn’t conform to formulas, and that I can’t be assured of succeeding in so long as I follow the dotted lines. It isn’t for everyone, but that uncertainty makes every victory that much sweeter for me. In a weird way, it makes me feel like I’ve earned my place in the world, as opposed to simply putting my time in to accomplish it. Sometimes I do just want a ‘safe’ game to delve into with some friends, but other times I’ve come to realize I miss the uncertain, dangerous ones, too.



Source: Digital Initiative
PvP and the Value of Investment

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